So, a couple weeks back, we highlighted this church’s community groups and invited everybody who likes to be part of one. They’re our church’s best way to connect people and to help us all make a new friend or two. I love our community groups—all of them. But one of the groups I’m especially delighted by—one that I had a chance to visit last year—is our Women of Color group. There’s so much that’s special about this group, including how they’ve done some beautiful things for others together, particularly for youth.
One of those things was when they raised money for 100 local youth of color to watch a private screening of Black Panther together, which went awesome. Turns out they were on to a trend: this happened in many places last year—around the country, there were groups of Black Americans renting out theaters to watch Black Panther together.
I found out about this trend through a podcast called Freedom Road. The host, Lisa Sharon Harper was talking with a scholar Dr. Reggie Williams, about the identity formation of Black men. And early in the podcast, Dr. Williams said that he’d seen Black Panther in a rented theater along with about 1000 other people from his very large, historically Black church in Chicago. Dr. Williams was part of that thousand along with the students from the graduate school class he was teaching. And ever since then, Reggie Williams mentioned on the podcast, he’d been watching parts of Black Panther as a spiritual practice – daily.
They talked about what an amazing movie Black Panther was, how it’s a beautiful Afrocentric work of art, how it celebrates Africa’s rich history and resources, with interesting touch points to African American history as well. All that is reason enough to like the movie, or watch it a couple extra times.
But Reggie Williams said, the reason he was watching it daily as a spiritual practice, is because it helped remind him of who he is. It speaks truth to his identity.
We’re going to watch just a little clip, not the most exciting one, but the last couple of minutes at the end. The film begins and ends in Oakland, once home to America’s own Black Panther party. And if you haven’t seen it, this is when the King of Wakanda – the great African civilization of the movie – has decided to end his nation’s isolationism and offer their great gifts to the world, and particularly to marginalized Black people. He brings his little sister to Oakland to share the big news.
This is what happens when you play show and tell with your spaceship. People stop and look, and this kid asks T’Challa, “Who are you?”
It’s a question that animates the whole film, from near the beginning, when T’Challa ascends to the throne and his mother cries out, “Show them who you are!” Through the center of the film in so many ways, right up to the final moment you just saw.
Who are you? Who are you? the film asks.
Reggie Williams says this question is worthy of daily meditation for him because as a Black man in America, he’s been given so many stories of who he is. Many of them shaped historically by White men, who have created constructions of Blackness to separate and elevate our own status.
But Reggie Williams won’t keep accepting that story. He says, I’m not the pet or the threat I’ve been told I am. I am not a possession to be used or commodified, just as I’m not a danger to be feared.
I am a free man, liberated, loved, holding within myself and my history gifts to give that will enrich and bless the world. That’s who I am.
I thought – so good, isn’t that true of us all? Many of us of course don’t share the specific identity formation experiences of a Black man, and I don’t want to take away from that particularity, but I also think there’s something for us all here. We are all – some of us more than others – but we are all fed garbage stories about who we are, diminishing stories of who we are, stories we’ve taken in without realizing it. But all of us are meant to be liberated, loved people of peace, holding gifts we can freely give to enrich and bless the world.
We’re spending 8 weeks at the start of the new year looking at the way of love at the center of the teaching and practice of Jesus and today begins two weeks of invitation to grow in an unselfish love of oneself.
Growing into our free and beloved and gift-giving identity is at the heart of Jesus-centered faith. And today, I hope that we can all begin to name the untrue stories we’ve been told about ourselves. I hope that we can better notice the oppressive stories our parents, our culture, our economy, our country, our enemies have told us about who we are. And I hope we can experience Jesus releasing us into our real identity as free people, as loved people, as people that have great gifts to give the world in love ourselves.
Can I pray for us?
Let’s read today’s passage.
Luke 8:26-39 (CEB)
26 Jesus and his disciples sailed to the Gerasenes’ land, which is across the lake from Galilee. 27 As soon as Jesus got out of the boat, a certain man met him. The man was from the city and was possessed by demons. For a long time, he had lived among the tombs, naked and homeless. 28 When he saw Jesus, he shrieked and fell down before him. Then he shouted, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, don’t torture me!” 29 He said this because Jesus had already commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. Many times it had taken possession of him, so he would be bound with leg irons and chains and placed under guard. But he would break his restraints, and the demon would force him into the wilderness.
30 Jesus asked him, “What is your name?”
“Legion,” he replied, because many demons had entered him. 31 They pleaded with him not to order them to go back into the abyss. 32 A large herd of pigs was feeding on the hillside. The demons begged Jesus to let them go into the pigs. Jesus gave them permission, 33 and the demons left the man and entered the pigs. The herd rushed down the cliff into the lake and drowned.
34 When those who tended the pigs saw what happened, they ran away and told the story in the city and in the countryside. 35 People came to see what had happened. They came to Jesus and found the man from whom the demons had gone. He was sitting at Jesus’ feet, fully dressed and completely sane. They were filled with awe. 36 Those people who had actually seen what had happened told them how the demon-possessed man had been delivered. 37 Then everyone gathered from the region of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave their area because they were overcome with fear. So he got into the boat and returned across the lake. 38 The man from whom the demons had gone begged to come along with Jesus as one of his disciples. Jesus sent him away, saying, 39 “Return home and tell the story of what God has done for you.” So he went throughout the city proclaiming what Jesus had done for him.
So there are two common readings of what happens in this story. The first, the most traditional is deliverance from demon possession. Most human cultures for most of history have in some form believed that evil or harmful spirits can take up home within a person or impact them adversely over time. Many of us in the modern scientific age have trouble with this, but we still use this language as metaphor when we talk about our inner demons. Because experience teaches us that we sometimes have less control of our thoughts and actions than we think we do.
In this reading, Jesus is what every priest or shaman wishes they could be – raw goodness and light and power. The forces that have come to control this guy become clear, and Jesus removes their influence from him. Frees and delivers him into peace and sanity.
A second reading, one that sits easier in our culture, is to see some of the first century demon language as their best way of talking about self-injurious internalized trauma and mental illness. Many of us have experienced ourselves or known friends or family whose internal struggles have led to a life of chaos and self-harm, sometimes even close to death.
On these terms, Jesus is a profoundly compassionate healer and familial presence, who in this particular encounter accelerates what’s usually a years or decades long process – clarity about the impact of trauma and pain, and profound movement toward wellness and peace of mind.
I can’t say enough that readings like these aren’t meant to make us dismiss the importance of therapy or medical care or medication for mental illness or recovery from trauma. But it does indicate that even the most extreme human suffering isn’t beyond hope or beyond touch.
Jesus is eager to see and touch this man and to restore him to peace of mind and to belonging in community as well.
And I hope these readings would move us toward compassion and hope for ourselves or for others whose demons run deep.
But I want to share with you a third reading I’ve come across, one that better notices the history and culture surrounding this passage. This region of the Gerasenes, is part of modern-day Jordan, then part of a ten-city Roman colony called the Decapolis. This was a non-Jewish, or Gentile, region. So Jesus crossing the lake to take his students there was an unusual choice for a Jewish rabbi. This may have been, for some of them, their first ever trip across the lake, away from their home turf. This field trip could have only been an intentional way to bring them out of their cultural comfort zone.
Jesus we see, is a boundary-crosser. He goes to people and places that other people ignore or stereotype or stay away from. And he says to his followers – then and now – that to follow Jesus is to yourself be a boundary-crosser, to be in relationship with people and places outside your home turf.
But sometimes, what you find when you get there. The Decapolis, and this area around Gerasa in particular, was a region that had known immense trauma and suffering. It was conquered by Alexander the Great, and then again by Rome. And experienced considerable violence under both empires. Rome, in particular, had a policy of pushing trouble out to the edges of its Empire in order to promote peace and prosperity at the center. Like our country will bomb far away lands to promote a sense of security within our borders, Rome pursued a program of brutal violence and high taxation at the edges of its empire in order to subjugate its most recently colonized residents.
This is where the practice of crucifixion came from. A brutal, public humiliation, torture, and execution of enemies of the state, so people would think twice about becoming one themselves. And wherever you had crucifixions, wherever Rome was asserting its economic and military power, you’d have a legion – a unit of the Roman army, about 5,000 soldiers.
There were sometimes legions stationed in and around Palestine and in this area of the Decapolis. And actually just after these events Luke is narrating, but before the publication of Luke’s gospel, the Roman General – later emperor – Vespasian and his legions conducted a brutal campaign in this region – killing up to a thousand young men, plundering people’s possessions, taking women and children captive, and burning whole communities.
So when Luke’s first readers heard: The Country of the Gerasenes, whether or not it was this exact site along the sea, they’d immediately think of one of the most violent, brutal, traumatic acts of war in their lifetimes. Maybe how you’d react if you heard a story set in Northern Iraq, or somewhere along the Pakistani/Afghan border. You’d be ready to be plunged into a climate of enormous violence and trauma.
And when they heard this scared, troubled man call himself Legion, they’d think, My God, he’s taken into himself the chaos and violence and oppression of the Empire. Violence, trauma, pain have become his story.
On this reading, the man Jesus goes to see has become defined by his internalized oppression. He is the deep residue of his trauma. Modern psychology has helped us understand that we carry in our memories and even in our physical bodies the impact of our trauma. Modern sociology has helped us learn that we do that throughout whole cultures as well. I heard an interview recently with the sociologist Arlie Hochschild. She has for decades studied the sociology of emotion. And she’s talked about how whole cultures carry experiences of reality she calls “deep story.” It’s like a lived framework that shapes our morals and hopes and fears and even the facts we are or aren’t willing to believe as true.
Well, it just may be that this man Jesus encounters lives a whole deep story of cultural trauma. You see this with whole peoples who have experienced great trauma and violence – how their story is attached to the worst of their experience, the reductive impact of trauma, the names they’ve been called, the script for life they’ve been given.
I see this all the time when I meet with people. They may or may not be attached to generational violence and trauma, but they’re so often operating within the script that their family, their teachers, their economy has given them. They’re living by that script even when that leads to constraint, even when it leads to more death than life.
I remember one of the students I taught. Unlike many of his cousins, he wasn’t able to test into one of Boston’s examination schools. And at every gathering of his extended family, people talked about this. They called him stupid. His own parents didn’t use that word, but they never defended him, and they never told him any differently.
This was a kid whose experience by the time he was a teenager already told him he was marginal in this society. He was poor, he was a child of immigrants, a person of color. He didn’t see people like himself represented as leaders or success stories. His interactions with authority figures left him hassled, not protected. And then this, from his own family, confirming in his mind that he was indeed a nobody.
Now as a teenager, evidence pointed to the contrary. I found this guy to be an exceptionally loyal friend, which is an extraordinary quality to have. He was also a bright student, and – once he found his voice and some technique – a gifted writer as well. I wasn’t the only one who saw these things. He was accepted into an incredible scholarship/internship program. But part of him always thought we had all picked the wrong person to believe in. He had such a hard time believing in himself and thriving because of the internalized script he’d been given that he was marginal and stupid – that identity held so much power.
How do find a truer, better identity? The first step is often to expose the bad one. To be free of these limiting scripts we carry, they need to be revealed for what they are and we need to replace them with a better, truer story we can believe in.
I had this happen for me last year, in a really small way, but one that mattered to me. One of the scripts I was given was that I was an accident prone kid. I had quite a few sets of stitches when I was young. And so the story I was given was that I was always managing to get hurt. What’s wrong with me? Which is a little thing, it’s not a script or identity born of trauma or violence. It’s even kind of funny.
But a part of me felt uncomfortable with this script, because it diminished me a little bit. In my family system, it was attached to this story that I was reckless, that I couldn’t be trusted. And even decades later, when I had enormous responsibilities over my own life and many others, my family wouldn’t trust me with some basic things.
And part of me was uncomfortable because not only was the script outdated – I wasn’t walking chaos anymore, but I wondered if the script was ever true. Just about every one of my sets of stitches happened when I was really little, when I was under the direct supervision of a caregiver, or at least should have been.
And so there was an extended family dinner last year, and someone brought up this script – ha, ha, wasn’t Steven such an accident prone child? And I think gently, politely, I just said, you know, interruption here, I’m not so sure this story is true. I don’t call myself accident prone anymore, and in fact, I’m not so sure any of those accidents when I was little were my fault at all. I was like two, three years old. I think it’s more likely that someone didn’t have their eye on me.
As you can imagine, awkward moment, no one really said anything that I can remember, and the conversation moved on.
But later, on the ride home, I was really, maybe irrationally happy. That interaction felt so good to me. Because I had exposed and interrupted this little script to my identity that was constraining. I was rewriting a truer and better story for myself that I may have been minor league neglected here and there, but that wasn’t my fault. And life’s moved on, and I am a capable, trustworthy person.
Again, a small thing, but I think we see from Jesus’ interaction with this man who calls himself Legion the significance of exposure of the false scripts we’re living by, the importance of the exposure of the stories that constrain us, no matter where they come from.
I think the whole weird thing with the pigs relates to this. Right, there’s weird moment in the story when the demons are like – Jesus, don’t send us to the abyss, and Jesus is like, fine – enter that giant herd of pigs instead. Which is a mean thing to the pigs, I get that. Not Jesus’ best moment with animal-rights.
On the one hand, as a Jew, I don’t think Jesus was raised to think much of pigs, so can cut him some slack there. But also, there’s an exposure happening. In the first century spiritual consciousness, demons came from this underground netherworld – a place of the dead, an underworld abyss – sometimes associated with the depths of the sea too. And the demons are like – we don’t want to go back there. And so Jesus lets them leave the man and go to the pigs. But then ironically, the force of their chaos drives the pigs themselves off the cliff and into the abyss anyway.
Like I said, totally weird. Very first century. But it’s exposing that this story for the man – that I am the some of the pain and trauma and violence this empire has wrought. That I am know chaotic violence and pain in my life, played out again and again – that is a violent, destructive identity. And it’s one that’s bound for death, without me.
When Jesus asks, “What is your name?” he is exposing the false identity forced onto this man, exposing the false self, and revealing it as the death-dealing force that it is. And this begins the man’s liberation.
To be liberated from the name our trauma has given us, to be liberated from the name of the deep story of our times, we need that exposed. To be freed from the burden of other’s names for us, free of the burden of trauma, shame, unfair expectations, criticism, we need to name those constraining sources of identity.
Think of what history or culture has said about your race or gender or anything else about you. If you find, as Reggie Williams did, that there are lies about you in that, Jesus wants to ask you: what is your name? And how can you be free of the false names that have become you?
If your parents or boss or teachers or anyone else in your life – present or past – has reduced you to anything less than a free and beloved child of God with great gifts to give the world, then Jesus wants to ask you: what is your name? And how can you be liberated from the false scripts that have driven your life?
Jesus travelled with his students across the sea not just to name the truth about the oppression this man had internalized, but to set him free to a liberated life and to do that for us all. To ask – what is your name? And to expose and free us from any internalized oppression.
My friend Mako Nagasawa did some writing about the theology of the Black Panther. I think Mako will join us late this spring to guest preach in a different series. But Mako highlights that in the Black Panther, and in Jesus-centered thinking, and I see in this encounter we’ve read today as well, to live our true identity is not just to expose false stories about who we are but to replace them with good ones that say, I am liberated, loved, and empowered. I am a person of peace, a person who can be sane again. And I am a person with great gifts to give the world.
The man who was named Legion – who now is free and sane and at peace – wants to join the disciples. He’s like, Jesus, let me follow you. Just before that, when we hear he’s sane again, he’s sitting at Jesus’ feet. This is first century, almost technical language for being a student of a rabbi, for being an apprentice.
Free at last, this man wants to attach himself to Jesus’ school. But Jesus says, in your case, there’s a better way to do this. Go back home and tell people everything I’ve done for you.
Go back home – be restored to your culture, be restored to community. Perhaps be a liberator of other people in this trauma-soaked land from which you come. Give them the gift of this good news that you can be free, that you can be sane again, that you are meant to be at peace, and you are a gift-giver.
To be released from being defined by trauma and defined by the oppression of the world’s criticism and shame and false stories about who we are… To be released from all of that is to have peace and be sane. This story shows us the the radical shock of a person who is truly, fully sane – less common that we might think! To be released from false stories about ourselves is also to know that we have gifts to give.
Our church has developed a close relationship with this Indian NGO called Asha, that I like to talk about, as they’ve been very influential in my life. Asha works with people in Delhi’s slum communities, people who have often experienced displacement and marginalization and trauma, who’ve been fed tremendously diminishing stories about themselves as well.
And Asha aims to liberate communities and individuals, to restore them to an empowered love of self. It’s really quite beautiful.
And Asha does this work guided by a set of ten values, expressions of Jesus-centered life that sit well within Indian culture.
I’ve decided this year to make the Asha values my touchstones for prayer for the year – one value per month, and the first Asha value, and so my key word for prayer for the month of January has been dignity.
They define dignity as “the consciousness that we deserve honor”, as “understanding who you are and taking your rightful place in the world.”
I thought that praying about human dignity in January would start with other people. After all, I’m really aware of the many times I don’t treat all kinds of people with the full dignity they deserve. My family members, my friends, strangers – I feel like I often don’t give them all the honor they deserve. I don’t fully esteem them as much as I’d like. And all this love of neighbor stuff is indeed important.
But often in my prayers around dignity this month, I’ve been drawn back to myself. Will *I* understand who I am? Will *I* take my rightful place in the world?
Not too high, not above anyone else. But also not too low, not afraid or diminished or despairing. Will I face my life and work and calling with courage and enthusiasm? Because I too have gifts to give each day, and it’s easy to shrink back and not give them.
It’s hard but beautiful and vital work, friends, to really love ourselves. This is not shallow work of puffing up our egos. This is the deep work of knowing who we are – not the image of everything our parents and cultures and pain have told us, but free, loved, sane. And this is the deep work of discovering the gifts we have to give the world, and giving them freely.
This is to love ourselves. More next week, but we’ll wrap up for today with two ways to practice.
An Invitation to Whole Life Flourishing
Our marketing, our job evaluations, our report cards, our families and cultures of origin are all telling us stories of who we are. Critically filter stories told about you. Tell better stories about others.
Spiritual Practice of the Week
Find a daily touch point for sanity and a liberated identity – whatever helps you deeply know that you are a person of peace and promise, with a gift to give the world.