Rev. Stephen Milton
Lawrence Park Community Church
June 19 2022
Today’s scripture reading is one of the weirdest in all of the New Testament. It is full of rich images – a man so possessed that he can break through chains. A herd of pigs, suddenly possessed by thousands of demons, throwing themselves into the water to their deaths. And the locals, aghast at what has happened. They beg Jesus, this strange Jew from across the water: please leave, we’ve had enough trouble.
Demonic possession is one of those aspects of the New Testament that we have a really hard time with. Few of us have ever encountered anyone who was possessed by an evil spirit. Exorcism is something we expect to find in horror movies, not real life. But for anthropologists who have studied the cultures of the world, demonic possession is very much alive in the 21st century. The idea that people and animals can be possessed by demons is quite common in non-industrial agrarian societies. In Asia, in Africa, in parts of South America, possession and exorcism are still going concerns.
Anthropologists have found that demonic possession makes sense to people who herd animals for a living. If you have sheep or pigs, sudden reversals of fortune are always possible. One day you may have 100 animals, and the next week most of them may have been killed by disease, floods, predators, or poachers. Cultures have evolved to believe that these sudden disasters must have been caused by a sudden influx of evil spirits who afflict the herd. Not surprisingly, in this kind of culture, it becomes easy to believe that human misfortune, like physical or mental illness, can also be attributed to evil spirits taking up residence in a person. What happens to the herd can also happen to you.
The belief in personal possession is particularly acute when local societies are under stress, such as military occupation. This traumatizes the invaded people, and their anguish is expressed in what we see as mental illness, but these societies see as demonic possession.
That sense of invasion and trauma is present in today’s scripture reading. It takes place in an area that used to be purely Jewish, but now has Roman colonists who are raising unclean animals, like this herd of pigs. This is an area on edge, like all of Israel. When Christ asks the demon his name, the first step of any exorcism, it replies “Legion.” This is our clue that this story is about more than it seems. Legion means many, but it also explicitly a military term. A Roman legion contained 4000-6000 soldiers. So this Jewish man, who is possessed and living in a place of death, the tombs, has been possessed by thousands of demons. Just like the land of Israel. Many biblical scholars believe this strange story is an allegorical critique of the Roman occupation of Judea. They had colonized this area, and now, when God’s Messiah arrives, they know they have no defense. God’s power is stronger than they are, so the demons beg to transfer rather than be destroyed and sent to the Abyss for eternity.
To a Jewish audience, this story was meant to signify that Christ had come to defeat the Romans, to end their possession of the land. To them, this story has a funny ending. The demons beg to transfer to the pigs, thinking that will be safe. But as soon as the legion enters the herd, the animals are driven mad, and head right into the water – the abyss the demons had hoped to avoid. Good riddance and a fitting come uppance. The locals are horrified and ask Jesus to leave immediately before he does anything else to endanger their Roman economy. Salvation has come, but it has been rejected by the colonizers.
In this story, we see the tension that exists within any area that has been colonized. For the invaders, colonization is meant to be permanent. The invaders come, subdue the local population, and set up a government. There is no next stage, the locals are expected to just get used to it and assimilate. For the people who have been invaded, however, colonization is more complicated. It has a beginning, a middle, and hopefully, an end. This story is written by the people who were colonized. They imagine, and hope for, a messiah who will bring about the end of the invasion. They express that hope in a coded story the Romans won’t understand. Nonetheless, it contains that dream, that wish, that life is possible now because some day the invaders will leave. Assimilation, becoming Gentiles, is not on the agenda. Resistance is, and the hope for deliverance from this possession of their land.
In Canada, those two ways of seeing colonization are still very much alive. Among settlers, which means most of us, colonization is something we learn about in history class. The French came to make this land a colony, then the English did the same thing. They came, they conquered, and the colonization period ended. European culture is just in charge now, and that is how it will stay. The French and the English saw the Indigenous people as brave but inferior. The best thing that could happen to them was to assimilate into the ways of European culture. In that sense, Indigenous history was supposed to end, as they adapted to our kind of society, getting an education, jobs and buying houses. The architects of the residential school system really believed that what they called the “Indian Problem” would be over by the 1920s or 30s. Here’s what the man in charge of the system had to say in the 1920s, Duncan Campbell Scott:
Duncan Campbell Scott ““I want to get rid of the Indian problem. I do not think as a matter of fact, that the country ought to continuously protect a class of people who are able to stand alone. . . . Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic and there is no Indian question, and no Indian Department, that is the whole object of this Bill.”
The Indigenous people would either die out or assimilate. But that didn’t happen. Indigenous people didn’t give up and go away as planned. Instead, they became what Indigenous author Thomas King calls them – Inconvenient Indians. Indigenous people who refuse to go away or fit into the stereotypes colonizers create for them.
King wrote a book of the same title. In it, he argues that North American culture likes to believe that the only good Indian is the kind who existed when colonizers first arrived.
King quote: “Dead Indians are dignified, novel, silent and suitably garbed. And dead. Live Indians are invisible, unruly, disappointing. And breathing. One is a romantic reminder of a heroic but fictional past. The other is simply an unpleasant, contemporary surprise.”
Our culture likes imagining the lifestyle of Indigenous people who lived in teepees and longhouses, who wear big headdresses at ceremonial events. The kinds of Indigenous people who we find in movies still, but not on the streets. The museum Native. The dead Indian.
Real live Indigenous people, who live among us now, they are what King calls Inconvenient Indians. Because for them, colonization is not over. It is ongoing. They speak of us as colonists still, since we are still occupying the land, often without permission or treaty. To modern Indigenous culture, colonization has a beginning, a middle, that’s now, and hopefully, an end. Like the Jews of today’s scripture reading, Canada’s Indigenous people continue to imagine and dream of alternative futures where they regain control over more of the land and their own lives. Not so they can return to the lives of the past, but so they can move forward in the 21st century as Indigenous people.
As colonists, we find this unsettling. We thought the war was over, and we won. The federal government continues to reluctantly “settle” land claims when pressed to by courts. To us, Indigenous claims are about money and land. Recently, you may have seen stories in the press about giving control of American national parks back to Indigenous people. The hope is that they might take better care of the land than we do, and it might make up for some of the land we expropriated during the colonization process. To us, Indigenous survival in the years ahead will be measured in money and land.
Colonizers often think in terms of land and control, because that’s how they see the world. But for those who are colonized, the land is only part of the issue. They want their land back, but they want something else, too, which is ultimately just as important.
In today’s scripture reading, the Messiah does not arrive with a Jewish army to decolonize Judea. Instead, Jesus frees the mind of one man who has been possessed for many years by a legion of demons. The madness which has seized his mind, made him a danger to himself and others, that horde of evil spirits is removed so he can think clearly again. Not surprisingly, the local colonists don’t care that this Jewish man has been freed of his anguish. They just care about the economic cost of losing the pigs. But Christ knows what he is doing. To be free of the colonizers, it starts with regaining your senses. Breaking free from the colonizers’ way of thinking about you and about your life on this land. Escaping that sense of inferiority and self-hatred. The revolution that is needed is as much of the mind and spirit as it is about who controls the land. Jesus tells the man to go back to his hometown. Not to report on a herd of dead pigs, but to say that God has freed his mind.
For Canada’s Indigenous people, the fight against colonization is as much about the mind as it is control over the land. Being Indigenous is not primarily about genetics, or about whether one has a status card, or a claim to a parcel of land the government has given you. To Indigenous people, their identity lies in the way they see and experience the world. But to read and listen to Indigenous people in Canada today is to realize that they are not stuck in the past, trying to recreate a lost history. Indigenous people are actively applying their way of thinking to the world as it is, and as it could be. Ending colonization is not just about getting the invaders off the land, but getting them out of your head. Indigenous people are trying very hard to exorcize themselves from the colonial mindset that sees the world about being all about the control of resources and people.
This is the other meaning of Thomas King’s term the Inconvenient Indian. Real Indigenous people live now, not long ago. That means they live at the crossroads of their culture and ours. To read Indigenous fiction today is to stumble across Star Wars and Lord of the Rings references. Indigenous authors sigh when white radio hosts ask them to read a sample of their work that will sound “Indian”, expecting to hear about the land, or hunting, or spirits. Indigenous writers and film makers retort, if I’m native and I wrote it, then it is Indigenous.* The struggle to end colonization means finding their own way to understand modern life, in all its complexity. Being Indigenous now, in actions and in dreaming, is an act of decolonization. A way of resisting the idea that there is only one way to be, of understanding this life. In Indigenous novels and poetry, this world is seen through a different lens, a way of proving that colonization can be resisted by showing other ways of understanding the continuing mess that is the modern world.
And like the Jewish people in today’s scripture reading, de-colonization also means dreaming of a future when it will end. For Indigenous authors, this has meant turning to science fiction. Books like the Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline imagine Indigenous power pushing back and winning against white efforts to colonize even when the apocalypse arrives. In Marrow Thieves, global warming has induced a strange state among non-Indigenous people – they can no longer dream, and it is driving them insane. So they hunt Indigneous people, literally trying to take what is in their minds. The story is expliciutly about how a key part of being Indigenous is what happens in the mind and in their dreams. The story sees the Indigenous people using their minds, their dreams and stories, to triumph over their oppressors. Resistance is possible, and it will be achieved through dreams. Imagining an end to colonization is a way of bringing about decolonization now, by making it imaginable.
One might think that Indigenous literature is all tragedy, but that isn’t the case. Perhaps it is the influence of the coyote and the tricksters in Indigenous traditional stories. There’s a strong belief that life is about sudden reversals and plot twists, often very funny ones. The demons think they will be safe among the pigs, but it backfires and they end up in the abyss anyway. Tricksters and strange reversals of fortune often show up in Indigenous stories of the modern world. They haven’t lost hope, and there’s no way that things the way are is the way they need to stay.
In the United Church Calendar, today is National Indigenous Day of Prayer. We are asked to pray for the welfare of Indigenous people, who have suffered so much since Europeans arrived. But let us remember that they are not a defeated people. Indigenous culture is enjoying a renaissance right now, expressed in literature, in dance, in film and music. And we are invited to meet them there, to take part, to experience what life looks like from their perspective. We are being offered a chance to see beyond the mindset that colonized this country. To enter into the minds of people like Richard Wagamese, Thomas King, Tanya Talaga and so many others who want to share their way of being with the world.
At a time when the shortcomings of our approach to running the world are so evident, it is a blessing that another perspective is here, and willing to be shared with us. Like the man in today’s story, they have been told to share what has happened to them, to share what it feels like to feel well again. May we be ready to listen as followers of the Messiah who seeks to liberate all from oppression.
 George Peter Murdoch, Theories of Illness, ( University of Pittsburgh press: Pittsburgh, 1980), 26.  George Peter Murdoch, Theories of Illness, ( University of Pittsburgh press: Pittsburgh, 1980), 82-4.  Amanda Witmer, Jesus, The Galilean Exorcist, p.26.  https://www.bbc.co.uk/bitesize/topics/zwmpfg8/articles/zqbnfg8  Amanda Witmer, p.66ff.  Duncan Campbell Scott was the federal minister in charge of the residential schools system in the early 20th century. He famously declared, ““I want to get rid of the Indian problem. I do not think as a matter of fact, that the country ought to continuously protect a class of people who are able to stand alone. . . . Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic and there is no Indian question, and no Indian Department, that is the whole object of this Bill.” https://www.facinghistory.org/stolen-lives-indigenous-peoples-canada-and-indian-residential-schools/historical-background/until-there-not-single-indian-canada  Thomas King, The Inconvenient Indian, p. 55ish.  Thomas King, The Inconvenient Indian, chapter 3.  David Treuer,“Return The National Parks To The Tribes,” The Atlantic, April 2021  Thomas King: “The truth about stories is that that’s all we are.” The Truth About Stories, p.2.