Last Sunday, having finished two morning services in another parish, I arrived home for lunch, went to my office, looked at my computer screen and saw for the first time the headlines about Orlando. Probably like most of you, I have spent all week sorting out my reactions and responses to this latest massacre, which, only because of the magnitude of its enormity, grips our attention. Some time ago we reached the point where the average mass shooting, defined as one in which more than 3 people are killed, is on average a daily occurrence in the United States. Among all the emotions churning up in me this week has been the exasperation that says, “Here we go again.”
We have developed a national ritual. Indeed we are in the midst of it at the moment. It is the American ritual for dealing with what you might say is an insoluble problem that shows no signs of going away any time soon. Just as there are other public rituals that have all the marks of predictability, this corporate reaction to mass shootings is predictable. The language we use, including such words as “outrage,” “senseless,” “gun violence,” “courageous first responders,” “terror,” “instability,” “lone wolf,” are stock phrases that you can count on figuring into reports and conversations for days.
It will appear at some point that we might have a chance of actually solving this problem of perennial, devastating violence. A new cascade of victims’ families and grief-stricken relatives will move us to new resolve. We will find ourselves hopeful, even amid the cacophony of rage and counter-rage that continues to fuel more hatred and more violence. Yet, as the prospect of new gun control legislation begins to rise, sales in guns will climb.
This must strike you as something you already know, familiar as the back of your hand. I imagine that you must be thinking that I have some sort of solution in mind or else I wouldn’t be talking about it. I suspect that you probably think that either I am a cynic who sees no possibility of change in all this, or, more likely that I am headed towards asserting that with proper public pressure we will be able once and for all to reverse this trend and possibly even to solve this intractable problem.
Let me remind myself and you that this is not a political speech, but a sermon. My aim is to proclaim some gospel this morning, and that involves telling the truth, not just making ourselves feel better, though one might hope that the two are not mutually exclusive. The truth begins with the fact that we are awash in what can kindly be called crazy behavior. That is not to say that all of us have totally lost our minds, but that in the aggregate, the phenomenon that we’re in and I have described is insane. You have heard it said that the definition of insanity is to repeat the same behavior over and over expecting different results. Well, so far that nails us, doesn’t it? That’s not all there is to it, but that is a big slice of what is wrong with this whole picture. The question is how can we stop it? Or, to use a phrase of St. Paul, who will deliver us?
How interesting that today’s gospel story is one about craziness. It is, perhaps of all the stories in any of the gospels, the one that dramatizes the extent and depth of insanity. The mad man of Gerasa is one of the most frightening figures on the pages of scripture. He is strong, he is untamable, he is demonic, he is scary. He roams about the tombs in the local cemetery, and it is a cinch that none of the villagers of Gerasa go there with their flowers and candles very much, knowing they will likely run into him. The story is difficult enough, yet its challenge to us 21st century people is compounded by the category in which the crazy man is placed, namely demon-possessed. We don’t deal with demon possession very well in modern vocabulary. We have other diagnoses: schizophrenia, sociopathology, and so on. Not only that, but the bizarre story of demons begging to enter a herd of hogs who race down the bank and drown in the Sea of Galilee pretty much asks us to imagine more than we easily can.
What is really difficult for us to see is how this poor character has anything to do with us. The very problem of modern life in the United States, and maybe the world at large, is that we are in a real sense deeply disturbed and don’t know it. The very fact that we are the most medicated generation ever to live on the planet is itself a part of the problem. Of course we are a far cry from raving around cemeteries; but we continue to nurse on delusions. Huge swaths of our society cannot grasp the fact that no matter who we are, we are infected by racism. To that extent, we are deluded. Our systems conspire to keep us under the spell of imagined wellness. Even when we see its flaws and dark side, we continue to spin with the wheels of capitalism. Most of us are about as fundamentalistic regarding our Constitution as religious fundamentalists are about the Bible. We corporately imagine that our constitutional system, with only a minor flaw here and there, is mighty near perfect. And one of the favorite notions is that every social problem has a legislative solution.
Into this quandary comes the Healer. Notice that Jesus meets resistance from the demons. Delusional thinking and its correlative, crazy behavior, do not vanish quietly. Like the Grand Inquisitor in Dostoevsky’s novel, voices in us and in our society say, “What have you to do with us, Jesus? Do not torment us. Leave us alone.” We are doing quite well without you, even as we invoke your name and pretend to be following you. Don’t upset us by dispelling our fantasies. If you ask us our name, we cannot answer because we have no lasting identity. Our loyalties are divided among family, work, sex, gender, race, ethnicity. We are legion. We know no wholeness.
And that is the root of the problem. What we have great trouble seeing is that in this awful violence, we are in fact reaping what we have sown. The poisonous flower of violence blooms on a stalk grounded in our own fragmentation. Many of us, despite a whole industry of gyms, diets, beauty products, cosmetics, style, body decorations, and so on, really despise our bodies. Despite all the self-help books and programs, we find ourselves stuck in the same old patterns. We pay millions on therapy and hear ourselves saying the same old stuff week after week. And all of this builds up into a great sea of internalized hatred and anger. We get angry at our own frustration. And all of that breeds a culture which gives rise to violence. We’ll never see this unless we look at the whole scene, beyond our individual pieces of it. It all didn’t start yesterday. It has been a way of life for centuries. Strife, dehumanization, unbridled competition, insecurities, jealousy, envy, discord, slave trade, sex trade, power games, oppression. The list goes on and on. We cannot get rid of violence by being violent. We cannot cast out hatred by hating. And most of all, we cannot heal from a deep sickness of soul unless somehow we are delivered from the very things that make our souls sick.
The demons gone, the mad man of Gerasa is no longer mad. He is clothed and in his right mind. He sits at the feet of Jesus, calm, peaceful. That is what wholeness looks like. Now the secret, quite well kept, is that the Jesus who heals us is not some distant god, but rather one that already lives right in us. It makes little difference whether we imagine this Jesus to be external to us or internal (I do some of both). What critically matters is that we come to understand that our egos—that is to say our conscious, willing selves—cannot heal us. Healing has to come from some deeper place. In my vocabulary it is “soul healing,” which really means that, like the Gerasene man, we need deliverance from all that legion of crazy voices in us, including the voice that says, “You’re no good.” Soul healing is being united with our truest, deepest nature. Once that begins to happen, peace begins to supplant all the internal violence.
How? It begins with our admitting our own powerlessness. We move from there to something quite counter-intuitive: submitting our wills to the Christ within us, acknowledging him to be our soul-maker and soul-mate. We begin gradually to let go of our fantasy of being in control of others, our partners, our children, our neighbors, our enemies. The more we do, the more we become supple, accepting what comes to us and not fighting it. The less we fight, the more we are free to embrace. We gradually find ourselves loving our own bodies. Then it is not too hard for us to begin embracing our own mortality. And one day we might begin to notice that we are living more and more soulfully. We begin to live more joyfully, rooted in a practice of being grateful. We look for the good in people rather than fixate on their foibles. We make mistakes and take them as opportunities to learn. We lose our cool and learn to observe our imperfections without laying hard trips on ourselves. We treat ourselves well, take long hot baths and showers, give money away—lots of it, enjoy long walks, savor good food, celebrate our erotic energy, stop kicking ourselves with guilt, learn how to face into the very things that we are ashamed of, and begin owning our imperfections and vulnerabilities. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control: these are the marks of soulful living, and they are the fruit of the Spirit of Christ taking hold of us, and shaping us into persons wholly one with our deepest nature.
Easy? No. Quick? Hardly. But the only way I know of to get out of the tombs and into the clear light of day.
© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2016