If you were raised up in the evangelical Christian tradition, you’ve probably heard way too much about demons with far more specificity than the Scriptures provide. Demons are an easy and convenient device because they are scary and they can basically be anything you want them to be. Are you having sex? You have a demon of promiscuity. Is your business in trouble? That’s spiritual warfare. You are being surrounded by demons who are attacking.
In the Bible, demons are rare and rarely the centre of the story. And, then, there’s Matthew 8:28-34, the story of two “demon possessed” men in the land of the Gadarenes. I have two takes on this particular healing story. In this post, we are going to talk about demons and bodies. In another post, I’ll offer a queer perspective.
Let’s follow the narrative of this story. I won’t explain the demons away but I will treat them as a narrative device. What do they represent? What do they teach us about being human?
The first thing we notice is the two men are completely and utterly isolated from the rest of the community. They are not only on the outskirts of town, they are in the tombs, among the dead. This essentially guarantees that no one will come near, as coming in contact with the dead required a significant ritual cleansing after the fact. David Guzik also suggests that by taking the men to the tombs, the demons are increasing superstition in the people around, therefore increasing the demons’ power.
So what are these demons doing to these bodies they have possessed? First, they are isolating these two bodies from other bodies. They are depriving these bodies of touch and communication with others. The men have no escape from these voices that are filling them with fear. Second, the demons are weaponizing these bodies to threaten other bodies. They are securing their position in these men by turning them into weapons against others, especially those who could help them.
The beginning of this story swarms with fear, and all of that fear is directed towards Jesus. As the reader, we may have been reading chapter 8 which tells us of more miracles, demonstrating Jesus’ power and his desire to heal and save. The men, though, do not know what Jesus intends. They have heard of him, even know of his power, but it seems the Gadarenes are getting mixed reports about Jesus. The men immediately perceive this healer as a threat, “Have you come to torture us…?” Now, many assume this is the voice of the demons possessing the men. I am not so sure, only because the demons are only identified as speakers when they ask to be thrown into the herd of pigs (Matthew 8:31).
Whatever Jesus intends for them, the men fear violence against their own bodies, perhaps because the only kinds of encounters they have are violent. They are being tortured by demons and forced to lash out against others. They use his title of authority, “Son of God”, acknowledging his power. They can not scare him away, and that is terrifying.
We never hear about the men again. We do not know how they responded, if they even left the tombs. After they ask their unanswered question, the narrative turns to the demons and the town. This fits with Matthew’s purpose in telling these short stories of miracles. Matthew is not concerned with the healing itself, but with demonstrating Jesus’ power over nature as he calms a storm (Matthew 8:23-27), over bodies, and, now, over powers and principalities not of this world.
The demons of the Scriptures need bodies, despite their hatred of human bodies. In the essay, “On the Flesh of the Word: Incarnational Hermeneutics”, John Panteleimon Manoussakis makes the following observation:
"It is only the devil who despises the body and everything bodily, because he despises the communion which the human body can effect. His greatest disadvantage is precisely the fact that he is a spirit. He does not need to fast for he abstains from food entirely, nor does he need to resist the temptations of fornication for he cannot engage in any sexual act at all—yet this is precisely the impediment to his repentance: without a body that can feel the effect of hunger, the want that reveals one’s dependency and restores one’s humility, the devil cannot repent." (John Panteleimon Manoussakis, “On the Flesh of the Word: Incarnational Hermeneutics,” in Carnal Hermeneutics, ed. Brian Treanor and Richard Kearney (New York, NY: Fordham University Press, 2015).)
The devil hates bodies because it will never have one. The demons see that the men are about to be healed. The men will be reunited with their bodies, able to receive comfort. There will no longer be a place for the demons, and, so, the demons seek other bodies, a herd of pigs, where they will not be bothered. David Guzik suggests Jesus accepted the demons request to be hurled into the pigs because he wanted to demonstrate to the people exactly what the demons do. Demons possess bodies like objects and destroy bodies, our only source of connection to one another and all of creation.
In this story, everyone has more agency than the men. Even the pigs who choose “death over devilry”, in the words of the notorious Charles Spurgeon, which says something about the ways we dismiss and ignore the bodies that scare and embarrass us. In the demons we see the lies and legends we create to further separate us from those othered bodies.
In evangelical folklore, demons are said to be focussed on a specific task. For example, a woman who has an affair has a demon of promiscuity, or an executive who embezzles the employee retirement funds has a demon of greed. According to this story and other similar stories in the Gospels, that is not how demons work. Demons have one modus operandi, to disconnect us from our bodies and one another.
Where do we see this disconnection in our world today? In our own bodies, when we are overcome with fear and trauma, we can only think of diminishing our pain. We lash out in self-defence. We descend into self-loathing, caring less and less about what happens to our bodies. We withdraw from the world and those we love. Sadly, we may be sent away from those we love.
We separate from other bodies. We create profiles of other bodies. One example is how violence against black bodies is justified by the claim that Black people do not experience pain in the same way as white people. We deny other bodies agency, assuming they are unable to make decisions for their own well-being. We make financial decisions for our elders without considering their wants and needs, for example.
If the devil is at the work of disconnecting us from bodies, what does that say about how God created us? It says we were made to be whole; mind, body, and spirit as one in the heart of God. We were made to be in community; together, not apart. We were made as part of an awesome creation, not apart or above it.
I never talk about demons, but I often speak of “the forces of this world”. You may define these forces as systems, like capitalism and white supremacy, or you may see them as spiritual forces, engaging in spiritual warfare for our souls. Maybe, you don’t see these as outside forces at all, but as being innate to human existence. To me, whether we create the forces of this world or they are part of a realm of powers and principalities, the impact on Creation is the same: To pit us against one another, to place many humans and all of Creation under the feet of a few, powerful humans. These are the forces Mary prophesies against when she sings:
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty. (Luke 1:50-53)
The one force that can scatter these forces is, of course, love. When we love others, love our bodies, love all of Creation, shifting the gaze of our love towards God and all that God loves, these forces can not take hold. When we are living in the heart of God, we love what God loves. We do not cast it away. We join with it. We fight for it. We protect it.