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Delivering the mentally disabled from evil

  • 19 September 2007

Anyone wanting to poke fun at the naïveté of the first-century worldview — and by implication the biblical texts shaped by it — will sooner or later bring up the ‘primitive’ belief that those suffering from a mental affliction are actually beset by demons. As unremarkable as this jibe is, the comparisons that inevitably follow between their worldview and our own are even less interesting.

For instance: while the first-century world is full of magic, myths and demons, the modern world is determined by rationality, hard science and medicine. And so, whereas the ancients used exorcism to deal with mental illness, we use medication, precise treatment programs and various forms of supported accommodation. The implicit judgment that drives these comparisons is the superiority and benevolence of modern science and the health-care system, versus the cruel, more ancient practice of ostracising the sick from civic life.

But is the difference quite so clear-cut? As soon as it’s pressed, this double reduction (modern benevolence versus primitive cruelty) collapses.

To begin with, earliest Christianity — in which designation I include Jesus himself — did not simply accept the superstitions and religious palliatives supplied by its cultural surroundings. Instead, it consistently exhibited a remarkable capacity for theological imagination and an ethical intensity that released it from the clutches of nationalist idolatry and merciless ritual practices. The ethical freedom of early Christianity is nowhere better demonstrated than in the radical way that it presents and uses the notion of ‘the demonic’. Far from simply accepting the existence of malevolent, individuated personalities as an easy explanation for a variety of ailments, the Christian texts identify demonic influences as an effective mechanism of cultural and political critique. For instance, in Mark’s Gospel, the commencement of Jesus’ public activity — in the form of the announcement of the redefined kingdom of God — is punctuated by the presence of 'a man with an unclean spirit' in the synagogue. It is as if the Jewish religious system itself, governed by the demands of holiness and ritual exclusions, is possessed by something antagonistic to the presence of the kingdom of God. Similarly, it is hard not to pick up the political overtones in Mark’s episode concerning the Gerasene demoniac. As Dominic Crossan observes: 'The demon is both one and many; is named Legion, that fact and sign of Roman power.' Toward the end of Luke’s Gospel, the nocturnal arrest of Jesus is depicted as