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Reflecting on Modern-Day Violence Through Biblical Story

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We will observe the 24th anniversary of the Rwanda Tutsi genocide in April.

Romeo Dallaire, commander of the United Nations forces in Rwanda, wrote a book titled “Shake Hands with the Devil.”

The devil, for Dallaire, was embodied in the person of Gen. Theoneste Bagosora, one of the principal authors of the murder of an estimated 800,000 people in 100 days. Evil is incarnated in people.

People often do thin readings of accounts of mass violence. North Americans that visit Rwanda today are impressed with the beauty and warm relationships they observe.

Their analysis of genocide stories is generally flawed in one direction or another:

1. There is a tendency among some people to attribute the violence to some form of demonic possession or madness that temporarily descended on the country.

This facile explanation overlooks decades of overt and concealed structural violence suffered by the Tutsi minority.

Furthermore, it fails to hold government leaders, like Bagosora, responsible for planning and facilitating the massive death agenda in communities.

2. The second error is to attempt to explain the genocide simply through a rational academic consideration using tools of sociology, psychology, history and political science. There were inexplicable forces of evil behind the cruelty and vicious violence.

The violence of the man called Legion recorded in Mark 5:1-20 opens a narrative door for a deep discussion of the nature of the violence that destroys the lives of individuals and communities.

Almost a decade before the Rwanda genocide, Walter Wink in 1986 observed the naïve optimism of Western societies that believed that education, laws, science and government institutions could solve the problems of violence and injustice.

Scientific rationalism and the ideology of progress had, according to Wink, deprived us of a vocabulary that could help us to understand evil.

The story of Legion invites us to pull back the curtain and enter into uncomfortable territory with mysterious forces at work behind the scenes.

Here we come face to face with evil that is out of control and threatens the well-being of social networks and communities.

The man called Legion lived in a region known as the Decapolis (10 cities). The main urban center was Gerasa.

The Decapolis had been invaded by Alexander the Great and subjected to foreign domination. Decommissioned Greek soldiers had settled in the area.

In the first century BCE, Alexander Jannaeus, a Judean military leader, attacked and destroyed several cities in the region.

Thirteen years later, in 63 BCE, Roman legions arrived, conquered and placed the area under the control of Herod the Great.

It is certain that Legion was raised with traumatic stories of violence inflicted on communities of the Decapolis. We would like to ask the text if he had been a direct victim of the forces of repression.

Perhaps poverty had led him to join the Roman army as a local soldier. He may have actively participated in the intimidation and oppression of his own people.

This might account for the fact he is isolated from the community that he so desperately needs.

The text does not answer our questions. We are left to stand with the disciples and to feel their fear.

We look on a naked man who lives alone in the tombs, is sometimes restrained but never controlled and inflicts injury on his body.

Somewhere in this horrific isolation there must be family or former friends that bring him food.

Jesus asks him, “What is your name?”

He responds, “My name is Legion for we are many.”

A Roman legion was a frightening force of 5,000 to 6,000 armed men and 120 horsemen.

We notice that from this point the dialogue is sometimes with Legion and at other times with the demonic presence that inhabits his body. This suggests a deep and painful division in the heart of this man.

Most of us do not feel comfortable talking about unclean spirits or demons. They seem part of a worldview that might include elves, dwarves and leprechauns.

I wish to close with a few items for consideration:

1. Most cultures, past and present, recognize that there are unseen forces at work in our world for good or for evil.

2. The New Testament’s treatment of demons and exorcisms is limited to the synoptic gospels and the book of Acts.

But these first-century documents share a common understanding that unseen powers of evil were at work in the Roman Empire and in the lives of ordinary people.

“For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12).

3. The research of social scientists has shown us that spirit possession occurs most frequently in social locations of oppression and violence (see “Jesús y los espíritus” by Esther Miquel Pericás).

We might think of the possessed as special victims that have been overwhelmed by the presence of evil that surrounds them. Each person has a unique story of repression and the longing for liberation.

I realize this has barely opened the door to a thick analysis of the Legion story and stories of our world, but it offers an entry point for further discussion with regard to myriad instances of violence we read in the daily news.

Gordon King is on the pastoral staff of Westview Baptist Church, Calgary, Canada. He is the author of “Seed Falling on Good Soil: Rooting our Lives in the Parables of Jesus.” A version of this article first appeared on his website and is used with permission.