Thursday, 13 September 2007

The mentally handicapped and the demonic

A guest-post by Scott Stephens

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 the proper activity of “the power of darkness.”

And in Paul’s writings, not only are the Roman rulers reduced to impotent “powers” that cravenly plotted to execute Jesus, but the Jewish Torah itself is described as belonging to the stoicheia, the dark, elemental forces that exert their chaotic influence on this world.

What is crucial to notice here is the way that the demonic influence is mediated through political and religious structures as the means by which individuals are subjugated, humiliated, excluded, dehumanised. The message of the gospel is that these powers have been emasculated (as Karl Barth put it, demons “are null and void, but they are not nothing”), and that their effects must be opposed in the same manner by which they were defeated: in faith and by love. The powers are thus to be taken seriously, but disregarded as an act of faith. Here again, Barth captures the spirit of the Christian critique perfectly:

“Demons are only the more magnified if they are placed in a framework of the conflict between a modern and an ancient system.… The demythologisation which will really hurt them as required cannot consist in questioning their existence. Theological exorcism must be an act of the unbelief which is grounded in faith.”

The Christian attitude toward demonic powers, then, was not simple acceptance of their existence and influence on the world, much less a kind of primitive heuristic device for explaining what now is the domain of medicine. Instead, it represented a vital critique of those political, religious and even bureaucratic systems that subjugate the masses, and thus manifest a terrifying yet anonymous form of Evil.

But this sword cuts both ways. Just as the New Testament texts are neither naïve nor homogeneous in the way they speak of demons, our own world is hardly free from “demonic” influences.

What is needed is the theological clarity and moral courage to be able to identify these influences as such. And one need look no further than the diabolical effects that political neglect and bureaucratic indifference continue to have on the quality of mental health care. The dehumanising forces endemic within the mental health care system stretch from the woeful levels of funding – designed to maintain an already exceedingly tenuous status quo – to the high rate of staff turnover due to burnout and work-related stress. But Stanley Hauerwas has gone further, suggesting that the care of the mentally handicapped exposes the deep contradiction at the heart of liberal humanism:

“No group exposes the pretensions of the humanism that shapes the practices of modernity more thoroughly than the mentally handicapped. Our humanism entails we care for them once they are among us, once we are stuck with them; but the same humanism cannot help but think that, all things considered, it would be better if they did not exist.”

In his terrifying masterpiece of theological journalism, Hostage to the Devil, Malachi Martin insisted that it is the exorcist himself that must play the role of “the devil’s hostage”, by placing himself between the victim and the demon, by being an advocate for the one who has no capacity to resist. This is precisely the kind of faithful advocacy demanded from Christians today: to oppose Evil even in its most innocuous, anonymous and bureaucratic forms, and thus to enact the prayer, “Deliver us from the Evil One!”

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