25 February 2007

A Poem by Richard Wilbur

Matthew VIII,28 ff NAB

Rabbi, we Gadarenes
Are not ascetics; we are fond of wealth and possessions.
Love, as You call it, we obviate by means
Of the planned release of aggressions.

We have deep faith in property.
Soon, it is hoped, we will reach our full potential.
In the light of our gross product, the practice of charity
Is palpably non-essential.

It is true that we go insane;
That for no good reason we are possessed by devils;
That we suffer, despite the amenities which obtain
At all but the lowest levels.

We shall not, however, resign
Our trust in the high-heaped table and the full trough.
If You cannot cure us without destroying our swine,
We had rather You shoved off.
I was looking for another poem when I stumbled across this one. Since I've been posting a bit about economics, it seemed fitting to discuss this poem. As we can see, Wilbur is talking through the voice of the owners of the swine, who have just lost them as a result of Jesus sending the evil spirits into their bodies. Typically, in New Testament stories there is a touch of the elaborate literary metaphor, like a joke: "The spirits are cast out, and because they are many, they possess an herd of swine."

Many readers complain that it was awfully mean of Jesus to send the demons into the swine, since the Gadarene swineherds depended upon them for their livelihood. I would tend to agree, especially since the region where Jesus lived was about as cosmopolitan as, say, the New York City of Taxi Driver. With so many different peoples in the region, it would have been reasonable to expect Jesus to be considerate of them all.

Except, it's interesting that there are three different Gospel accounts of the encounter: the above-linked Matthew 8, Mark 5, and Luke 8:26ff. In each place, the location is different, but the names are similar: Gadara, Gergasa, and Gerasa. One scholar, John Dominic Crossan, proposes that they stand for Caesarea (i.e., the place belonging to Caesar); the name of the demon, Legion ("because they were many") alludes to the military occupation of the region, and their request to be cast into swine seems be part of an age-old trope in martial taunts, that the enemy will revert to his "true" nature when defeated, and yearn to be degraded.

In Matthew there are two men, who are are "so savage that none could travel along that road." In Mark, there is one man, who lives in the tombs on the shore of the Lake (not on a road). But in Mark, much is made of the fact that efforts had been made "to secure him with fetters," and he is naked, and gashes himself with stones. Also, in Mark we are advised that there were two thousand pigs in the drowned herd. In Luke, nearly all of the details are the same, except no mention is made of the number of pigs; and the fate of the unfortunate demoniac is mentioned briefly: "The man from the devils had gone out asked to be allowed to stay with [Jesus], but he sent him away saying, 'Go back home and report all that God has done for you.' So the man went off and proclaimed throughout the city all that Jesus had done for him."

Luke's version is puzzling because the man wants to "stay with," or rather, leave with, Jesus. Jesus "sends him away," or rather, advises him to remain at home. The man then proclaims something that, according to Luke, is already well known: that Jesus restored a man to sanity, at the cost of some swine. Logically, this implies that the people in the city will forever be reminded of why it was they asked Jesus to leave the region for good. Finally: Jesus tells the man to report "all that God has done for you." But the man proclaims all that Jesus had done for him, which a Christian might find unremarkable, except that Jesus is elsewhere anxious to have his identity kept secret (e.g., Mark 8:27-30). The point of these variations, in my opinion, is that the story is not really expected to be believed literally, not by the authors. And it is to show that the details are used to emphasize the significance of the story: men possessed by demons are a menace to their neighbors and to themselves, demons are repulsive and prefer foul states to good ones, ordinarily people prefer to be secure in their possessions than to be free of demons.

In other words, it seems unlikely that the story is about Jesus actually driving a herd of swine into the Lake.

Jesus could not have been claiming to describe an actual encounter with legionnaires, though; had the Gospels been written after the Romans evacuated the region, it's possible it was inserted to make Jesus seem like a divine liberator—rather like a contemporary movie set in Occupied France, in which some terrible fate befalls German soldiers long before July 1944. It would then be a case of infantile wish fulfillment. Yet, Jesus' speeches tend to undermine the short-term resistance; he constantly excoriates the Israelites (Luke 11:29ff), and implies that the time for anti-Roman militancy is past. Perhaps Jesus is making a sardonic joke, that he tried to liberate the people from their Roman oppressors (Legion), but offended them by destroying their swine. Needless to say, Jews are prohibited from eating pork. Seen from this angle, it actually is a funny story.

So the question arises, what exactly is the story supposed to tell us? Following Crossan (see above), the historical Jesus might have been paradoxically notorious as a magician, and accompanied by legends of his powerful miracles; then, as he was absorbed into the organized belief system of the Hellenized world, the Gospels were scrubbed of disturbing miracles (a la al-Khidr), but not completely. (Now departing from Crossan,) one of these "miracles" was the heavily coded story involving some element of Roman power, such as a garrison of legionnaires. The demoniacs were two men, who were naked and unrestrained. Somehow, the men are made whole, while the demons who possessed them (again, Roman military personnel) are made to revert to their swinish nature, by doing something unmentionable. Roman military discipline is undermined, but the character of the imperial power's true nature is revealed: the conqueror is a pervert.

I am not insisting that this is the case, but it must be noted that there is a long, pre-19th century tradition of interpreting these miraculous events as parables in and of themselves. For example, the traditional orthodox interpretation of the Song of Solomon is a hymn of love between Christ and His Church—something that, at the very least, violates the literalist spirit of late 19th century biblical literalism. The casting out of Legion was taken to mean a universal spiritual cleansing, according to pre-fundamentalist commentators (e.g., see John Darby or Matthew Henry). The problem with those readings is that (a) they're really tiresome to read, and (b) they're arbitrary. In contrast, the urgent reality of the Levant in the 30's was that of occupation and sectional division. There was a phase of slavish devotion to the regime in Rome (e.g., naming Lake Kinnereth after the Emperor; numerous shrines to the Roman gods in Jerusalem), in contrast to other periods in which more professional administrators had sought to accommodate local sensibilities. The political has given way to the sectional and the ethnic: the Romans are now just a residual aggravation.

In the years since, the meaning has mutated to mean so many different things to different audiences. I regret, for example, that I have no idea what the Eastern Orthodox interpretation of this story is; all my sources are English renderings. But it would seem Wilbur's rebuke in poetry is the one moral that all can agree on.

ADDITIONAL SOURCES & READING: John Lightfoot (1602-1675), "Exercitations upon the Gospel of St. Mark, Chapters 5-8," A Commentary on the New Testament from the Talmud and Hebraica;



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