As many of you already know, in the years immediately following my graduation from seminary, I worked as a counselor at the Addictions Crisis Center, which is part of the Rescue Mission of Utica. This is a great program. They serve as the “first line of defense” that people come to when they’re beginning their recovery from dependence on drugs or alcohol. They offer food, shelter, medical care, treatment, and counseling to folks in the earliest stages of recovery. Some of them would even show up on our doorstep still under the influence of whatever substance they had been using. As one friend of mine put it, “Basically, [we] meet people on the worst day of their lives.”
One of the most interesting (and often frustrating) things about people in those first few days away from their substance of choice is their adamant (and sometimes violent) resistance to the treatment, which was usually their last, best hope for healing and recovery. They would kick, scream, and test every rule and boundary of our program. Their substance of choice had such a hold on them that they would fight the treatment process, even after they realized they had a problem and voluntarily checked themselves in to our facility.
Working with them for two years gave me a new appreciation for the meaning of the term possessed. My clients’ addictions, their compulsive, uncontrollable desire for drugs or alcohol had taken over their rational faculties so thoroughly that they perceived our attempts to heal them as an attack. The addiction owned them in a manner of speaking and led many of them to do all kinds of destructive things to themselves and others. Most people in our facility had sacrificed money, friends, jobs, houses, and relationships to appease the false gods of their addictions. There are many things worth sacrificing for in this world, but I think we can all agree that recreational substances are not among them.
A lot of people in the general public, people who don’t struggle with addictions, wonder why these folks can’t just stop what they’re doing and make better choices. What most people don’t understand is that it’s not a moral issue. Addiction is not a choice; it is a disease. The electro-chemical processes in the brain have literally been hot-wired and hijacked. And just like an airplane hijacked by terrorists: it’s not going where the pilot (the rational, moral part of the brain) wants it to go. They are not in control. They are possessed and they need help.
This, in a metaphorical sense, is what I see going on in today’s New Testament reading. There is no mention in the text of any addictive, mind-altering substances being used. All we know about the Gerasene man that Jesus encounters is that he “had a demon”.
In pre-modern times, all kinds of things were blamed on the activity of demons (e.g. seizures, mental illness, socially unacceptable behavior, bad luck, other religions, etc.). They didn’t have the kind of knowledge or diagnostic equipment we have today. For example, we now know that a person with schizophrenia doesn’t need an exorcism from demons, she needs anti-psychotic medication in order to make the voices in her head go away. That’s not to say that there isn’t some kind of spiritual element to people’s problems, but I think we have developed a more informed, nuanced, and holistic way of looking at things than our ancestors had.
When people come to me as a pastor, asking for exorcisms (and they do, believe it or not), my first question for them is always, “Have you seen your doctor?” I often end up making referrals, doing short-term pastoral care, praying with, and visiting these people in distress. I find that a combination of medication, counseling, and prayer tends to resolve the vast majority of cases where exorcism was initially requested.
I don’t tend to think of demons as beings or entities in their own right. The image of monsters with horns and bat-wings that take over your mind is the stuff of horror movies. But that doesn’t mean I don’t believe in the reality of the demonic. I believe I encountered a kind of demonic possession every day when I was a substance abuse counselor. The people I worked with were possessed by their compulsive need for a particular substance. The things they did as a result of that compulsion were truly evil, you might even say demonic: They lied, stole, neglected and abused children, some of them had even hurt or killed others. Those who found recovery from their addictions often had to own up to and make amends for the horrible things they had done under the influence.
And the amazing thing is that, in spite of all this harm to self and others, they continue to refuse to let go of their addiction. They cling to their substance of choice as if it were more precious than air. Many of them would refuse treatment and walk out of our program. The average recovering addict has to go through rehab four or five times before they finally get clean and sober for good. Only about one out of every ten clients finds recovery. The rest go back out, pick back up, and continue to use or drink, despite the consequences. That’s what I call possessed.
The Gerasene man in today’s gospel reading was similarly resistant to Jesus’ efforts to heal him. When Jesus commands the demonic spirits to leave the man alone, the man cries, “I beg you, do not torment me”. Torment him? Didn’t this guy realize that Jesus was trying to help him? It was the demons that were tormenting him! But then again, as we’ve already seen today: people sometimes prefer an old, familiar slavery to a new, unknown liberation. Getting over that hump is often half the battle of recovery.
The good news is that this doesn’t seem to present a problem for Jesus. He just keeps at it with this possessed man, this hopeless case, until he has sufficiently separated the person from the problem. That’s a key difference between Jesus and the people of the Gerasene region. They just tried to lock him up and forget about him, but Jesus went out to see and to save the man behind the madness. I think our task, as followers of Jesus in the present-day, is to do the same with those outcasts in our society, those people our culture of achievement has given up on.
Where God is concerned, there is no such thing as a hopeless case.
Now, it would be easy enough to leave things at that: the addict finds recovery, Jesus sweeps in and rescues the man from the demons, and everybody lives happily ever after. But life is more complicated than that.
It would be so easy for us to sit here in our (semi)comfortable pews on Sunday and say prayers for those poor addicts down in Utica, never once taking the time to look hard at our own lives. We tend to take notice of people addicted to drugs and alcohol because (A) those addictions are highly destructive and (B) they’re socially unacceptable. But there are many other kinds of addictions out there as well, many of which don’t involve recreational chemicals of any kind. In recent years, we’ve become more aware of behavioral addictions to things like sex, work, food, exercise, shopping, and gambling. Scientific studies have shown that our brains can’t tell the chemical difference between these behaviors and drugs. Either way, it’s a massive hit from a neurotransmitter chemical called dopamine that our brains get used to having and eventually come to depend on in order to feel normal. The best single book I’ve ever read on this topic is Addiction and Grace by Gerald May. I highly recommend reading it if you want to learn more about addiction from psychological, medical, and spiritual perspectives.
In addition to the aforementioned behaviors, I would go on to say that anything can be an addiction, depending on the place it holds in our lives. Even good and healthy things like family, relationships, church, religion, country, and school can be addictive. Whenever we let just one thing take over our whole field of consciousness for extended periods of time, we are in danger of becoming addicted or possessed in the way we’re using that language today. Spiritually speaking, we are committing the sin of idolatry: worshiping false gods, serving a part of reality at the expense of the whole, or even treating a part as if it were the whole. We can even be addicted to (possessed by) a certain way of thinking or way of doing things. This last one especially applies to groups of people as much as individuals.
I find it interesting that, in today’s gospel reading, the demons themselves ask Jesus to let them stay in the area. They ask to be sent into a herd of pigs that immediately goes berserk and destroys itself. After that, the people of the Gerasene community approach Jesus and ask him to leave. Why? Because, according to the text of Luke’s gospel, “they were seized with a great fear.”
Isn’t that interesting? When Jesus first tried to help the possessed man, the man cried out in terror, “I beg you, do not torment me”. He was afraid of the very person who had come to help him. Now, at the end of the story, that man is “clothed and in his right mind” while the rest of the so-called “normal” people in his community are suddenly terrified of Jesus the healer.
This is another aspect of this story that bears a striking and frankly eerie resemblance to my experience of working with people who have addictions. More often than not, so often in fact that it became a predictable pattern, my clients would return home after completing treatment to discover that their families no longer know how to relate to them. In the years while my clients were active in their addictions, their families adapted in order to learn how to function in a dysfunctional environment. They were used to operating under the assumption that one member of the family would always be drunk, high, or absent. This is what experts mean by the term co-dependency: one person in the family unit is chemically or behaviorally dependent while all the others are “dependent with” that person or “co-dependent”. When the dependent person comes home clean and sober, ready to rejoin the family system, the family suddenly has to rethink their old patterns for relating to each other and learn new ones. This process is difficult and scary because they think they have to maintain the old balance and fulfill their old roles in the dysfunctional family system in order to survive. It’s not at all uncommon for families to go through stress or even break up when someone is in the early stages of recovery.
The solution is for family members to participate actively in their own recovery process alongside their loved one who is getting clean and sober. Addiction is a family problem that requires a family solution. That’s why support groups like Al-Anon exist: to help the co-dependents of alcoholic people with their own recovery
And the same goes for the rest of us in the broader community. Participating in the work of building God’s kingdom on earth is not just about helping those poor, unfortunate souls who struggle with addiction. It’s about facing our own addictions and co-dependencies (even the socially acceptable ones) so that Jesus can liberate us from our own demons and bring healing and wholeness to the entire community.
If we are open to that process taking place in us, if we can trust that Christ is here to help us and not to harm us (even when his healing presence feels scary and unfamiliar), then we can say that we are walking the path of faith toward the promised land of God’s kingdom of heaven on earth.