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The Healing of Legion


Luke 8:26-39


10th November 2019




This remembrance service, we reflect upon the cost of war upon those who have suffered its effects most keenly.  From an economic perspective – these costs are rarely available for public scrutiny – especially on days like Remembrance Sunday.  We don’t want to hear about Iraqi soldiers, their legs blown of by anti-tank mines, crying for their mothers as they bleed to death in the sand. War correspondents report this as a frequent phenomenon – the counter narrative to the table-thumping myths that all too often support war.  Such coverage is hardly likely to win ratings.  


We were fed the myth, the press always force-feeds us in war time.  We were kept from seeing.  There has been no more candour in Iraq or Afghanistan than there was in Vietnam.  But in the age of live satellite feeds the military has perfected the appearance of candour.  The myth of war, after all, the myth of glory and honour, sells newspapers and boosts ratings – real war reporting does not.  In war, the fake news has always been part of the problem.  In war time, as senator Hiram Johnson observed in 1917 – truth is always the first casualty.  


But maybe truth is always also the last casualty.  When you look in particular, at the mental suffering of those war veterans who have been exposed to more horror than most can imagine.  Mass culture has largely shut out those who speak the truth about the consequences of war. The manufactured illusion of heroes plays to a culture that celebrates the objectification of humans who are weaker than us.  And since whose who have escaped the clutches of war - often struggling to cope with trauma, guilt and shame - are reticent to resurrect in public the nightmare that will haunt them for the rest of their lives, their stories go untold.


It is highly like the story of the demon possessed man from our Gospel reading was one such story.  The symptoms listed bear a striking resemblance to what is currently called post-traumatic stress – and the treatment given him, runs in striking correspondence to the those offered today to victims of combat trauma.  This was confirmed to me both by clinical psychologists here at Cambridge, and army chaplains working at the military hospital in Lichfield – who kindly read through my work when I conducted some research on this bible passage a couple of years ago.  


The language of the account is thoroughly militaristic!  The name ‘Legion’ refers only to a military unit with an operational strength of 5-6000.   The collective description for the swineherd was not usually used of pigs, but of bands of military recruits.  Their charge into the lake is the word used for a battle charge.  And the entire region happened to be occupied by the Tenth Legion, who bore on their standard, the head of a boar.  This was a region brutalised time and again by the Romans in the first century -  and victims of this kind of alien occupation often exhibit the behaviours described in this reading.


If Legion is indeed a personal embodiment of the military abuses inflicted upon a people, then we may assume he had suffered first-hand his own personal experience of Roman-related trauma.  If cosmological demonic forces have imposed monstrous injustice, unspeakable trauma and inconsolable humiliation upon the populace, then those forces have surely come raging through the shattered psyche of this solitary human life.


The American Psychiatric association list four symptom groups – all of which are consistent with the suffering of Legion.  This struck me as I once read accounts of victims of combat trauma from the Vietnam war – so I will quote some of those accounts which add flesh to the symptoms suffered by Legion.  


Firstly, this man was not born demon possessed – but had only suffered this trauma for a defined period of time, and after his healing was free to return to his household.  Something had happened to him. As one former soldier has declared:  “Why I became like that? It was all evil.  All evil.  Where before, I wasn’t.  I look back, I look back today and I’m horrified at what I turned into.  What I was.  What I did.  I just look at it like it was somebody else… It was somebody else.  Somebody had control of me”


That the man lived among the tombs, may speak of survivor guilt felt by so many.  Obsession with the dead can feel as though it makes former comrades present.  As another Vietnam survivor said, ‘I never expected to return home alive, and emotionally never have’.


The rage felt by Legion, was plain to see…Neither guards nor chains were sufficient to restrain the demonic power that surged through him, driving him away from human society and into the desert.  Again, these three aspects of the man’s behaviour are echoed frequently by today’s victims of PTSD, as exemplified by the war veteran who often underwent (a) the un-metaphorical experience of being seized by a ‘monster,’ (b), with violent results and (c), consequent isolation:  “Every three days I would totally explode, lose it for no reason at all.  I’d be sitting there calm as could be, and this monster would come out of me with a fury most people didn’t want to be around.  So it wasn’t just over there [in Vietnam].  I brought it back here with me."


The healing Jesus brought seemed dramatic and violent – an event of mass porcine suicide.  Although if this event happens where the reading claims – it was 30 miles from the Galilean coast, making these the most athletic pigs in history.  But there are various alternative readings, and various possible locations in territory that was a inhabited by Jewish and pagan folk alike.


In any case, the fall-out from this incident could not have been instantaneous.  The herdsmen had to flee, spread word in the city and in the surrounding country – actions that would at least take several hours. Presumably, the healer spent some of those hours establishing what one therapist describes the first of three stages of recovery from trauma: an environment of safety, sober-mindedness and self-care.  By the time the crowds arrived on the scene, that first stage appeared to be well underway, since they witnessed for themselves the man from whom the demons had gone no longer prostrate but sitting at the feet of Jesus, no longer naked but clothed, no longer tormented but sober-minded.  


The second instruction from Jesus is to tell the story of what God has done for him.  Not to preach, not to report the incident which was already widely known.  But to tell the story.  This is the second stage of trauma recovery.  Since such trauma victims usually have a dislocated sense of time – with a debilitating sense of past, a total lack of future, and an inability to escape the present – the discipline of telling the true story of who he was would be a profoundly difficult challenge for this man.  The injunction to ‘tell the story’ may thus be understood as one of ongoing therapy, because the story of this man’s life becomes no longer a fragmented tale of tragedy and trauma, but the story of how much God had done for him.


The third instruction from Jesus is to send him home.  The man begged to go with Jesus, but Jesus instructed him to return to his household.  This instruction prefigures the third element of recovery noted by Herman, namely ‘reconnection’, i.e., being reintegrated as part of his community, an environment in which the man is supported, heard, affirmed and above all, known.  Such an environment would be a necessary part of the story of his healing: ‘the poorly understood “spontaneous”, or “natural,” processes of recovery that happen in the native soil of a veteran’s own community.’  The real healing of this man was not simply the dramatic moment of exorcism – but the process Jesus set up, thoroughly in accordance with modern therapeutic models.


Part of what Remembrance day remembers – is the cost of war.  Not only the cost upon those who have been killed, and bereaved, and displaced.  But the cost upon even those who have survived, and returned home.  The symptoms today are called PTSD but this is a diagnosis so ill defined it is unlikely to stand the test of time, any more than referring to it as shell-shock, or war-weariness, or demon-possession have stood the test of time.  But all these inadequate labels highlight a cost of war that is often hidden from the accounts.






A Soldier’s Prayer


We remember those we have sent to fight our wars,


We think of those who have not returned,


And we pray for those who have.


For those who suffer the aftermath of war:


For those who have died in Road Traffic Accidents, because they had learned they were invulnerable.  


For those who have taken their own lives, because they had learned they were not.


For those who fear the rage than can overtake them at any moment, and who long for the peace that never can.


For those alienated from others, because they are alienated from themselves.


For those haunted by wounded memories that echo through long years,


And tormented by vivid images of ancient trauma.


May we help them to conquer their past, to remain present with them when inconsolable, to offer hope for a future that is not a fantasy.


May we become part of the narrative in which God-given time is restored to them.