Last month I spoke at a conference called Unlocking the Future: From Mass Incarceration to Restorative Justice at Texas Lutheran University. I also preached about the Gerasene demoniac, inviting students to cross over to the other side with Jesus into the world of violent offenders (see: www.youtube.com/watch?v=FjlmWSa9UOg)
That evening Michelle Alexander gave an unsettling talk on her book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an age of color blindness. Like an Old Testament prophet she exposed the injustice of society’s increasing use of imprisonment as the only solution, and decried the courts’ classifying disproportionate numbers of people of color as felons, damning them into a new caste system where they are stripped of basic rights (see: www.youtube.com/watch?v=B8jGm1E7w1c&feature=related)
At Tierra Nueva we have been immersed in these realities for 18 years as we’ve ministered to inmates and ex-offenders. Leading weekly Bible studies in Skagit County Jail again after a year in France reawakens me to the needs right here in our backyard & re-ignites my calling. Both the brokenness and spiritual openness I see among inmates right here in Mount Vernon, Washington rivals what I’ve encountered in Asian slums, impoverished Mozambican or Honduran villages and prisons around the world.
On a recent Thursday evening during a Bible study in the jail all four inmates in our first Bible study had experienced traumatic loss of a parent. When I asked how the men were doing the first one told of his reoccurring anxiety around finding his mother after she’d shot herself in the head when he was eight years old. The man beside him recounted tormenting memories of finding his father after he had hung himself. The third man then described how his father had invited the family to a barbeque after coming back from being separated from his mother. In front of the whole family he then put a gun to his head and shot himself. The fourth man sat beside me anxiously shifting back and forth. He was still dope-sick, detoxing from a heroin addiction. Two months before when he lived in Texas, drug-task-force police stormed his family’s house, mistaking them for the drug dealers next door. When his father had jumped up startled, the police opened fire, shooting him eight times. His father died in his arms.
How was I to minister to these men so hammered by trauma in the remaining 15 minutes allotted to us by the jail? I went around and prayed for each of them, lifting off the trauma and blessing them with comfort from the Holy Spirit.
This past Thursday night I led four back-to-back Bible studies on the Mark 5 version of Jesus’ encounter with the Gerasene demoniac. Inmate participants read the story in sections, beginning with Mark 5:1-5. The guys resonate with the description of the tormented man who lived in the tombs and broke off his chains.
“Do you know anyone who authorities have repeatedly tried to control through prison-time, fines and threats?” I ask. A Mexican-American gang member named Antonio looks up and states matter-of-factly “yeah, that’s all of us!”
The description of the man screaming night and day and gashing himself with stones leads the men to name their own self-destructive behaviors: meth and heroin addiction, alcoholism, self-condemnation, cutting themselves, re-offending.
We continue by reading the next section of the story, Mark 5:6-7: “And seeing Jesus from a distance, he ran up and bowed down before Him; and crying out with a loud voice, he said, “What do I have to do with you, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I implore you by God, do not torment me!”
We notice how the man assumed Jesus would deal with him like all others had in the past—further tormenting him through confinement rather than effectively liberating him. The men acknowledge that many people assume that God is out to punish people, on the side of law-enforcement and “the system”.
Jesus, in contrast, reveals a God who respects and liberates offenders. Jesus also demonstrates what all humans are made for. He embodies total love for a difficult person together with keen discernment and authority to separate out what is destructive and evil from that person. We read next how Jesus deals with one violent offender with swift authority in verses 8-19: casting out the unclean spirits, punishing them by giving them voluntary departure into a herd of pigs, restoring the man to the state of “clothed and in his right mind.”
Jesus first responds to the man’s plea to not torment him by asking his name, and in the jail’s Good News version bible the translation reads, “My name is mob (legion in other versions) there are so many of us.”
“Do you think demons exist?” I ask. “Do you notice them in people around you or even in yourselves?” “They all around us back there,” a man answers matter-of-factly, pointing to their cellblock. “You can sense all kinds of evil: hatred, fear, anxiety… all kinds of things.” Others elaborate in more detail.
A man in his late twenties named James, still emaciated from years of addiction, suddenly bursts out: “I’ve got all kinds of them right in me. Can’t we just pray to get rid of them right now? When I’m out on the streets high on meth I can see myself doing all kinds of shit I don’t want to do. It’s like I’m just an observer.”
I move on to comment further but James stops me. “Did you hear what I just said?” he interrupts. “Can’t we just pray for the demons to leave now?”
I explain to him that it’s important first to come to Jesus fully, trusting him to save you, even if you don’t understand him- like the man when he falls at Jesus’ feet. Otherwise, freedom from evil spirits will only be temporary as you have no protection. James had been coming to our Bible studies for weeks, but always stressed how he had no background in religious stuff and all this was new. Immediately he said he was ready to trust Jesus, but said he felt that something was blinding him, holding him back from faith.
2 Cor 4:4 comes to mind: “the god of this worldhas blinded the minds of the unbelieving, that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” I invite him to set himself against the god of this world, and to ask Jesus to save him. James prayed and then I led him in prayers to command other confusing and tormenting spirits to leave and not come back and to ask the Holy Spirit to fill him. He soaked in the moment and said he felt good, like something was happening.
The men are struck that Jesus wouldn’t let the man leave his people to follow him, but rather sent him back as a missionary to proclaim “what great things Jesus had done for him.” We read in Mark 6:7, 12-13 how Jesus rapidly empowered his disciples to themselves practice the authority he exercised.
“And He summoned the twelve and began to send them out in pairs; and He was giving them authority over the unclean spirits... And they went out and preached that men should repent. And they were casting out many demons and were anointing with oil many sick people and healing them.”
1 Peter 1:7-9 comes to mind as another explanation to encourage James regarding his quandary about not perceiving Jesus: “although you have not seen him, you love Him, and though you do not see him now, but believe in him, you greatly rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory, obtaining as the outcome of your faith the salvation of your souls.” James quickly wrote down the verse as the guards ushered the inmates out.
Curtis and I felt shivers going through our bodies after connecting James with the unseen yet very-present and loving Jesus, and I can’t wait to “cross over to the other side” again.
The figure of Jesus pictured above is made of shanks (clandestine inmate-fabricated weapons) that men in a prison in Paraguay gave a chaplain I met in Texas.