THIS was the reflection I gave as part of my Action At Home – Module 5 of the Journey of Hope pilgrimage in Christian peacemaking and reconciliation. Read more about the Action At Home here or listen to a recording of this reflection here (15 mins).
Tonight as we consider how we might make peace, be reconciled and become activists for God and each other, let’s take courage from the words of Isaiah we have just heard. They were chosen by LGBTI+ Christians to commemorate this international campaign against the fear and reality of prejudice and violence towards our communities, because our diversity challenges those whose narrower view of God and humanity does not accept us as we are. We need not fear, because we are valued, honoured and loved by God, and together we can be the change we want to see in our world, and especially in our faith communities.
But what’s the strange story we heard from Mark’s Gospel got to do with us?(Mark 5:1-20).
In the translation we have just heard, the man who is healed is called ‘a man with an unclean spirit’ – I am not suggesting that we as LGBTI+ Christians are ‘unclean’, though some may say we are.
The reason this story spoke to me most profoundly, personally and in terms of my way of being within the wider church on behalf of the Open Table community, is because of what it teaches us about the relationship of Jesus with one who, like us, is marginalised by the community.
This is a passage with which I was quite familiar (or so I thought). I heard it again, as if for the first time, while on a course in Christian peace-building and reconciliation earlier this year, at Corrymeela in the north of Ireland, which has more than
‘…fifty years of experience working alongside fractured communities and groups who are finding their relationships difficult, as well as addressing relational, societal, structural and power dynamics.’corrymeela.org
Corrymeela community leader Pádraig Ó Tuama talked us through how the story of the healing of the man with ‘unclean spirits’ reveals the dynamics of marginalisation as an insight into the dynamics of belonging – that is, who is ‘in’, who is ‘out’, who decides and why.
Corrymeela’s approach is to focus on marginalisation as a process, not as an identity – that is, who is victimising and why, rather than labelling and limiting people as ‘victims’. So, in the case of the ‘man with unclean spirits’, we were invited to reflect on:
- What is the system underlying this behaviour?
- Who was restraining this man and why?
- Was he howling because he was restrained, or restrained because he was howling?
- Why were the people of the town afraid of the man when they saw he was ‘in his full senses’?
- Who is a community willing to sacrifice to perpetuate a culture of violence?
Jesus asked the man to name his ‘demons’, which was the first step to healing. Rather than torturing him as he expected, Jesus enabled him to be free from the dynamics which tortured him, internally and externally. He ‘came out from the tombs’, barely existing among the dead, and was restored to new life, ‘in his full senses’. This was the part of the story with which I was most familiar. It spoke to me of my own process of ‘coming out’ about my sexuality, and having since supported many others on their own journeys of self-discovery, I suspect I am not alone in that.
I had reflected on this passage over several days while I was on a silent retreat following my departure from training for Catholic priesthood twenty years ago. At the time I was struggling to come to terms with my sexuality and find a new way of being in relationship with God, my family and others. I still have the journal from that retreat. At that time, my experience of the story was to recall my own time of ‘dwelling among the tombs’, especially the circumstances of a breakdown ten years before that. At first, I felt the absence of God – the cry ‘What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?’ spoke to me of remote divinity, not shared humanity, since my humanity felt so debased at that time. I recalled my sense of anguish, shame, judgement, and punishment from a negative image of God and myself. I realised my experience of rejection and loss of dignity were where I needed healing.
I have since learned that this story is extraordinary for other reasons too. It is just one example in Mark’s Gospel of how the Kingdom of God refuses to play by society’s rules. In the previous chapter, the parable of the mustard seed tells of a tiny seed growing into a huge tree attracting nesting birds. Jesus’ audience would have known that this was unlikely, so Jesus seems deliberately to emphasize the astonishing extravagance of God’s Kingdom. So in the story of the man with unclean spirits, Mark fails to record that pigs can in fact swim, yet he does record that the swineherds and townspeople were angry, not because their pigs were dead, but because the demons had disappeared! The true scandal of this story is in this counter-narrative that goes against what the audience might expect to hear. Anthropologist Rene Girard, who studied the capacity of human cultures to ‘scapegoat’, that is, to blame, shame and cast out those who are too different, too challenging to the dominant narrative of the culture, to remain within it, wrote of this passage:
‘Clearly, the drowning of their pigs concerns them less than the drowning of their demons.’workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1187
Mark’s Gospel shows us that
the Kingdom of God is oriented toward those whom society deems flawed and keeps at arm’s length. When the thing we fear most is transformed and brought directly into our midst, our natural inclination is fear and a reliance upon violence to rid ourselves of the change that we cannot explain.Ibid.
So this story is an example of the dynamics at work when our faith communities, and wider society, display homophobia, biphobia and transphobia to judge us as ‘flawed’ heterosexual or cisgender people, rather than examples of the abundance and diversity of humanity and God’s creation.
What really struck me about hearing this story retold in the context of the reconciliation course at Corrymeela was the part of the story I had forgotten, or at least not fully understood – Pádraig informed us that the Greek word for ‘beg’ is used eight times in the 16 chapters of Mark’s gospel, and four of them are in this passage. Jesus acquiesces to each of these requests, except for one, which we hear in the closing verses of the story:
‘As he was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed by demons begged him that he might be with him. But Jesus refused, and said to him, ‘Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.’ And he went away and began to proclaim in the cities how much Jesus had done for him; and everyone was amazed.’Mark 5:16-20
The man who is healed is also known as the ‘Gerasene Demoniac’ after the name of the town which excluded him – The location of the Gerasene community is not known – one interpretation is that as a consequence of the scandal and shame of this encounter, it has been covered up to avoid stigma.
Jesus restores the man to his own people, and his people to him. Jesus enables him to challenge the dehumanising ‘Us and Them’ dynamic which enabled the community to marginalise him. He becomes a victim of marginalisation with the capacity to talk back to those who marginalised him, and to confront his community with its own violence to one of its own people. It echoes an insight from war theory, that those who are tortured get a profound knowledge of their torturers. Pádraig described the demoniac as an example of:
‘a prophet with the audacity to be the possibility of life where people told you there couldn’t be.’
Hearing the story this time I experienced the call of Jesus to ‘go home to your own people’ as a challenge – as an openly gay Christian called to ministry with and advocacy for the LGBTI+ Christian community, I recognised the dynamic which called the marginalised to speak back to the community which marginalises its own people. It appears to be the reality for many LGBTI+ Christian advocates. Pádraig pointed out that this is not a template for everyone – for some within the Open Table community, it might even be dangerous. But I believe some of us are called to be brave and resilient and to remain in dialogue with the Church. Easier said than done, though.
Within days of my taking part in this reflection at Corrymeela, Sara Gillingham, an advocate for the intersex community, was invited to join a meeting with a group of Church of England bishops, senior clergy, theologians and academics in London to discuss their work on the Living In Love and Faith teaching document about human identity, sexuality and marriage. She wrote before the event:
It angers me that I will be meeting people today who have thought it acceptable to write theological reflections about our lives, without ever having met people born with intersex traits. It angers me that I know I will be sat alongside those who think I am ‘disordered’ as a ‘result of the Fall’. For this reason, today will be a very difficult day for me, despite the opportunities it may present. Furthermore, there are clear issues around the disparity of power, authority and privilege.Sarah Gillingham, Facebook, quoted with permission
The next day she wrote that she had left the meeting half-way through, ‘because of the way I was treated’, adding:
It is important those with ‘lived experience’ are invited to the table as equals. That means being given access to what has been written about them… and then given the freedom to comment on what has then been submitted. What needs to be understood, not just at an academic level, is what ‘power & privilege’ looks like and how it is experienced in the Church by those who are ‘other’.Sarah Gillingham, Facebook, quoted with permission
This is why the inclusive liturgy, the counter-narratives of those on the margins, and the challenge to stereotypes of LGBTI+ Christians we see in our Open Table communities are needed, as examples of the ‘radical new Christian inclusion’ called for by the Archbishop of Canterbury in February 2017, following the Church of England General Synod’s rejection of the House of Bishops’ report on marriage and same-sex relationships. This act of resistance by Synod representatives was the origin of the ‘Living In Love And Faith’ group, which was inhospitable to its sole intersex representative, and has also seen Dr Christina Beardsley, a trans representative, leave the process, citing a gender imbalance in the coordinating group, a ‘sense of powerlessness and oppression’, and two final triggers which she described in the Church Times:
‘An LGBTI+ person known to me was demonised. It was as if a mask had suddenly dropped. Shortly afterwards, the principle of “no talking about us without us” was diluted, yet again, in relation to someone else I know. It was all too much.’Christina Beardsley, Church Times
It seems Archbishop Justin and his representatives need to be reminded of the words of his own statement of intention, that this ‘radical new Christian inclusion’ in the Church ‘must be based on good, healthy, flourishing relationships’, as he wrote in a statement in February 2017. He continues:
‘No person is a problem, or an issue. People are made in the image of God. All of us, without exception, are loved and called in Christ. There are no ‘problems’, there are simply people…
‘The way forward needs to be about love, joy and celebration of our humanity; of our creation in the image of God, of our belonging to Christ – all of us, without exception, without exclusion.’Archbishop Justin Welby
Sometimes the Church can be an inhospitable place for those presenting a minority report, especially on gender identity and sexual orientation. My prayer for our ministry and community, and all who walk a similar path, is that we may have, as Pádraig Ó Tuama says of Mark’s demoniac:
the audacity to be the possibility of life where people told you there couldn’t be.
So let’s pray together the Corrymeela Prayer For Courage:
Courage comes from the heart
and we are always welcomed by God,
the heart of all being.
We bear witness to our faith,
knowing that we are called
to live lives of courage,
love and reconciliation in the ordinary and extraordinary
moments of each day.
We bear witness, too, to our failures
and our complicity in the fractures of our world.
May we be courageous today.
May we learn today.
May we love today.