The Common Good
May-June 1996

The Demon of Addiction

by Harry C. Kiely | May-June 1996

Jesus answers our cry for spiritual deliverance. A Bible study on Mark 5:1-20.

They came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gerasenes. And when he had stepped out of the boat, immediately a man out of the tombs with an unclean spirit met him.

I'm a recovering alcoholic in my 16th year. In my early stages of recovery, I was very touched by this story of the Gerasene demoniac in the gospel of Mark (5:1-20). It was already a favorite of mine because it is such a powerful story. But in my recovery, it struck me that this is a story about a drunk.

Actually, this man is possessed by a demon, but I saw him as a fellow drunk. The more I reflected on this story, the more I realized how perfectly it describes the life of addiction and the good news of the possibility of recovery. As I share with you my reflections on this story, I invite you to reflect upon your own addictions. We all have them, just different kinds. Most of us have more than one. We need all the help we can get to deal with them.

The story begins by noting that Jesus and the disciples came across the lake from the land of Israel, where Jesus' ministry has been, into Gentile territory, where the Gerasenes lived. Immediately we are introduced to estrangement and alienation, because Jesus and the disciples are aliens in this land. It's ironic that the first person they encounter there, in fact the only person described there, at least initially, is a man who is estranged and alienated-from himself, from God, and from his neighbors. He is a man without a home. His condition is hopeless. That is the point of the story. And we see as we move along in the story that all kinds of things have been done to try and save him.

This is an advent story, a story of God's coming. God comes into this man's life, just as God continues to come into your life and mine, always seeking us out.

The term "unclean spirit" lets us know right away that Mark sees this event in spiritual terms, as a spiritual problem. Of course, the term "alcohol" is a translation from Latin meaning "spirit," which is why we refer to alcoholic beverages as spirits sometimes.

If we think of this man as an alcoholic, he is one who thirsts after the Spirit. He longs for something to feed the depths of his soul. He has hit on something that doesn't satisfy his longing, and which takes him away from it. But the longing is authentic. He wants to be fed. He needs nourishment of his soul.

He lived among the tombs, and no one could restrain him anymore, even with a chain; for he had often been restrained with shackles and chains, but the chains he wrenched apart and the shackles he broke in pieces; and no one had the strength to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always howling and bruising himself with stones.

Here we get a pretty good description of what it is like in the life of an alcoholic or a drug addict. Those who are addicted to substances are notorious for the ways in which they abuse themselves. Alcoholics fall down stairs, get into fights, and are injured in car crashes, bruising themselves in many different ways. And if they are not caught up in this kind of violence, the consumption of alcohol itself is a long-term abusive process which is a way of killing oneself, slowly but surely. A colleague once told me that when he got into recovery, he had eight different illnesses, all alcohol related. This is the power and the depth of the addiction. Fortunately, however, within a few years' time he was healed of all of them.

The story also says that the man rejects the help of his family and friends. They have done their best to restrain him; they have probably even called the police to have him locked up, thinking maybe that will make him sober up. They've taken all of these drastic measures, because things have gotten so bad. They've exhausted themselves trying to save this man and nothing helps.

Furthermore, the man chooses isolation over community. He has left home, and now lives in a graveyard. What a metaphor this is for a kind of living death. In my own experience of being addicted, the isolation, loneliness, despair, and desperation I felt was like a living death. Life was simply not worth living. When alcoholics reach the point where the only thing they live for is to get another drink, they are already spiritually dead.

The question is, Why doesn't he quit? Of course, we are all sophisticated enough now to know that the man has a medical disease. It's a disease of addiction, but in biblical terms he is demon possessed. I think we in the church have made a serious mistake in casting the demons out of the Bible. The demons that haunt our lives are powers that are stronger than we are, and with which we need help for our salvation.

The attempts to save this man were mostly external: restraining him, putting him in jail, kicking him out of the community, kicking him out of his family. But this is a spiritual disease, and we only experience healing from spiritual disease as our spirit is spoken to. If we are to have deliverance at all, it must be spiritual deliverance.

We may reach the point of despair. Soren Kierkegaard says that despair is really the beginning of hope, because that is the point at which we give up. We stop trying to save ourselves. We finally reach the point at which we are willing to turn our lives over.

When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and bowed down before him; and he shouted at the top of his voice, "What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me." For Jesus had said to him, "Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!"

Notice the man's ambivalence. On the one hand, he runs up to Jesus and falls down on his knees, which would be a gesture of obeisance, worship, or at least respect. On the other hand, he screams at Jesus, "Why have you come here to torment me?"

In treatment for addiction, it is the most common experience to regard our counselors as the enemy, as our tormentors, not as our helpers. They are making life miserable for us, and we hate them for it. "Why do I have to put up with this? Why can't I have a drink? I would feel a lot better."

Then Jesus asked him, "What is your name?" He replied, "My name is Legion; for we are many." He begged him earnestly not to send them out of the country.

Jesus doesn't take the man's anger literally. He doesn't respond to the torment question, but rather speaks to the depth of him. He says, "What is your name?" as if to say to the demons, "Who is in charge? I want to speak to him."

A legion in Jesus' time was 4,000-6,000 men in a military unit. The name Legion means, first of all, that this man has lost his identity. In this powerful story, we never know his real name. It is as if he has become known simply as the "town drunk."

A second implication of calling him Legion is that he is the scene of an occupying army. Many different voices are arguing in him, tearing him apart within. In one moment he is filled with denial, in another he is condemning himself, in another he is rationalizing.

A third implication of the name Legion is what we call codependence. This man is sustained in his alcoholism by a codependent network. Alcoholism is a social disease. It is not possible for alcoholics to sustain themselves in alcoholism without a network that allows them to keep drinking. People who make up the codependent network may not even be aware of it.

Many people did not know that I was an alcoholic. I was very clever. The people who were a part of my life, nevertheless, were my codependent network. For as long as they did not think I had a problem, I thought that was proof positive that I did not have a problem. In a very subtle way, I was using them to sustain myself in my alcoholism. The healing process involves not simply the healing of the individual but dealing with the network that sustains the person in his or her addictive behavior.

Now there on the hillside a great herd of swine was feeding; and the unclean spirits begged him, "Send us into the swine; let us enter them." So he gave them permission. And the unclean spirits came out and entered the swine; and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the sea, and were drowned in the sea.

We all have a shadow side that is a part of us, but we have decided not to live it out. Alcoholism is my shadow side, and it had taken over in my life, as it had taken over in this man. I believe that it is always going to be there, as long as I live.

In more than 15 years, I've never had another drink. But I frequently have dreams about drinking again. When I dream that I have gone back to drinking, I don't know where it started. I hate myself for it, I'm ashamed of it, and I feel in despair about it. When I wake up, I am always so relieved that it is only a dream and that I didn't really take a drink.

Having this dream is a ministry to me; it reminds me of my true condition. The alcoholic part of me serves to keep me whole. It is a part of who I am, and my remembrance of this is what helps keep me sober and moves me toward being a more whole person. We cannot destroy the shadow side.

When Carry Nation carried out her turn-of-the-century crusade to abolish alcohol, she was dealing with a very serious problem. This was before Alcoholics Anonymous came along, and it was hopeless. Families were being wrecked, and she was doing her desperate best to try to change things. She went in to saloons with her hatchet and destroyed bottles and furnishings. But she approached the problem with the idea that it is possible to destroy the shadow side. She approached it as an external problem rather than an internal, spiritual problem.

The mythology in Jesus' time was that demons had to be invested with some kind of bodily form. So Jesus permitted them to go into the pigs, and that drove them crazy. They went off the cliff and were drowned. (Pigs, of course, were despised by Jews, so getting rid of them was no loss.)

I'd like to suggest that these 2,000 pigs represent the codependent community, and that this is their baptism. The apostle Paul says that as we are baptized into Christ's death so we are raised into his new life. When the pigs went off the cliff and were drowned, they were baptized. The codependent community was converted from codependency to a support community.

One of the things I did when I was in treatment, when I stopped drinking, was to invite a number of friends to our home to tell them my story. None of them knew it. What I did in telling them was make them a part of my support network. It would no longer be possible for me to be with them someplace and nonchalantly have a drink, because now they knew that alcohol was off-limits to me.

For Legion's healing, there had to be a will for wholeness on his part. Two things are true at the same time: Only God can heal us, and only we can will our healing. Legion cannot be healed apart from his own will to be healed. In his screaming and crying out, in his yelling at Jesus, I think we hear the plaintive cries of a sad and pathetic human being who longs to be whole and does not know how to ask for help. Jesus hears that call. Jesus' power of healing matches this man's will to be healed, so that he is made whole.

The swineherds ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came to see what it was that had happened. They came to Jesus and saw the demoniac sitting there, clothed and in his right mind, the very man who had had the legion; and they were afraid. Those who had seen what had happened to the demoniac and to the swine reported it. Then they began to beg Jesus to leave their neighborhood.

Notice the community's ambivalence: The savior has come but is not welcome. This should not surprise us. Recently I heard a man whose wife is a recovering alcoholic make a very candid comment, a confession on his part. He said, "My wife was a lot easier to manage when she was drinking." You can imagine the resistance on his part to have this woman come alive.

We could apply this to the issue of world peace. In some ways we can't afford world peace. Just think what would happen if we closed down the whole military complex today. We would have utter chaos in this country. The B-2 bomber is being funded because all these members of Congress have constituencies who have some economic stake in it.

I don't mean to be uncompassionate to people in military-related jobs. We shouldn't take their situation lightly. But we should understand the investment we have in the addiction of militarism. As much as we in this country believe in peace, we are ambivalent about paying the price necessary to have peace. I think this is one reason why the Pharisees, Sadducees, and others hated Jesus as a healer, and kept trying to stop this healing-because they were not all that much in favor of a healthy and whole community.

The underlying fear and resistance here on the part of the community, on the part of Legion, is the loss of control. And the fear is grounded in our distrust of God's love. What if I let go of all this?

I volunteered myself for treatment of my alcoholism. But before I did, two things kept holding me back. First, I feared condemnation once I came out of the closet. It didn't happen. Second, I thought I couldn't live without alcohol. I hated it, I was miserable, life wasn't worth living, but I couldn't imagine life without it. That's the whiskey talking. It comes from a distrust of God's love: What if I let go? Will grace hold me up?

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 Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him; and everyone was amazed.

Luke's version of this story says that the man had taken off all his clothes. It's not uncommon on the back ward of mental institutions to find people who refuse to wear clothes. I'm not sure all of what that means, but it certainly does mean a loss of self-respect and dignity. The earlier reference that the man is now "clothed and in his right mind" means he has begun to love himself again.

But this is only the beginning. As Jesus leaves, the man wants to latch on to Jesus, but Jesus refuses to let him follow. What preacher would turn down the opportunity to have a witness like this man trail along, saying, "Look what this guy did for me. Here's my story"? Instead Jesus says, "No, you go home."

Recovery, first of all, means liberation not bondage. It is often the case that when we get liberated from something that binds us, we want to attach ourselves to the person or organization that was the instrument of our liberation rather than accept our freedom.

Second, while we want to make a break with the past, it is important that we claim our past, that we not deny or reject it, that we not be ashamed of it or hide from it. This man needed to go back home where he could claim his past and his future. Part of recovery is sharing the good news. It is part of our healing to tell our story; it is a way of keeping us sober. And it is beneficial to others to hear our stories.

We share our good news as a part of our recovery and that never stops. This is the importance of story-telling. It is a way God uses us as wounded healers.

HARRY C. KIELY, a United Methodist pastor currently serving St. Paul United Methodist Church in Laytonsville, Maryland, originally preached this sermon at Sojourners Community worship in Washington, D.C. This material comes from his unpublished book Grateful Recovery: Spirituality and the Healing of Addiction.

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