In an age when nothing is sacred nothing is more difficult to understand than violations of sacred space. Yet that’s precisely what Mark demands of us in his account of Jesus’ first public action, an exorcism in the synagogue.
From the moment Jesus sets foot in the religious and political center of Capernaum, he is engaged in a contest with the scribes over authority concerning that space itself and all that it represents. It’s clear from the beginning that his audacious move catches the attention of everyone. The people notice: “They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes” (1:22).
That’s the first public response to Jesus, and it comes after “he entered the synagogue and taught.” Mark doesn’t tell us what Jesus taught, and that gap leaves us to focus on what comes next: the brief but dramatic encounter with the man with an unclean spirit.
Most of us have heard preachers explain Jesus’ several run-ins with demons as what happens when psychological disorders collide with the purity-coded understanding of illness that historical criticism teaches us predominated in first-century Palestine. Such readings may help us understand how a mentally ill man might disrupt worship or wind up living amidst the graves (5:5), but they don’t explain why authority figures so quickly took such exception to Jesus when he addressed the situations. After all, if he was simply about the business of making sick people healthy it seems entirely more likely that authorities would have found a way to bless or co-opt his work even if some of them became jealous of his popularity with the masses.
However, Mark’s narrative makes clear from early on that the authorities could not countenance Jesus, and that they began quickly trying to figure out ways to discredit him and, not too much further down the road, to kill him. As Ched Myers insists, “Exorcism represents an act of confrontation in the war of myths in which Jesus asserts his alternative authority. Only this interpretation can explain why exorcism is at issue in the scribal counterattack upon Jesus later […]” (Binding the Strong Man, 143).
The arc of that confrontation begins to unfold the moment Jesus, standing in the midst of sacred space, demands that the demon depart.
The setting for this initial confrontation is crucial, but also confounding to our ears because worship space is no longer culturally or politically sacred. Worship space may feel sacred in our private devotions, but then neither the rants nor raves of priests or parishioners interrupts anything beyond those private devotions. The space is not sacred in any broad way, and thus disrupting it threatens nothing beyond private and deeply personal experience. Turning over the tables in the sanctuary will not get you killed today, and certainly dealing with the disruptions of disturbed persons will not bring down the wrath of the ecclesiastical powers.
Jesus, however, was threatening to occupy space that was sacred on a broadly social scale, and threatening to disrupt social, political and economic relationships as well as private devotional ones by asserting his authority in that space. All of which has me wondering what space Jesus would have to occupy today to disrupt social, political and economic structures.
The brilliance of the Occupy Wall Street movement’s opening act was the choice of space: Wall Street, the holy of holies of American finance. The Zuccotti Park encampment focused broad public and political attention on the location that symbolizes the root cause of the financial crisis. Prior to last fall that attention was largely focused on the other end of the crisis: foreclosed properties, underwater mortgages, shuttered businesses and unemployed workers. With the focus on the victims the root causes went largely unexamined in political discourse and mainstream media.
Now, however, as the movement begun in Zuccotti Park last fall spins on in various forms in public spaces across the nation it is becoming clearer day by day that the spaces themselves have limited symbolic value and no lasting sense of the sacred. Zuccotti Park itself is not the stock exchange, the big banks, nor any other part of the financial system. Meanwhile, in DC, for another critical example, the Occupy encampment in McPherson Square continues to bear witness to broad discontent with economic structures and systems, but those structures and systems are not threatened in any significant way by the presence of protesters in the space itself. That does not deny the importance of bearing witness, nor the remarkable success the demonstrations have had in reframing broad public conversation about those economic systems and structures, but it does suggest that changes to those systems and structures will require a long-term strategy that moves well beyond occupying the spaces in question.
In other words, if a change is gonna come it will require more than occupying space that is not really sacred.
This is a lectionary blog post not a strategy paper for OWS, so I’ll stop short of pondering what spaces – if any – in contemporary American politics and culture might be authentically sacred. Instead, returning to Mark, I’ll merely note that Jesus didn’t stay put either. It may well be that staying put would have brought about his death far sooner or, on the other hand, that the religious leaders would have devised ways to marginalize him within the space of the sacred. What the story tells us, however, is that Jesus left, taking his authority with him such that other spaces became sacred as he cast out demons and disrupted distorted systems elsewhere.
This post is part of the series, The Politics of Scripture. While the focus of the series is on weekly preaching texts, we welcome commentary on sacred, classic, and profane literature, film, and artistic expression. Submissions may be sent to email@example.com.