Of Prophets and Tomb-dwellers
Tomb-raider versus Tomb-dweller
UTS has been called a lot of things. Benjamin I. Guansing, the first Filipino president of the seminary, called UTS “the School of the Prophets. Feliciano Carino, an alumnus who served as Generalq Secretary of three ecumenical institutions, namely the National Council of Churches in the Philippines, the Christian Conference of Asia and the World Student Christian Federation, called UTS “the seedbed of prophets.” Levi Oracion, the president of UTS who resisted the merger between UTS and PCU in the 70s, described UTS as “a community of fallen humanity.” What I know is UTS can be your Egypt or your Promised Land. It can be heaven or hell. It can be a place where we grow with new understanding, passion and compassion or a cave where we decay with long held religious beliefs which no longer uphold life and dignity. It really depends on us. As for me, and for many UTS graduates I have had the opportunity of meeting, theological education at UTS is the most transformative experience. Nothing else compares. It is my hope that it will be the same for you.
One of my favorite movies is Lara Croft, Tomb Raider, played so beautifully by Angelina Jolie. She is your modern day archaeologist, philosopher and treasure hunter. So when you see her with her tightfitting outfits, boots, luxurious hair and pouting lips, you cannot help but wish you were like her, if you were female, or be with her, if you were male. She is called the Tomb Raider because she finds long-lost treasures in the tombs of great rulers. In this morning’s gospel reading, we encounter not a tombraider. We encounter instead a tomb-dweller.
Before I proceed with my interpretation of the text, I just need to point out that in the Philippines, according to a documentary which was shown a few years ago, there are over 6,000 tomb dwellers in our public cemeteries. I am sure there are more now. They are the poorest of the poor, who like Jesus at his birth, found no place among the people. Jesus was born in a manger where animals lived. The poorest among the Filipino People live among the dead. The documentary produced by GMA was entitled “Buhay sa Mundo ng Patay.”
Mary John Mananzan, a nun, a feminist theologian and educator, critiques that many Christians only value the death of Christ. We often sing the response “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.” In this three-part pronouncement, there is no mention of the life of Christ in between. It is as if it is only in Christ’s dying that we find salvation. It is as if his life meant nothing. Furthermore, the suffering and death of Christ is romanticized. Thus, we too who follow him believe must suffer and submit. Suffer and submit in the face of domination and oppression. Chris Ferguson, a member of Peace for Life said, “We will never understand the Good News until we realize that the Kingdom of God which Jesus Christ preached again and again is a direct critique and challenge to the Kingdom of Rome.”
The Gospel Reading for Sunday describes how a man with an “unclean spirit” lives apart from his community and family and lived among the tombs. For centuries, the tomb-dweller has been understood as one who is sinful and has been demon-possessed. Today, do we think of the poor who are forced to live in tombs as demon-possessed? Do we still believe that streetchildren are being punished by God because of the sin of earlier ancestors? Can we still say that the poor are poor because they have lived less moral and upright lives than us? Today, I would like to interpret the sickness of the tombdweller, not as demon possession, but as empire-possession. The tombdweller has been possessed by the empire.
The man in the text must have had a difficult life. The text reads, “no one could restrain him anymore… for he had often been restrained with shackles and chains.” It says further, “Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always howling and bruising himself with stones.” Reading the text, I asked myself, what did the chains and shackles symbolize? From what did he run away from that he preferred tombs and the mountains? Was he driven away by others or did he want to escape from someone? Unlike many mammals, human beings cannot survive on their own when they are born. They need to be fed, nurtured and protected. Wise women have said in many ways that it takes an entire community to raise a child. What has happened to this man that he now lives apart from those who have raised him?
In our society today, there are many who live like the tomb-dweller in Luke 8. They dig out plastic bottles and tin cans from piles of garbage; sleep on the side-walks and run away from those in authority who may place them in locked rooms and behind bars. They sell their bodies while many of us pretend not to know and are paid like slaves for the dirtiest jobs no decent human being will do. They endure so much abuse and neglect that they forget the community that raised them. Or is it the other way around? Could it be that we are part of the abuse and neglect and we forget that we are the community that raised them?
Empire and Legion
When you walk into one of the more expensive malls, more often than not, you will be offered a leaflet that is an advertisement for a condominium, a house and lot, or a row house. The prices range from as low as PhP600,000 to as high as PhP 20 million. Nobody ever offers anyone to live in a tomb. Nobody ever dreams of living in a tomb. Nobody ever imagined that they would live in a tomb. Does God intend for anyone to live in a tomb? Does God will for anyone to live like they were dead? These are very important questions. If we believe that the God of love plans for some to live in tombs while others live in mansions, we cannot renounce the evils in our midst.
In the text, Jesus said to the unclean spirit inside the man, “What is your name?” He replied, “My name is Legion; for we are many.” According to several Bible commentaries, a Roman legion was made up of 6,000 men. They embodied Rome’s control and power over Judea. They were mostly citizens of Rome who now serve in an occupied territory where they serve as a military force to ensure that the Roman Emperor was obeyed and followed. Legion and empire were words associated with violence and oppression. The same legion and empire possessed the man who lived in the tomb. In the possession of his body, he was dispossessed of dignity and was separated from his community. Legion and empire are not alien to us. In Jesus’s time, it was Pax Romana. In our time, it is Pax Americana. Then and now, in empire-building, profit is more important than people. The empire possesses people, as individuals and as a nation.
What has empire got to do with poverty? The most successful businesses have the most oppressive labor practices. While billionaires get richer, billions of OFWs and local workers are paid slave wages, endure punishing work hours and inhumane working conditions. How many of them truly enjoy the fruits of their labor? Transnational mining companies have poisoned our lakes and rivers, made wastelands of our fields and forests, displaced communities and sacrificed the future of the generations that will follow. What kind of world do leave to our children? Western theologies which promote individualism and prosperity validate competition and champions so that the weak and the oppressed are pushed farther and farther into the margins. Have our churches really followed the Christ who wanted to feed the hungry and give water to the thirsty? Legion and empire are organizations and systems that possess people’s lives so that their own bodies are no longer theirs. And when the unclean spirit was named in Luke, it identified itself as “legion.” What will it take to drive away this unclean spirit? What must we do to dismantle legion and empire? How can a human being be liberated from its possession?
At the beginning of Jesus’ Galilean ministry, he said, “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near.” Jesus embodied the Kingdom of God. In his presence, those who have abused power and authority felt threatened. Thus, in Luke, when the unclean spirit called “legion” came face to face with Jesus, they begged him, “Send us into the swine: let us enter them.” In the succeeding verses, the unclean spirits entered the pigs, rushed to the steep bank, and were drowned in the sea. I wish it were that simple to get rid of unclean spirits, legions and empires. But what is important in the text is that we recognize that we can only be liberated when we get rid of those who possess our bodies.
Compassion or Condemnation
It is interesting that when Jesus arrives in Gerasenes, the man with the unclean-spirit met him, bowed down before him and shouted, “What have you to do with me….do not torment me.” Jesus does not. Jesus does not say “you have sinned.” Jesus does not say, “you have no faith.” Jesus did not even try to preach to him. Jesus’ response to the tomb-dweller was not condemnation. His response was compassion.
After the unclean spirit called “legion” left the tomb-dweller, he was found sitted beside Jesus in his right mind. When the people saw what had happened, they were afraid. They begged Jesus to leave. Their response to the man’s healing was not rejoicing but fear. They did not welcome him into their homes to celebrate his return. Their response to the tomb-dweller’s healing was condemnation. Their response to Jesus’ healing was condemnation. Unlike Jesus, they were not ready to show compassion.
The tombdweller, in his healing, named his demon ‘legion.’ Legion, empire, globalization, they are all the same. By exposing empire and critiquing it, there is a whole system that is disturbed. Some people want the empire to remain because they benefit from it. Some people think their only salvation is in the empire. Some people don’t even know it but they are victims of the empire. Because the empire is so powerful, some people cannot imagine a world beyond it. But Jesus could. He called it the kingdom of God. The tomb-dweller did, too.
Whether we admit it or not, we are empire-possessed in one way or another. The whole world seems to be tense about who will emerge as the champion in the NBA, Miami Heat or San Antonio Spurs. Everyone wants to watch the new Superman movie – Man of Steel. Almost everyone can sing Don Moen songs. We eat at McDonalds and KFC, buy IPhones and Ipads, wear Adidas and Nike. As pastors and theologians, we will be tempted to copy the sermons and bible studies from the U.S. which will are available in the internet. They cultivate in us a culture of domination, materialism, individualism, consumerism and apathy. They make us believe that the empire – it’s democratic processes, economics of globalization and financial investments, culture and language, is superior and universal. Empire does not point us to tombdwellers. But Jesus does.
I first came to UTS in 2002 and one of my most profound learnings is this – to be a prophet, one must take sides. Everyday, we will have to make choices on whether to embrace and submit to the Empire or to liberate and empower the tombdwellers. This is the school of the prophets – may we learn that to serve God is to serve those who need God the most. Amen.