This brilliant piece is by guest blogger Rand Williamson.
Introduction: Looking for the Roots of a Sick Society
With social life in America rupturing like a boil. It seems almost like an understatement to say “the US is sick”. After generations of racism and economic deprivation, months of isolation, weeks of riots, and continuing demonstrations on an almost daily basis, the idea that “something is wrong” is pretty much accepted by all, although the diagnosis of the problem may vary greatly. We all know about increasing deaths of despair, constant mass shootings and various other symptoms of this illness, but as radicals, we want to reach down to the root and know why these things are happening. As radicals who are followers of Jesus, we often look to scripture for inspiration and new ways of thinking about what is happening around us.
This reading of the beginning of the Gospel of Mark is an attempt to do that. How does what was written then relate to what is going on now? In trying to find this relationship, it becomes apparent that Jesus and his apostles also lived in a sick society, and that the movement that would grow to become our spiritual tradition was organized with the social problems of that time in mind. In this reading, we focus on one common and central problem that was present both in Jesus’s day and in the present: how to live, struggle, and stay healthy while under the rule of a violent, authoritarian empire. Jesus and his followers were colonial subjects, and while most reading this are not (most I assume will be from a domestic underclass within the empire), there are still some commonalities we can point out. We will explore the pathologies that arise out of our relationship with empire through the Gospel of Mark and the writings of the anticolonial scholar Frantz Fanon. Through understanding and connecting to the radical aspirations and struggles of Jesus, we can access a spirit that reinvigorates and empowers our own struggles for wellness and freedom for us and our neighbors
Before we begin, I would like to note one thing. Instead of referring directly to either the Roman Empire or the U.S. Empire, I will often refer to “the Empire”. This is intentional. The Empire is a recurring theme throughout history that seems to transcend any specific culture, location, or mode of production. The Empire as a concept is not meant to conflict with the traditional definitions of what an empire is, nor is it meant to supersede any materialist analysis of empires or how they function. Rather, it is an attempt to explore the spiritual and metaphysical dimensions of systems of oppression that seem to repeat through history in different yet similar forms. In my meditations on it, I have come to understand the Empire as a kind of idol/archetype embedded in the human psyche in opposition to God. As of now, that is all I have been able to articulate through introspection and study, but the Empire may be a focus in future writings.
In the form of the Romans, The Empire is an antagonist in all of the Gospels. Jesus and his ministry are the latest stage of an ongoing anti-imperialist struggle, one with the power to heal people of the spiritual rot imposed on them by contact with the Empire. What makes Jesus’s branch of the anti-imperial struggle unique is its deep understanding of the Empire and how it affects the health of those under its thumb. While others may have focused exclusively on the occupied land, which is important, Jesus understood clearly that the minds and spirits of the people were also occupied and needed to be freed.
John the Baptist Begins a Movement and the Solidarity of Jesus Christ
The Gospel of Mark begins with the proclamations of John the Baptist, who had organized a community critical of the Romans and collaborators under the sway of the Empire like King Herod. John understood the mental and spiritual effects the occupation was having on the people and, while his views were radical, his ministry was more passive in that it’s primary tactic was a call for withdrawal from society so that a process of repentance and cleansing, symbolized with a baptism by water, could be started. Despite this, it is mentioned in other Gospels that John was still seen as a threat. This leads us to one aspect of Empire thinking: the Empire demands that everyone identify with the Empire first and foremost. Any identity existing outside of the rules and sensibilities of the Empire must be either destroyed, or if that is impossible, co-opted for the benefit of the Empire. They need to be controlled. For this reason, it was not necessary for John to move to challenge power directly to be seen as dangerous. He had removed himself from their centers of strength and began cultivating something different that they couldn’t understand.
John’s rejection of them was total. He violated all their standards of respectability and essentially regressed to a primitive hunter gatherer state in order to sever any reliance on them. He strengthened his mind to resist the comforts of their civilization because he lived in fear of the corruption that was connected to it. To be a part of John’s ministry, you needed to know you were sick and that you needed to get better. You had to have some sense of where that sickness came from as well. You had to be a little “woke”.
John the Baptist created holy ground where other radicals could gather to attempt to purify themselves. To put it another way, John created and tended a garden for resistance. While he didn’t know exactly what fruits that garden would bear, he knew that it would be bigger than himself. In Mark 1: 7, he declares “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”. This statement exhibits a self awareness that is truly rare. Additionally, it beautifully contrasts him with his opponents in the Empire. John has suffered great hardships to build a radical anti-imperial ministry motivated, not by a need for control, but by love and a desire for righteousness. His willingness to sacrifice control for the good will allow what he built to be transformed and grown beyond his wildest imagination. It is into this scene that Jesus enters.
Jesus comes to John’s community with a new vision even more radical than John’s. Where John kept his movement set apart from the larger society, Jesus would take the movement confrontationally right to the seats of the powerful. He would actively heal the corruption of the Empire in the villages and towns where it had taken the tightest grip. Despite this difference in resistance tactics, Jesus’s first act towards redirecting the movement was an act of solidarity with John. In Matthew 3:15, Jesus says of his baptism by John “it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”. In getting baptized by John, Jesus legitimizes what John has built and creates a link of solidarity between their two movements. This allows for a more effective movement for justice against the Empire. With this coalition in place, Jesus sets out fulfill the work given to him by the Father.
The next several stories in Mark involve Jesus traveling with his new disciples and healing different people from illnesses they have acquired. While the gospel does not spell out exactly why these people have become ill, it may be enlightening to consider the societal corruption which John the Baptist fled.. What was happening in the villages and towns that John felt he needed to flee to the wilderness to build a community?
The Effects of Empire: from Galilee to Algeria
In short, the Empire was happening. The people of Israel were undergoing a process of colonization imposed on them by the Romans. Galilee, with its proximity to Phoenicia and the major Roman port of Ptolemais, was at the epicenter of this colonial occupation. Ptolemais was a major trading hub in the region and was the port through which Roman armies entered the region to crush revolts on more than one occasion. This close proximity to the major infrastructure of the empire had to have had an especially profound effect on the psychological and spiritual health of both individuals and Galileean society as a whole..
Because of its historical distance from the present, it is hard to know that impact for sure. We can, however, look to the writings and thoughts of people more recently colonized for clues. One 20th century scholar, who has written extensively on the psychological impact of colonization, is the Algerian psychiatrist Frantz Fanon. In his books, Wretched of the Earth and Black Skin White Masks, he explains how the imperial colonizer does not only invade the land but also invades the mind and culture of the colonized. In reference to the relationship between the colonizer and the colonized in Africa, Fanon states “The Negro enslaved by his inferiority, the white man enslaved by his superiority alike behave in accordance with a neurotic orientation.” Fanon, who himself was a victim of colonization, describes imperialism as a disease. He claims that it “leaves behind germs or rot which we must clinically detect and remove from our land and from our minds as well.” Fanon’s prescription for this disease is the creation of a new national culture for the colonized that separates them from the dehumanizing myths of the colonizer and empowers. I do not want to overstate similarities between the experiences of the Galileeans under Rome and the Algerians under France, but this strategy is at least cursorily in line with what Jesus did as he traveled and preached about a new “Kingdom of God”.
It is not unreasonable to believe that colonization was having a similar effect on the Galileans as what is described above by Fanon. Going back to the Gospel of Mark, Jesus’s first acts after assembling his disciples is to go out and begin healing the sickness caused by the dehumanizing conditions created by the occupation. Fanon largely characterizes the sickness as a kind of inferiority complex that develops from the colonized viewing themselves and the world as the colonizer does. The gospel of Mark also gives us a picture of the specifics of this illness as it manifested in Galilee. To better understand the ways in which the empire makes us sick, let’s follow the good doctor, Jesus, as he sets out.
Jesus as Doctor and Anti-Imperial Radical
The first healing Jesus undertakes is the cleansing of the man with the unclean spirit covered in Mark 1: 21-28. In this story, Jesus is preaching his new radical message at a local synagogue. The people there are amazed at the “authority” with which he teaches, and this eventually prompts a man with an unclean spirit to begin heckling Jesus. “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?” it calls out. To everyone’s further amazement Jesus easily dismisses the spirit. They marvel at this new teaching that has authority over the unclean spirits and Jesus’s fame grows.
This healing speaks to the insidious way in which the culture and ideas of the empire can possess us. The Empire always seeks to get individuals to identify themselves with the Empire. It creates myths to propagate the idea that its interests are your interests and to justify its role as lord over your life. These myths serve as a lense through which the Empire wants you to see the world. Once you begin to look through that lens, the next step is to normalize the lens so that it becomes invisible. At that point, the ideologies and assumptions of the Empire take on a “common sense” character in the mind of the possessed. Anyone, neighbors, family or friends, can then easily be othered or seen as foolish if they criticize or act out of line with the expectations of the Empire. We see this when the man with the unclean spirit asks “What have you to do with us …”. In his possessed mind, he identifies more with the unclean spirit then he does with his fellow Israelite, Jesus. It doesn’t matter that Jesus has his best interests in mind. The fact that Jesus’s teaching could cut through this man’s conditioning and cast out the unclean spirit is a miracle indeed!
The next story of healing we will focus on is the cleansing of the leper told in Mark 1: 40-45. In it, A leporus man approaches Jesus and begs “ If you choose, you can make me clean.”. Jesus is moved by the man and declares “Be made clean.”. The newly healed man then runs off, against Jesus’s wishes, to proclaim what had happened and Jesus’s fame grows to the point where he can no longer openly enter the town.
The Empire makes everything it touches unclean. Under occupation, Galilee and all of Jerusalem was made unclean by the imposed inferiority of colonization. The imbalance of the relationship cuts off all involved from their true humanity and makes them subservient to the Empire. Both oppressor and oppressed behave according to a “neurotic orientation”. Jesus, in this story, reveals that his authority has the power to redeem that which is corrupted by the filth of this imbalance.
Immediately after making the leper clean, Jesus returns to Capernaum. Jesus’s message and deeds have become so popular that there is not enough room for the crowds that gather for him. Due to this, one group climbs onto the roof of the building where Jesus is staying and somehow makes a hole in the roof so that they can lower down a paralyzed man who needs healing. When Jesus sees the man, he tells him “Son, your sins are forgiven.”. This sparks a controversy among the scribes in attendance. Jesus takes a moment to address his critics assuring them that his choice of words was deliberate. Then, he tells the paralytic to get up. The man can move again and Jesus’s power is again demonstrated.
In the face of massive systems of oppression, it is easy to feel small. It is easy to feel like any actions you might take are meaningless in the big picture. This can lead to a paralysis: one more sickness through which the Empire can maintain control. If the mind cannot be possessed, it can perhaps be intimidated into complacency. Additionally, as systems that allow for independence are removed, individuals are increasingly forced to cooperate with the Empire in order to survive. In this way, the population is forced not only into complacency but also complicity. The sins of the Empire become your sins, and the guilt associated with this also contributes to paralysis. In this story, Jesus demonstrates his ability to dismiss the fear and sins which keep us stuck in complacency.
This story also starts off a series of conflicts between Jesus and other more traditional cultural authorities of the time. In his writing, Fanon notes that the intellectual class of a colonized people is often targeted to be co-opted by the colonizer. They are allowed to keep their relatively privileged positions in society in exchange for becoming spokespeople for the occupation. Even in cases where the relationship isn’t so cut and dry, the cowardice of this intellectual class often serves to stifle revolutionary movements like the one Jesus is building. As far as the Scribes are concerned, their own paralysis stems for a rigid interpretation of the Law. They use it to protect and isolate themselves from their own failures in the face of the Empire, and they use it to attempt to challenge and discredit Jesus on topics like forgiveness of sins, treatment of sinners, fasting, and recognition of the Sabbath.
Jesus, however, is not trying to re-establish an old national culture/identity. The anti-imperialist work he is setting out to do requires a new reimagined culture that takes what is best from the old while leaving behind its limitations. To quote Jesus in Mark 2: 27 “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath.”. Jesus refuses to allow their concerns to stop his work, and because he has demonstrated the ability to liberate and empower through his healing, his movement continues to grow as he pulls in an ever more diverse group into his coalition of solidarity.
The last story from Mark that we will cover is the healing of the Gerasene Demoniac. While we have already discussed possession as a tactic for imperial control, the images and symbolism in this story are too blatantly political to be left outt. This story begins the 5th chapter of Mark. In it, Jesus is confronted by a man, the demoniac, who is possessed by many unclean spirits. He is too strong to confine with chains and shackles, and has been living in/around tombs where he is constantly “howling and bruising himself with stones. When he encounters Jesus he initially behaves similarly to the other possessed man asking “What have you to do with me …”. When asked, the spirits in the man say their name is Legion, and they beg for Jesus not to send them out of the country. Instead, they ask to be put in a nearby herd of pigs. Jesus casts them out into the pigs who then stampede down a steep bank into the sea and drown.
The possession of the Gerasene Demoniac has many elements that directly point to its radical anti-imperial meaning. The spirits have made the man incredibly strong to where he is unable to be bound, and they identify themselves as Legion. A legion was the largest organizational unit in the Roman Imperial Army with an average size of around 5,000 soldiers. A single legion was a force too strong for any armed group in occupied Israel to fight head on. The spirits beg not to be sent out of the country because they represent an occupation force. The pigs they were cast into were considered unclean animals according to judaic law. The spirit of the legion being cast out of a local man into the swine herd represents the casting out of corrupting imperial influence. This corruption, now in its proper place, is driven back into the sea. Earlier, we talked briefly about how Roman legions entered the region via the sea port of Ptolemais. This story is a very thinly veiled political commentary meant to inspire anti-imperial sentiment among occupied populations.
Connecting with our Anti-Imperial Roots
We see through these stories from Mark that a radical anti-Empire message is a core component of the Christian tradition. The movement that would later become Christianity was grown and tempered by this struggle against the Empire. In all times across the world, where the Empire rules people become sick, and where the Spirit rules, they are cured. This is great news. The radical revolutionary spirit is foundational and can never be fully removed. This may also create problems for some. As christians from the belly of the beast, in the very heart of the latest and greatest incarnation of the Empire, how can I relate the founders of the tradition which I seek to continue?
For one, we are united across time and circumstance by our need for the good doctor Jesus. They were made sick by their exposure to the Empire, and how much more have we been made sick by our formation within the Empire. We need the spirit’s help to remove the racism, the wrathfulness, our addictions to complacency and comfort and control. We can start to relate when we understand that, in order to occupy others, we first need to occupy ourselves. We needed to erase our own history and cultural identities and replace it with whiteness. We needed to internalize authoritarian points of view that justified our place under the boot of state violence and glorified those who are exploited and maimed to carry out that violence. We needed to beat our children’s minds into a shape that would allow them to become the building block of the Empire. We needed to let even our churches be possessed by the Empire’s unclean spirits.
When we begin to relate to the radical roots of our community, we become empowered by its spirit. We gain more of the wisdom needed for the process of healing, and we gain more of the fierce boldness needed to combat the specific systems of oppression which exist in our time. It strengthens us and prepares us to “fulfill all righteousness”. It provides a map for us to find the place of unending solidarity that is the Kingdom of God.
One thought on “The Empire is Making You Sick: A Radical Theology from the Gospel of Mark”
Cool post. Not enough people read and comment on Mark.
I like your reading of the Gerasene demoniac, but how does Jesus’ answer on the tribute to Caesar question line up with this?
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