Monday, June 24, 2013

Collateral Damage

After a superhero has been around a while, his audience has grown up and their tastes change. What enchanted them as kids now seems naïve and cartoonish. So eventually, the comic book writers do a what is called a gritty reboot. The most obvious example is what has happened to Batman. In the 50s and 60s Batman was very kid friendly, with colorful villains committing nonsensical crimes. The old TV series took its cues from that. In reaction, comic book artist Frank Miller was allowed to do a gritty reboot in the mid-1980s which has influenced the grimmer Batman films of Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan, where the gray and blue Caped Crusader became the black-garbed Dark Knight. And soon every comic book hero was being made darker and, if not realistic, then reality-adjacent.

Superman is 75 years old so I guess it was time for his gritty reboot, which he gets in the new movie, Man of Steel. I personally liked most of the changes they made to his legend. They made Pulitzer-Prize winning reporter Lois Lane smart enough to figure out that Superman was Clark Kent. They showed how the influence of his 2 fathers, Kryptonian and earthly, shaped Clark's ethics. And they made the fight between super-powered beings from Krypton epic. Which means Smallville and Metropolis take a lot of damage, as Superman and the bad guys battle it out. Someone on the internet worked out that the property damage was easily in the range of a billion dollars, with the death toll something like 100,000, plus a million injured. But if Superman had failed, everyone on earth would die as General Zod terraformed our planet into the new Krypton.

It's called collateral damage, the military term for unintended destruction of life and property that is often an unavoidable consequence of achieving a goal. If we use a drone to take out a terrorist, anyone else killed by the blast, whether family or friend or passerby, is considered collateral damage. By the military, that is. I'm sure the families of the victims see their deaths as anything but secondary consequences of some action.

Jesus caused some collateral damage in the healing of the demoniac who confronts him in today's passage from Luke 8. A whole herd of pigs were lost. They were somebody's property, someone's livelihood. Were their deaths worth it?

Jesus and his disciples left Jewish territory and crossed the Sea of Galilee to the other side. The Decapolis, which means “Ten Towns,” was Gentile territory. As soon as they step onto land, they are confronted by a naked and scarred man. He lived among the tombs, where he wandered screaming and cutting himself with stones, according to Mark's account. He may have been dragging the chains he had broken out of. Most of us, upon seeing such a guy coming towards us, would get back in the boat and push off.

Mark tells us the man saw Jesus from some distance and ran towards him. Jesus stands his ground and the man drops to his knees and cries out, “Jesus, son of the Most High God! What do you want with me?” Jesus is already commanding the demon to come out of the man. “I beg you, do not torment me!” the man screams.

Healing this man is a tough case and Jesus asks him, “What is your name?” Chillingly, the man says, “Legion, for we are many.”

Every time I read that passage, my mind goes back to my college days. I was part of a skid row ministry. The college van would take us from Wheaton in the suburbs to a section of downtown Chicago that looked as if it had been bombed. Entire blocks had been razed to the ground. The center of our ministry was an old building where a lot of alcoholics and drug addicts stayed. It was an ancient hotel with a large old-fashioned lobby. Upstairs, the interior walls had been ripped out and replaced by many smaller cubicles separated by partial walls that didn't reach to the ceiling. Chicken wire had been stapled to the top of the walls to keep, I suppose, the residents from getting into each other's living spaces. The rooms, or more accurately human kennels, were only big enough for one small bed that took up one wall, a bedside table and a chair. They were no bigger than jail cells. And here lived men whose lives were blighted by the demons they had fought and lost to. The name of the place was, appropriately, the Legion Hotel.

A Roman legion was about 4 to 6000 men. We needn't take the number literally. It just means that this man was bedeviled by forces that overwhelmed his mind and made him violent and unable to live among the people of the city.

The demons beg Jesus not to send them into the abyss, the void, hell. They ask instead to be sent into a nearby herd of pigs. Jesus consents and the demons leave the man for the pigs. The pigs promptly stampede down a steep bank or cliff and into the lake, drowning. They are collateral damage to the healing of the man.

A lot of people have trouble with the whole concept of demons causing mental illness, including some Christians. I have worked with psychiatric patients who were convinced they were possessed. They heard voices telling them terrible things, urging them to harm themselves. One commentary I read suggested that Jesus was having trouble healing the man because the guy felt he was so dominated by demons, and so Jesus used the pigs to convince the man that the demons had left him and that he was indeed healed.

I'm not going to argue over which things invisible to the eye afflicted the man--germs, DNA or demons. The fact is that Jesus healed him. When the townspeople come to see what happened, they find the man sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they all rejoiced and praised God, right?

Wrong. They were frightened of Jesus and upset about the pigs. They asked Jesus to leave. They cared more about animals and money lost than the fact that a man gained his sanity and a chance at a good life. They felt the collateral damage was too high.

In fact, as in Jesus' day, the collateral damage of our actions is often monetary and we frequently put a higher priority on money than on people. We will help people if it doesn't cost very much. We will refrain from helping people if it costs what we consider too much. A lot of the hot button issues of the day pit people against money. For instance, some people think that cuts to Medicare and Social Security are too high a cost to pay in the effort to decrease the deficit, despite the fact that together they make up more than 40% of the federal budget. Some would rather cut safety net programs like food stamps, supplemental income for the disabled or elderly poor, school meals, low income housing assistance, child care assistance and programs that aid abused and neglected children, though these only make up 12% of the budget. And we've seen that politicians think that continuing to get money from lobbyists and special interest groups is worth the collateral damage done to their constituents by the resulting gridlock of the legislative process on issues such as immigration, the safety of our kids, the mentally ill, and communities recovering from disasters.

What we consider acceptable collateral damage varies with who sustains that damage. We want help when we need it but we are not so quick to help others when they need it, especially when they are people who are far from us, in geography, culture or appearance. To the people we call NIMBYs, we can add ISEPs: “It's Someone Else's Problem.” We are not much different from Caine who denied he was his brother's keeper. That word could also be translated “preserver or protector.” Jesus teaches us that there is no such thing as “Someone Else's Problem.” As we learn in Matthew 25, when we neglect to help others who are in need, we are neglecting Jesus. When we help others, we are helping Jesus.

So is helping Jesus worth the loss of a herd of swine? Is helping our neighbor worth spending some of our time, talent and treasure? If not, what did Jesus mean by his parable of the Good Samaritan? The hero of that parable checks out a man left for dead, gives him first aid, transports him to an inn, nurses the man and then pays for his continuing care. Imagine what that cost him in terms of time, effort, and money. And Jesus says “Go and do likewise.”

Let's put it this way. If your child was seriously ill, is there anything you would not give to make her well? Would you not spend all your time, use all of your abilities, spend whatever you had to cure her? And if it led to her cure, would you not consider that worth it? Of course. That's natural. But as Christians, we are to see everyone as our brothers and sisters. We are to view them not as annoyances or as drains on our resources but as children of God, worth what it takes to cure or save them.

It is a peculiarity of human beings that we tend to value what is dead over what is alive. That is we value things over people. We prize our belongings, our toys, our money more than we do others. If we did not, we would not turn our back on others because of the cost. It would be rare rather than common for someone to work hard and yet not be able to afford a place to stay, as is true for people working minimum wage. The most frequent cause of bankruptcy in this country would not be medical bills. People would not be cheated, or robbed, or murdered for their possessions and money. I remember once hearing a news story about a person killed during a robbery in which the robber got ten dollars. I thought, “How sad that he should die over ten bucks.” And then I realized that it was sad that he should die over any amount of money.

A lot of the problems in this world are due to having our values and priorities inverted. We put things ahead of people. We put beauty before character. We put any shiny new idea before old but ageless wisdom. We put our own good, or that of our family, our people, or our country ahead of the good of everyone else. We put the transient things of this life ahead of eternal life. We put our desires ahead of God's will.

In Acts 17:6 Christians are called those who turn the world upside down. If so, we get it from Jesus. He's the one who said that tax collectors and prostitutes were entering the Kingdom of God rather than the outwardly righteous. He's the one who said those who enjoyed most of the blessings of this life were not a shoe-in for the next life. He's the one who said the leader of all must serve all. He's the king who inaugurated his reign not by killing his enemies but by letting his enemies kill him.

Of course, Jesus wouldn't say he turned the world upside down; he'd say he was turning right side up. In the world God created, he sets the values. The creator, the author of life, the pattern of and reason for the world, comes first. People, created in his image, come next, before all the things we have created: money, possessions, politics, social classes, even art.

And, yeah, people come before pork. Healing people, freeing them from whatever enslaves and oppresses them, whatever separates them from God and from others, comes before our comfort and convenience. What we expend to help others is not wasted but a sacrifice, something made sacred by being offered to God and his purposes. Jesus said that anyone who offered someone a glass of water because of him would be rewarded. Surely that applies to whatever we give or give up to bring others to Jesus.

What a different story this would be had the city folk rejoiced to see the man healed. Perhaps that why Jesus didn't let him come with him. Someone needed to let people know what really happened here: that Jesus brought a homeless, naked madman out of darkness into light, out of pain into wholeness, out of anguish into peace, out of the world of the dead into the realm of life. And all it cost was some pigs. 

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