They live in tombs and spend nights in dark corners, eating the meat of pigs and using unclean foodIsaiah 65:4, The New Jerusalem Bible
Mark 5:1–20 tells a famous story about the ministry of Jesus that fascinates me. Jesus delivers a demon-possessed man by sending the demons into 2,000 pigs that charge off a steep cliff and drown in the sea. Over the years, I have slowly found myself awakened to the social and economic nuances in Jesus’ instructions. I find that much of my Christianity ignores the world because I think its a hopeless place, forgetting that the hope of a new world can be glimpsed even now. Working for nearly two decades in the legendary Boston Country Life Vegetarian Restaurant gave me the opportunity to meet many advocates for non-human life who care about ecology. These folks, who have a keen sense of compassion for animals, take offense at this problematic biblical story. What should we make of Jesus callously drowning 2,000 pigs? Jesus tells us that if a sheep falls into a pit, it should be rescued (Matthew 12:11). But what about a pig falling over a cliff? How can I understand a Jesus who drove 2,000 pigs to their deaths? Should the Humane Society or People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) charge Jesus with cruelty to animals? How should we respond to this story today?
The story in Mark raises a lot of questions. Those seeking to make sense of the story have suggested various interpretations, including the lesson that people are worth more than animals. However, elements of the story present a far more intriguing lesson than Jesus getting rid of a bunch of filthy pigs to demonstrate the scale of importance. As Mennonite theologian Ched Myers points out, “Mark’s gospel was originally written to help imperial subjects learn the hard truth about their world and themselves” (Binding the Strongman, p. 11). In other words, Mark shows us how to demonstrate the kingdom of God, which promises wholeness and transformation, even now, while opposing the body politic of corruption that harms people and nature.
Kendra Haloviak Valentine, a professor of biblical studies at La Sierra University, gave a presentation focused on this story, describing how political oppression threatens ecological sustainability. For me, her most illuminating insight is about how to read the story of demoniac healing in a way that includes the liberation of people, land, and non-human life.
From the disciples’ perspective, Jesus is taking them to an unclean area in Gentile territory after dark. The story begins with horrible images of tombs, uncleanness, and 2,000 pigs. What’s more, in Mark’s account, they are met by a demonized man living in constant defilement. He is uncontrollable, gashed, and bleeding. Large numbers of pigs are scattered across the hills. An ancient Jewish reader would have considered so many pigs hazardous. The pagans in power have taken over the land, and the pigs have one purpose: supplying the meat that the Romans relish. The empire aims to extract every calorie of food it can squeeze from the land. Thousands of pigs are treated as protein machines, converting plentiful lands, water, and feed into meat for the Romans, who are exploiting land that could be used more efficiently with much less ecological degradation.
Jesus is not responsible for the unfortunate fate of these pigs. Instead, we find a life-threatening presence behind this story. Scholars have noted echoes of Azazel, who was cast down a steep, rocky precipice, signaling the final defeat of demonic powers as well as echoes of Israel’s deliverance from its oppressors, who were cast into the sea. Mark tells us that a demonic reality causes the destruction of the pigs and that Jesus overrules it for good. We see Jesus driving away exploitation and oppression. In a way, the demon-possessed man embodies the oppressor—the Roman legions guarding the area. The demons do to the poor man and pigs what the empire does to the people in that territory. The story shows us the degradation into which the demonic seeks to drag the human race, but Jesus’ mission is to set men free from its oppression and power. The story shows us that God has not given us up to satanic jurisdiction. We are safe in the presence of Jesus. God is our friend and deliverer.
The healing in this story can only be described as liberation and deliverance. We should see ourselves in this poor, broken, and demonized man and be thankful that God hears the garbled cry of such a lost soul. Jesus says “be clean” to that which is considered the most unclean. We see Jesus express pity and bravely approach the most afflicted, though in His time, death and uncleanness were considered off limits. They were not to be touched, but Jesus nonetheless goes to care for this afflicted man, touching and healing him to rescue and rehumanize him. Even a man held hostage by 2,000 demons—harming himself and those around him—can have hope, for God’s uplifting grace rests upon him.
Jesus’ actions in Mark 5 open my eyes to a compassion that transforms the world. Jesus does not use the haphazard ways we often do to create change but responds with an uplifting compassion that promotes both moral and social progress. Although I may not fully understand the story, it seems that Jesus is concerned about the pigs’ living conditions after all. In Christ, a pig is not merely bacon or a banquet spread with an apple in its mouth. Pigs are not mere objects governed by the demands of the market. The story ultimately shows me how to value what has been devalued, to love what has been unloved. Jesus’ healing of the possessed man, therefore, includes the healing of people, land, and animals.
Through the story, we also learn that some only have eyes for economics and commerce, exhorted by profit and exploitation. Others may fear the unknown or retaliation from their oppressors, but we see Jesus breaking the entangled web of our selfish indifference and injustice. Though the people’s eyes are closed to others, the Savior’s eyes are wide open. Banishing the demons is Jesus’ way of saying “no” to systems of oppression and abuse.
After rescuing the possessed man, Jesus tells his new convert to return to his community and “tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you” (Mark 5:19, NIV). To maximize the value of Jesus’ compassion, it must reach beyond our personal transformation to prompt social change and free large numbers of people. Jesus cares about those in Gentile lands, and by healing this tortured man, He removes the terror in that region. It becomes a safe place again, for when Jesus returns, many people flock there to be with Him. I like to think that thousands around the region benefited from Jesus helping them reimagine the land without coercive exploitation. Freedom and grace have the last word.
This story gives a cosmic significance to the specific elements of hostility and mercy. If Mark was indeed equating political oppression with demonic activity, it suggests to me that God’s mercy must be integrated into social structures for transformation. The story urges me to see myself not merely as an individual in society but as a member of Jesus’ community of power, change, and uplifting grace.
Craig Ashton Jr.