This has been a hard week. As we rage and weep over the events in Orlando, I know I am not alone in carrying many layers of grief this day. Our losses—both personal and shared—intermingle. They compound and deepen one another. They pile up until, sometimes, we simply feel overwhelmed, numb. The shooting at the Pulse nightclub is a tragedy all its own. And it is a trauma that touches the nerve of so much more pain. This week, we also observed the first anniversary of the massacre in Charleston. It seems that murderous rampages on the part of terrorists and madmen is our country’s new normal. We live in a city that has endured 131 shootings in the last 6 months. We live in a culture that hides domestic abuse and excuses rape. We live in a country built on the legalized violence of police brutality and a flawed justice system.
At first hearing, the notion of demon possession in today’s Gospel story may seem strange and remote to us. It’s true that we don’t share the worldview of Jesus’ time, the pre-scientific outlook that literally saw evil spirits at work in every human ailment. But on the other hand, in that man, chained among the tombs, I see us: you, me, our country, the whole of humanity. We, like him, are not in our right minds. As Pastor Michael Rogness points puts it:
All the “demons” Jesus confronts have three things in common: they cause self-destructive behavior in the victim, the victim feels trapped in that condition, and they separate the victim from normal living in the family circle…. If we define “demons” as those forces which have captured us and prevented us from becoming what God intends us to be, we are as surrounded by—yes, possessed by—as many demons as those whom Jesus encountered.
Our personal sorrows and the hurts of our violent, broken world can unleash demons that imprison us, and distort our humanity. They can so fracture our mental, physical and spiritual well-being that we can no longer find our center. They can break our hearts, leaving us hopeless and cynical and angry. They can alienate us from the love that is the source of our being, and draw us toward the hatred and violence that is also within our human nature.
When it comes to Orlando, one thing that feels crucial to me is that we stay focused on the voices and experiences of the victims themselves. Most of those killed identified as LGBT, and as people of color. Many of them were Latinex—this is a term I just learned this week; it is a non-gender specific way of naming a Latin identity. It matters that those who died at Pulse were those most marginalized by the demons of white supremacy, oppressive gender norms and heterosexism. This tragedy not only violated the lives of countless children of God; it violated a sanctuary. It desecrated a sacred space of refuge, and healing, and wholeness.
I want to share with you part of a piece that we read at this week’s vigil. It’s an excerpt from an essay published in the Washington Post called: “In Praise of Latin Night at the Queer Club,” by Justin Torres:
Outside, there’s a world that politicizes every aspect of your identity. There are preachers, of multiple faiths, mostly self-identified Christians, condemning you to hell. Outside, they call you an abomination. Outside, there is a news media that acts as if there are two sides to a debate over trans people using public bathrooms. Outside, there is a presidential candidate who has built a platform on erecting a wall between the United States and Mexico—and not only do people believe that crap is possible, they believe it is necessary. Outside, Puerto Rico is still a colony, being allowed to drown in debt, to suffer, without the right to file for bankruptcy, to protect itself. Outside, there are more than 100 bills targeting you, your choices, your people, pending in various states.
You have known violence. You have known violence. You are queer and you are brown and you have known violence. You have known a masculinity, a machismo, stupid with its own fragility. You learned basic queer safety, you have learned to scan, casually, quickly, before any public display of affection. Outside, the world can be murderous to you and your kind. Lord knows. But inside, it is loud and sexy and on. If you’re lucky, it’s a mixed crowd, muscle Marys and bois and femme fags and butch dykes and genderqueers. If you’re lucky, no one is wearing much clothing, and the dance floor is full. If you’re lucky, they’re playing reggaeton, salsa, and you can move.
People talk about liberation as if it’s some kind of permanent state, as if you get liberated and that’s it, you get some rights and that’s it, you get some acknowledgment and that’s it, happy now? But you’re going back down into the muck of it every day; this world constricts. You know what the opposite of Latin Night at the Queer Club is? Another Day in Straight White America. So when you walk into the club, if you’re lucky, it feels expansive. “Safe space” is a cliché, overused and exhausted in our discourse, but the fact remains that a sense of safety transforms the body, transforms the spirit. So many of us walk through the world without it. So when you walk through the door and it’s a salsa beat, and brown bodies, queer bodies, all writhing in some fake smoke and strobing lights, no matter how cool, how detached, how over-it you think you are, Latin Night at the Queer Club breaks your cool. You can’t help but smile, this is for you, for us.
Outside, tomorrow, hangovers, regrets, the grind. Outside, tomorrow, the struggle to effect change. But inside, tonight, none of that matters. Inside, tonight, the only imperative is to love…. The media will spin the conversation away from homegrown homophobic terrorism to a general United States vs. Islamist narrative. Mendacious, audacious politicians…will seize on this massacre, twist it for support of their agendas. But for a moment, I want to talk about the sacredness of Latin Night at the Queer Club. Amid all the noise, I want to close my eyes and see you all there, dancing, inviolable, free.
In today’s Gospel story, Jesus crossed the stormy sea to reach the man in chains, the outcast of all outcasts. He ignored the churning waves, warning him of danger, pushing him away. He needed to step out on the far shore, on Gentile soil, in a foreign land, so that he could heal and free this man, whom all others had abandoned. The demons that tortured him are, in a way, a symbol of our collective human brokenness. This week, we have all lost a sanctuary. The evils of hatred and violence have wounded us all more deeply than before. We are all touched by a tremendous grief. And we are all less whole than we should be. And yet, there are those who feel, more acutely and personally, this collective sorrow. Those most on the margins of power in our society are the ones who suffer the most at times like this – queer folks, people with brown skin, immigrants, Muslims and other religious minorities.
The healing we so deeply need for the hatred, fear, and violence that infects our human soul will not be easy for us to receive. It will feel more like a powerful exorcism than a gentle touch. For the man possessed by a “legion” of demons, Jesus’ presence was not welcome. In fact, having Jesus anywhere near him felt like torment. He fell to the ground and shouted, fearfully, at the top of his lungs. Jesus met this forceful resistance with a force of his own. He drove out the demons that were the source of the man’s distress.
Driving out our demons, of course, means changing our culture and our laws around guns. But it also means rooting out our most embedded biases our most dangerous ideologies and our most pervasive injustices. The root of the word used to describe the healing that Jesus brings to us is sozo, which means “save,” “deliver” or “make whole.” At a time like this, let us not give in to our fear, our despair, or our numbness. Let us trust that Jesus embodies among us a power that repairs our fractured human being, that mends our alienation one from another, that restores our sense of safety, and rebuilds our sacred spaces. Let us seek, in Christ, to enter in to our right minds. Amen.