When you pass through the waters

I’ve been reflecting recently on the exorcism at Gerasa (Luke 8:26-39) in which Jesus heals a man possessed by a whole horde of demons and the story of Peter at Cornelius' house (Acts 10) in which faith comes to the Gentiles for the first time. They are not stories that seem to naturally go together (even in the account of Luke-Acts of which they are both a part). But perhaps they should. And here’s why.

The thing about this particular exorcism which is almost always ignored is that the scene is laden with Roman imagery. Gerasa was a big Roman military base, whose symbol was a boar - a provocative symbol of anti-Jewish Gentile piggery, a profoundly deep 'uncleanness'. Then the demon is called 'Legion' - the name for an army battalion. It actually makes a lot of sense to tell the story as... In the heart of a highly militarised area, Jesus drives 'Legion' into a herd of pigs and they are drowned in the sea, just like the Egyptian 'pigs' get drowned in the Exodus story - those archetypal imperial gentile oppressors. In other words, Jesus just symbolically exorcised the Romans from the Promised Land! And that's why the people all crapped themselves and begged him to leave (8:37).

So by the time that Peter arrives at the house of Cornelius the scene has well and truly been set by Luke that the Romans are the unclean, unworthy, violent colonising bastards whose influence on the Jews was to send them mad with the psychological possession of their oppression; the Romans occupation of the land had also become an occupation of the collective mind of Israel. Yet Peter says 'Now I see that...' (10:34) His mind has been cleared.

But here's the totally inside-out aspect of that story. Cornelius, a Roman Centurion, a seriously powerful badass, bows down to Peter, an ex-fisherman from Galilee (the difficult, revolutionary area of the region). And then he gets baptised, which was a symbol of exorcism from Rome. This is another lesser-known fact, but hugely important – in baptism forgiveness of sins and repentance were intertwined with rejecting the narrative of the Empire and endorsing the utterly provocative counter-proclamation that Jesus, not Caesar, is in fact Lord. And it is the symbol of passing through the waters that is central to that proclamation; the person baptised symbolically enacts the passing through the Red Sea and their freedom from the oppression and slavery of Egypt (those archetypal imperial gentile oppressors again).

So, the Romans are symbolically driven into the sea and the people symbolically pass through the sea. That’s some good resistant symbolics. Some revolutionary imagery to stoke the imagination. But then a Roman Centurion passes through the sea…

Hang on a minute! Is Peter a traitor? Suddenly putting pigs and oysters on the menu is not just a matter of ritual cleanliness, it means the symbolic breach of the Red Sea by the unclean oppressor! (Daniel wouldn’t have stood for this; eating veggie in the shadow of the Empire was the received wisdom of the anti-imperial purists!) And yet the symbolic exorcism of Rome by Jesus at Gerasa that got us so excited is disrupted by the revelation that pigs (among other things) have now been made clean; on a rooftop in Joppa, the symbolism breaks down. It seems that Peter has indeed received the same freedom of mind as the man possessed by Legion. Because for him to baptise the Centurion is to operate outside the normal ways of thinking that dominated his collective cultural mind.

In the words of Homi Bhabha, my favourite postcolonial critic, a profound ambivalence has been introduced into the stereotyped relationship between Rome as 'oppressor' and Israel as 'oppressed'. As minds are freed, the structures of thought taken for granted by a society in which Rome is on top are undermined. Not turned upside down; simply reversing the actors yet preserving the structural problem. No, instead re-formed, destabilised. By being brought through the sea, they are brought within the powerless resurrection community. Rome aren't banished from the land (a completely impossible strategy in any case), but they cannot rule so clearly now. There is no way that this baptised Centurion can continue to oppress with the same moral impunity. He has been ‘possessed’ by the community of his subjects. He will become a thorn in the side of the Roman imperial narrative.

As people committed to challenging the powerful it’s easy to buy into the story of ‘just’ and ‘unjust’, ‘victim’ and ‘perpetrator’. We are surrounded by our own cultural images which support straightforward distinctions and enable rudimentary stereotypes. And on their basis we challenge the ‘oppressors’ and call time on their oppression.

And yet to do this is to merely assail injustice from the trenches of commentary. Peter’s story is one in which he finds himself unexpectedly within the symbolics of these stereotypes. And through Luke’s narrative, an entirely unexpected response to injustice is exposed.

It is easy to think we are being revolutionary while all the while we are playing, inadvertently, by bigger, unseen rules. In Peter's case it was only wide open hands and a bold belief in the unthinkable that enabled the possibilities of a different way. As we reflect on the injustice of our world, may we have the biggest hearts, the most generous arms and the wildest, most untameable minds. And may we be truly revolutionary and live a brave new story.