Sermon: Capitalism and the Self

By Joanna Shenk

This is the third sermon in a Lenten series called “Capitalism: A Bible Study.”

Mark 5:1-17

Wednesday was an intense day for me. It began with a trip to the San Francisco County Jail which is located in San Bruno. A friend of mine, Ellen, teaches classes there and invited me to speak about my new book and Vincent Harding. I figured Dr. Harding would be pleased that my first “official” book talk was in a jail. He was always encouraging people to be in conversation and relationship across lines of difference.

It was my first experience going to that jail and I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. When Ellen picked me up at BART she said there would be 48 men in the class that day. I hadn’t anticipated that many, but was up for the task. I had sent some readings earlier in the week and she said the men were really interested to learn more about Vincent Harding and also about Mennonites.

I shared with them about Anabaptist history and Dr. King’s Poor People Campaign and how it’s being re-launched today, as well as stories about Vincent Harding. While in conversation with them I was pleased to call to mind Sheri’s sermon from last Sunday and make more connections between why the Anabaptist movement was so feared and why Dr. King was assassinated due to his challenge to the capitalist order of things. 

It was a delightful and lively conversation. While I felt the weight of the jail around us… the oppressive nature of the structure in which these men were confined… I experienced them no differently than any other people. They were thoughtful, funny, intellectual and kind. The time flew by as we talked and before I knew it, it was time to go. As I left I thought about how ridiculous it is that our society thinks confining people like that is okay. The majority of the men at San Bruno are still awaiting trial and they are locked in their cells for nearly the entire day.

When I got back to the Mission on BART, I emerged from the station to see a man sitting on the sidewalk angrily yelling. “I’m hungry! Will someone give me something to eat! I’ve been living in this crap for 5 years and I’m tired of it!” I was startled by his presence and didn’t have anything to give him in the moment and felt at a loss of what to do. But one thing that I knew for sure was that he wasn’t crazy. He was speaking the truth and had every right to be angry.

At home I changed my clothes and then got on my bike and rode over the ICE (Immigration Customs Enforcement) building in San Francisco where I knew a protest was taking place. It was an effort of solidarity with immigrants who are being targeted for deportation in northern California. The four corners of the street and two alleyways around the building were blocked off by non-violent protestors and a rally was taking place on the street in front of the building.

Pat and I met up with other clergy from Faith in Action and were asked to go as a group to accompany someone who had a hearing in the ICE building that day. It was a father of four who had been unlawfully arrested in November and in detention ever since. His name is Jesus. There were about 10 of us clergy, from different traditions, who went into the ICE building to wait for Jesus’ hearing. We waited for about 2 hours.

It was the first time I had done accompaniment like that and I wasn’t sure what to expect. In the courtroom there was a judge and tables for the lawyers and also a seating area that could hold about 30 people. The person who was being questioned was present through a video screen that faced the judge.

I was surprised and disturbed by the questions the judge asked. In many cases, they were invasive and personal. It seemed demeaning to me and I was told later that this judge was actually one of the better ones. Thankfully Jesus, who we went to support, was granted bond, which means he could be released. After we got outside the building there was a lot of celebrating on the street with his father and his lawyers. I was honored to have been a witness to that effort.

When I got home later I felt pretty heavy about all that I had seen that day. The weight of incarceration. The justified anger at capitalist-induced poverty. The demeaning treatment of people who lack government-approved documents. It was as clear as ever that this reality we live in is sick. The people behind bars, on the street and in detention are not the problem. They illustrate the ways our society has been colonized to normalize their situations.

In the book Reluctant Reformers, Robert Allen talks about the sub-proletariat or “shock absorber” class that capitalism requires. He writes about how the structural instability of the system means that workers at the very bottom of the economic ladder are confronted not only by low wages but also extreme economic insecurity. The slightest gyration in the economy means that thousands upon thousands of workers at its bottom levels lose their jobs.

As automation and technology reduce the need for workers overall, I have also heard this class referred to as “superfluous populations.” They are no longer necessary to the economic order so they can be locked up for profit or left to live on the streets or in communities that have barely enough resources for human survival.

This perspective helps us to look with a fresh eyes at the story of the Gerasene demoniac, which is our scripture text for today. In Binding the Strong Man Ched Myers writes that “demon possession in traditional societies is often a reflection of class antagonisms rooted in economic exploitation or a socially acceptable form of protest against, or escape from, oppression.”

Let’s think back through the story together. It starts by Jesus and the disciples arriving at the “other side” of the Sea Galilee. It was a rough boat ride getting there and that was illustrative of the resistance the disciples had to going in the first place. Going across the sea meant an encounter with the other. And boy did they get that!

Immediately they are confronted by a man who was possessed by thousands of demons. He was unclean in so many ways they probably couldn’t count them all… he was dirty, bruised, naked, living in the tombs. An outcast of outcasts.

As we heard in the children’s story, the fact that he says his name is Legion is significant. It is a military reference, meaning a group of at least 2,000 soldiers. In some places I’ve also seen the number 6,000. This person is thoroughly occupied by the forces of empire. We could also call this internalized oppression.

It’s also quite likely that Mark, the writer of the story, was comparing the body of the possessed man to the collective body of the people under Roman occupation. It’s no coincidence that the 10th Legion of the Roman Empire which was stationed in the region had a boar as a mascot. Roman soldiers were a big fan of pigs for this reason. Clearly this would have been a problem for the Jewish population who view pigs at thoroughly unclean.

With this in mind, that Legion asked to be sent into the pigs makes even more sense. And that the pigs drowned in the sea has a few layers of meaning: it harkens back to Pharaoh’s army being swallowed by the sea in the Exodus story, and it illustrates Jesus’ challenge to the military occupation and economic colonization taking place. Who is wealthy enough to have 2,000 pigs?? And probably they would be really angry to have those assets destroyed, right?

So we have the aftermath. Ched puts it this way, “The popular reaction to Jesus’ liberative act is hostile. This is understandable given that the news of the exorcism is carried ‘to city and countryside’ by fleeing (and doubtless furious) ‘pig herdsmen.’ The colonized are hardly pleased to see one of their own now “clothed and in his right mind.” Their anxiety is justified by the fact that during this historical period, Judean struggles for self-determination had been met with fierce repression. Roman counterinsurgency campaigns had reduced more than one city in the region to rubble.

Ched continues, “Awe at this dramatic healing/liberation is thus trumped by fear of imperial retaliation; the Gerasenes ask Jesus to leave. In political terms, this portrait attests to the power of the State to suppress opposition through dread. In psychological terms, it reminds us that those who are co-dependent upon a dominant system, no matter how dysfunctional or dehumanizing, will usually resist change. Personal or political, liberation has a cost, which usually the majority is unwilling to risk.”

As we reflect on capitalism and the self today, how have we been shaped by the empire in which we reside? In what ways are our minds and bodies occupied by Legion? When have we been the ones who ask Jesus to get out of town before more property gets destroyed?

And what does it take to have the clarity and tenacity necessary to choose liberation, no matter the cost?

I think one important part of that is getting clear on who or what we understand God to be and how we recognize God’s work in the world. Basic questions. Complex to answer. At our Outreach retreat yesterday, the committee had a powerful experience responding to the questions: What do we believe about God? Who is God? And, What is God doing?

We reflected that we believe God is about relationship and connection.

God is the oneness found when we sing together

God is people coming together across differences

God is the power to navigate through our complex world

God is letting go of the struggle to control

God is an openness to mystery

God is abundance.

God is the interconnection of everything

God is peace, grace and serendipity

God is letting go of fear

And only after answering those questions about God could be begin to get clear on our calling, our work, in the world as individuals and as a community. Just as God desires to be in relationship with us, what is it that we desire? This is a different question than, “What is the right thing to do?”

As a group we said we desire to be grounded and have clarity in the face of the endless distractions in our society. We desire the ability to recognize fear without allowing fear to run the show. We desire to be in relationships across binaries and differences. We desire to create the kingdom of God and live in the tension of “the already but not yet.” We desire safety for those who are vulnerable and empathy for those who assume they aren’t. We desire a willingness to confront conflict. We desire the ability to hold the long view and live in “deep time” and recognize this work reaches far beyond our lifetimes. We desire embodiment and recognizing the truth that we are earth.

This work felt powerful because it was liberating. We were naming our deepest desires while also trusting in a power bigger than ourselves to bring about transformation. We were becoming clear on that which is truly valuable, that which makes no sense by capitalist standards.

In the Bible story through the healing of the man with demons, Jesus was demonstrating that which was truly valuable. It wasn’t the pigs and military might. It was the liberation that was possible, not just for only that man but for the whole of society. He was saying, there’s a different way of being human that does not require people to be going crazy and living in tombs as outcasts. There’s a different way of being human that does not allow for people to be locked up and discarded as superfluous populations.   

What does it look like for us to be in “our right minds?” I think the point of church is to help us be in our right minds. One big part of this is recognizing the power of the economic system (whether it’s capitalism or the Roman empire) to define what is valuable and who is valuable. That’s why learning to read the bible with a class analysis helps us be in our right minds.

Jesus was clear on what and who was valuable. At the Outreach retreat we were getting clear on that. Dr. King was clear on that when in 1966 he said…

“I choose to identify with the underprivileged. I choose to identify with the poor. I choose to give my life for the hungry. I choose to give my life for those who have been left out of the sunlight of opportunity. I choose to live for those who find themselves seeing life as a long and desolate corridor with no exit sign. This is the way I’m going. If it means suffering a little bit, I’m going that way. If it means sacrificing, I’m going that way. If it means dying for them, I’m going that way.”

May we also have the courage and clarity to go that way. May we continue to discern together the Spirit’s calling to us in this time and in this place. May our deepest desires become more and more aligned with the values of the kingdom of God. Or as the youth call it, this movement to change the world. May it be so.