On Demons and Dancefloors: A Queer Abolitionist Pride

June 19, 2022
Luke 8:26-39

Thank you for having me. It is good to be here as a former active member at HMC and current member in diaspora. And as the new executive director of the Brethren Mennonite Council for LGBT Interests (BMC) it is a joy to bring you blessings from the broader BMC community, and to reconnect virtually with beloved BMCers here at HMC. BMC has long ties to HMC and to the DC community. I went to my very first BMC potluck here in the HMC basement, in 2009.

I’m speaking with you from Chicago, the traditional homelands of a convergence of Indigenous nations, including the Council of Three Fires, the Potawatomi, the Myaamia and Peoria peoples, among others. One of the ways empire functions is to make us systematically forget whose lands we are on. So I invite you to take a moment — there in the Hyattsville church and across North America/Turtle Island via Zoom — and honor in your heart and mind the land you are on.

I’m honored to join you on this special Sunday that is Pride and that is also Juneteenth.

Today’s alignment of Juneteenth and Pride feels to me like a sacred alignment. It’s a queer and abolitionist alignment. This alignment seems like a more than just a coincidence when we remember that before Pride was a celebration (arguably coopted in part by corporate America), it was a protest; and that Juneteenth signifies an abolitionist victory in the long protest against slavery in the so-called United States.  June 19th, 1865 is a date when slaveholders holding out in the state of Texas were finally ordered to comply, two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed.  From the slave patrols of that era, we can trace roots modern day policing. This connects us to Pride’s roots which are in the 1969 uprising against the police and their oppressive regulation of queer and gender non-conforming bodies. This multiracial multigender rebellion, led by trans women of color such as Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, erupted at the Stonewall Inn in a time where you could be arrested for failing to wear at least three articles of clothing that corresponded to your assigned gender. With anti-trans, don’t-say-gay laws surfacing in places like Texas, it appears we may be headed for a pre-Stonewall era again, at least in parts of this country.

This present moment is ripe with sobering reality, but I have good news – it’s the gospel Pride and Juneteenth after all! These histories of rebellion and resistance bear witness to the spirit of the liberating one among us. We get a glimpse of that liberating spirit in today’s story from Luke chapter eight (8:26-39). This story immediately follows Jesus’s seismic, life-saving actions amidst the Great Storm. So we’re here in the wake of a great disruption. Jesus and his comrades get back into a boat and head to the occupied territory of the Gerasenes. And it’s here that Jesus encounters a person long-possessed by demons. Jesus recognizes the demons for what they are, calls them by name, and then orders the demons to leave the person. The demons then enter into a large herd of pigs who are driven into the water and drowned. These events cause panic to spread across the region — for one, Jesus has just destroyed the livelihood of the swineherds — and the locals demand that Jesus leave. The person who was healed wants to go with Jesus, but Jesus says, ‘No, stay here, and tell your people about the healing you have experienced.’

Now this is one of those stories in the bible that can get twisted into ableist theology and preached in ways that too often harm people who are disabled, neuro-divergent, and/or live with chronic mental illness. That’s a misinformed way to read this scripture or any scripture. (For more on that see Nancy Eiesland’s seminal book entitled The Disabled God. This should be required reading for any of us able-bodied folks trying to read the bible!)

With a queer abolitionist lens, I’d like to offer three observations on this story, to help us contextualize Pride and Juneteenth and to draw some inspiration for our weary, justice-seeking souls today.

Number one — The demons in this story represent the demonic forces of empire. The demons are called Legion. In the Roman army, a legion was a battle force of 4,000 to 6,000 soldiers (Harper Collins note, v. 30). So as a tale told and recorded in first century Jewish Palestine under the Roman occupation, we might read Jesus’s admonishment of the demons as a not-so-coded rebuke of Rome’s violent military and economic regime.

In typical Jesus-fashion he goes to those most vulnerable to the extractive demands of empire. He crosses the sea of Galilee to the region of the Gerasenes. As an occupied region, Gerasa was not firmly itself nor fully Roman. Post-colonialist commentator Nicole Wilkinson Duran suggests that Gerasa represents a kind of boundary-lessness — the kind of boundary-lessness known to demons, known to the Romans, wherein, the occupier knows no bounds (Duran, 51).

And so it’s here in occupied Gerasa that Jesus meets the demon-possessed person who is unhoused and unwell. Perhaps he has no home because of racist housing laws and mortgage lending practices that prevented his family from building wealth like the grandparents of his white peers. Perhaps they are a trans young person who can’t live safely at home.  Whatever the reason, the demons of empire kept this person on the margins of prosperity, in the deserted places says the text. Sometimes, according to v. 29, this unwell person “needed to be restrained with chains and shackles and kept under guard” (Luke 8:29). Here we see incarceration as a solution for people deemed not fit for society. Caging as a response to those who reveal and resist the underbelly the beast.

The empire we dwell within today is what writer and professor Saidiya Hartman calls the ‘afterlife of slavery.’ In the absence of legalized slavery, the colonial forces of empire have morphed into a carceral state that continues to surveil, police, detain and imprison people. We know that Black, brown, indigenous, queer, trans and feminized bodies have long been the ones most harmed by empire’s hunger for extraction and empire’s protection of white power’s property and wealth. Such bodies are the ones tactically marginalized according to the binary logics of empire — supremacy logics that dictate categories race, gender and legal class. These are logics and ideologies and theologies of empire that seek the control of bodies in love and lovers of bodies. That’s how queer liberation theologian Marcella Althaus-Reid talks about it: the control of bodies in love and lovers of bodies. Bodies most vulnerable to empire’s death-dealing demands, like the person devasted by demons in Gerasa. We see in this unwell person how the totalitarianism of empire makes illness a normal response. How the trauma of experiencing power that respects no bounds makes isolation a survival response. It can drive one to the edge. Quite literally to death.

Maybe we learn from the swine in this story what it’s like to perish in the waters of empire. In the traderoutes and slaveroutes of imperial quest. Or to drown in internalized fear of a queer body that has never felt like your own.

Thankfully — number two — Jesus goes to occupied places and reclaims power with people devastated by empire. We might even say that Jesus queers or troubles the dominant power of empire. “What is your name?” asks Jesus in v. 30.  “Legion,” is the reply (Luke 8:30). Duran suggests that empire, like unclean spirits or demons, wants both to control AND to disappear — to not be named (Duran, 51). Legion pretends that it’s not here – existing and exerting its control from within.

So Jesus calling out Legion by name is an act of reclaiming power (see Harper Collins note, v. 30). Queer, transgressive power. It is an act of keen recognition and unapologetic truth-telling that exposes Legion for what it is.  I read this move of Jesus as empowerment and encouragement for those resisting the demonic forces of empire. When you call something for what it is, you begin to release its power over you.

And take note of the reaction: “Panic overcame the whole population of the region,” says v. 37, “when those who witnessed it told the others how the possessed one had been made whole” (Luke 8:37). The panic, the pandemonium — break that word down: pan/demons — which literally means ‘abode of all the demons.’ The pandemonium that ensues when empire loses its grasp. When subjugated peoples rise up, reclaim their power, demand dignity. When people who benefit from empire repent, take risks, release power.

Turn the prism on this person made sick from empire – is it because he’s subjugated, or because he’s swallowed empire’s lies of white cis-heteropatriarchal power? Maybe some of both, as I find in my own white queer able body reading this story. A respite and a reckoning here for me. What’s clear is that casting out the demons of empire offers a path toward greater wholeness for ALL of us in this story.

Finally, this story ends with the familiar gospel “Go and tell.” My third observation is that this “go and tell” proclamation of freedom is issued as empire persists. Through Jesus’s care and solidarity the person who was unwell experiences relief from their cycle of hardship. We are told he was clothed and of a right mind. I imagine this as movement toward living in right relationship. Perhaps he got to utilize universal healthcare and publicly-funded, trauma-informed therapies. Perhaps her family was issued reparations. Perhaps, freer from colonizing norms, they were able to be out and proud about who they truly are.  And yet, the Roman empire had not disappeared! This story doesn’t end with automatic freedom across the whole land. We are still in this story.

However, Jesus’s proclamation of freedom suggests a queer abolitionist inbreaking into this story. It’s an inbreaking where liberation is glimpsed and healing is tasted — not in absence of, but in the very midst of collective struggle.  By casting out the demonic spirits of empire we become queer in relation to dominant power. Queer in relation to dominant power is an understanding of queerness that comes to me from the wisdom of queer black feminists. This re-orientation calls us ‘build the new world while inside the shell of the old,’ as the anarchist saying goes. I feel like in so many ways, this is the messianic hope of the gospel story. Building new worlds for ourselves, carving out spaces of sanctuary and healing under the pressure cooker of empire, furiously nurturing our capacity to repair, re-member, re-imagine — this is biblical faith, the Hebrews’ “assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1). It is the queer eschatological here-but-not-yet-here.

Pride and Juneteenth invite us to celebrate this good news of freedom in the here-and not-quite-here, not removed from but very much in a context of ongoing empire. I’ve been reflecting on Mennonite Church USA’s recent passing of the Resolution for Repentance and Transformation in a similar vein. Perhaps like the Emancipation Proclamation, it’s an aspirational statement. A statement that retires a harmful rule, and one that will take courage and commitment and likely a long time to fully live into.  I’m reminded that our movements for collective liberation from all forms of domination and oppression neither begin nor end with resolutions, uprisings, or rebellions. Such touchstones reflect long lineages of resistance and organizing, adaptation and heartbreak, many things written and unwritten, the many losses of dear ones along the way.

Yet we shall rejoice — for Gerasa, Galveston TX 1865, Stonewall 1969 and shall we say Kansas City 2022, ARE moments to take pride in our protest and our power, to bear witness to a liberated world within an empire that is crumbling. With the gift of queerness as our guide, let us embody a society governed not by the colonial logics of carcerality but by new and reclaimed logics of liberatory relationship. With the gift of trans and trans-forming perspective as our as guide, let us recognize the demonic powers of domination that lurk in our beliefs and theologies and impulses. Let us unmask Legion for what it is and cast them out.

And in the midst of it all, may the unapologetic beauty and boldness of Pride festivals and Juneteenth parties and fierce and fabulous Mennonites & Brethren help us find joy along the way. Joy, a fruit of the liberating spirit. May our gathering in the street parades and in backyards and on delegate floors and dancefloors remind us that these queer bodies are sacred. That our beloved queer bodies are full of desire — desire that connects us to all that we yearn for in a more just, more loving, more sustainable existence on this earth.

Friends, may we continue to dream and live into this sacred community, in that queer space of the here-and-not-yet-here, as we dance and sing and build the world to come.


Works Referenced:

Althaus-Reid, Marcella. The Queer God. London: Routledge, 2003.

Duran, Nicole Wilkinson. “Other People’s Demons: Reading Mark’s Demons in the Disbelieving West.” Mark: Texts@Contexts, edited by Nicole Wilkinson Duran, Teresa Okure, and Daniel Patte, 35-54. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011.

Eiesland, Nancy L. The Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994.

Harper Collins Study Bible. New Revised Standard Version, Harper Collins, 1993.

Hartman, Saidiya. Lose your mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007.