We Carry The Light

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June 23, 2019

Second Sunday after Pentecost

This week I read an article that had a powerful impact on me. I must have read it Monday or Tuesday and I continued to think about it every day for the rest of the week. The article was about a newly established hospice program in the Shawnee Correctional Center in Southern Illinois. The Illinois Department of Corrections acknowledged that there was a need across the state to develop an end of life care program for men and woman as more and more will likely die in prison.  Karen Smoot the health care unit director, in charge of the program at Shawnee, stated that there is a deep “stigma that offenders, prisoners, inmates… whatever are cons and they do not deserve our care and that’s not true”[1] When the Correction Officers challenge her by referencing her patients and asking her if she knows what they’ve done she says, “It doesn’t matter, they are still human.”

Smoot is very passionate about her work, not only because she believes in helping those who are incarcerated die with human dignity, and also because she emphasizes the transformative power of providing this type of intimate care. Not only is this hospice program unique because of where care takes place, but also, who does most of the care taking. Aside from the medical team, all the caretakers are Shawnee Correctional residents. Smoot has developed a program to train them to be therapeutic, nonmedical care givers to people nearing death – they provide visits, play cards, help write letters and even help bathe the patients. They are pivotal to helping to provide the 24 hour vigil that occurs when someone is dying – Smoot’s policy is that “No one dies alone.” Smoot has seven men currently in her program who participate for no incentive or pay, unlike many of the prison’s programming. The majority of the men she works with have seen death before, but primarily through violent and traumatic ways. She acknowledges that this work isn’t for everyone and she has had residents who are overwhelmed and need to leave the program, but for those who make commitment to be present for this process with their peers, some they have known for years, they are truly transformed.

One volunteer in the program said, “There’s a connection to reality in hospice that touches the deepest parts of me that you can’t get from any other program, any other experience in life.” Several who were interviewed mentioned that participating in this program is what true rehabilitation is – causing them to think outside themselves. Another volunteer said, “We are people too. We are human beings and we do have the ability to grow and change. We can’t leave here the same way we came in.”

The writer shared his observations of men wiping the tears from a patient and a friend’s eyes, helping sit him up so that he could take a drink and another leaning over to him, when he thought know one was looking and telling the dying man, “We love you.” While this man may not have been surrounded by his loved ones in a traditional sense – he was very much surrounded by love.

For me, the reason this program is so powerful and why the story stuck with me so deeply this past week is because at the very heart of it is a deep love and respect for humanity and a true honoring of the image of God that is within each and every one of us. Bryan Stevenson, who established the Equal Justice Initiative and author of Just Mercy, says, “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” When I hear this quote I always ask myself along the same lines, is there anything that we can do to tarnish the image of God from which we were made? What is beautiful about the hospice program at Shawnee Correctional Center is that it completely recognizes and celebrates the image of God in the residents – not only in those who are dying, but in those who are able to provide love and care to those who are dying. Sometimes it is the least expected who can truly recognize God in another. Often when we are able to see and acknowledge the humanity and the God in someone else, we recognize the humanity and the God within ourselves. We are always made in the image of God – always – sometimes we just need to be reminded.

I think that this is exactly what happened between Jesus and the man he met among the tombs. Much like the residents at Shawnee, this man had many societal strikes against him. We don’t know how this alienation from society and from him-self occurred but we know from both Matthew and Luke’s Gospels the state he was in when he met Jesus. He was naked and had been bound and chained trying to live among the dead. He was out of control and completely out of touch with others and with himself. When the man encounters Jesus – he isn’t able to give Jesus his name. The demons have cut him off from who God created him to be – he has lost his identity and the demon’s identity has taken priority.

Jesus’ question is a powerful one – to me, it suggests that he isn’t fooled by the man’s uncleanliness and extreme behavior nor was he afraid of the man as so many others were. It shows that Jesus was able to see beyond the demonic possession to the human being who was still very much present and still very much made in the image of God.

Demon possession is something I’d wager to guess is not a topic of comfort for many of us in this room. It is part of scripture that we would prefer to pass over or a topic of scripture, because it’s hard to understand, has been misused in a hurtful way. I would like to make something clear – I do not believe that demonic possession is synonymous with mental illness, personality disorders, any physical illness or addiction. I wish I could tell you exactly what demonic possession means or even exactly what I believe about demons or demonic forces. I’m sorry to tell you, but six months into this whole priesthood thing – I do not have all the answers.

Here’s what I am willing to publically commit to – I do very much believe in demons and demonic forces and I absolutely believe that these type of forces create situations in which we lose touch with God, with the image of God of which we each have been created and the image of God that those and the creation around us also bear. Sometimes these forces can be individualized, but quite often I believe that they are systemic and very powerful. We can be so steeped in these forces in ways we don’t even realize until we have a moment – similar to the man in our story in which we’ve lost or names, our identities, and the demon has taken center stage. 

Many scholars agree that there are some nods to systemic oppression or systemic demons with our passage today. The name “Legion” is the term that the Roman army used for a group of six thousand soldiers and this part of Palestine was under Roman occupation. There is some interesting word play between Luke and Acts, which we know was written by the same author. The verb that is used when the writer references the man being “seized” is the same verb that is used when the disciples were arrested and brought to trial in Acts. The verb that is used when Jesus confronts the man is the same verb that is used when two armies meet in battle and lastly the verb used to describe the man being bound by hand and foot in chains is the same verb when the disciples were imprisoned in Acts. All of these verbs have a corporate systemic nature to them.

Now I’m not going to talk too much about the pigs today, but I do want to point out that for the Roman army – the symbol of the pig represented the legion and was not only used on banners in battle, but also on coins and bricks.

Lastly there is evidence from historical documents, outside of the canon of the Bible, that the town that this story takes place was previously violently taken by the Roman Empire, most of the men were killed and the town burned. Therefore it very well may mean that the tombs that this man lived among were the tombs of the men whom the Romans had slaughtered.

With all of these pieces together there is a bit of dark political humor here in how Jesus responds to the demons. There is a suggestion that the demons themselves represent the Roman occupation not only in the name “Legion” but in how the demons treated the man they occupied, is enhanced by the imagery of Jesus sending the demons into the pigs, the symbol of the Roman army and having them all drown in the waters that just before in Luke’s Gospel he had calmed… and people say the Bible isn’t political.

The thing that put all of this into motion – the demons, the pigs, the man’s freedom, the fear of all those around them and Jesus being asked to leave the town – was that pivotal moment when Jesus saw beyond the man’s presentation to the beloved child of God that was there – desperate to be seen.

We are living in a world that is full of institutional and systemic demons that throughout generations have worked very hard to cause humanity to be disconnected from God, to lose sight of the divinity that inspired the creation of all of us and, at times, caused us to forget our own identity as beloved children of God. Today I cannot help but think about the ICE raids that are possibly happening in our very own city. I think about the continued inhumane treatment of children, women and men at our borders and I think about the continued impacts of racism, which we all undeniable have been steeped in since the moment we have born.

Our criminal justice system is a powerful example of systemic demonic forces - system that has been deeply influenced by the history of slavery, a system that historically is more focused on punishment than reform or rehabilitation, and a system that thrives on dehumanizing most who are involved. And yet, we can all take a lesson from the residents of the Shawnee Correctional Center who have learned that when they look into the eyes of one who is dying and if they see past his uniform, his setting, his inmate number, the cinder block walls and truly see him as a human being, a beloved child of God they then begin to get back in touch with their own humanity. They realize that they are more than a uniform and a number as well. They are capable and deserving of love. At the end of the article one of the volunteers in the program stated that he felt that he and his fellow volunteers provide hope to those around them saying, “We carry a light.”

Let us also carry a light and use that light to see clearly the humanity of those around us and to expose these deeply engrained demonic forces that are causing us all to forget who created us all. By doing so we might just be providing the same sense of freedom that Jesus provided to the man living among the tombs, we also might just find that we are simultaneously learning to speak our own names with a bit more confidence and clarity. 

[1] Smith, I. “’We Carry a Light’: Inmates at Shawnee Correctional Center Care for the Prisons Dying”. The Southern. May 26th 2019.