This may seem humorous or lighthearted, but for many it’s not. I was reading through Mark 5 (Luke 8) this morning and settled into the very interesting story of Jesus’ healing of a demoniac man (vv. 1-13) and the reaction of townsfolk (vv. 14-17) to his healing and to the prospect of Jesus entering their town. The story is familiar. Jesus delivers a demonized man from the “many” spiritual agents that torment him. Upon the exorcism, the demons plead with Jesus “not to torment them” but to allow them instead to enter a heard of (some 2,000) pigs nearby. Jesus grants their request. The demons enter the pigs and the pigs hurl themselves over a steep bank and drown in the waters below. Nearby townsfolk hear of it and meet Jesus on the edge of town to urge him to take his tour elsewhere.
We have a question for our good friend Greg Boyd: Does Jesus either do violence or is he complicit in some less than perfectly loving way in the doing of violence here?
Greg’s known for maintaining the absolute non-violence of God. Being love, God cannot do violence. Even in seemingly obvious instances such as the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5) or the blinding of Elymas the sorcerer (Acts 13), God cannot be said to have willed the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira or to have directly taken their lives or the sight of Elymas. Other explanations have to be sought. Perhaps, Greg suggests, Peter retained lethal spiritual powers he was able to exercise independently of God. Whatever the explanation may be, it doesn’t include God willing or executing such judgment since that involves the doing of violence. This especially includes Jesus who is our only reason for believing God is non-violent benevolence. One might question Jesus’ absolute pacifism by noting his behavior in driving merchants from the Temple. Greg doesn’t see this as violence. Alright. One might suggest then that Jesus cursing a fig tree and its dying would qualify as violent on some level. But trees aren’t sentient creatures who experience pain and suffering, so it’s difficult to see killing a tree as doing it violence. We think these examples are worth debating, but for the sake of argument, let’s grant Greg that they don’t constitute violence.
Now consider MK 5/LK 8. Pigs are sentient creatures who do suffer. Consider also Greg’s concern about animal suffering within the prolonged history of evolution. It’s a main reason why Greg adopts his warfare worldview (in which carnivorousness and, well, entropy itself are the product of demonic agents wreaking violent havoc within the created order). Animal suffering is a huge theological concern for Greg. So the question here is how to relate Jesus to the possession and deaths of these pigs (assuming the story is historical). It’s not possible to argue the pigs are being judged by God in terms of what Greg describes as divine “withdrawal” (or divine “Aikido”), i.e., as an act of judgment in which God withdrawals his umbrella of protection over these pigs and allows pent-up demonic forces to execute judgment. That won’t work here because pigs can be no more objects of divine judgment than they can be subjects of moral agency. These pigs are entirely victims of violence.
Who perpetrates the violence? Obviously the legion of malevolent forces. But it’s not possible to leave the story there, because Jesus grants specific permission to this legion to take their violence out upon an innocent herd of pigs. He didn’t have to agree to the request of these demons. And there is nothing about the pigs that warrants his permitting this violence against them. So this looks like a case of Jesus being complicit in violence (for some point he wished to make no doubt, but let’s leave that aside for the moment) in a way particularly objectionable to Greg (i.e., not as a form of judgment by which moral agents are exposed to the natural consequences of their choices by divine withdrawal).
Might we suppose that the fate of the pigs wasn’t certain, that Jesus supposed things might not end so violently for the pigs and that this gets Jesus off the hook of any objectionable complicity in perpetrating violence upon these animals? No, we may not suppose this, for there is violence in the possessing of these sentient little cloven hoofed creatures, not just in their descent to drowning. Their possession is a violence they suffer, and they can only be possessed if Jesus permits it, and they did nothing to deserve Jesus’ exposing them to the violence of such possession, and yet Jesus knowingly feeds them to demonic violence.