“We are legion”: The demonic nature of police militarization

A member of the St. Louis County Police Department points a weapon in the direction of a group of protesters in Ferguson MO.  Note the person with his hands in the air.

Looking for a biblical perspective on the militarization of the police in Ferguson, Missouri and the gross civil rights violations there?

Try Jesus on the Roman military presence in ancient Israel for a trenchant theological critique of how demonic this kind of occupation of a people with overwhelming military-style force can be.

As I say in #OccupytheBible, all the gospels record that one day, after Jesus had established his ministry in Galilee, he crossed the Sea of Galilee and encountered a wild man who was possessed by demons, by the devil. When Jesus speaks to the demons he asks, “What is your name?” They said, “Legion” for as the text says, “we are many.” (Mark 5:9; Luke 8:30).

But what is a legion? A legion can certainly mean “a lot of demons” but Legion is more commonly the proper name of the heavy infantry that was the basic military unit of the ancient Roman army during the empire. It was a division of a couple thousand Roman soldiers, though the number could vary. It also almost always had attached one or more units of conscripted troops, i.e. non-roman citizens. In Jesus’ time, these would have been Jews.

The demons, or more likely the oppressive legions of both the Romans and their Jewish auxiliary, are “called out” by Jesus and 2,000 of them rush into a herd of swine and are drowned. In ancient Israel, the eating of pork was forbidden, so being a swine was not a compliment, even as in most cultures today it is not a term of praise. These demons, as we used to say in the 60’s, are the pigs, and it is interesting that their number approximates a Roman Legion.

The gospels need to be read through movement eyes, through the lives of people, particularly African Americans, who are increasingly struggling with a militarized police presence that, coupled with rampant abuse of power through racism, is creating war zones in our communities.

Read the Gospels then as wartime literature; after all, they were composed after the end of the Roman destruction of the Temple. These texts have to be examined through the lens of an occupied people.

And people are occupied.  Tom Nolan, who worked in the Boston Police Department for 27 years, writes in a June, 2014 issue of Defense One, “Stop Arming the Police Like a Military.” He contends, “Have no doubt, police in the United States are militarizing, and in many communities, particular those of color, the message is being received, ‘You are the enemy.'”

There is an alternative. Nolan writes, “Good policing is all about trust.” That’s something we as people of faith can demand in our towns and cities. Police need to be “disarmed” from these assault-type weapons and equipment, given anti-racism training, and helped to regain the best of policing work which is all about building trust in community.  This is what ‘casting out the demons’ means in this context, getting rid of these assault weapons, aggressive militarized responses, and racism.

This is crucial and we cannot wait.  Too many lives are at stake, too many young African American men with their hands in their air, or carrying ice tea and skittles are being shot down.

So right now, we need to call out the legions for the demonic force they are.

 

 

About Susan Thistlethwaite

I am a Professor of Theology and former President of Chicago Theological Seminary; I blog here, at the Huffington Post, and at other venues. I am a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. I am interested in what I call "public theology," or how deeper meaning is made and contested in the public square.
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One Response to “We are legion”: The demonic nature of police militarization

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