Today the tabloid newspapers are full of unsupported allegations by Lord Ashcroft that PM David Cameron, when a student at Oxford, took part in an initiation ceremony for a membership of a club, by placing his penis in the mouth of a dead pig. Clearly if Ashcroft had any real evidence for this story he would have gleefully published it, so we can assume he does not have any. It’s the kind of story beloved by journalists, revealing the fundamental decency and seriousness of their profession and giving us reason to rejoice in the freedom of the press.Or not.
Still it’s fun, isn’t it? Apart from the sexual humiliation involved in the alleged ceremony, there is a special frisson, because it involves a dead pig. It may have been part of a boorish initiation for toffs but it carries with it a whiff of something more ancient and darker. Indeed critics of Cameron should beware that far from reducing his appeal to the electorate the story may strengthen his macho image and the power of his more brutal policies.
But the pig is vital. Other animals, badgers, foxes, pheasant, grouse or salmon, while interesting, would not have had the same presence as the pig.
I have to declare that the pig is my favourite animal; my family buys me books about pigs; and I am always happy conversing with pigs wherever I find them. They’re more intelligent than most animals, and to me at least, more congenial. For this reason I have had to wean myself off bacon, ham and pork, which are of course, extremely delicious. I am not a convinced vegetarian but want to see all farm animals treated with respect and given a decent life before going to market. But there is a darker side to pigs, namely, wild boar, formerly found only outside the UK but now, due to escapes from farms, present in some numbers. The wild boar has a ferocious appearance and reputation, but is a shy animal that will try its very best to keep away from human beings. But of course it is hunted for sport and therefore has to be credited with the kind of viciousness with justifies and dignifies the hunter. I once was aware of wild boar near me when climbing in the Pyrenees, could hear them and smell them over a period of hours but did not once see them.
But isn’t this blog supposed to be about Jesus? So it is, and all of this is just an introduction to the Jesus pig -story. Here you are:
Jesus and his disciples came to the other side of the lake, to the region of the Gerasenes. 2 As soon as Jesus got out of the boat, a man possessed by an evil spirit came out of the tombs. 3 This man lived among the tombs, and no one was ever strong enough to restrain him, even with a chain. 4 He had been secured many times with leg irons and chains, but he broke the chains and smashed the leg irons. No one was tough enough to control him. 5 Night and day in the tombs and the hills, he would howl and cut himself with stones. 6 When he saw Jesus from far away, he ran and knelt before him, 7 shouting, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? Swear to God that you won’t torture me!”
8 He said this because Jesus had already commanded him, “Unclean spirit, come out of the man!”
9 Jesus asked him, “What is your name?”
He responded, “Legion is my name, because we are many.”
10 They pleaded with Jesus not to send them out of that region.
11 A large herd of pigs was feeding on the hillside. 12 “Send us into the pigs!” they begged. “Let us go into the pigs!” 13 Jesus gave them permission, so the unclean spirits left the man and went into the pigs. Then the herd of about two thousand pigs rushed down the cliff into the lake and drowned.
14 Those who tended the pigs ran away and told the story in the city and in the countryside. People came to see what had happened. 15 They came to Jesus and saw the man who used to be demon-possessed. They saw the very man who had been filled with many demons sitting there fully dressed and completely sane, and they were filled with awe. 16 Those who had actually seen what had happened to the demon-possessed man told the others about the pigs. 17 Then they pleaded with Jesus to leave their region.
18 While he was climbing into the boat, the one who had been demon-possessed pleaded with Jesus to let him come along as one of his disciples. 19 But Jesus wouldn’t allow it. “Go home to your own people,” Jesus said, “and tell them what the Lord has done for you and how he has shown you mercy.” 20 The man went away and began to proclaim in the Ten Cities all that Jesus had done for him, and everyone was amazed.
The story will be familiar to all who ever attended a Sunday School. It’s popular with children because it has demons and tombs and suicidal pigs. The key to the story however is something that most commentators ignore, the demons’ name. The man says his name is “Legion, for the are many of us.” Most commentators find no interest in the name, as if it simply meant, “many”. But of course it means a detachment of the Roman Army, which in the time of the author had just finished destroying Jerusalem and its temple, and was an occupying force in the time of Jesus. Nobody could use the word “Legion” and ignore its primary reference. If we take it that the man in effect says, “I’m the Roman army” then we may attribute his possession to the trauma of violent invasion and control by one or more Legions. In modern psychobabble he has introjected the violence of the invader and now directs it at himself, while choosing to inhabit a place of death. For all these reasons he would be considered “unclean” in Jesus’ society and perhaps even in the Decapolis, the “gentile” part of Palestine.
Unlike others, Jesus can see through the demon possession to the human being, and by encouraging the man to name his illness, is able to cure it. The atmosphere of the story is wild, the graveyard, the howling and cutting, the screaming, it is taboo land, but Jesus remains cool. But now comes the pig-moment. How can Jesus make these pigs suffer and die in this way? The traditional answer is that Jesus, like all Jews, considered them as unclean and foreign, and so didn’t much care what happened to them.
But there’s another possibility, and that’s to ask what sort of story this is. The obvious answer is that it’s another of these miracle healings that Mark likes so much. Certainly it is part of a series of stories in Mark which show Jesus breaking through the barriers of social and religious taboo, to liberate their victims and restore them to community life. But maybe this one has darker undertones, which may come from Mark or from his source. It deals with a victim of Roman occupation, who calls himself Legion. There were at least three Roman Legions who used a boar as their symbol. It is very likely that these symbols would have been known to Jesus and his contemporaries. If Romans were happy to see themselves as boars, maybe some Galileans were happy to think of them as pigs: unclean, foreign and disgusting. So the story may have been told originally from the point of view of patriotic Jews who saw some humour in the picture of Jesus sending the unclean demons where they belonged: into unclean animals, in which case we may think that their descent into the lake was meant to be more like a cartoon film sequence in which nobody is really hurt.
I’m aware that this interpretation is speculative, and requires a lot more evidence to be convincing. If for example I could prove that one of the “boar legions” had been stationed in the Decapolis, it would have more likelihood.
For Jesus, David Cameron’s student antics with a pig would be much less important than his government’s use of social violence (impoverishment) against the poor, and military violence in Syria, both of which are known to leave their victims open to self-destructive illness.