“Then Jesus asked him, ‘What is your name?’ He replied, ‘My name is Legion; for we are many.’”
The Iliff School of Theology recently interviewed me for their new alumni blog. In the interview (which you might read, because – hi! – I’m new here) I talk about organizing white folk for racial justice. One thing I say is:
The work can look a lot of different ways…Sometimes it’s marshaling for actions led by people of color so they can have the space they need to [function] and not have to interact with unhelpful white people, of which we are many. We are legion.
“We are legion.” I used this phrase with intention, but why would I say such a thing about my(white)self, about my fellow white folk? Saying that white people are an unclean spirit is not very nice, really.
In Mark’s story, the Gerasene possessed by the unclean spirit is so unsafe, so violent to himself and his community that he cannot be restrained. He is isolated, apart, amongst tombs “howling and bruising himself with stones,” resistant even to Jesus’s healing. When Jesus asks the demon to name itself, they (!) name themselves Legion: the armies, occupiers, and enforcers of the Roman Empire. In other words, the Empire’s forces of death, oppression, violence, and idolatry have taken over this man, making him a threat to the well-being of others, and himself.
So with the Gerasene, my white friends and relatives, so with us. We likewise are possessed by Legion, the Empire of our day, the demon of whiteness that inhabits our minds, hearts, bodies like a multitude of Voldemort’s horcruxes. Regardless of where we fall on the political spectrum, we cause harm when we refuse to recognize how Legion – whiteness – acts out of us.
Whiteness? I mean that light-skinned Western Europeans made meaning out of physical differences among human bodies in order to build and maintain power and wealth with the rise of Western European capitalism, colonization and genocide, slave trade, Christian mission, and Enlightenment rationality, all tied up and twisted around each other until there is no separating them. Whiteness (and white bodies) became synonymous with good, pure, beautiful, civilized, clean, rational, scientific, knowledgeable; all else non-white (and non-white bodies) became bad, evil, dark, dirty, savage, uncivilized, emotional, sexual, violent.
Whiteness, we claim(ed), would save the world.
But whiteness is a system of power that functions to protect power and wealth, expending an immense amount of violence and resources policing its boundaries. Whiteness infects everything (“for we are many”): how we think about different genders, for example, and families; what kind of knowledge and knowing is worthy; what is good and beautiful; who is to be believed about their experience; our relationship to land, plants, creatures; what we think success, community, love is.
Yet whiteness also hides in plain sight (for white people); rather than understanding ourselves possessed by an unclean spirit, we have called Legion good, naming whiteness as normal, universal, The Way to be human.
Nevertheless, we can learn to spot whiteness-as-Legion acting out when:
- we say Colin Kaepernick should find a more “respectful” way to make his point.
- we ask what Tyre King, or Sandra Bland, or Jessie Hernandez did wrong, before asking why they were murdered (if we ever ask that at all).
- we believe we can go into any space, no matter how well-intentioned we are, even when asked by people of color not to.
- we say that pipeline jobs are more important than the well-being of the land and the indigenous peoples who belong to it.
- we decide that our church can’t focus on racial justice right now because we’ve already set our program for the year.
- we do any of the things on this list.
It’s hard work getting inside our own heads, interrogating how we’ve been taught to live. (Confession: The racist stuff inside my head scares me.) But the Gerasene’s story is good news for us as white people. The Gerasene is not a bad person; rather, he is possessed by spirits that cause harm. Once he is liberated of the Empire living in his substance, he returns to his “right mind” and becomes a follower of Jesus, proclaiming the way of love and liberation.
We can be healed. Legion can be cast out, when we turn to Jesus and give whiteness up, when we learn to spot whiteness inside ourselves and choose to act differently. We become more fully human. We stop harming ourselves and others. Yes, there will be resistance. The powerful like things the way they are.
But to disrupt whiteness in ourselves is an act of faithfulness. For we belong to God, not Legion.
Liberation is a lifelong journey, but it is possible. Thanks be to God.
Rev. Anne Dunlap is a UCC pastor, activist, and herbal warrior serving as Community Minister for Racial Justice & Solidarity in Denver, CO, where she is a member of the United Church of Montbello. Her work includes local organizing, pastoral and spiritual care in the movement, teaching, farmhanding, and coordinating the Showing Up for Racial Justice faith working group. She writes at FierceRev Remedies.
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