Peter McClellan

Necropolitics, Hauntology & Biblical Studies

An interview with Christianity Seminar graduate essay contest winner Peter N. McLellan

Necropolitics and haunting … no, I’m not talking about Halloween, although there is something uncanny about this new language of biblical studies. If you appreciate liberation theology and its many cousins, you’ll probably find “hauntology” meaningful, too. But let’s not collapse these topics too quickly.

Peter N. McLellan, who is currently pursuing his Ph.D. at Drew University, was recently selected as the winner of the Christianity Seminar Graduate Student Essay Contest. His prize-winning essay reads the story of the Geresene Demoniac in Mark 5:1–20 through the lens of necropolitics, haunting, and “(un)dead” space. The essay will be presented in San Antonio in November and can be read online on the Fall 2016 Seminar Papers page. So I asked Peter to help us understand what this movement in biblical studies is all about.

Before we jump into the interview, here’s a refresher of the story in Mark for those who need it. (This is the Scholars Version translation from The Complete Gospels.)

Mark 5:1–20

And they [Jesus and the Twelve] came to the other side of the sea, to the region of Gerasenes. And when he got out of the boat, right away a man possessed by an unclean spirit came from the tombs to meet him. This man made his home in the tombs, and nobody was able to bind him, not even with a chain, because, though he had often been bound with shackles and chains, he would break the shackles and pull the chains apart, and nobody could subdue him. And day and night he would howl among the tombs and across the hills and keep bruising himself on the stones. And when he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran up and knelt before him and, screaming at the top of his voice, he says, “What do you want with me, Jesus, you son of the most high God? For God’s sake, don’t torment me!”—because he had been saying to it, “Come out of this man, you filthy spirit!”

And Jesus started questioning him, “What’s your name?”

“My name is Legion,” it says, “because there are many of us.”

And it kept begging him over and over again not to expel them from their territory.

Now over there by the mountain a large herd of pigs was feeding. And so they bargained with him, “Send us over to the pigs so we may enter them!”

And he agreed. And then the unclean spirits came out and entered the pigs, and the herd stampeded down the bluff into the sea, about two thousand of them, and drowned in the sea. And the herdsmen ran off and reported it in town and out in the country.

And they went out to see what had happened. And they come to Jesus and notice the demon possessed man sitting there with his clothes on and with his wits about him, the one who had harbored Legion, and they got scared. And those who had seen told them what had happened to the possessed man, and all about the pigs. And they started begging him to leave their region. And as Jesus was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed kept pleading with him to let him come along. And he would not let him, but says to him, “Go home to your people and tell them what the Lord has done for you—how he has shown mercy to you.”

And he went away and started spreading the news in the Ten Cities [Decapolis] about what Jesus had done for him, and everybody would marvel.

Necropolitics and Decapolis Death Worlds

Peter, thanks for talking with me here about your work and this approach to biblical studies. I’m wondering if you can give us a “big picture” understanding of why, all of a sudden, books and articles in biblical studies are starting to use death language and the language of ghosts and haunting memory. Who or what inspired this turn?

First off, I want to thank you and the Westar institute for this opportunity to discuss my research. I’m looking forward to it.

Ghosts, haunted memory, and trauma theory permit us to think about the underside of history, and those people and forces invisible to our conventional narratives we tell of our past and present. Rather than assuming a concept of time that moves with a linear progression from the past to the present, scholars attuned to these nontraditional understandings of time investigate forces that seem to come out of the past or future: forces like ghosts and hauntings, nostalgia, and traumatic moments.

Philosophers and social historians like Jacques Derrida and Avery Gordon instituted this move, but it has been further expanded by queer theorists, all of whom examine those moments in our past that are unresolved in the present. Perhaps the most notable example in the U.S. context would be the legacy of slavery and its resulting racism in the present. One would be hard-pressed to argue that, as a society and as individuals, we are not haunted by the ghosts of slaves and that our present privilege is not still built upon their backs. In biblical studies, scholars like Denise Buell, Maia Kotrosits, and Matthew Ketchum have given us tools to think about the ways contemporary Christian self-understanding is informed by a conflicted imagination of the past.

The concept of “necropolitics” was developed by the Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe. What is it, and what do you find so compelling about it?

Necopolitics accounts for all the ways the modern, postcolonial world tells us which lives count and which lives do not. Mbembe uses particular examples, like war-torn nations on the African continent or the plight of Palestinian residents at the mercy of encroaching Israeli settlers, to demonstrate that there are places where the privilege to live is never granted as an option.

My interest, particular as a scholar of Christian scriptures, is to point the reader toward those places in both the biblical text and their surroundings where people are treated similarly. The most glaring example, I think, is #BlackLivesMatter, a movement explicitly challenging the notion that those of us with privilege ever give some people the chance to live. Necropolitics make plain the ways in which our politics have life-or-death consequences, as do our readings of religious texts.

What vital contributions are African voices like Mbembe’s making to the next generation of biblical scholarship and early Christian history? Are there any other voices you think we should have on our radar?

There are two answers to that question. First, African biblical scholars have been and are making vital contributions to the field by exposing the legacy of colonialism in both biblical studies, in particular, and the global spread of Christianity, in general. The work of people like Musa Dube or Kenneth Ngwa has demonstrated many of the ways in which the narrative of Christian origins that has developed is intimately tied up with narratives of European colonization on the African continent.

Second—and I think this more adequately addresses the argument I take up in the essay—those of us who came of age in the post-war United States have experienced a sort of privilege that has not only brought prosperity, but has shielded us from the sorts of suffering that prosperity has wrought on two-thirds world nations. And this phenomenon has seeped into the discourses of Christian origins and biblical studies.

In this way, I pick up Mbembe as a means to think about how Euro-American academic discourse, including religious studies and biblical studies, continues to participate in these patterns that miss the deadly power of rhetoric. This is not necessarily an innovation among biblical scholars. But what I hope to do in this essay is call attention to the ways in which those who are put to death by the biblical imagination and our contemporary readings of biblical texts haunt Christian self-understanding. The imagination we have of the scripturalized past is always a political force in the present.

Okay, let’s turn to the Gerasene demoniac. In your essay, you explore the reality of lives that “never actually count” in the minds of people with political or judicial power. Certain groups of people are treated as though they are already dead, so anything can be done to them and it won’t matter. In Mark’s story, you point to the demoniac, representing all Gerasenes, as an example of this category of people. What made the Gerasenes the “living dead” in the eyes of the Romans?

Historical data on the Gerasenes is both tough to come by and somewhat conflicting. Josephus briefly mentions a violent encounter with a Roman cavalry detachment during the Jewish Revolt of 66-70 CE, in which a number of innocents were slaughtered. But material evidence from the first century shows a vital, even prosperous community in Gerasa.

But, what I find so interesting here, is that Mark creates a violent description of the Gerasenes to point to a larger theological and historical point; the narrator creates a rhetorical tool out of a group of people, describing them in an undesirable way, in order to establish Jesus as an awe-inspiring, perhaps even liberating, figure. So, to get back to your question, the Gerasenes are the living dead because they are presented as such, and read, so often uncritically, as the living dead.

Necropolis - a metaphor for necropolitics

Necropolis at Hierapolis, part of Pamukkale, Turkey. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Traditionally, readers of this story see Jesus as doing the demoniac a favor when he sends the unclean spirits out of him. But I got the suspicion in your essay that Mark’s Jesus is no hero. Who is this Jesus? What did he want?

I’m a little less interested in what Jesus wants here than in what Mark wants to do with Jesus as a character. I see him as a rhetorical tool of the larger narrative in Mark’s Gospel. So, this Jesus appears to accomplish quite a bit in 5:1-20 as the story’s protagonist, as he travels across the sea, both healing a demoniac and kicking out a Legion. Quite a feat! I see this as a move to establish some sort of authority in the character of Jesus, thereby lending some credibility to the author of the gospel.

What do you feel is the most important takeaway for modern readers of this story? What message are you hoping we’ll carry away with us after reading it?

This passage is a rich, if dark, story, and it has captured the imaginations of many folks. But I hope modern readers might take a closer look at those figures within favorite biblical stories and ask what the story does to them. And, furthermore, to ask what such a challenging reading might do to their own conception of their world. So, when we honor one hero or when we lift up one story, which other stories, and which other people, do we devalue? No doubt, Jesus occupies a central—the central—position in the Gospel of Mark, but that should never erase the presence of the Gerasenes. That being the case, are we okay that they merely seem to occupy a space marked by death? Then, to bring it back to the concept of haunting, do we think they would be okay occupying such a space?

Posing such questions of ourselves when we imagine the legacy of stories of Christian origins, I hope, prods readers to consider how they want to think about their heritages, and how they want that past to inform their present.

Thank you, Peter, and once again, congratulations on winning the graduate student essay contest!

Cassandra FarrinCassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University. She is passionate about books and projects that in some way address the intersection of ethics and early Christian history.

Photo of Martin Luther the Man
1 reply
  1. Gene Stecher says:

    Cassandra, you quote Mr. McLellan: “No doubt, Jesus occupies a central—the central—position in the Gospel of Mark, but that should never erase the presence of the Gerasenes. That being the case, are we okay that they merely seem to occupy a space marked by death? Then, to bring it back to the concept of haunting, do we think they would be okay occupying such a space?”

    Let’s remember that the Decapolis is Greek territory.
    So the story sets Jesus outside of his Jewish boundaries. We have tombs, a wild man, and an enormous number of demons and pigs, all in a relatively small area. This is hostile territory for a Jew, which the Jew Jesus chooses to enter anyway. He becomes a hero for the Gentiles who don’t want his heroism and are actually so afraid they want him to leave the territory. They have reason to be afraid; drowning 2000 pigs is an action toward destroying their culture. Except for the toob wanderer who occupies a space of demonic death, the Gerasenes themselves seem to occupy a space of wealth.

    So the question raised by this story could be stated: How do we expel the demons without destroying the culture? Is this the result and message that we want: We lost 2000 pigs but I feel great! Is that the message to be taken back to the “ten cities?” Could it be that sometimes a culture has to lose 2000 pigs for its entire populace to feel great? Maybe the rich really do have to pay more taxes to put more rungs on the ladder for the outcasts.

    Maybe the demoniac should haunt the decapolis with that message, but in what sense is it acceptable if that message comes from a foreign source (Jewish Jesus)?

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