If you read Mark 4:35-5:20 closely, you’ll see a Jesus who was especially frightening. Though his supernatural power saves them on the violent Sea of Galilee, the disciples are not comforted but “filled with great fear” (4:41). Jesus is more frightening than the life-threatening storm. Next, in a scene straight from a horror movie, a demoniac in a Gerasan graveyard, clad only in broken chains, shackles, and dried blood, literally runs at Jesus, only to fall to the ground in a panicked heap. The monsters in the man scream, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me” (5:7). Jesus scares demons. After Christ commands the demons into the pigs and they rush into the sea – all 2,000 of them! – the townspeople arrive. They see “the demon-possessed man sitting there, clothed and in his right mind and they were afraid” (5:15). Then, just as the unclean spirits had previously begged Jesus to spare them, the locals “beg Jesus to depart from their region” (5:17). They too want to be spared. Jesus is more frightening than a legion of devils.
The disciples fear because they still haven’t comprehended Christ’s cosmic authority. The demons fear precisely because they have. The Gerasenes, on the other hand, fear not only the terrifying display of Jesus’ power, but the violent interruption He inflicts upon their way of life. Two thousand pigs is a lot of bacon. The failure of faith and subsequent lack of nerve that occurs on the Sea of Galilee, and much more tragically in the country of the Gerasenes, is the fearing of something or someone more than Jesus. Such idolatrous fear renders Christ utterly terrifying to us. If the South is Christ-haunted, it is so because it isn’t Christ-fearing. We are haunted by Jesus because we fear for our idols. And through an infinite variety of means – alcohol, television, trips to the coast, church-attendance, desperate prayer – we beg Him to leave us alone.
What are the idols we fear for in the South? Where is the money spent? Where is time invested? What are the boasts of the culture?
Southerners are notoriously lazy. By and large, we labor not for status but for comfort – for the twin engine boat on the lake, the mountain home in the Blue Ridge, that beach trip next summer on the Isle of Palms. Living in South Carolina for the last four years I’ve concluded that the state song should be Margaritaville. Life’s a beach – at least on the weekends. That’s what we live for, and when we really live! We love life after work. We love our vacations. We love our cookouts and porch swings and sweet tea. We love our comfort food. We love our comfort. And Jesus threatens our comfort.
We southerners pride ourselves on our “famous hospitality.” Yet the South also has a darker reputation in terms of welcoming strangers. This is ironically intimated in this early 19th century observer’s description of Southern hospitality:
“The hospitality of southerners is so profuse, that taverns are but poorly supported. A traveler, with the garb and the manners of a gentleman, finds a welcome at every door,” (Jacob Abbott, New England, and Her Institutions, 1835).
Note the qualification. Those who didn’t fit that description were, shall we say, less welcomed. And even those who were welcomed didn’t always experience a sincere reception. One student of the South, for instance, writes of the “natural theatricality” of southern hospitality, consisting in “a comedy of manners that will apparently run forever, no matter how transparent its characters and aims” (Shirley Abbott, Womenfolks: Growing Up Down South, 1998). That is to say, our southern warmth and decorum is itself an attempt to maintain a distance between ourselves and the other. Xenophobia means “fear of strangers,” and stands in obvious contrast to philoxenos (“love of strangers”), which is the Greek word we render “hospitable.” Racially, politically, economically, geographically, denominationally, and even regionally, the South has been infamously xenophobic.
What’s the root of this fear? R.C. Sproul, in his classic book The Holiness of God, insightfully wrote: God is the ultimate object of our xenophobia. He is the ultimate stranger. He is the ultimate foreigner. He is holy, and we are not. The sad scene in Mark 5:14-17 is duplicated by “southern hospitality” ten-thousand-fold. Jesus is the terrifying Other who threatens that with which we are familiar and comfortable. He ain’t welcome here. But for the South to become truly hospitable, we must first and foremost open the door to the Stranger outside (Rev.3:20). At our own doorstep we need to encounter the living Christ in all the trauma and grace of His awesome presence – to hear His voice in the preached word of the gospel. Where some will beg for Jesus to leave them, others of us – by the mercy of God – will beg to go with Him (Mark 5:18).