For anyone with any connection to Israel/Palestine, or anyone who follows the news closely (in my experience there is a lot of overlap between these two groups), the word “occupation” is one that is frequently heard. Recently, however, the words “occupation” and “occupy” have been all over the global news, and they are being used in a different way. This is because of the Occupy Wall Street movement that began this fall in New York city, and has spread across the United States and (in the past few days) across the world.
It is interesting to note that these protests, which are taking aim at the forces of corporate greed and political back-scratchery, seem to be making ironic use of the term “occupy.” They claim to be occupying Wall Street, but their rhetoric is decidedly liberationist. Here is a quote from the first edition of the Occupied Wall Street Journal (a great title, regardless of your political persuasion): “What is occurring on Wall Street right now is remarkable. For over two weeks, in the great cathedral of capitalism, the dispossessed have liberated territory from the financial overlords and their police army.”
It is clear that the protestors see themselves as the liberators, even as they are calling themselves the occupiers.
In the Bible it is easy to see parallels between occupation and demon possession. In our study on Mark, we looked at a few instances where Jesus confronted people possessed by evil spirits, and discussed the thematic links between possession and occupation. They are easy to draw out: evil spirits “occupy” the people they possess, and both those who are demon-possessed and those who live under occupation are seeking deliverance and liberation. It is easy to see how this could have been a part of the subtext of what Jesus was saying and doing, especially since he lived under Roman occupation. Was it just a coincidence, for example, that in Mark 5:9, the demon Jesus drives out says “My name is Legion”? Sounds pretty anti-imperial to me, I mean if the point was to show that there were many demons instead of just one, it could have just said “My name is many” or something like that. For Mark to use the word “Legion,” especially in that context, was a political statement. He might as well have called the demon Caesar! Not to mention, of course, that the demon named Legion was then driven into a herd of pigs! Others have read Mark in this way as well, for example Ched Myers’ book, Binding the Strong Man.
The title of Myers’ book comes from Mark 3:27 (NIV), where Jesus says, “In fact, no one can enter a strong man’s house and carry off his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man. Then he can rob his house.” Here, Jesus is defending himself against those who accused him of driving out evil spirits in the name of the devil (really? how does that make any sense?), and he is comparing the devil to the strong man. If the devil is the strong man in this scenario, then that makes Jesus the thief! He is the occupier who enters the house that is not his, the trespasser who has come to liberate.
Here in Niger, I haven’t heard anyone mention any occupation, but people refer to evil spirits with surprising regularity. It seems like everyone I talk to wants to know what I think about them, and this seems to be true across the board, with Christians, Muslims and others. I remember from growing up in Togo that people would often use a gris gris (a fetish or amulet) to protect themselves against evil spirits, so I asked one of my colleagues here at the hospital if people use them here as well. He said that they do, and pointed out a child that is here with cleft lip, awaiting treatment. “You see the gris gris around his neck?” he said. “His parents put it on him to keep away the devils. It is very common.”
It is easy to be skeptical of this type of attitude, and to see clinical or chemical causes at the root of what people here recognize as demon-possession. However, in this context it is clear that spirits, especially evil ones, are considered very real and have a lot of cultural traction. I am not really that interested in this debate (although maybe I should be since everyone keeps asking me about it), because to me it does not really matter. Either way, the truth remains that there are people who are in need of liberation, and of deliverance, and that is as true here in Niger as it is on the island of Manhattan.