32 The Devil -tool of abuse

As part of a varied ministry over 40+ years, I have for a period of around 15 years accepted the responsibility for the ministry of ‘spiritual deliverance’ in two Anglican dioceses.  The Press would no doubt describe the role as that of Exorcist but the reality was far more prosaic.  Perhaps the main qualification for doing the job was a readiness to take seriously strange phenomena that occur from time to time in people’s lives.  Typically and most commonly there could be a manifestation of physical energy with no obvious cause.  This might be described as poltergeist activity.  There might be a disturbance of things flying around or lights flashing on and off.  Normally I would be talking to a clergyman over the phone advising him how to approach the problem, the attitude to take and the things to say.  I have to say that when I went into such a situation myself the phenomena always stopped but I have absolutely no doubt that these frightening episodes were real.  Listening carefully, taking the fears seriously and offering prayers would normally calm the situation down.  Mostly I was also able to identify a particular individual who was the focus of the strange phenomena.   There was thus a duty on my part to ensure that the unconscious energy at work in that individual was somehow ‘earthed’ through careful listening and other forms of pastoral care.

The second typical event was encountering directly, or through advising a clergyman seeking advice, an individual who believed themselves ‘possessed’.  The question that I wanted to determine before anything else was where the person had learnt the language of possession.  In almost every case they had picked up the vocabulary from attendance at a Christian fellowship which had dealt in the currency of demonic activity and constant attack.  Although the language of demonic attack had been normally linked to Anglo-Catholic circles until around 40 years ago, the idea of possession has since around 1980 been normally linked to charismatic and evangelical groups.  There was a particular upsurge of interest, even paranoia, about satanic and demonic activity in the late 80s and early 90s.  As I described in an earlier blog post, aspects of this paranoia around this were, for once, taken seriously by the UK Government and a report published in 1995.  This particular paranoia, even affecting some in the wider society, has largely subsided.  (See blog post for December 4th)

In this post I don’t want to repeat what I said in the previous one about devils, but to revisit the horror and cruelty of telling a vulnerable person that they are in thrall to a negative spiritual power of some description.  I was always open to the possibility that this was indeed the explanation for their distress but it never, as far as I could tell, turned out to be the case in practice.  In the discussions on this blog we have touched on the experience of utter powerlessness whether through poverty, social exclusion or mental illness.  When you are at the bottom of the pile, you feel unworthy of anyone’s attention and therefore expect to be ignored and humiliated by everyone.  It seems to me that the language of demonic possession is one more weapon in the tool box through which someone can make an individual feel utterly powerless.  How can you argue with a person who tells you such a thing?

The task of someone who is entrusted with the ministry of spiritual deliverance when encountering someone who believes they are ‘possessed’ is to recognise that you are dealing with someone who may have been doubly or triply burdened.  They first of all carry the stigma of the original problem whether mental or social that has allowed them to be burdened with the possession label.  Secondly they have assumed the identity of someone who is powerless to defend themselves against spiritual/demonic incursion.  Thirdly they have allowed themselves to trust in a Christian leader who, for reasons of their own, has put them in this state of utter dependency.  The relationship with such a person is little short of toxic and one wonders how they can escape it even if they run away physically from the influence of that individual.

This second kind of care entrusted to an Officer for spiritual deliverance might be described as a kind of exorcism but in practice it was an attempt to give people back some of their power after they had been doubly betrayed by the church and one of its leaders.  Once was through a doubtful dualistic teaching and secondly by a continuing toxic dependence on a church leader who wanted total dominance over vulnerable members of his (normally his) flock.  It will be apparent that I met relatively few devils doing my ‘spiritual deliverance’ work.  More frequently I met the casualties of hopelessly inept teaching and examples of ruthless exploitation of the vulnerable.

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

10 thoughts on “32 The Devil -tool of abuse

  1. Having done the training for this sort of thing, all very sensible, “very rare”, “never go alone”, “treat people with respect”, I know that there is no excuse for getting into an abusive situation. A little while ago a female cleric went into just such a situation, a very frightened family who believed they or their house was haunted, and announced there was nothing there. This heartless approach simply resulted in their going to some non Christian faith healer/exorcist, and to the newspapers. I have come across people who believe they are possesed or haunted, and they are terribly frightened. This fear needs to be dealt with entirely seriously, even if the reason for it turns out to be illusory.

  2. Despite having had serious mental health problems, I’ve never been subjected to any of this, and thankfully, I think it’s comparatively unusual in our society, though clearly not absent.

    I have complex feelings about the language of Satan, devils, exorcism etc, which I think can be used to express complex realities metaphorically perhaps in effective ways. While I recognise it can also be used dangerously and unhelpfully.

    But we’re in the position that this is the language of the Gospels, used in important stories about Jesus and his healing activities and his understanding of his ministry to bring in the Kingdom, stories which we cannot and must not throw away, and which we need somehow to enable people to read with discernment in ways that are helpful and enlightening for them.

    The connection with mental health is very important to me. It’s not really possible to map the healing stories directly onto modern understandings of psychiatry, and in many ways that for me is a strength, given that I am very critical of some aspects of psychiatry. But clearly there is a link there.

    But when I was most destroyed and disempowered by finding I had become a madwoman, the sense that Jesus was there for and healed people like me as an important part of his ministry, as well as the understanding that he too had if you like some unusual psycho/spiritual experiences (even if he was on top of his situation in a way that I wasn’t) and was also accused of being mad, all these things were hugely important for me to hang onto, giving me the sense that Jesus knew where it was at, and imparted value to outcasts like me. I can’t overstress what a lifeline that all was.

    Going back to demon possession, I’ve been particularly appalled and upset in recent times learning about the quite common practice in parts of Africa where people including parents accuse children of being witches. These children are often subjected to the most dreadful abuse as so called “exorcisms” by very shady religious characters and traditional “healers”, and/or they are often horribly physically abused, abandoned or even killed. It’s extremely distressing.

    1. Thank you both for your comments. The question of how we relate the gospel stories of demons to modern ideas of mental illness is an important area to think about. But it will never be good enough just to say as some do, Jesus believed in demons therefore we have to use this framework of description as well. We have our own frameworks today and we also have Christian ones that are generous in embracing realities (like spiritual healing) that modern thinking does not understand. So it is a question of using whichever framework does justice to the phenomena in question. The important thing is to be generous to the frameworks other people are using whether they are ‘religious’ or too dry and scientific. There is a fascinating book I have that haikusinenomine would like that links the techniques of witchcraft with psychotherapy. It is a matter of cultural flexibility to see the connections between the two. I will, as a clergyman, try and use whatever language the other person is using. I have also thought that the phenomenon of anorexia is sometimes experienced as though it is a form of possession. Maybe at a spiritual level it could be spoken of and rebuked as though it actually were demonic. I have not tried this but it is something I would like to explore but have not done so.
      The demonic may be a cultural language rather than a literal reality. Conducting an exorcism may be appropriate but as I said in my blog it must never be used as part of a power game. You are fortunate h, not to have experienced this abusive form of ministry

      1. I don’t say that because Jesus believed in demons, we have to use this framework. I mean that those Gospel stories are a valuable part of our inheritance of faith which we can’t just throw away, but need to read wisely. That seems to imply some ability to speak (or at least understand) the “language” that they’re written in, even if it’s not exactly our own now. And in doing that, I’ve found much to value in them.

        I have been fortunate in many ways. But I have experienced psychiatry and the mental health system as very abusive at times. So you win some, you lose some. I’ve had interesting contacts with refugees going in the other direction, from problems in the church to salvation through psychiatry, psychotherapy or whatever.

        Your book about witchcraft sounds like it might be interesting. The whole “witch” phenomenon is complex, and I don’t have a knee-jerk response to it. It’s the cultural reality of belief in “witchcraft” being the channel for utterly vulnerable, innocent children to be destroyed as scapegoats, as an outlet for tensions in very poor, ignorant and violent communities, that is so distressing.

  3. I have located the book I mentioned above. It is called Witchdoctors and Psychiatrists by E Fuller Torrey. It is quite old now (1987) but it has a lot to say about sharing a cultural world view with the client in order to communicate. By witchdoctors the author is talking about medicine men and shamans rather than just African witchdoctors. There are s/h copies on Amazon from 88 pence. I can recognise that it influenced me in thinking that you don’t have to apologise for using another person’s language and working with it and it does not matter if it is not yours. Living and thinking in and through other people’s cultures (and languages) is an important part of our education and if everybody practised it we would have a more peaceable world. Every cultural description of humanity contains myth because the important parts of healing involve touching dimensions and aspects that are beyond scientific measurement. Healing is an art not a science and so requires empathy and insight. The ‘curanderas’ of Mexico and the Eskimo shamans seem to have this in abundance.

  4. I would like to make a point that may be screamingly obvious to everyone but feel it needs to be stated. Stephen writes about using the language of the subject in order to communicate; we need to recognise the language tools/concepts that Jesus had available to him. The Aramaic of two millenia ago did not have the sophisticated language of medical psychiatry , it would have been pointless Jesus saying this person is schizophrenic or that person has a personality disorder, none of his listeners would have those concepts available to them. It is important that we recognise the healing that took place, whatever the root cause of the disturbance. Jesus communicated with those around him in layman’s terms of the day; that he was also capable of learned debate with Doctors of the Law only emphasizes the choice he made when talking with ordinary men and women. It is important for us to recognise that we do not have the same acculturation, for us to understand what these things meant to Jesus contemporaries takes a good deal of research and study and the acknowledgement that we may not get it right. New finds such as the dead sea scrolls, the Book of Enoch and modern archeology are continually increasing our ability to understand but we are very far from having a complete picture. The maxim that “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing” needs to firmly lodged in our thinking. Too often people become victims of publicly promoted stereotypes that have little basis in reality. The victim identifies with recieved ideas of being ‘a witch’, a’drug addict’, ‘possessed’ or a dozen other labels used for categorising people. Witches in the sixteenth century confessed to flying, today we recognise that they were trying to express the sensations caused by hullucinogenic compounds they were using. Language is a wonderful thing but can be easily misinterpreted or deliberately abused. Sympathy and empathy are required when dealing with people in distress.

  5. When we look back down at a bloody history where, ‘witch trials’ and the squalor of superhuman inhumanities took place, we need have no trouble locating whose strings ‘The Devil’ was pulling! I don’t know if a personal ‘Devil’ exists but, if he? does he wears a cloak of decency in this modern world and of course ‘his’ image has been almost totally worked up through the vehicle of traditional evangelical activity. To some extent belief in a personal force of evil may help some people heal after experiencing the worse side of human nature and the horrors of this present world, so I don’t dismiss “the devil,” but I do fully appreciate that abuse and quick solution answers have been achieved in ‘his’ name. I can’t see a way of regaining my faith without some belief in a personal force of evil, especially since the Jesus of history took it seriously. However, I do agree with Mark and Stephen about language and translation difficulties.

    Chris Pitts

    1. I am not as sure as I was about the existence of a personal devil, that is, the devil being a person. I’ll come back to that, but I do think that it can be useful as you say, Chris. On the one hand, you have people who may act as if “it wasn’t me, guv, it was the devil”, which is no use. People have to take responsibilty for their own actions. On the other, you have the question, “If God is good, and let’s face it, who’d want to worship him if not, then where did evil come from?” There is no doubt that people often miss out the fact that much evil comes from human beings. But how did evil get into human beings? So introducing the devil may help. And to my mind, sometimes there does seem to be a sense of “otherness” about evil, as if it does have a reality. We just have to be careful not to talk about the devil as an accepted and understood fact when it isn’t as far as most people are concerned. It gives rise to accusations that we follow an iron age cult! To come back to human beings doing bad things, I’m inclined to believe in chaos theory. It’s the only way free will can be introduced. Some people say God hates chaos, but I don’t see that. If the world isn’t run by chaos theory, then it is controlled. A whole new set of problems.

      1. Those who talk about “iron age cults” will not be stopped by people not using the devil concept…. it seems to me, after sampling the CiF mentality. We need to be “bilingual” and see how how to communicate with people who don’t speak Christian dialects, but that’s not the same as capitulating to them….

  6. Damage done leaves me, ‘in that hollow place where mothers weep and angels play with sin’. Maybe it would be enough for all the victims to regain a faith in a ‘Real’ God, a God of unconditional Love.
    Thanks English Athena.

    Chris Pitts

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