Magazine article The Christian Century

Speak of the Devil

Magazine article The Christian Century

Speak of the Devil

Article excerpt

Global migration has brought radically different religious cultures into close contact with one another, and the consequences can be painful. Recently the respected British think tank Theos issued a judicious report by Ben Ryan on Christianity and mental health, which among other things discussed the possible medical interpretations of reported episodes of demon possession and exorcism. The report warned properly of the danger of "Christian over-spiritualizing"--a "tendency to ascribe anything and everything to spiritual causes when other medical ones may exist."

For all its cautious words, Ryan's report was inevitably seized on by the media for the section that reported an "astonishing increase in demand" for exorcisms. These "are now a booming industry" in the United Kingdom, it said, partly though not entirely because of "immigrant communities and Pentecostal churches." Distorted media accounts told of mass "spiritual abuse" by churches that exploited and harmed the mentally ill and vulnerable.

Exorcism is a crucial matter for many of Britain's immigrant churches, especially those from Africa, where belief in possession and witchcraft is very widespread. (Britain today has around 1.5 million African-born residents.) Such churches view apparent possession cases in terms of demonic activity rather than as a mental health issue treatable by secular means.

Any dispute over the propriety of exorcism is particularly sensitive in the British context, because it recalls a dreadful religious and racial confrontation at the start of this century. In 2001, a sensational child murder case indicated the practice of witchcraft on British soil involving ritualistic killing and a trade in human body parts.

Obviously, such extreme criminal behavior demanded a strong and effective official response. But the media soon attributed such horrors to Pentecostal and charismatic churches themselves. In the sensational coverage that followed, the press launched shrieking exposes of immigrant churches that believed in spiritual warfare or practiced exorcisms. These came to be known as Witch Churches.

A potent racial theme pervaded this coverage, with a classic Heart of Darkness scenario portraying African primitivism and violence. Media accounts segued from reporting on exorcisms undertaken to fight diabolic forces to depicting the rituals themselves as a form of primitive jungle savagery dressed in Christian guise. Rituals designed to combat witchcraft were presented as a singularly dangerous manifestation of witchcraft and ritualistic child abuse. The regular conduct of immigrant churches involving exorcism and healing--without any abusive or violent element--was seen as deeply problematic and demanding police intervention. …

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