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Exorcism: The ministry of deliverance by Father Michael Blain, Exorcist for the Anglican Diocese of Wellington, April 2001

The fade-out of the Christian churches in the New Zealand culture (and in the culture of other developed countries) means that many people grow up without any idea of God.

Generations of New Zealand kiwis lack Christian constructs with which to interpret life and fit their confusing experiences into patterns of spiritual meaning. In their ignorance, modern kiwis are very vulnerable to manipulation by people who do know about spiritual forces.

So where does the ministry of deliverance come in?

Every Christian prays for the peace of God in our lives and where we live. We pray in the familiar Lord's Prayer to be delivered from evil. Evil is any trouble that pulls us off God's path. Evil is a destructive social system, pressure, or person. Evil can be experienced as a sense of personal spiritual oppression.

Evil is always here, and there is always a spiritual warfare against evil. However a secularised western culture has little need for talk of devil possession. It feels like a regression to medieval superstitions.

Yet evil is real, and evil is destructive.

Institutional evil is challenged by social justice programmes, or by democratic protest. The ministry of deliverance works in a restricted arena. The work is to free people from the personal spiritual bondages which cripple confident human life. The ministry of deliverance is in that sense an attention to the individual first.

Exorcism is really the extreme end of the spectrum of this Christian ministry of deliverance. Literally it's about pushing out the devil or other alien presence from a person. But I have not seen reason to diagnose the need for exorcism of a person in New Zealand.

Why is that?

Centuries of Christianity have mopped up a lot of the spiritual undergrowth of goblins, sprites, and devils. If they were there before, in medieval times, they have largely gone up in a puff of smoke - with the pervasive invocation of the Holy Spirit of God. Or, with the change of our outlook on life which has come gradually but inevitably with the spread of modern scientific learning.

Yet a sense of bondage or oppression from alien spiritual presences can still be a frightening reality for people today.

Where does this sense of bondage, of oppression, or disturbed behaviour come from? Often from abuse within the person's earlier life, particularly from within the family. Often from damage done to the brain by heavy use of drugs. Often from genetic predisposition to psychiatric disturbance.

A traditional culture (as I have experienced in an African nation, and in Papua New Guinea) may often have a strong commitment to a network of spiritual realities. Notably ancestors, and wandering spirits of dangerous and vengeful dead people, or of animals. The people are convinced that these hostile spirits can jump into people, particularly at night, or the friendly ones can be called upon for useful purposes, particularly for family conferences.

Where a culture does believe that these things are real, then the whole world-view is shaped by that conviction. Meanings are given which interpret according to the way of experiencing.

Life is experienced in these very factual terms of spirits, possession, spirit mediums, consultation with the ancestors. Such a culture then matches this world-view with a whole range of devices. Much is peaceful and friendly — a family celebration will often have the ancestors and family patrons expressing their opinions through spirit mediums. People look for the re-assurance of these spiritual presences.

When this normality turns sour or hostile and people are being damaged by something alien, the wisdom of the community is available to help. Experts with their prayers and rituals work to remove the problem.

In our culture, these traditional beliefs have disappeared, and the traditional range of remedies has lost meaning too.

In New Zealand, most people have little time for organised religion. If we are pakeha (non native Maori people) and post-Christian, we are now particularly vulnerable to spiritual confusion. It is not hard to play on negative emotions, especially fear. Without any formal Christian knowledge let alone any conscious experience of God or of Christian beliefs with which to interpret life, people are sitting ducks for damage. A tight group can mould an innocent person's emotional reality and confuse their sense of meaning. If these manipulations play into the person's deeper disorders, then a lot of trouble can surface very fast.

The result is familiar: a distressed person, disorientated, unable to claim their own identity, disturbed behaviour. Oppressed. Mental health professionals are the people to see. Theirs are the tools that our culture recognises as appropriate for dealing with emotional and psychiatric distress.

For instance, our medical knowledge knows epilepsy is a medical condition. The person with these symptoms needs medical care. It is cruel beyond bearing when epilepsy (for instance) is labelled as devil possession. By such attitudes, guilty vulnerability is piled upon the shoulders of the person.

In summary:

  1. I consider that the Christian churches have an ongoing basic gospel commitment to help people find God and the shaping purposes of God in the world. Religion is about meanings for life.

  2. The Christian churches need to help people find and know the Holy Spirit of God. God's Spirit is the resource that we call on to enhance and shape our own growing sense of self. Religion resources our sense of daily being.

  3. The Christian churches in their care of people need to help those who have a sense of spiritual oppression or disturbance to find professional help. This is normally medical or psychiatric.

  4. The Christian churches need to offer personal attention to the distressed person. Integral to this is prayer for their deliverance from the sense of guilt, or of oppression. Not just to push off the oppressive, but to call in the Spirit of God as protection and confidence.
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Copyright © 2001 Michael Blain