Exorcisms of Personality Traits and Hidden Scandal

There was an article in last week’s SIGHTINGS about exorcism and sexual orientation.

Those who seek a rational religion decry exorcism as the height of superstition, they say that they are nonsense and this should be obvious to all. But to academic students of religion, exorcisms are easily explained as the intersection of two principles: externalization and anxiety. Whereas the modern era especially the 20th century glorified the autonomous self those who turn to exorcism externalize their problems.

In the 16th and 17th century, with the fall of the medieval world- faults were projected externally. In the late 20th century, externalization as demons returned
What happens if there is a personal problem that needs to be dealt with. If one cherishes autonomy then changing ones actions requires a Freudian insight, an existential acceptance of one’s actions, a behavioral stopping of harmful behaviors. But many in the last few decades do not find comfort in the concept of autonomy- they want to put themselves into the hands of a higher force – think of 12 step or Belevavi Mishkan Evneh- many figures in 21st century piety teach that one is to relinquish autonomy. If one does not accept responsibility for one’s faults then one projects it externally as a demon.

The second factor is the anxiety of what cannot be expressed in ordinary words because of social constraints. In the 16th century sexual sins such as adultery and sodomy with boys could be expressed in an exorcism that in an embarrassing confession. Today, there are many topics like sexual orientation that cannot be openly discussed in religious circles and exorcism steps in to fill the function of allowing one to speak about those off limits topics.

On the topic, I highly Michael Cuneo, American Exorcism: Expelling Demons in the Land of Plenty, (Broadway Books, 2001).

So what about Rav Batzri’s exorcisms in Israel? The first one from a decade ago was entirely a staged act but it showed that people in development towns did not think they could be responsible anymore nor that the State of Israel would solve their social problems. His second mass public exorcism showed the end of autonomous modernity for his followers. And it showed that his followers were burdened with more social problems than they could discuss. The more recent one on a phone call to Brazil where he said “demon leave” was not a joke or irrational. There was a need for an externalized sin to be brought to light.

Once I presented some of the 16th century texts in a Shabbat class. The editor of the Jewish Week who was in attendance said that he was an exorcist because he brought topics to light that the community would not articulate. (He had recently published his article on Lanner.) In many ways he was indeed an exorcist, at least from a functional point of view.

But now blogs are filling the second of these two functional variables. Since the American orthodox community cannot openly discuss lack of belief and lack of observance, nor can they discuss the religious implications of molestations, or sexual and financial scandals, they can do so anonymously on blogs. For those without the computer savvy, an exorcism performs some of same functions as a confession or scandal blog. Even if you do not accept the “magical” aspects of an exorcism, the functional elements are quite rational.

(On externalization – Some in the community project much of their personal anxiety onto Israeli politics. As one local rabbi said before a yom tov: I know that many of you are not sad when your parents die and it is easy to push mourning off for after the holiday, on the other hand many of you cannot stop your angry and mourning the situation in Israel. But this is another story.)

Here is this week’s Sightings on the topic showing that the difficulties for Pentacostals to deal with sexual orientation leads to exorcisms.

Modern Exorcism: Trading Autonomy for Demonology — Joseph Laycock

Last month, a feature in the online magazine Details told the story of Kevin Robinson, a gay teenager from Connecticut. Brought up in a Pentecostal household, Kevin first came out to his family when he was sixteen. His mother, refusing to accept homosexuality as a natural sexual orientation, convinced Kevin to undergo a series of exorcisms to expunge the demons that church members believed were causing his homosexual desire. After the tenth exorcism – which was particularly brutal and degrading – Kevin and his mother finally came to accept his sexual orientation. Now twenty, Kevin still expresses difficulty reconciling his faith with his gay identity.

Numerous modern “deliverance ministries” perform rituals to cast demons out of homosexuals. Last June, a shocking youtube video of such an exorcism by Manifested Glory Ministries attracted national news. In the video, charismatic prophetess Patricia McKinney discerns that a teenager has “a homosexual demon.” What ensues is a frantic twenty-minute ordeal during which the teen writhes on the floor in a near seizure. Church members eventually induce vomiting by squeezing the boy’s abdomen. Vomiting, interpreted as evil leaving the body, has become the sine qua non in the cultural “script” of modern exorcism – a practice that is, needless to say, highly controversial. Even Christian ministries who preach that homosexuality is a lifestyle choice and a sin have censured these exorcisms, arguing that they are dangerous. And the majority of gays who undergo these rites are minors, leading some to suggest that this is a form of child abuse.

But exorcism is actually on the rise and may be more common in America than ever before. In 2008 the Pew Research Center found that seventy percent of respondents believe that demons are active in the world.

The Ritual Romanum, written in 1614 under Pope Paul V, consolidated popular forms of exorcism into a formal rite. This brought exorcism under the direct control of the church hierarchy and in the modern era the rite increasingly became a relic.
However, in the 1970s, there was a resurgence of exorcism and quasi-exorcism among evangelical Protestants and charismatic Catholics. These modern practices, often called “deliverance ministries” rather than exorcism, usually occur outside of ecclesiastic authority.

Until the twentieth century, the quintessential case of possession was…an alternate personality, a total lack of socialization, and supernatural abilities.

Instead, they are usually aspects of the person’s normal personality that are deemed demonic. McKinney explained, “You have the alcohol spirit. You have the crack cocaine spirit. You have the adulterous spirit. Everything carries a spirit.” David Frankfurter describes demonology as “the mapping of misfortune onto the environment.” Any trait or behavior including homosexuality, eating disorders, and infidelity can now be attributed to demons rather than natural proclivities or rational choice. Indeed, this seems to be the most appealing aspect of deliverance ministries: When all behavior is ascribed to the influence of demons, there is no one who cannot be exonerated.

While researching his book American Exorcism, Michael Cuneo encountered women whose husbands had diagnosed them as having “a demon of willfulness.” He was even diagnosed as harboring demons himself. Within this system, humans seem to lose all autonomy; instead, individuality is entirely the product of the various demons possessing us.

But “outsourcing” our inner struggles to exorcists comes with a cost. By forfeiting responsibility for our behavior, we also forfeit our right to define ourselves as individuals, and we become vulnerable to the abuse doled out by Kevin’s last exorcist. Perhaps this exchange, in which both responsibility and autonomy are forfeited, is the true “deal with devil.”

Copyright © 2010 Alan Brill • All Rights Reserved

6 responses to “Exorcisms of Personality Traits and Hidden Scandal

  1. So at what point does a religious group decide that it’s caused by demons instead of projecting the perceived malady onto the evils of communism, materialism, secularism, feminism, humanism, etc? There are all sorts of non-magical externalized explanations available. What spells the end of “autonomous modernity”? perhaps it is the recognition that these forces are so pervasive that their presence is not recognized as causally salient.

  2. You are conflating a bunch of ideas. Religious Jews are not fully autonomous even without possession by demons because we are born Jews, and our Torah and culture are handed down from previous generations. We are not told to leave home to create our own way. Second externalization and projection. If you want to be really careful about not projecting, every strongly held belief about others should be examined for possible projection of some inner ambivalence, much like certain vegetables are inspected for bugs. Nothing directly to do with exorcism which involves both externalization and possession by a demon because of a subsequent re-internalization.
    For exorcisms to be common I think you need an acceptance of being moved by the Holy Spirit, and its consequences shaking, falling to the floor, speaking in tongues and more. Jews do not come from such a charismatic tradition. Jews do talk of demons, but it is a speculation that all such talk comes from being unable to talk of the sin. The Zohar and the Ari talk up a storm on the sin of masturbation and how it creates demons in the world. No exorcisms, but teshuva, fasting and repentance are recommended. The same with current Orthodoxy and homosexuality and the abuse of minors. So far no dibukim have been sighted.

    • No one is really autonomous – we realize that this is the driving myth of modernity. Nonetheless, religious Jews today are just as invested in this idea because they believe in their personal efficacy to effect change in the world and in themselves. Being bound to some extent by tradition and culture is pretty par for the course for everyone. Dr. Brill was pointing to the rejection of this notion of autonomy.

      If you are only looking at the Zohar and Ari then you are missing the actual accounts of demon possession and exorcism in many other sources. Look at them and it becomes apparent that they were often airing shameful secrets that could not otherwise be spoken And there is no indication that I’ve seen that many of those who were infected were participants in a charismatic tradition. You seem to mistake what happens to come to mind when you think of demonic possession and exorcism (evangelical charismatics) as necessary conditions for its instantiation when this is simply not the case.

      I think it is clear that for Orthodoxy much of the move away from spirit possession, as Dr. Brill alluded, simply has to do with society moving to psycho-dynamic or behaviorist conceptions of the psyche.

      My previous question was why return to demonic causes when there are all sorts of other external factors that could be blamed instead?

  3. No one is really autonomous, but most everyone is not walking around with a 3000 year tradition of writing down more and more rules to govern behavior. Orthodoxy has the same split between conscious and unconscious ideation as the rest of humanity plus a superego on steroids. We are less autonomous than Protestants who feel reading the bible and deciding ethical questions are personal.

    Evangelical charismatics are not necessary for demonic possesion, but in its absence, cases are much less frequent. I don’t know what you are referring to when you speak of Orthodoxy’s move away from demonic possesion? When did Orthodoxy ever move toward demonic possesion? A story about Reb Elchanan Wasserman or a play by Ansky is not a moving towards.

    In a Catholic charismatic church with a monthly healing mass, fifty people can come forward out of a congregation of a few hundred, most all will fall to the ground whether or not they will it,and of those five or so people praying on their behalf maybe two will talk in tongues involuntarily. A case of serious demonic possesion every few years is quite normal. To the best of my knowledge even the most forlorn shtetl west of the Hudson does not have cases of demonic posession every two-three years.

  4. There is autonomy in the sense of being bound or not bound to various sets of norms. Then there is autonomy as a sense of personal causal efficacy. We are talking about the latter, and in that sense Orthodox Jews see themselves as fully autonomous, and are not pre-modern.

    By move away from spirit possession I’m referring to the apparent epidemic of possession in 16th-early 17th century Safed and related circles followed by its almost complete disappearance.

    And these were individual cases, not presumably intentionally cultivated, nor did they occur collectively among groups. This is quite different from mass speaking in tongues or being overcome by the spirit where there are clear and pronounced social-psychological effects.

  5. I actually enjoyed reading American Exorcism two years ago and I think that several points need to be made:

    1) We should distinguish between “deliverance” & full blown “exorcisms”. While the latter is considered far more extreme, the world of Pentacostalism accepts the belief (akin to many Jewish communities historically) that their world is filled with demons and that these demons need to be removed. It’s not a single demon afflicing you, but many dark forces.

    Deliverance often takes place many times (like a series of medical treatments).

    2) One cannot separate deliverance & exorcisms as it is currently practiced in America from Pentacostalism & Pentacostal Culture/Theology.

    It is a world with a strong sense of presence of a very immanent God along with forces of good and evil. Additionally, one cannot separate deliverance from such practices as healing, speaking in tongues & prophecy.

    3) One cannot make a strong distinction between therapy vs. deliverance, as they often accompany each other as complimentary treatments, akin to medicine & alternative medicines.

    As an aside, when I was explaining deliverance to my wife, she said that it made a lot of sense and would probably be very healing way of dealing with past traumas.

    4) Lastly, I don’t think that one could make such a strong distinction for internal vs. external sources of problems, as many used Freudianism as a way of claiming that they were not responsible for their flaws or claimed societal responsibility for their problems.

    I have wondered for a while why Exorcism & Deliverance was not more prominent in Jewish Renewal Circles.

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