On Pentecost Sunday all hell broke loose in Rome. Following Mass that day, the unpredictable Pope Francis laid hands on a demon-possessed man from Mexico and prayed for him. The YouTube video of this encounter was flashed around the world, and the story caught fire: Is Pope Francis an exorcist? The Holy Father’s Vatican handlers were quick to deny such. The pope simply offered a prayer of deliverance for the distraught man, it was said. Exorcism in the Catholic Church is a sacramental, a sacred act producing a spiritual effect, which must be done according to the officially prescribed Rite of Exorcism. And yet what the pope did on Pentecost Sunday in St. Peter’s Square was more than a simple prayer for someone to get better. It looked for all the world like a real act of spiritual warfare.
The scene now shifts to South America, the continent where Jorge Mario Bergoglio was born and has spent most of his life. The place: All Saints Church, in Steenrijk, Curaçao, in the Anglican Diocese of Venezuela. The date: May 12, 2013, one week before the pope’s exorcism-like event in Rome. The preacher: The Most Reverend Katharine Jefferts Schori, presiding bishop of The Episcopal Church (formerly known as ECUSA). When she was elected to her post in 2006, Father Richard John Neuhaus described it as an occasion of great sadness. His reaction reflected neither personal animus nor schadenfreudlich glee. Rather, he saw her accession to this high office as likely to deepen the pain and division within the Christian community. Sadly, he was right.
In Venezuela, Bishop Katharine also confronted a demon—the one found in her sermon text for the day, Acts 16:16-24. This is Luke’s account of Paul’s exorcism of a manic slave girl in Philippi. The bishop’s sermon was really a polemic against what she called, in postmodernist lingo, “discounting and devaluing difference.” This is where the slave girl comes in. The bishop noted that Paul was “annoyed” by the antics of the possessed girl. “Annoyed” is the RSV’s translation of the verb diaponeomai, which might be better rendered “deeply moved” (NIV) or “grieved” (KJV).
Paul is certainly more than a little irritated here, but his anger is not directed against the oppressed slave girl who is both in the grips of an evil spirit and exploited by greedy pimps. Paul’s anger is like that of Jesus at the grave of Lazarus where “a deep anger welled up within him” (John 11:33, MSG). Jesus was angry in the face of tragic death; Paul grieved in the presence of a daughter of God controlled by the Evil One. Was that what Pope Francis felt on Pentecost Sunday—a source of evil so malicious and strong that it could only be overcome by the greater power of Jesus Christ? When the devil is on the prowl, niceness will not do. Confrontation is required.
But what happened to the demon in the bishop’s sermon? He/she/it—do demons have gender?—is completely missing, not there at all. Paul evidently thought he was exorcising some kind of evil spirit, but this must have been all in his mind. What he was actually doing, the bishop surmised, was depriving the slave girl of “her gift of spiritual awareness.” Paul is filled with prejudice, she thinks, and so does something sinister by refusing to recognize as beautiful or holy the spirituality confronting him in the possessed young woman. “So he tries to destroy it.”
While the bishop’s exegesis does not sparkle with clarity, it sure seems that she is attributing the real evil in this Lucan story to the apostle himself. Paul, not Satan or his pomp, is the real problem. Paul’s arrogance, misogyny, and narrow-mindedness make him oppose an alternate expression of the divine.
Here, the bishop has moved beyond demythologizing to deconstructing. Bultmann we know, but who is Katharine Jefferts Schori? And yet we should not single out Bishop Katharine unduly. The downplaying of the miraculous, the supernatural, and a fortiori the demonic has long been a staple in mainline Protestant culture and takes its toll among some progressive Catholics and evangelicals as well. Perhaps this is why Pope Francis devoted the second chapter of his book, Heaven and Earth, to “The Devil” and warned against the ultra-modernist idea “that everything can be traced to a purely human plan.”
There is a wider angle to this tale of two demons. It is worth noting that Pope Francis came from the global South to the heart of Europe to confront demons, whereas Bishop Schori traveled from North America to Venezuela to cast the demons from the text—without the benefit of an exorcism. There is some irony in this: a prominent representative of the rarified, Enlightenment-based religion of the North peddling a domesticated version of the Gospel in the global South. As we know, the Christianity thriving there is increasingly Evangelical, Pentecostal, and Pope Franciscan-Catholic. Like the robust faith of the New Testament, this kind of affective Christianity embraces the charismatic, the visionary, and the apocalyptic. These are all held in deep suspicion by those who still find spiritual warmth in the dying embers of rationalist religion. As Kenya’s Musimbi Kanyoro wrote, “Those cultures which are far removed from biblical culture risk reading the Bible as fiction.”
Why do so many southern Christians take with utter seriousness spiritual things that seem to most of us as outmoded leftovers from a redundant worldview? Is it that we have allowed our hearts to become hardened to the spiritual realities all around us? Near the end of his life, Karl Barth declared that the next great theological frontier would be the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. The pontificate of Pope Francis makes this task an urgent necessity for all who love the Church and wish to see her united in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, and giver of life. Those of us in the Northern climes can begin to take this work seriously by learning to read the Scriptures alongside those on the front lines of spiritual combat.
In the process, we might even learn to sing along on a hymn like this one from the Ghanaian Afua Kuma, quoted by Philip Jenkins in his 2006 Erasmus Lecture, “Believing in the Global South”:
If Satan troubles us
You who are the lion of the grasslands
You whose claws are sharp
Will tear out his entrails
And leave them on the ground
For the flies to eat.
Timothy George is dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University and general editor of the Reformation Commentary on Scripture.