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When devils are everywhere

MARION O'CALLAGHAN Monday, June 8 2009

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SHAKING HANDS: President George Maxwell Richards shakes the hand of Trinidad and Tobago team coach Russell Latapy prior to Saturday's game against Cos...
SHAKING HANDS: President George Maxwell Richards shakes the hand of Trinidad and Tobago team coach Russell Latapy prior to Saturday's game against Cos...

The present interest in Devil Possession is often dated from the time of the release of the film The Exorcist in the early 1970’s. The date is important — it is immediately after the heyday of the students revolts. Those revolts were followed by an upsurge of beliefs in the supernatural and by a mini revolt against “Western” science. Alternative medicine becomes important as do a number of New Age religions. In this article I will concentrate on Devil Possession as it affected Christianity here in Trinidad and Tobago.

The film The Exorcist skillfully interweaves folk beliefs — superstitions if you like — with what is presented as Christian theology. It is because those who are sick are seen in the film as unable to be cured by scientific means ie medical doctors and physiatrists, that the only explanation for their illness is taken as devil possession or if you like the supernatural.

This recourse to the explanation of Satanic possession corresponds with what we think we know of those under the influence of the devil. It also corresponds with how we translate some events in the Gospels. Those deemed “possessed” lose the power to refuse the commands of the Devil. They may utter obscenities or curse God. Their behaviour is inexplicable. In the film The Exorcist the priest who is the exorcist eventually has the same affliction as the person “possessed.” It is hinted that it is his death which finally “saves” the sick man from his devil possession. This too is familiar to us. In religious terms it is atonement. It is in Trinbago terms “paying back” the devil.

In the campaign for the 1991 General Elections it was believed by some that “souls” had been promised to the Devil by members of the then Government in return for victory at the polls. Around this time there were a number of fatal accidents along the East West corridor. This was not surprising, the Christmas season had begun. For those who believed that Satan was attempting to influence the elections, there was another explanation. The road deaths were lives claimed by the devil as part of the recompense for favours done or to be done.



Retreat of the Political Vision

In last week’s article “Devils and Witches” I pointed to the social factors which influenced the incidence of witchcraft accusations in Africa and in Mediaeval Europe. Social factors have also influenced the favourable reception given to the film The Exorcist. Here in Trinidad and Tobago there had been what seemed to be an inexplicable rise of millionaires from among families who in living memory, were at best “modest.” Squatter communities sprung up like mushrooms. The number of vagrants sharply increased. They were half-crazed. Anyone could be murdered or kidnapped or yet die before getting a hospital bed. In the absence of any “secular” reasons for these events, that the “devil was at work” made sense in what is a religious society.

Dominique Lecourt in his “The Mediocracy” remarks that “the return of morality which set in in the early 1980’s, unquestionably corresponds to the retreat of the political vision of the world that has crystallised around the idea of revolution.” Lecourt underlines that it is from this “retreat of the political vision” that the “contemporary powers of ethical thought” flows. It is here that we find “the novel place of sex” in our societies today. I would supplement this with the place of fundamentalist religion in the “retreat of the political vision.” I would argue that it is this translation of all phenomena into the religious categories of good and evil, God and Satan, which operates the depolitisation of much of contemporary society in general and of Trinbago society in particular. It is not by chance that beliefs in widespread miraculous healing are accompanied by beliefs in widespread Satanic possession. The attack on “restraints” which Lecourt points out is fundamental to the obsession with sexual pleasure is, I would argue, as much a part of the upsurge of fundamentalism as it is part of the obsession with sex and sexual pleasure. Indeed the “need” for fundamentalist Christianity if we are to fill our churches, is argued in the same terms as is our supposed “need” for sex: i.e. religion as enjoyment and pleasure freed from the restraints of orthodoxy.



The Dragon on the Red House

The 1991 General Election took place under the shadow of Abu Bakr’s and the Jamaat’s 1990 attempted “coup.” There has been a reluctance to examine how the coup happened. There is an even greater reluctance to examine why it happened. Briefly the attempted “coup” was the reaction to the sharp fall in oil prices followed by an IMF recipe. This here are elsewhere, stabilised the economy at the cost of the impoverishment of much of the population. It was not this result of IMF policies which was prominent in the Election campaign.

It was what was supposed to be the Dragon on the Red House. It was claimed that this was the symbol of Satan held responsible for our economic woes. Victory was celebrated by a dead of night ritual during which the “Dragon” was taken down. It turned out to be a harmless if beautiful weather vane.

Little changed. We continued to be surrounded by Satan. Benny Hinn boasted that he had cast out 300 devils from Trinidad. Protection was sought not only in medals and holy water, but in blessed oil, blessed salt and Healing Masses.

We continued to suffer illnesses, divorces, bad luck. It was put down to the sins of the generations before us. They, the “poor souls” awaited exorcism. We began to see the effects of generational poverty as did other countries before us. That too was the sins of the ancestors. It was a step farther than William Peter Blatty’s “The Exorcist.”



Karl Rahner Speaks

In1974 Father Karl Rahner, the Jesuit theologian associated with Vatican II gave an interview to Reinhold Iblacker. Karl Rahner insisted that in the film the Exorcist there was “nothing at all that is of concern to the theologian and the Christian.” There are sick people with illnesses “perhaps with some para-psychological trimmings and decked out with religious formulas, but not evil and certainly not God.” Karl Rahner throws the problem back to the physiatrist. He argues that not because the physiatrist cannot cure an illness today it then becomes a problem for the theologian. What then of the exorcists who claim that persons possessed by the devil “are no longer free in managing their lives? For Karl Rahner then “the phenomenon really ceases to be of any theological concern.” Rahner insists that it is only what one freely does which is “significant for one’s eternal salvation.” This is not to say that Satan does not exist. It is certainly not to say that there is no evil. However it is to say that there are phenomena which belong to what Rahner calls “the profane world” which are due to natural causes and which are not the affair of the theologian. Rahner reminds us that in religious societies every thing is seen in the terms of religion. He warns that if this is translated into the devil, then devils will seem to be everywhere.


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