by Joseph Laycock
Last week, two reports of exorcism made the news. In Oklahoma City, Archbishop Paul S. Coakley exorcized the Civic Center Music Hall to reverse the effects of a recent black mass. Meanwhile in Liberia, self-styled bishop Edward Adjei announced his plan to banish the Ebola virus by exorcising the old presidential palace. These two cases––which involve exorcising spaces rather than people––offer an insight into the logic of exorcism, and more broadly into the use of space and ritual to impose order onto the cosmos.
While exorcism is normally framed as a traditional and even archaic practice, the public exorcisms of bishops Coakley and Adjei demonstrate how the practice is often improvisational and a response to unprecedented situations. In both cases new threats to the social order (Satanists publically mocking Catholicism with impunity and Ebola, respectively) are framed as demonic forces. This move ascribes complex and widely diffused problems with a physical presence that is both local and accessible. By identifying these forces and then ritually banishing them, the exorcist offers to restore the polity to its state before the crisis occurred. In this sense, exorcism can function almost like a “reset” button in response to the vicissitudes of history. The ritual imposes meaning onto space and then, by extension, seeks to impose meaning onto time. If “all history is local,” as some historians have claimed, then these exorcisms change history by altering the stories that religious communities tell themselves.
The Oklahoma exorcism was a direct response to the claims of “The Dakhma of Angra Mainyu Syndicate” that their ritual held in the civic center would invite a literal demonic presence and “banish the Holy Spirit” from a Satanic worshipper. In a statement, Coakley announced that he took the Satanists’s claims about the efficacy of their black mass seriously. At one point he threatened a lawsuit over speculation that the Satanists had stolen a consecrated host. Despite great objections from Archbishop Coakley’s office and demonstrations by an estimated 1600 lay Catholics, the Satanists were still allowed to hold their ceremony. The failed campaign to block the black mass was a political defeat even as it energized conservative Catholics.
The archdiocese expressed that they had received concerned e-mails from lay Catholics asking whether the civic center was now spiritually safe to enter. By exorcizing the civic center, Coakley not only reversed any supernatural effects caused by the black mass, he also symbolically delegitimized the Satanists. What the archdiocese could not accomplish through the courts and political pressure, it did with ritual. For those who accept the exorcism’s efficacy, Oklahoma City was not a place where Satanists enjoyed the same Constitutional protections as Christians, but a place where spiritual evil rallied and was defeated.
The Liberian exorcism involves a more complex demonology. For Edward Adjei, any incurable disease is the result of demonic influence. The true cause of Ebola, he argues, lies in the former mansion of Charles Taylor––who was accused of both warcrimes and witchcraft during Liberia’s civil wars. The burned out hulk of Taylor’s mansion has allegedly become a stronghold for demons that spread Ebola. Also demonstrating the improvisational nature of exorcism, Adjei announced that he would douse the mansion in a pink soda called Vimto, which many Liberian churches use as an affordable alternative to communion wine. By using Vimto to consecrate the mansion, Adjei claims the site will be “dominated by the blood of Jesus.”
Exorcism is used to heal disease in the Gospels. What is significant about Adjei’s ritual is that he is not proposing to exorcise Liberians infected with Ebola, but rather to consecrate a space that is tied to Liberia’s history. His demonology neatly folds the two horrors of Liberia’s civil wars and Ebola into a single and manageable demonic threat. By consecrating Taylor’s mansion, he offers not only to reverse the spread of Ebola but to correct something in Liberia’s past.
The two exorcisms discussed here follow the same logic as many contemporary forms of deliverance ministry. C. Peter Wagner introduced “prayer mapping” in which Christians engaged in spiritual warfare research and identify spaces where “territorial spirits” reside. Once these demonic strongholds are identified, they can be exorcised and their influence over the community broken. In some cases, prayer mappers have concluded that a land is cursed due to ancient Pagan rituals. In 2007 deliverance ministers in Olney, Texas, ritually destroyed two matrimonial vases of unspecified “Native American” design that allegedly displayed images of Baal and Leviathan, in order to release residents from a curse affecting their town. Like the exorcisms of Coakley and Adjei, prayer mapping uses ritual to impose order onto space, polities, and time simultaneously.
In his book on exorcism, the former Jesuit author Malachi Martin wrote that there is a “puzzle of spirit and place” that cannot be explained but must be accepted as a fact of exorcism. The exorcisms in Oklahoma City and Liberia provide an insight into this puzzle. Foucault noted that, “Space is fundamental in any exercise of power.” This is especially true of sacred space. In his essay “The Wobbling Pivot,” J.Z. Smith observed that sacred space—created through ritual––serves to demarcate where the profane ends and the sacred begins. The exorcisms examined here suggest that sacralizing space allows religious communities to impose further order onto the cosmos. George Orwell famously wrote, “Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.” At least for the exorcist, we might say that: “He who controls the space controls the past.” While the effort appears to be to control demons, the demons are merely a means to an end.
Joseph Laycock is n assistant professor of religious studies at Texas State University. His forthcoming books include The Seer of Bayside: Veronica Lueken and the Struggle for Catholicism (Oxford University Press, 2014) and Dangerous Games: What the Moral Panic Over Role-Playing Games Says About Religion, Play, and Imagined Worlds (University of California Press, 2015).