by Rev. Geoff Boyle
Heads spinning, Latin flowing from the tongue, elevation, violent shaking, the strength of 10 men, visions: These are among the so-called signs of demonic possession according to Hollywood movies. In these frightful depictions, the emphasis is placed upon the work of the devil—what he does and how he does it. But we often forget about the demon-possessed person: his fear, helplessness and suffering.
In 2009, LCMS World Relief and Human Care sponsored a Mercy Mission Expedition to Madagascar. Along with Prof. John Pless and several other seminary students, I was invited to witness firsthand how exorcism—something I knew little about—is a part of the Malagasy Lutheran Church’s regular expression of Christ’s mercy.
While in Madagascar, we learned that demon possession is usually the result of satanic cults or practices, which are quite common among the traditional tribal religions. To encounter demon-possession in Madagascar isn’t nearly as rare as in America.
That’s why exorcism functions as part of the regular ministry of the church there. Casting out demons is simply the natural response of Christianity in a pagan context. The Gospel cannot but help to cast out the very demons seeking to enslave men in their sin.
In Madagascar, the rites of exorcism are incorporated into Sunday worship at least once a month. While attending a church service, we saw the rite performed firsthand. No, there weren’t any spinning heads. Rather, everything seemed like a normal worship service. Set together with readings from Scripture, hymns, prayers and even a short sermon, the exorcism certainly was a sight to remember!
The exorcism itself had two parts: casting the demon out and speaking Christ back in. And while it sounds easy enough, the dynamic of the service was astounding. As I observed the ritual, the contrast between the loud shouting, fists waving, scowls and cursing at the devil on the one hand, and the soft whispers of comfort and peace on the other was startling.
The shepherds (mpiandry, as they call them) who were commissioned to perform the exorcism believe that once the demon is gone, the Gospel, with all of its healing and consolation, must be the diet of the exorcised, the salve for a wounded soul.
The shepherds would touch the faces of the exorcised, whisper in their ears and read passages from Holy Scripture of our Lord’s love and mercy for His own. The whole experience was utterly pastoral. It’s this work of mercy that frees those who are literally bound by their sin, flesh and the devil.
Upon returning from our visit to Madagascar, this experience flooded my mind. Why don’t we have this? Where does it come from? What does the Word of God say about all this?
I discovered that the perfect case study is St. Mark’s Gospel, often known for its accent upon the demonic (Mark 1:21–28; 5:1–20). In Scripture, as in Madagascar today, the exorcism of demons has everything to do with the mercy of Christ. For Jesus, exorcism is not a battle of opposites; it isn’t a struggle between good and evil, between God and demi-god. Exorcism is a work of Christ’s mercy—a gift of healing and release where God alone frees the victim from the devil’s grasp.
Exorcism is a prescription of Christ’s mercy for the ailing demon-possessed. Jesus applied to sinners is precisely the Gospel’s work of mercy that’s needed for all times and all places, especially for those on the island nation of Madagascar. While there’s much to learn here about how this relates to our situation in America, we can nevertheless take great comfort in the impact of the Gospel in all its expressions, exorcism included!
About the Author: Rev. Geoff Boyle is pastor of Trinity and Grace Lutheran Churches, Wichita, Kan.