October 31 means different things to different people—Protestant Christians celebrate Reformation and prepare for All Saints’ Day, while secular society celebrates Halloween. But Christians also get caught up in the secular celebrations of Halloween, usually “all in good fun,” yet sometimes that “fun” can be to our detriment. We must remember that “Satan disguises himself as an angel of light” (2 Corinthians 11:14 ESV) and is “the father of lies” (John 8:44 ESV). Therefore, we are called to look to Christ to resist the schemes of the devil, which often manifest themselves on days like today.
In his fascinating and insightful book Afraid: Demon Possession and Spiritual Warfare in America, Rev. Dr. Robert Bennett equips Christians not only to recognize the devil’s influence in our society but also to respond boldly in faith. The following excerpt is a good reminder for us that even when we feel weak and afraid; when we are bombarded by images of ghosts, devils, and witches; and when we are tempted to fall prey to pagan Halloween traditions, Jesus is there and will never leave our side.
I Am Not Afraid is Rev. Dr. Robert Bennett’s fascinating first-hand account of the spiritual warfare found within the Lutheran Church of Madagascar. Is spiritual warfare something new to the Church? Bennett reviews what the Bible, Church Fathers, and contemporary Lutheran leaders have to say. In the following excerpt, Dr. Bennett describes his first visit to the Malagasy Lutheran Church.
My experience into this strange world of paganism, exorcism, and the freedom provided by Jesus began with an interview of a pastor located 40 kilometers outside of the Malagasy city of Fianarantsoa. The trip from the capital city of Antananarivo to Fianarantsoa is difficult. One road connects the two cities. The road is about the size of neighborhood surface streets. Long sections of the road consist of only dirt, mud, and trenches that would devour a small car. However, the 40 kilometer drive to the historic Fifohazana toby (camp dedicated to healing) called Soatanana was considerably worse. In fact, Soatanana is only accessible by car during the dry season because of the road conditions. During other times of the year, people find it necessary to walk the distance.
As we approached the toby, the Norwegian built steeple could be seen notably against the green background of the mountains that surrounded the camp. This site began as a mission outpost of the Norwegian Lutherans in 1840. As we grew closer to the gates of the camp, men and women dressed in white gowns were noticeable behind the fence. This was my first encounter with the mpiandry (shepherds) of the Fifohazana. . . .
Today, the shepherd movement remains a lay program for the training of both Malagasy men and women who will assume leadership roles in the church. The white robes they wear, some at all times and others only during religious events, easily identify the shepherds to the community. These robes are not merely liturgical vestments, but outward reminders of the forgiveness they have received through the blood of Jesus. The shepherds now believe they have been given the opportunity to live their lives free from the condemnation of sin and instead for the benefit of Christ and neighbor. Therefore, all of their time and energy is dedicated to that end.
These were the men and woman behind the fence of the Soatanana toby. Upon our arrival, the pastor of the toby met us at the gate and provided us with a tour of the grounds. His name was Pastor Randrianandrasana. He had served this congregation and toby for more than twenty years. During the tour, we met a man sitting on the ground. He was staring at us with a strange and jagged smile. He was not dressed in the white robes that adorned the other inhabitants of the camp. As we walked by the smiling man he asked, “Hello, how are you today?” Amazed that he was speaking English, I began a conversation with him. He explained that he had learned English at the university where he had studied to be an engineer. I asked him why he was here in this remote place. His response shocked me. He said “I am here to receive freedom from the demons that torment me. I have been here for six months receiving exorcism daily and learning about the Christian faith.” I was speechless. How does one without any frame of reference to such things respond to such remarks? I would soon begin to understand. What I would learn would change my own worldview and by the end of this book may change yours also.
Following the tour of the toby, I joined the pastor in his office. It was located toward the back of the church. This interview would be the first of many I would conduct over the next two years. This unedited interview is provided so the reader may enter this subject in the same way that I did.
AUTHOR: How long have you been a pastor?
PASTOR R: I have been a pastor since 1987.
AUTHOR: How many exorcisms have you performed over the years?
PASTOR R: Too many to count. I have been conducting exorcisms since I became a pastor. This is very common in our church and all pastors share this experience.
AUTHOR: Are you currently working with those who are troubled persistently by spiritual forces or involved with any exorcisms?
PASTOR R: Yes, I am currently working with fifteen individuals who are demon possessed here at the toby.
AUTHOR: What is the cause of this possession? Was it something they did, something they asked for, or something that just came upon them?
PASTOR R: This depends upon each individual case. Some have desired the devil to enter into them. They do this hoping that they will be given the gift of prophecy, fortune-telling, healing, or talking to the ancestors. This enables them to make a good living serving the traditional religions. Another reason some are possessed is because they are unfaithful to the Christian faith. Others are possessed for reasons that we do not know.
AUTHOR: Are you saying that baptized Christians can be oppressed, or even possessed, by demons? How could Satan or his demons have dominion over a child of God?
PASTOR R: Yes, there are Christians who are really possessed and oppressed by demons. However, when I say Christians, I am speaking about those who do not live out the faith they claim to possess. These are usually those who are Christian by only birth, or name. They belong to the Christian culture, but not the Faith.
AUTHOR: Does the ancestor worship practiced by the majority of Malagasies play a part in the possessions you have encountered?
PASTOR R: Yes, of the fifteen people here at this toby that are possessed, at least two of them have become possessed through their interaction with the traditional religions. They beg the ancestral spirits to possess them, but these are not ancestral spirits. They are demons who disguise themselves as ancestral spirits. This is especially dangerous for those who also confess Christianity. As far as the spirits go, we call this tromba possession. Many people desire this type of possession because it can make them wealthy.
AUTHOR: I have read that many who have become possessed have first undergone a traumatic event in their life. Have you noticed this among the people you serve?
PASTOR R: Yes, many of them became sick through natural means such as disease or accidents; it is then, when they are in despair, that the demons come into them.
AUTHOR: When reading about possession, I have noticed different signs reported to be present in the possessed person. Have you noticed any such signs? If so, what are they?
PASTOR R: Yes, many times we see outward signs of possession. The most prominent is the ability to tell of the future or unveil hidden events. However, we also see additional signs as well; they include speaking in foreign languages that the person could not have learned, and super strength. The man you met sitting outside was possessed when he was brought here. He had such strength that we were required to keep him chained at all times because he continued to try to kill everyone.
AUTHOR: Is this man still possessed?
PASTOR R: No, would you like to continue to speak with him following our interview?
AUTHOR: Yes, I would.
PASTOR R: I will properly introduce you to him following our interview.
AUTHOR: Thank you. Continuing on, do demons speak through these possessed people?
PASTOR R: Yes, the devil does this.
AUTHOR: Do you mean the devil or demons?
PASTOR R: Yes, there are many different devils or demons who speak through the possessed people.
AUTHOR: Have you had any experience with someone who was freed from the demons through exorcism and then became possessed again?
PASTOR R: Yes, many people have the demons return to them when the people return to their old sinful lives and practices.
AUTHOR: Do the re-burial practices of the traditional religions also add to this problem?
PASTOR R: Yes, this practice is very difficult for even Christians to avoid because it is so much a part of our culture. If someone fails to participate in such an event, that person is cast away from his or her family forever. Therefore, many of the Christians continue to take part in the traditional sacrifices at the tombs. This is extremely dangerous for Christians.
AUTHOR: Can a possessed person go to church and even take part in the reception of the Lord’s Supper?
PASTOR R: Yes, there are some who are baptized and worship in the church, which includes receiving the Holy Communion, who are demon possessed.
AUTHOR: This seems hard to believe. Would not the devil flee from the body and blood of Jesus?
PASTOR R: Yes, and in my experience the demons do flee, but they also return. Those demons, which do not flee, are the ones that make themselves known to us during the service by their cries and screams of agony.
AUTHOR: How does Baptism fit into exorcism?
PASTOR R: First, if a non-Christian were to come to us possessed by a demon, he would be taught the Bible. Second, exorcisms would take place, daily if necessary, and when the person was healed, they would then be baptized. Sometimes these things might occur on the same day. At other times, they may occur over a series of months. It depends upon the situation.
AUTHOR: Would this practice differ with children?
PASTOR R: Yes, we would baptize them first and then instruct them as they grow.
AUTHOR: When you use the word exorcism, what do you mean? Is exorcism understood as a ritual or liturgical rite? What words are spoken?
PASTOR R: We cast out the devils by the name of Jesus Christ and command them to depart into the abyss from where they came. As far as ritual prayers, such as the Roman ritual, no, we do not do this. It only distracts from the real power of Jesus’ Word.
There are many things in this interview which will no doubt cause the reader uneasiness and difficulty. This Malagasy pastor has answered differently than many of us might have expected. One of the most controversial aspects of this interview, for the western Christian, might be the pastor’s acceptance of the possibility for a Christian to become possessed. However, as the reader continues through part two of this book he or she will learn that such a possibility has been accepted by the Church throughout history.
The interview in this selection was partially amended.
From I Am Not Afraid: Demon Possession and Spiritual Warfare, pages 16–17, 19–25 © 2013 Robert H. Bennett, published by Concordia Publishing House. All rights reserved.
In I Am Not Afraid, Rev. Dr. Robert Bennett gives a fascinating firsthand account of the spiritual warfare found within the Lutheran Church of Madagascar. Is spiritual warfare something new to the Church? Bennett reviews what the Bible, Church Fathers, and contemporary Lutheran leaders have to say.
How did you first become interested in the Church of Madagascar?
While working on my Masters of Sacred Theology (STM) degree at Concordia Theological Seminary, I had the opportunity to meet The Reverend Doctor Joseph Randrianasolo who was a visiting student from Madagascar. After listening to him speak about the Lutheran Church of Madagascar, I became very interested in the church body and the growth (from one million members to over four million) it had seen over the past ten years.
Why did you decide to write I Am Not Afraid?
Originally the material in this book came from my dissertation research as I was pursuing a PhD in Missiology. Although, I had always intended that it would be rewritten into a book at its completion. My real desire to write on the topic of demon possession and spiritual warfare came from my disappointment of not being able to find any good resources on the topic while in seminary. Back in those days the subject of demon possession and spiritual warfare was acknowledged but never expounded upon. The sources that could be found were littered throughout various books but not accessible under one cover. Therefore, I would say that I wrote I Am Not Afraid because it was the book I wanted to read but could never find. Moreover, I wanted to provide a resource that would be accessible to both pastors and members of churches.
Describe one of your most unique experiences while visiting Madagascar.
The most unique experience I had while researching the book was when I was exposed to an unexpected exorcism. I was at an outdoor gathering of the church that had more than 15,000 people attending. I was watching from the sidelines as the exorcists were claiming the place for the worship of Jesus. I chose a place to take pictures and video as the “exorcism of place” began, but I decided that I could not get a good view from the location. So, I moved to a better location. Soon I found a good spot to shoot the video. It was my first time at such an event. As I took my place between two buildings, I noticed a woman with children sitting before me on the ground, watching the event. When the pastors started to speak the words, “Depart in the name of Jesus,” a woman began screaming and rolling around on the ground. At first I thought it was coming from the crowds of thousands before me. It took a few moments for me to realize it was the woman sitting at my feet. I must say I was unnerved by the whole thing, but I turned my video camera on the woman as a number of exorcists encircled her and began to direct their words toward her. I remember praying the Lord’s Prayer as I watched the exorcism take place just a few feet away from me. Within about fifteen minutes the demons were driven away and the woman was back in her right mind. The pastors then spoke to the woman, who was not a Christian, and invited her to become a baptized Christian and join the Church. I don’t know what became of that woman, but many people who I have interviewed in the book have similar stories and are now church leaders and even pastors in the Lutheran Church of Madagascar. I think that constitutes a unique experience. . . .
Why are exorcisms common practices in Madagascar but so foreign to many other countries?
This question is flawed because exorcisms are actually not as foreign as one might think. Exorcism can be found almost everywhere in the world. Moreover, it dates back to the beginning of history. The problem is that due to secularization and rationalistic thinking, people in modern society have been taught that it does not exist. Yet, the Church has continued the tradition of exorcism throughout its existence. C. F. W. Walther, the first President of the LCMS, advised all of the pastors he instructed that they should expect to deal with demon possession and be ready for the possibility of exorcism. It is only within the past one hundred years or so that Lutherans have begun to lose this teaching. I demonstrate this in my book.
Why should Americans read this book?
American society is continually leaving the Church. Because of secularization, many people feel that the Church no longer has mysteries to offer. Others are looking for answers that the Church has forgotten. Almost monthly I receive phone calls or emails from pastors who are looking for help with the spiritual problems of their members. Most of the time the pastors speak of demons that are harassing their members, sometimes they are concerned with demon possession, but they all face the problem of finding good resources. Most of the books published on the topic of demon possession and spiritual warfare are not helpful because they are either unscriptural or sensationalized. I Am Not Afraid has been carefully written to avoid these common problems and provide clear instruction to those seeking assistance in these areas.
Our country is also experiencing a spiritual change as it moves out of the churches and into the idea of individual spirituality. Recently I was reading How Christianity Changed the World by Alvin Schmidt. Schmidt does an excellent job of demonstrating how Christianity has changed things over the centuries, but almost everything that Christianity has changed, it seems to me, is beginning to be reversed. If this is the case, we in America will no doubt be seeing an increase in the satanic as people continue to search for spirituality apart from Jesus and the Church.
What can readers hope to gain from the information found in your book?
By looking at the situation in Madagascar, the reader is able to focus on a different culture and witness how Christianity, specifically Lutheranism, is bringing the Gospel message of life and salvation to a people who are following demons disguised as ancestors and spirits. In the interviews, the readers will discover that the people are now thoroughly Lutheran in their theology. If the book were to stop there it would be worth reading, but it does not stop there. The book continues to review all of the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ and the Apostles’ interaction with Satan and his demons. The book then goes on to learn from Lutheran theologians such as Martin Luther, C. F. W. Walther, and modern-day theologians. Throughout the book, comparisons are made between American life and the life of those in Madagascar. Soon the reader comes to the understanding that the book is more about them than it is about their brothers and sisters in a far away land.
How do you hope this book will benefit the Church?
As Lutherans, we have the great gift of knowing Jesus and the power of His name. We understand that Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, has promised to act when His Word is proclaimed. Exorcism for us should be much like the proclamation of Absolution. Pastors and laity speaking the Word while trusting that Jesus is the One who is acting to bring freedom, release, forgiveness, and life to the baptized children of God. The problem we have faced in our Church is that we fail to recognize the continued work of Satan and his demons in our midst. It is my hope that this book opens up a conversation and leads the Church to speak boldly the command of Jesus to those who have been mislead by the ways of Satan.
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