The Dark Side of Pentecostal Enthusiasm: Abraham’s and Sara’s Sacrifice in Knutby, Sweden

Jone Salomonsen

          Trykt i Sturla S. Stålsett (red.): Spirits of Globalization. The Growth of Pentecostalism and Experiential Spiritualities in a Global Age (London: SCM 1996)


Faith with a Licence to Kill?

There is always a dark side to religion, as there is to any human, social configuration. In this chapter I will reserve the adjective “dark” to the fact that Pentecostal beliefs and worldview sometimes are used to legitimize practices that are in radical disjunction with contemporary social norms, such as taking somebody’s life. It will also refer to the fact that when such severe transgressions are known, they seldom seem to trigger any substantial or critical self-examination of basic theological paradigms, of the ethics of inter-human relations or of spiritual authority in the Pentecostal movement as such. To the extent that self-reflexive utterances are heard, they tend to be limited to a rejection of unhealthy or isolated leadership, or to blaming a single individual’s unfortunate failure to gain a correct understanding of completely harmless theological propositions that are purely aimed at healing and empowering ordinary people and bringing them close to God.

But is this true? Is Pentecostalism really only about vitality, prosperity and direct communion with God? Hasn’t the movement always balanced on a very difficult edge between, on the one hand, proclamations of Gods wonderful love for all, promising rewarding spiritual gifts to anyone who listen to their hearts and make Jesus their Lord, and on the other hand a rather aggressive form of a hermeneutics of suspicion, not applied to written texts or biblical interpretative traditions, but to people and their moral faculties whenever they would be disagreeing with Pentecostal authority? In such certainty of being God’s elect, executors of God’s so-called revealed “will”, does not Pentecostalism risk being totally occupied with modifying, engineering, “fixing” – fixing personal destinies, fixing away evil, fixing up the world – and thus ending up supporting very cold and aggressive forms of “love”; forms that do not hesitate to break personal autonomy or to invade a person’s psychic and bodily space, if called to do so by a higher power?

To substantiate my allegations, I shall present three legal cases of total bodily invasion to the point of death, although the actions were legitimized with traditional Pentecostal rhetoric of doing “good” or following “orders” from God on high. The first case is from California and pasted almost directly from Carol Delaney’s book Abraham on Trial (Delaney 1998). It is a finished case, researched and analyzed in depth by her. The next case is from England, and the third and most recent one is from Knutby in Sweden. To my knowledge, scholarly research has not yet been published on the two last cases.  Thus, the data available to me for description are court decisions, inquiry reports and public media. The latter are not always trustworthy, neither in detail nor amplitude, but I will use them as careful as possible and crosscheck the information I pass on. 

While I do intend to investigate what it means to kill someone out of love of God or obedience to the Almighty in a Pentecostal setting, I will just briefly touch upon the personal and psychological motivations for committing such a horrific act. People who seek out the Pentecostal movements as adults do not come empty-handed. Amongst many things they bring former religious upbringing, moralities and local cosmologies. Their process of entering a Pentecostal community is, therefore, less a process of reception than of active appropriation: they blend new beliefs with old, and integrate this mix in a number of different ways, depending on who they are, where they are, and how they have become all that they are. In the cases to be discussed, I have no access to data that may help us understand really deeply the complexity of reasons that make a particular associate of Pentecostalism in a particular context end up as a criminal. Having said this, we should still take notice of the following: the three acts of killing were in every instance intertwined with certain interpretations of some very central textual traditions or biblical themes that eventually also were used as model or alibi for the fatal actions. The themes are:

1.       Abraham’s obedient almost-sacrifice of Isaac.

2.       Joel’s prophecy that one day, God will pour out the spirit on all flesh, so that your sons and daughters will prophesy, old men have dreams, and young men see visions (Joel 2, 28-29) – a prophecy which, according to Peter in Acts, is fulfilled when these spiritual gifts apparently are bestowed upon the apostles and the believers (brothers) at Pentecost as sign and effect of the coming of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2, 14-21), and

3.       The gospel “evidence” of Jesus’ and the disciples’ power to cast out demons, thus legitimizing (Gnostic and/or Shamanic) models of the body as jar or container, waiting to be filled or emptied by outside (good or evil) agents.

In addition, Pentecostalism represents a form of experiential or primeval spirituality not exclusive to Christianity (Cox 1994). If we resort to analytical language, we may say that Pentecostals modulate the sociality of ordinary space and time through more or less ritualized forms of strong prayer (performative prayer with body movements), channeling (speaking in tongues, receiving messages from being on-line with God), chanting (simple, repetitive singing), trance-work (ecstatic singing, praying and dancing intended to induce an altered form of consciousness) and healing (depossession through powerful speech/naming/witnessing, or moving energy through the laying on of hands).

These ritual elements, encountered cross-culturally, are usually far more important for the crafting of a holy, corporate, Pentecostal body than any Christian sacrament, including Baptism. In fact, Pentecostals share many features with the so-called New Age movements and may, to a certain extent, be categorised as a post-Christian or post-traditional phenomenon within Christianity. There are three basic characteristics to this contemporary religious trend: First, a nostalgic turn towards an ancient literary past to help redirect the future, morally as well as socially, by using highly contested textual strategies. Second, overwriting Christology with a mystical, beneficial Creation theology and/or advocating direct communion with divinity as a path to salvation and/or self-realization. Third, reclaiming a magical worldview in order to gain power with/over life in contemporary society (particularly over suffering, illness and death). (Salomonsen 2002)

In the case of neo-Pentecostals, they turn towards an imagined biblical past at the same time as they blend into and invoke the authority of a Gnostic, dualist worldview of a Manichean bent.  The Gnostic God of the world is a powerful Creator/Warrior God who continuously is at war with an almost equally powerful Satan and his army of demonic spirits. Consequently, the willingness to employ Demonology rather than Christology when seeking out the religious meaning of affliction and death is stunning in the communities to be discussed. The suffering, dying, resurrected Christ is reduced to the “name of Jesus”, a name made powerful through a historical “bloody sacrifice” in Jerusalem. Yet, “Jesus” has become a cultic name to be used invocatively and performatively to cast out demons and induce healing and well being.

These allegations will be substantiated and discussed in the second part of the chapter. First, however, I will present the three cases that set the background to my claims and critical discussions.

Case 1. California: “How Can You Say No to God?”

The first case to be considered is narrated by Carol Delaney like this: On January 6, 1990 in California, a middle aged bus driver called Cristos Valenti by Delaney, took his youngest child, his most beloved daughter, with him in the truck, to faithfully accomplish what the voice of God had told him to: sacrifice the one he loved the most. They drove to a place he had been directed to, and told her that she soon would meet God. As they prayed “Our Father, who art in heaven”, he took the knife and took her life. He sat next to her body and prayed for several minutes. When he looked up he saw her star shining brightly in the night sky; he saw two stars moving closer together. He knew then he had fulfilled her destiny, he knew he had done the right thing. He picked her up and took her home. When his oldest daughter opened the door she saw her father holding the child, like a pieta. “Call the police”, he said. “I have given her to God”. (Delaney 1998: 35)

Cristos never admitted to murder, even though he knew he had committed a legal wrong. Otherwise he would not have asked his oldest daughter to call the police. In court, he argued that to kill your own child does not mean that you are either evil or insane. According to Delaney, he said: “How can you say no to God? Everything is his. We all belong to him. It was an order directly to me from God; God asked me for her. You can’t back out. I had no choice”. When the court-appointed psychologist questioned Cristos about the law, why laws are necessary, Cristos answered: “Laws are for everybody because there’s a lot of trouble around out there”.

Psychologist: “Thou shalt not kill, what about that law?”

Cristos: “That’s God’s commandment.”

Psychologist: “Did you break that law?”

Cristos: “Yes and no. I did break it because the Bible says that, but I didn’t break it because God told me to.” (Delaney 1998: 58)

The psychiatrists called Cristos’ experience an ‘auditory hallucination’, and the jury sentenced him “not guilty by reason of insanity”, and ordered psychiatric treatment. Delaney reports that almost everybody in the courtroom cried upon hearing this verdict. They felt betrayed on behalf of the murdered child and the mother who gave birth to her and now lost her.

Cristos grew up as a Catholic, but had left the Catholic Church and moved to a charismatic, Pentecostal Church with his wife and six children. Neither the prosecutor nor the public defender called the minister of this church to the stand as witness, but Carol Delaney interviewed him at his church when researching the case. The minister did not think Cristos was insane even though he claimed to hear voices. Rather, he felt Cristos struggled between good and evil forces, between the voice of God and the voice of the devil. But which is which? During the autumn prior to the murder, the church’s bible study group had studied Genesis 22. According to the minister, “Abraham laid the wood on Isaac as the cross was put on Jesus.” (Delaney 1998: 46) But now, he went on, “God has no need for sacrifices any more. Jesus is the final sacrifice” The minister took no responsibility for having contributed to Cristos' confusion and evil action through his preaching; neither did he feel that the tradition had any responsibility. He claimed that the story of Abraham is a model to be followed, exactly. And according to the model, Isaac was saved. But, as Delaney observes, the minister fails to recognize that it was not Abraham who prevented the sacrifice, but God. Cristos too, was following a command from God, not the biblical model, and his God did not tell him to stop.

Furthermore, the voice of ethical reason is in the tradition expressed by the figure of the devil. As Delaney notices, both Jewish Midrash and Muslim legend are explicit when letting the devil say to Abraham: “How could you possibly think of killing your precious son? This is the son God said would make you the father of many nations”. The point of both Midrash and legend, says Delaney, is that the devil is trying to tempt Abraham away from his duty to God by arousing his compassion for his son. Abraham’s duty was to follow God’s command. But, as Delaney points out, in the twentieth century, the minister felt that the voice telling Cristos to do the deed could not possibly have been God’s. Cristos obviously disagreed with his minister in this effort to limit what God possibly can say and not say, even today.

Delaney then asks: how did Cristos get the idea that the child was his to sacrifice? One answer is that the concept of paternity in the Christian tradition is embedded in a theory of procreation in which only male seed is regarded generative, whereas maternity means passive soil into which the seed is planted (Delaney 1998: 157). That which is generated by the male belongs to the male – although in the end it must return back to God, to whom everything really belongs since he is the Father and creative power of all (a further presentation of this very important section of Delaney’s book is beyond the scope of this chapter).

Case II. England: “She Would Not Cry at All”

On February 25, 2000, a black girl named Victoria Adjo Climbié died from severe abuse and hypothermia in London, eight years old. According to a governmental inquiry report published in January 2003, she had 128 separate injuries on her body and virtually no hair when she died. Nearly 18 months earlier her parents had sent her from home in a shanty town in the Ivory Coast to live with her great-aunt, Marie in Tottenham, North London, in the hope that she would get a good education and a better life. After a short while, her aunt became convinced that witchcraft had followed the girl from the Ivory Coast, and that evil spirits possessed her. This belief, which may or may not have served merely as an excuse for the abuse, was nevertheless the reason why Marie and her boyfriend, Carl, daily was beating the girl and kept her tied up in a plastic sack in an unlit, unheated bathroom for long periods of time. One sign that the stubborn spirits continued to inhabit her was that “You could beat her and she would not cry at all. She could take the beatings and pain like anything”, as Carl explained in his written confession that was read in court when the couple was tried for murder. (The Guardian,  December 6, 2001)

Not succeeding in exorcising the evil spirits themselves, even though they obviously tried to fight with them physically, Victoria’s abusers took her to a series of Evangelical and Pentecostal churches.  Here, the girl was made to repeat the story that she was possessed by demons and that Satan was making her injure herself. Pastor Pascal Orome at the “Mission Ensemble Pour Christ” in Borough, south-east London, met her six months before she died, in late August 1999, and was apparently convinced that the girl’s injuries and bruises were the result of demonic possession. He exorcised her, seemingly with no results. When the pastor saw the girl again in October, Marie provided “new evidence” that she still was possessed: the eight-year-old was incontinent, put excrement into food, burned herself and ‘made a mess’ at home.

In the period immediately before her death, Marie and Carl brought the girl to the pastors of the Brazilian-based but worldwide Universal Church of the Kingdom of God[1] at the Rainbow Theatre in Finsbury Park, north London. On Tuesdays the church offers a “deliverance service” for those whose health is troubled by spirits. Here they met with Pastor Alvaro Lima and Marie Thérèse explained her witchcraft thesis to him. Even though he was not fully convinced that witchcraft was the real problem, he apparently agreed that the girl had “spiritual problems” and that he would fast and pray for her. He also suggested that they returned for the more powerful Friday service, at which they would try to cast out the evil spirits. But when pastor Lima saw the girl again, she was barely conscious. He realized that the girl was sick, probably from “neglect”, and asked Marie to take her to hospital. It was too late. She died the next day.

 On 12 January 2001, Marie and Carl were convicted for having murdered the girl and jailed for life. They did not receive the verdict “not guilty by reason of insanity”, as did Cristos Valenti. In Cristos’ case, it was impossible for the persecutor to present any minister from any recognized Christian congregation who would defend child sacrifice as a legitimate outcome from having formed a personal covenant with God and promised to obey his orders.  Sacrifice as such is understood as a closed venue since Jesus is proclaimed to be the final sacrifice. A sacrificial scheme that demands the killing of organic life, the actual shedding of animal (or human) blood as a necessary intermediary in order to obtain blessing, balance out sin, propitiate God’s anger or perform an act of obedience, which once had a place in Israelite religion, even in Judaism, has no place in the Christian tradition.  Even though traditional Christian theology makes no sense without recourse to a sacrificial language, we are purely talking “sacrifice in a spiritual sense”, for example offerings to God of a pure heart, a broken conscience, good deeds towards fellow human beings. This is also why it was concluded that Cristos Valenti was mentally ill.  He took what he heard literally and performed, against all sense and habit, an act banned by the tradition as cruel, irrational and heathen.

This was not the case with Marie and Carl, rather the opposite. These poor, black and emotionally disturbed people reasoned and acted according to a learnt magical worldview that has reified people’s experiences of good and evil into an external war between God and the Devil, a perpetual war that takes place simultaneously on a macro (cosmic) and micro (social) level. This fight may, in addition, intrude itself into the otherwise bounded space of the individual body, causing all kinds of misery. The situation, however, according to such worldview is not without hope since certain ‘specialists’ can settle the war temporarily through exorcism of the evil, as can for example Jesus and the pastors of his church. Marie and Carl share this worldview with millions of other fellow Christians, a worldview that is well and alive, and not banned by any international Christian consensus. Contested, yes, but not banned. Their crime, therefore, was to take the option of exorcising the devil too far, not to invent the option itself, or the devil. This, at least, is a possible explanation why they could not be diagnosed as mentally ill, but rather had to be treated as two ordinary citizens, totally responsible for their own acts, which were to have used their beliefs as an excuse to torture and literally ‘beat the hell out’ of Victoria as if she was a demon.

However, when the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God advertises on their web page for “spiritual release gatherings” on Friday nights, offering “strong prayer to destroy witchcraft, demon-possession, nightmares, curses, envy, bad luck, etc.”, they reproduce and confirm a socially meaningful world similar to that of Marie and Carl’s. Thus, the difference between them is only one of degree, not of kind, since it all comes down to disagreement on the legitimate methods to reach an otherwise common goal: authentic, prosperous living in a clean body, filled up with the Holy Spirit, depossessed of inauthentic, evil spirits causing illness, unemployment, broken families, jealously, alcoholism, despair, poverty, bad luck. The crucial question that set the Universal Church apart from the two black immigrants is this: by what means may the devil be purged? What means are proper, which ones are improper, inefficient, and unethical? Symbolic beatings in terms of strong prayers or fights upon a podium, that is, the church altar, are legitimate, as are incantations and devocations spoken by a person of authority. Physical beatings, on the other hand, are not legitimate, at least not in public, and at least not to the point of death. Resort to such means is a sign of superstition, of having too little faith, of having paid (sacrificed) too little money to the altar, typical of the poor and uneducated, or perhaps a manifestation of pure evil: the devil in human form, trying to exorcise/extinguish the God-given life of an eight-year-old girl. The church, of course, can take no responsibility for such misuse. Or can it? Let us see what happened.

The killing of Victoria Climbié was extremely brutal, happening a little by little, day by day. Yet, what happened was not hidden from public eyes. Many people, amongst them social workers and Pentecostal pastors, met the suffering girl several times and had a chance to stop the abuse and save her life. Why didn’t they react? To figure this out and to estimate whether criminal charges should be brought against more people, a public inquiry into her death began in September 2001. Chairman of the inquiry, Lord Laming, handed his report to the Government 6th January 2003, and it was published 23 January 2003. The report brought forth that there had been at least 12 chances for the social agencies involved in her protection to save her life. As a result, two social workers were suspended. Yet, none of them admitted to having done anything wrong. One shared Marie’s worldview and stated she had been the victim of a ‘witch-hunt’ since the true reason for her failure to intervene was poor supervision by her seniors. The other one, a senior social worker manager, denied all charges. Marie and Carl also gave evidence in the inquiry. While Marie claimed to be innocent and the victim of a conspiracy (she had done what she did out of love for the girl), Carl apparently apologized for his part in the poor girl’s death and said the child protection agencies could not be blamed for her suffering. This is not surprising. After all, Marie and Carl were convinced that evil spirits possessed Victoria and that she brought the dangerous spells of witchcraft into their tiny flat in Tottenham. Consequently, they did not ask any social worker for help, they asked Christian ministers in the Pentecostal tradition who explicitly offer exorcism and deliverance from troubling spirits to a wide public.

The statutes of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God maintain that a pastor is a God’s elect and not subject to criticism from the congregation, only from God himself. Having incorporated such a leadership model, it is not surprising that neither the Universal Church in London nor its pastors were willing to take any responsibility for perpetuating or feeding on a simplistic, double-edged worldview that historically, at least in the west, has helped to kill so many people (so-called ‘heretics’ and ‘witches’). Pastor Alvaro Lima admitted to being unconcerned about Victoria’s medical welfare, and that he failed to contact the police or any child protection services about his concerns. But that’s all. An official investigation into the church even concluded that there was no evidence that the Universal Church ever had claimed to be able to heal individuals or purge them of demons, nor to cure them. They just offer prayers to help people overcome their illnesses for “only God can heal” (, May 9, 2003).

Case III. Knutby, Sweden: Lethal Text-Messages from God

The last killing to be considered here took place in January 2004 in a Pentecostal community in Knutby, a small town of 600 inhabitants just outside Uppsala, Sweden.  The court trial started in mid-May and ended on July 30, 2004 when the two suspects Helge Fossmo and Sara Svensson, were convicted for murder. Helge Fossmo, however, did not accept the verdict and appealed to a higher court. On November 12, 2004 he lost and was sentenced to jail for life. He then re-appealed to the Supreme Court, but on January 4, 2005 the court dismissed the case.

This case is more complicated to represent since one of the convicted, Helge Fossmo, has not admitted anything and therefore has told us nothing. It is nevertheless possible to draw a simple outline of the events by using the testimonial highlights processed in court as well as the basic arguments in the legal verdict that was passed. My main source is the numerous news reports that documented the case in detail, in particular the highly regarded Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter which printed extensive, tape-recorded ‘word by word’ documentation from the court proceedings. My main goal is to portray a way of thinking and acting that is legitimized by a theological discourse that claims power over any aspect of life – social, ritual, sexual, legal – and hence a divine right to modify any of these institutions “if necessary”, even the right to live.

Early morning January 10, 2004, a 26 year-old former nanny, Sara Svensson, killed Alexandra Fossmo (23), step-mother of three and wife of Helge Fossmo, while asleep in her own bed. Helge Fossmo (32), who at the time was a senior pastor in Knutby Philadelphia Church, slept in another room and – according to what he claimed in the trial – did not wake up from the gunshots. After having killed Alexandra, Sara went to the neighbour’s house, rang the bell and shot Daniel Linde (30) as he opened the door, and then ran away. Surprisingly, Linde did not die although he was severely injured. Some months later he was even able to testify in the trial. Daniel is married to Anette Linde (26), and both are members of the congregation.

Two days after the murder, Sara confessed that she had committed the crimes, and that she had done it alone. However, it soon came out that Sara had been pastor Fossmo’s mistress for several years. For six months she had even lived in his bedroom, while his wife slept on a coach in the living room. In 2003, Helge and Sara’s relationship changed from affectionate to abusive, and in the fall Helge started to have nightly visits from another woman: his neighbour, Anette Linde. Sara was ‘degraded’ to the basement, although she continued to deliver sexual services to the pastor daily.

Sara was obviously humiliated and most probably jealous, too. But, if so, why didn’t she kill Helge Fossmo or Anette Linde? Why did she kill the pastor’s even more humiliated wife, Alexandra, the one exiled from the marriage bed to the coach? And why attempt to kill Daniel, who already was being let down by his wife, Anette Linde? Probably because jealousy was not the motive. And clearly, about two weeks after the murder, on January 30a new picture started to emerge. Helge Fossmo was arrested, suspected of being a collaborator. Two months later the charges against him were extended to include suspicion of murdering his first wife, Helene, as well, the biological mother of his three children. Helene had died five years earlier under very strange circumstances.

In April 2004 the public was informed that in the two months leading up to the murder of his second wife, Alexandra, Helge and Sara had exchanged more than 2000 text messages, and a phone call 15 minutes after the crime was committed. In fact, on the day of the murder they sent each other eighteen messages and spoke ten times on the phone. Sara protected Helge until the police proved to her that he was the real author of those anonymous text-messages she had believed was sent to her phone by God himself, instructing her in the killing and pushing her forward.

The trial started May 18th, 2004, and both Helge and Sara were formally charged with murder. Yet the prosecutors’ theory was that Helge the pastor was the main perpetrator while Sara the nanny was manipulated by Helge, herself a victim of severe mind control and ideological/theological seduction.  What was this theory based on? In addition to interpreting field research, confessions, testimonies and technical findings, it was deducted from a critical  “reading” of the story hidden in the case. The following is a short version of this story, based on my interpretation of the prosecutors’ “reading”.

In the early 1990’s, the Philadelphia Church in Knutby went through a process of rejuvenation and growth due to the charismatic pastor Åsa Waldau, at that time 26. She had moved from Uppsala to Knutby because of her husband-to-be, Patrick Waldau, who is ten years younger than she. Although one of six pastors, she soon became the leader due to her rare gift of attracting lots of young people who decided to move to Knutby because of her prophetic abilities and probably also counselling skills. Together, she and they created a community that newcomers said they felt radiated care, love and joy, a place where people dared to show their brotherly/sisterly love through hugs, kisses, touch and fond words. As is common in Pentecostal groups, they built their relationships through singing and praising, spontaneous witnessing, strong prayer, prophetic speech, visioning and dreaming, bible study groups guided by the Holy Spirit, and obedience to the Lord(s) both in heaven and in the home.

The fact that the community accepts a female pastor should not be mistaken as sign of any tacit feminism. It is rather a result of this congregation having been inspired by the controversial community ideals of the Australian pastor David Cartledge (who has been visiting both Sweden and Norway). Basically, these ideals are 1. Apostolic leadership, meaning that the leaders are chosen directly by God, and therefore responsible only to God. They are leaders because of their direct communication-lines, and therefore have absolute authority in spiritual matters. 2. Equality between the sexes in the worship since the spirit comes to all and the bible says Jesus had female disciples, meaning that women are welcome into the ministry, 3. Non-equality between the sexes outside the ministry since the bible says woman is created as helper, and man portrayed as her head. When Helge Fossmo told the court that it’s a woman’s duty to please her husband sexually whenever he wants, to obey his word and not be rebellious, there is nothing exceptional about his sayings from the point of view of this community. So, yes, Åsa Waldau can be a charismatic leader in church, but she is still a woman and must therefore obey her husband Patrick at home. According to witnesses, there are written rules in Knutby instructing women and men how to behave in relation to each other. These rules aim at reinforcing a hierarchical, patriarchal family model, and may seem very strict to an outsider, though apparently authored by Åsa herself. The existence of these rules and everybody’s stated agreement to live by them, have been confirmed by all the witnesses brought to the stand.

However, this “loving” community was knit together even more tightly, and its hierarchical, gendered bi-polar (or dualist) worldview confirmed even more strongly, when the pastors started to help arrange marriages between spiritual brothers and sisters they felt were fit, or that would benefit the husband in his growth process. Apparently, they did not feel obliged to consider whether the couple was in love or not since God would ‘fix’ such ’details’ if they just prayed for it to happen and otherwise obeyed His word. Some refused and ran away, others agreed, such as Sara, who in 2000 married a man she did not love because the pastors said it was the right thing to do.

Marriage in Sweden is customarily regulated by exogamic kinship rules; that is, rules saying you should marry outside the (extended) family. It is also governed by bilateral, egalitarian family ideals according to which children belong to both their parents’ kin groups, and husband and wife are legal co-partners. In contrast, the Philadelphia community in Knutby started to develop a new endogamic family structure inspired by biblical models. Endogamy means marrying inside the clan or extended family, preferably a cross-cousin, which in societies with patrilineal descent normally creates strong generational bonds between male siblings and cousins, producing what is also known as sibling-societies. (Todd 1985) The bond between husband and wife is equally weak, usually being both hierarchical and segregated. Yet, the goal with endogamic family models is not to build a marriage-partnership or a single household, but to perpetuate or expand the clan and the larger tribe by circulating human, spiritual and economic capital strictly within a rather closed group of kin.

Patrilineal, endogamic family models and its associated brother/cousin-hoods are typical of Semitic cultures, in particular Palestine, says French social scientist Emmanuel Todd, whereas the Roman kinship system of the early Latin Christians was patrilineal and exogamic. Exogamy does not create strong brother/cousin-hoods, but more independent households under a common lineage, usually headed by extremely powerful pater familias. They rely on clients more than brothers. In fact, brothers and blood-relatives may even go to war, helped by their friends.

When charismatic Christian communities start to develop androcentric, endogamic family patterns (not patrilineal in this case, since it was not in their power to change the Swedish inheritance laws), they probably look upon themselves as one spiritual family or clan, who prefer intermarriages rather than mingling with the world. Having noted this, we should look at the dramatis personae in Knutby once more. Then we may discover that it is probably no coincidence that Anette Linde is Patrick Waldau's sister, and that Patrick is the one married to Åsa Waldau, just as it is of utter importance that the murdered Alexandra, married to Helge, was Åsa’s sister. If Helge has orchestrated the murder(s), and if it is correct that endogamic family patterns are about to develop among them, his real target was probably the spiritual head behind these two women, namely Åsa Waldau, who is related to Alexandra by blood and to Anette through marriage: Daniel is Åsa’s brother-in-law, married to her husband’s sister Anette, who then is Åsa’s sister-in-law. So, Helge probably arranged to kill Åsa’s sister (Alexandra) as well as her brother-in-law (Daniel), in addition to defiling her sister-in-law (Anette) through marital infidelity. He also abused Sara, of course, in a number of ways. In the end he sacrificed her life and dignity by persuading her to commit murder, thus sending her away too, not ‘home’ to God, but to prison.

Helge Fossmo (who is Norwegian by birth) came to this community in 1997 with his wife Helene and three kids, apparently because of his brotherly and spiritual attraction to Åsa Waldau. He soon became a co-leader with Åsa, and gained authority and respect through his so-called bible knowledge and prophetic faculties: he could speak in tongues, see future events, and had dreams that became true. For example did he claim having dreamt seven nights in a row that Helene died in the bathtub as a punishment for her disobedience towards him, a dream cycle he apparently shared with several witnesses. Some time later it happened, she died in the bathtub. Shortly after, Helge married Åsa’s sister Alexandra.

Interestingly enough, Helge also developed a new theological understanding of the “Bride of Christ” metaphor. Rather than being a symbol of the church, he claimed that it pointed towards a living person of flesh and blood, namely Åsa Waldau. Since Christ obviously waited for his bride, Åsa would not live very long, she was soon to die. They therefore established a prayer group to ask that her death would arrive soon, that she would be taken home and meet her real groom, Jesus. In the meantime, she – the elevated one – had to keep secluded from the community in order to keep her purity intact. Åsa Waldau now claims that she did not understand until her sister was killed that this obscure theological construction was merely a means to gain power over her and keep her out of the way. But she was quite clear in her testimony that this is her understanding today.

Helge met Sara in this prayer group for “the quickening of Åsa’s death”, so to speak. He fell in love with her, or acted as if he fell in love with her, early 2001.  Honoured by the pastor taking such an interest in her, she started to have the same feelings for him. Helge called their affection a divine love between siblings, and said God wanted a covenant to be set up between the two. Afterwards they had to seal the covenant through sexual intercourse. When Sara’s husband got suspicious and it became hard for them to meet, Helge all of a sudden got very sick: he acted as if he experienced some form of possession. We are told that he had daily fights with the devil, and that he needed assistance from a spiritual nurse. Thus, Sara was called to move unto his house, and every night they celebrated that he had survived yet another day’s fight by having sex. According to the news reports she did not leave the house for six months.

When Helge told the five other pastors that he had a revelation in which God said he should marry Sara, the group did something unusual: they opposed their senior minister and said: “No, you are wrong.” This was probably because Åsa first said: “Your dream is not from God, be faithful to my sister Alexandra”. From that moment the love affair between Helge and Sara was over, although they continued to have sex and she continued to love him. But it was no longer mutual. Instead he started to treat her as a slave and abuse her psychologically, telling her she had no value, that she was so evil she had lost God’s grace, accusing her for having tempted him into infidelity, which of course is the sign of a fallen woman. But, he offered her one way out: if she was willing to obey God’s will no matter what, even if it was to kill another person, she could be saved. But first she had to pass this test.

She asked if he meant ‘like Abraham’, as his faith had been tested through his willingness to sacrifice Isaac? Helge said she could not compare the two, because she lived today. But Sara did make the comparison. So when Helge told Sara that he had dreams and revelations that Alexandra had to die because she was too rebellious, that her time on earth was over, he got Sara to take it upon herself to assassinate her. In doing so, she both believed that she released Alexandra and sent her ‘home’, just as she hoped to be an elect as Abraham once had been: She would be tested, but God would interfere and stop her in the last minute, just like he did with Isaac. But God did not. Instead, as Sara saw it, God sent text-messages and told her to continue. (Dagens Nyheter May 18, 2004; Dagbladet May 19, 2004)

When Sara finally was able to hear the truth, she was relieved that it was not God who had ordered her to kill, but a human being, that God after all was recognizable to her. But we do not know if it has ever occurred to her that in Helge’s universe, she never played the role of Abraham, but rather that of Isaac, the one Helge was willing to sacrifice for a larger goal: becoming Master Minister in Knutby, controlling everybody, even Åsa Waldau. And in this perspective, one could say, God certainly intervened: God rescued Sara, as God once had rescued Isaac, from disintegration, defilement, and death. From this perspective the hidden script, the fight between Helge and Åsa, takes on an almost metaphysical dimension, quite similar to the warrior plots in science fantasy literature.

The tragic events in Knutby received a lot of attention from media, both in Sweden and Norway. Critical analysts in search of explanations pointed to authoritarian leadership, the congregational principle of Pentecostal communities that isolates them and shuts them up for surveillance and control, the male misuse of power through sex, religion and ministry, etc. The Knutby congregation has also voiced their concern, not in any self-critical theological sense, but by recourse to a familiar form of hermeneutics: we were too naive; we were too loving and trusting; evil spirits deceived us. Helge Fossmo was not God’s messenger, he was the devil. As always when confronted with evil, they tried to exorcise it, expel it from the community, park it outside. But they took no responsibility that two women have been killed, one man seriously injured, another woman facing 10 years of forced psychiatric custody, or that three children have lost everything, including parents, trust, love and meaning. Acting like a typical sibling-society, holding no real adult responsibility, they consider themselves purely as victims too: victims of a cosmic war between good and evil, manifested in their midst as a fight between a White (Åsa) and Black (Helge) Magician. This was a fight Helge almost won by slipping into Knutby in disguise, throwing a flattering spell on Åsa, calling her “Bride of Christ”. But she finally woke up, just in time to prevent the whole congregation from disintegrating into confusion, being installed once again as their Holy-Sacred-Beacon.

Theological Underpinnings of the Crimes

If we do not believe that people got killed in Knutby because God continuously fights the Devil in outer and inner space or that God decided to send the devil to test this particular congregation, how may we then explain why such a terrible thing could happen among young Swedish people, people whose only reason to settle in Knutby was a positive yearning for love, community, sensuality and meaning – a ‘longing for Jesus’, as they probably would have put it themselves? 

Many commentators have diagnosed Helge Fossmo and suggested that he is a psychopath. Even though we may never know exactly who he is, there is no doubt – according to the legal verdict – that he is responsible for acts that most people regard as simply ‘wicked’. Yet, such diagnoses will not fully explain how and why he managed for so long to get away with killing, seducing and manipulating right and wrong, without taking into account the theological factor. A fatal problem was, in my view, that Fossmo did not meet any real resistance to a theological discourse that became more and more disturbed.

For example did Alexandra’s former fiancé tell the jury (Dagens Nyheter June 7, 2004) that when he was still engaged to her, Helge Fossmo informed him of a special dream that returned to him seven nights in a row. In that dream Helge was married to Alexandra. Since the witness believed that Helge could foresee the future, he broke the engagement. He did not ask Helge to stay away from his woman, as is expected from a Swedish man; he just backed off. Neither is Helge’s ‘wickedness’ enough to explain how Sara could be impregnated with the same idea as Cristos; how she really could believe that God tested her faith and obedience, almost like he did with Abraham, only not by asking for a child sacrifice, but by ordering her to ‘release’ someone from life and ‘give them back’ to God.

I argue that it is impossible to understand Knutby and other similar tragedies if we resort purely to external, instrumental or non-theological explanations, and I hope my presentation of the cases above have made this evident. Sara worked as a nanny, a caretaker of children. She grew up in a Christian family and claimed always to have had a strong belief in God and to have found great comfort in her faith, not least since her mother died when she was still a young teenager. Sara may have been naive, and definitely in search of love, community and authority to make up for her loneliness, but there is no evidence that she was or is mentally ill or has any criminal leanings. Hence, it is unlikely that she could have been manipulated to kill if a rationale for acts that even may include bloodshed had not already been foundational to the community ethos and beliefs that everybody already shared, including Sara. This rationale is first and foremost constituted by a deep commitment to listen to God’s messages and by a strong urge to follow God’s orders – no matter what. Both attitudes are in addition acutely intensified by the sincere conviction that there is a continuous, ongoing war between good and evil in the world, calling all Christians to take sides. Following God’s commands without objections is a sign of being on the right side, of being an obedient friend of God, a loyal, non-deserting servant/soldier in God’s Holy War.

However, as I see it, the situation in the congregation in Knutby was aggravated even further by two additional theological interpretations, which in Sara’s case were crucial: 1) a notion of sexual difference as inborn essence, constituted through and manifesting as gendered dichotomies and hierarchies; 2) a home-made notion of blood-sacrifice as deed, a deed that still may be demanded by “God on High” (although only under certain circumstances), thus implying the possibility of being an act in positive conjunction with acts otherwise associated with the “God of Love” and, therefore, in conformity with the Christian prototype of “good works”.

First, the particular worldview legitimizing this “Holy War” is magical and dualist: it conceives of cosmic and social life as interconnected and interdependent, and of every living creature (except Jesus) as embodying two opposing, elemental forces of which one is good and the other evil . If elemental, the two forces are of necessity also congruent in some way with those essences believed to constitute sexual “difference” since this differentiation is said to keep the world going by adding new generations to God’s creation from the beginning of time. If we combine these elemental/essential forces in magical pillars (of correspondence), we get well-known pairs of opposition that are related, or may interact, in a rather dramatic sense: a higher divine force, good in essence and destined to win in the end, is fighting against a lower devilish force, evil in essence and destined to lose. The alleged sexed nature of this set hierarchy is not necessarily explicit or stable in terms of cultural codes and meanings since the process of gendering fixed space is open to social negotiation and, thus, to logical and cultural variation. Yet, in cultures informed by the symbolic hierarchies of biblical religion, masculine is higher, feminine lower. Another well-known strategy in our hemisphere is to represent the masculine as crude nature eternally in need of culture, and turn the feminine into a romanticized, purer nature with educational capabilities in regard to perfect this “man”, who is the main character of the plot. Thus “woman” is put upon a life-inhibiting pedestal (like Sara, who was made “Spiritual nurse”, and Åsa, the “Bride of Christ”), but from which she is always threatened to fall down. Yet, the subject in charge of this un-equal cast is not female. The person in charge of defining figures and their configurations will in this particular plot hold the subject-position of a social male (although “he” may be a “she” put in male office, cf. Åsa who wrote Knutby’s marriage rules from the position of a “minister”). The pure, fragile woman is a male fantasy that may eagerly be used as a means to envelop women and keep them away from “real (public) life”, “real (political) decisions”, “real (intellectual) thoughts”, “real (moral) responsibility” – hence domesticated and under control

Second, the flawed notion of sacrifice we have encountered in the reported cases enters the scene because of these particular Pentecostals’ refusals to work with theological hermeneutics (which, of course is much more than simply reading the bible and preaching around a text). In two of the three cases presented, reading Genesis 22 with Joel/Acts prove fatal. Also, to read the promise of an indwelling spirit as being the core meaning of Genesis 22 changed the theological focus from the meaning of sacrifice to the meaning of possession. Instead of asking what a sacrifice is; how it is different from ritual killing; why an intermediary was necessary between Abraham and God on High in order that a privileged, patriarchal nation could be born, the Pentecostals in question seems more occupied with Abraham’s direct speech with God. Thus, they read the text purely in this order: First Abraham and God were ‘on-line’, then Abraham was commanded to sacrifice his son. The command itself – including its function, meaning and silent, underlying gender relations – seems not to be the important part. But being in communion with God by virtue of having the spirit, taking orders and acting out, this – apparently – is what is perceived as important. Such a reading strategy implies a significant twist to Genesis 22 since it fails to understand that the covenant between God and Israel is built on the consecration of the firstborn son, not on an allowance for killing, and that the duty to sacrifice is something very different from the legal right to kill. (Young 1979) As observed in the three cases above, this twist in terms of interpretation had very dramatic consequences when applied to real life. Yet, it gained authority through allusion to a most traditional Christian take on Abraham as overall interpretative horizon for the Christian faith: Abraham’s obedient willingness to sacrifice Isaac is canonized by tradition to comprise both a definition of God, a model of faith, a prefiguration for the crucifixion, as well as an indisputable typology for making sense of Jesus’ death and dying. This interpretative horizon, I hold, needs revisioning, irrespective of how it is used or misused by some Pentecostals.

Even though the three cases above represent the dark side of Pentecostalism and, therefore, cannot be read as a just description of the movement in general, my critical remarks are probably relevant to any Christian denominations that cultivate “charisma” and “pneuma” in their worship-service and community building-activities in so far as they also and simultaneously embrace the horizon of a dualist, magical worldview. In addition, the cold light shining from Los Angeles, London and Knutby is a critical lesson to be taken seriously by all Christian Churches, not only the Pentecostals: leaning on the same biblical traditions and flirting with the same dualist heritage, there are no innocents here.

Summing up the above cases, the Pentecostals in question failed in terms of social irresponsibility and in disrespecting personal autonomy and the integrity of the living body for a number of reasons. It seems, however, that the refusal to work seriously and critically with theological hermeneutics, ethics and inclusive models of leadership/authority turned out to be most critical. I will end by commenting – shortly and admittedly in rather general terms – on why these three fields are particularly important.

Theological hermeneutics

It is critical that some Pentecostal groups refuse to work with theological hermeneutics, just as it is incisive that they refuse to learn from or take seriously the accumulated knowledge of local moralities, cultural wisdom traditions and practical, ritual skills in “handling” spirit possession in context, or in setting up sharp limits and rules for spirit-manipulation not to be misused. This refusal is probably linked to a simplistic understanding of literary texts (whether biblical or not) and a failure to distinguish between ‘text’ and ‘lived life’.

If refusal is the case it usually goes in tandem with a sweeping invalidation of critical reason and of mundane (or non-Christian) wisdom: this world only holds the status of a temporary ‘airport terminal’ for the transition of the elect to the world to come, the hoped-for Kingdom of God. If ‘distance to the world’ in addition signals a lack of creation theology, the result may be socially disastrous. Not only because there is no Christianity without God the Creator being included in the Trinity, but also because the lack thereof may have devastating effects on the mentality and ethicality of religious communities of a Pentecostal bent. It may, for example, help strengthen the idea that the ‘Kingdom’ of God is an event that loyal, obedient Christians may help create through their ‘moral’ lives, ‘godly’ communities, ‘just’ statesmanship and ‘righteous’ warfare against the ungodly and corrupt (within social reality, metaphysical reality, or the interior of individual bodies) and thus weaken the belief that the Kingdom is taking place here and now, graciously and across time and space, offered to all as pure gift. There is a delicate balance between ‘passively receiving’ and ‘actively responding’ in the Christian tradition, and reinforcing one at the expense of the other always seems to have unwanted social implications.


It is critical that the implicit morality of a dualist, antagonistic worldview as we may encounter it in some n Pentecostal circles, is permitted to live on in Christian churches without due resistance. Manichaeism was a non-Christian, Gnostic movement, but may also be used as a transhistorical prototype for a way of thinking that splits the world apart into moral antagonistic categories that unceasingly are at war. This reality is utterly reinforced when Adam and Eve’s dismissal from the Garden is read literally as a cosmic event glued onto all generations to come.  Hence, human society outside the Garden is degraded to a ”polluted” space, deeply conditioned by the “evil spell” cast over Adam and Eve as a consequence of their sin (disobedience). This is a rather pessimistic worldview in which it is hard to conceive of human potentiality positively, such as being gifted with an innate ability for compassion, or with a real, un-egotistical desire for social justice, unless humans are filled up – and daily refilled – with the miraculous, Holy Spirit of Pentecost. Thus, to be saved is to be rescued from evil spells and filled up with new power: the power of “love”.

Not surprisingly, these Pentecostal groups cultivate a reified discourse on love: love is preached as if it was feeling, a sensation that comes as a consequence of ‘having been filled up’, a name for something you may ‘get’ like you get other magical things. Against this view we could argue the love in biblical traditions not primarily is figured as feeling or a/effect. Rather, love is the law, the ultimate horizon and measurement of all human activity (and of all supernatural activity, if any), meaning that it is set between us as norm, aiding us in shaping relationships and community. To the extent that God is Love, love is also the law. In fact, the Decalogue teaches us to fear God, that is, to fear Love, that is, to have fear and respect and treat cautiously above anything else that divine principle that sustains, renews and heals all life (Christian or not) in a thousand visible and invisible ways in order that we may grow and thrive, not decay. This force of creation takes on the personae of Father, Mother, Sister, Brother, Friend, Lover, etc., and without it we would not be. Furthermore, it is essential that the first commandment tells us to love God/Love, and that communion with God/Love is not even mentioned in the two tablets – except indirectly, as social behaviour circumscribed and directed/limited.


It is critical that some Pentecostal congregations choose to organize around very authoritarian and hierarchical leadership models, although this “choice” can be seen as a logical outgrowth of an apparent unwillingness to work seriously with theological hermeneutics and ethics. Leadership models in religious communities are always connected to definitions of the divine, perceptions of morality/a moral order, and interpretations of those spatial constructions called person, family, community, congregation, society, nation, cosmos, universe, nature. They are therefore always also related to gendering and kinshipping. In the three cases discussed above, we have witnessed male authority cults with women and girl children as main victims. This is not to be underestimated, neither the fact that male authority and hierarchical leadership are widely accepted as “apostolic”, apparently in line with an acclaimed biblical model of the world and its particular take on sexual difference and the obligations of kin. It is also crucial to note the ease with which the public has digested the exposed (through media) suffering of women and children: despite some accurate and critical voices, public discourse in general seems more offended by the fact that misdeeds have been acted out in the name of religion than with wanting to understand why gender and age have been central to these crimes. In fact, only one newspaper article so far has (to my knowledge) mentioned Helge Fossmo’s children. Only one has asked what will happen to them, one out of several hundred articles.

The Constructive Challenges of Pentecostalism

The three cases discussed in the above is not a representative portrayal of Pentecostalism as a spiritual movement, neither historically nor today. I have primarily discussed a small segment within this movement that may be said to yearn for “a-historical, patriarchal and demonological” solutions to the tasks of theology and the troubles of human life. It means that I primarily have looked at forms of discourse and sociability that seem to help engender a legitimate framework for individuals and groups that are attracted to immediate and authoritative forms of spiritual/moral practices and that seek out demonology in order to explain misfortune and evil. Thus, the ability of Pentecostalism to engender constructive gifts and important challenges to all Christian churches has therefore been neglected. I cannot totally make up for that now, but it is important to somehow balance the dark side of Pentecostal enthusiasm in order to make a fuller picture. If we rephrase the most important challenges inherent in Pentecostalism with the intention of presenting them to theological traditions that are critical of a-historical, patriarchal and demonological worldviews, they may be articulated like this:

 How may we commune with divinity in a meaningful sense in the modern world and sometimes feel vibrantly alive and at peace after having worshipped? How may we commune without being abusive, individually as well as communally, through forms, symbols and institutions that are in agreement with the social cosmologies, norms and aspirations of people living in the 21st. century, and not with the priestly norms of preliterate, patriarchal chiefdoms; nor with the kinship systems and sacrificial schema of pastoral, endogamic sibling societies; nor with the utopian horizons of those brotherhoods that attempted to overturn feudal kingdoms and patron-client-relationships in early renaissance Europe?

 Furthermore, how may we commune with each other with sense and sensibility in the modern world? How may we, for example, develop forms of worship that combine the singing, the shaking and the ecstasy – what Harvey Cox (1994) calls primeval spirituality – with an utterly intellectual faith tradition, a mature social consciousness and a highly developed ritual and moral competence?


These challenges are given to all theologians, across denominations, and represent the constructive gifts of Pentecostalism to any contemporary faith tradition, Christian or not. Yet, as argued in this chapter, we are not permitted to accept gifts naively. Theologians are not permitted to be naive in anything that pertains to religion, rather the opposite. It is our duty to be fully and critically aware of the dark sides lurking on any scene, religious or political, whenever a devoted person is requested to will-fully suspend her own will in order to be ‘taken over’ or ‘filled by’ a higher power.


Religious people have always heard God’s so-called voice. Yet in traditional society there were strict social schemes as to how this voice ought to be interpreted and how inter-communication ought to take place. Before the birth of the autonomous, free individual, persons were persons in community and obliged to each other in set networks of reciprocity and hierarchy. Reference to an inner dialogue with God or to the authority of one’s own consciousness as a valid argument to brake common sense/law was a privilege of the wealthy, the learned and the crazy only. It was not yet a human right. There are many good historical reasons why this is no longer the case, why every man, every woman, has been granted the position of priest vis á vis God. This freedom, however, does not mean that we can dispense from form and proceed to a level where we can relate to God or to each other unmediated, without socially accepted intermediaries, as pure essences – at least without risking resorting to new forms of abuse and power-over.






Cox, Harvey 1994 Fire from Heaven. The Rise of Pentecostal Spirituality and the Reshaping

of Religion in the twenty-first Century, Reading MA: Addison-Wesley Publisher

Delaney, Carol 1998, Abraham on trial. The Social Legacy of Biblical Myth,

Princeton University press

Salomonsen, Jone 2002, Enchanted Feminism. Ritual, Gender and Divinity among the

Reclaiming Witches of San Francisco, Routledge

Todd, Emmanuel 1985, The Explanation of Ideology. Family Structures and Social Systems,

Oxford University press

Young, Frances M. 1979, The Use of Sacrificial Ideas in Greek Christian Writers from the New

Testament to John Chrysostom, The Philadelphia Patristic Foundation, Patristic Monographs Series, no. 5



WebPages (Dagens Nyheter, search “Knutby”) (Dagbladet, report from Sara Svensson’s testimony in court) (The Guardian Unlimited) 0,,1161987,00.htm/ (The Guardian’s news reports on the Victoria Climbié case) (The e-publication of the 28 January 2003 governmental report on the Victoria Climbié case) (Homepage for The Universal Church of the Kingdom of God) (privet webpage with critical comments on new religious movements, including the Universal Church) (private webpage with critical comments on “Livets Ord”, a neo-Pentecostal church in Sweden with many similarities to the congregation in Knutby)

[1]  Conf. the contributions of Furre, Esperandio and Stålsett in this book