Sunday, March 28, 2010

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African Christianity, Witchcraft and Power-Encounters

The African church is a growing church, in spite of poverty, hardships, opposition by Islam and traditional religious practitioners, Christianity in Africa is advancing. The African Christian church is also making its voice heard internationally in international conferences and academic scholarship the African Christian voice is heard more and more and has something worthwhile to contribute to the global Christian community. The recognition that Africa is now one of the heartlands of the Christian faith (Jenkins 2002:1) implies that Christianity has to some extend become an African religion. Christianity is alive and well in Africa at least in terms of numerical growth. (Tienou 2001:154). The African Church is also becoming a growing and vibrant missionary force (Aryeeteh 1997:34). Many European theologians welcome African variants of Christianity in the hope that this will bring refreshment to Christianity and Christian praxis in Europe (Meyer 1992:2). However, our joy should not blind us for the fact that just like Christianity in other contexts, we must continue to critically evaluate our form of Christianity in the light of Holy Scripture, the character, teachings and ministry of Christ, as well as in the light of the insights gained in the 2000 year history of the Christian church. Therefore, thorough discipleship and critical theological reflection is essential.

Avoiding the errors of European church history

For African Christianity to make a healthy contribution to global Christianity it needs to avoid the errors made in European church history where Christian beliefs and European philosophy and European traditional beliefs became so mixed that the resulting Roman Catholic church could hardly be called Christian in many of its teachings and practices. The Reformation was needed for Christianity to become more Biblical and authentic . One of the biggest challenges is therefore to help African Christians think and live in ways that are both authentically African and Christian (Tineou 2001:155)

The problem of witchcraft related beliefs and practices in the African context

One of the main issues which has come into the limelight of the international media due to African witchcraft eradication excesses in the United Kingdom. Nigeria and Congo (Harris & Karamehmedovic 2009; BBC 2005; Kunhiyop 2008:379), is the problem of witchcraft and the pervasive fear of bewitchment, evil spirits and other evil supernatural powers. Magic, witchcraft and the belief in the existence of evil spirits can be found all over the African continent. In all African traditional religions one finds the concept of a supreme God, the belief in ancestral spirits and at times the belief in lesser deities or divinities. The religious scene is usually dominated by diviner-priests, witches, sorcerers or magicians, while one may also find prophets and healers (Johnson 1992:2ff). In Malawi, the country in which I live and work with Christian leaders at grassroots level, everyone talks about witchcraft and the fear of witchcraft is very real even among the educated (Musopole 1993:347-348). In spite of attempts by some Western sociologists and anthropologists to downplay witchcraft related issues as merely an idiom through which members of a community negotiate social stress, for the people on the ground the fear of witchcraft is very real and a source of major stress in the community. Individuals do practice sorcery or buy witchcraft medicines in order to gain advantage over others, or revenge, or to actually protect themselves against them (Maxwell 1995:321). Influential African theologian John Mbiti said that the fear of witchcraft is one of the most disturbing elements in African life (in Westerlund 1985:36-37).

In recent years there has been an upheaval in the media in Malawi about the evils of witchcraft and reports of violent witch hunting, imprisonment, banishment, torture, murder, the destruction or loss of one’s property, excessive fines and other forms of punishment following witchcraft allegations, mostly on the basis of supernatural evidence or narrative proof (Chandilanga 2008:4-5; Chibaya 2007:15; Kandiero 2007:15; 2007a:2; 2008:4; Kasawala 2009:1,3; Mmane 2007:1, 3; Phiri 2007:10; Zingani 2005:15). Of course this implies that the fear of witches and other evil supernatural powers is also found within the African Christian community.

Christian demonology and the African traditional worldview

The most common response to witchcraft and other African traditional beliefs by the missionaries in the modern era was to dismiss such things as superstition which would gradually disappear when people are properly educated (Khatide 2007:340-342; Onyinah 2002:107-108). Consequently when African people expressed their fear of evil spirits, witchcraft or other evil supernatural forces many missionaries denied the existence of evil spirits and magic rather than claim the power of Christ over them (Hiebert 1982:41). Many evangelical missionaries, particularly those influenced by Pentecostalism did not totally dismiss the African’s fear of witchcraft and evil spirits but redefined these in terms of Satan and the demons. Ironically the identification of the spirits of the African traditional religion as demons and traditional practices as satanic authenticated and strengthened the belief in witchcraft (Onyinah 2002:111). By equating the former gods and spirits to the demons under the control of the Devil, the old religion is on the one hand demonized and rejected and yet on the other hand it is validated as a spiritual reality. Particularly the blending of the Devil with the African concept of the witch is an important feature of Christianity in Africa just as it has been for centuries in European history (Meyer 1992:120-121). The blanket demonization of all aspects of the old religion has hindered genuine inculturation of the Gospel, because even good and wholesome beliefs and practices were rejected. Even some of the less wholesome practices could possibly have been Christianized or substituted. The blanket demonization of African traditional religious beliefs and practices has actually fostered syncretism between Christian and traditional beliefs and practices. For example the African independent Aladura churches have retained the belief in malevolent spirits and human witches but renounced traditional divination and sacrifice as a means to control these. Instead efficacious prayer is now the way to engage God against the evil powers (Ray 1993:270). While this may appear a good step towards the contextualization of the Gospel in Africa it actually tends to perpetuate the traditional worldview under the guise of Christianity. At the same time prayer is redefined from communication with God to being a mechanistic means to an end (Hiebert 1985:46-47).

Christian diviners and exorcists

All over the African continent one can find African pastors, bishops, prophets or apostles who do exactly what the diviners did before Christianity came. By means of supernatural revelation they allegedly diagnose illnesses, including spiritual afflictions and curses and also reveal hidden sins (Strohbehn 2005:55-56). Just as in the case of the traditional diviners supernatural inspiration is used to sniff out the witches and sorcerers. Only the power of divination is now ascribed to the Holy Spirit instead of to the spirits of the old religion. Thus one assumes there is an encounter between the power of the Holy Spirit and the power of evil spirits. However, the old problem of innocent people being wrongfully accused of witchcraft and other evils persists. One can come across numerous pastors in Africa who specialize in such ‘power-encounters’, in order to attract more people to their churches, so that they increase their status and income from tithes. Others enrich themselves by charging a fee for exorcism whereby some exorcism sessions, especially of children, are conducted in a manner that is abusive and violates their dignity and human rights (BBC 1999; Dummett 2009). Because power-encounters are very open to manipulation and abuse we must examine and evaluate them critically and ask the question: whose interests were being served in this power-encounter? Who was exalted and who was humiliated, used or abused? It is usually the poor and the marginalised who are the victims of such witchcraft scapegoating (Onyinah 2002:131). In many cases the accused, including children, are put under severe psychological and sometimes physical pressure to confess all kinds of witchcraft related evils. This leads to self-incrimination, stigmatization and even violence and death (Onyinah 2002:131; BBC 1999). The pre-occupation of African Pentecostalism as well as several other Christian groups with witches and demons hinders the progress of Christianity in Africa as it promotes fear of witchcraft and the evil supernatural instead of providing a viable alternative (Kunhiyop 2008:379). Though African Pentecostalism and several other Christian groups have rightly taken the problem of witchcraft seriously, often its deliverance ministry has not brought deliverance from the old unbiblical worldview. Consequently, the practice of power-encounter has often done more harm than good, becoming little more than religious showmanship, an enforcement of traditional fears and false beliefs and a means to exalt the pastor and increase his or her income. In such scenarios, with are far too common in Africa, the true Gospel is violated and twisted. In these situations not the Kingdom of God is advanced but the destructive and deceptive purposes of the Evil One who was identified by Christ as a liar and a murderer from the beginning. Consequently, we read of mothers burning their children to death (MANA 2009) and of bishops taking the false testimonies of confused children as reliable evidence (Mmana 2007:1, 3). We can even find some unscrupulous preachers playing a major role in the killing of the so-called ‘witch children’ in Nigeria (Kunhiyop 2008:379) and in the abuse of ‘witch children’ in Congo (Dummett 2003; USA TODAY 2009).

Evangelicalism in Africa and the concept of the power-encounter

Largely due to C. Peter Wagner’s effective promotion of his spiritual warfare ideas (Vandermeer 2009:92ff) many contemporary evangelical missionaries and Christian workers, both African and foreign, are taking the concept of the power-encounter very seriously. The emphasis is on employing the superior power of God in order to combat the spiritual powers which appear to harass African Christians (Butler 1993:386). Although I agree that there is a place for power-encounter in the sense of a deliverance ministry in the biblical sense whereby we ask Christ to intervene in a situation, we must be very cautious that at the same time we do not collaborate with the traditional worldview and its scapegoating mechanisms which demonize innocent people. For example, Wagner’s reports of a spiritual battle with an alleged African witch Momma Jane, which resulted in the death of the witch (Wagner 1997:86ff), re-enforce the common tendency in Africa to understand spiritual warfare in terms of the witchcraft eradication idiom. This is contrary to scriptural teaching, as it actually entails nothing more than a battle against ‘flesh and blood’ (Eph. 6:10-18). We must therefore critically assess the methods by which people arrive at the conclusion that someone is a witch or needs deliverance from witchcraft. Also the methods of deliverance themselves need to be evaluated. We must ask ourselves whether these methods agree with the character and teachings of Christ. Certainly Wagner’s celebration of the death of a witch does not agree with loving one’s enemies. It is essential that the cultural reality of the fears and concerns of witchcraft is addressed theologically and pastorally, with seriousness, sensitivity and respect, stressing the sovereignty of God over all evil forces and the victory of Christ (Kunhiyop 2008:389). From Scripture we can conclude that a power-encounter occurs whenever Christ enters or intervenes in a situation. Just as the very presence of light drives away the darkness, the very presence of Christ drives away the Evil One and his demons. It is when we draw near to God we find the strength in Him to resist the Devil and make him flee (James 4:7). During Christ’s life on earth when He came in the presence of Legion, who was possessed by many demons, the demons cried in fear and begged not to be harmed, and finally they had to leave their victim (Mk 5:1-13). In many other cases Jesus simply commanded the demons to leave their victims and they did so immediately (cf. Mk 1:21-26; 32-34; 9:25-27). In the case of the Canaanite woman He delivered her demonized daughter at a distance without going there in person (Mk. 15:22-28). Christ is the divine warrior with all authority in heaven and earth (Mt. 28:18). He is the One who disarmed the powers and triumphed over them on the cross (Col. 2:15). He is the one who is exalted far above every spiritual power, title and name which can be named and has all things submitted under his feet for the benefit of His Church (Eph. 1:22). From this exalted position of power Christ is actively subduing all the powers until finally He will even subdue the power of death itself.

The power-encounter and prayer

If the power-encounter is a matter of helping people to allow Christ to enter their lives and to transform the situation in which they find themselves, it does not make sense when apart from Christ we develop our own spiritual warfare methods and spiritual weapons to get the job done. Of course we have a personal responsibility to activate our God-given senses, faculties and talents in the struggle against the evil powers. However, there will be no victory, if we do so on our own, relying on our own strength. We should do so in Christ, the Victor, hence Paul’s exhortation ‘be strong in the Lord’ (Eph. 6:10). We should do what the people in the New Testament were doing, namely taking those who were harassed by demons to Jesus for Him to deliver and heal them (Mk. 1:32-34). I believe this is what Jesus meant when He told his disciples that some demons can only be removed by prayer and fasting. In prayer and fasting we focus on the Lord, putting our trust outside ourselves in His abilities, not in our own (Mk. 9:28-29). Matthew tells us that the disciples could not throw out the demons because they were lacking faith (17:20-21). The faith mentioned here is faith in Christ and not faith in a certain method of spiritual warfare or a specific type of power-encounter. In prayer and fasting, we do not expect victory from these practices as spiritual warfare and power-encounter methods, but from Him whom we focus upon and from His power and ability to intervene. Our theology of prayer should be Christo-centric, and prayer should not be reduced to a method, as in the African traditional worldview. There prayer and power-encounter becomes a pragmatic means to an end, namely overcoming spiritual barriers to one’s well-being and prosperity (Ray 1993:273). For example what does it mean when we talk about prayer that pulls down strongholds and lets captives go free (Arjeeteh 1997:37)? Real prayer in the Biblical sense is communicating with the exalted Christ and opening our hearts to Him, and in faith awaiting His intervention. However, once we become tempted to think of prayer as a means to an end, and as a spiritual method to get desired results, we would have lost the real meaning of prayer, and would have re-defined it in terms of the traditional religious worldview.

The power-encounter and narrative evidence

Several contemporary African scholars have pointed out that the uncritical use of narratives and exaggerated testimonies and confessions about power encounters and witchcraft related beliefs foster an unbiblical and animistic worldview (Onyinah 2002:132). We should not uncritically believe witchcraft confessions, not even from former witches and sorcerers who have turned to Christ, because in their minds and memories they may still be led astray by their former master. We must base our understanding of witchcraft on Biblical teaching instead of extra-biblical narratives (Kunhiyop 2008:380ff). For example, the claim of several witches in Zaire that they killed an American missionary appears to have been accepted as a fact, without question, not only by the Africans but also by the missionaries (Butler 1993:386). Although it may be true that they poisoned the missionary or used other means to kill her, one needs to treat all claims with caution and critically evaluate what constitutes valid irrefutable evidence and what does not. It is common for witches and other practitioners of magic to claim they have magically killed someone who died in an accident or of malaria or other natural causes. Usually these claims appear after the event has already taken place, rarely are they accurately predicted. Such claims coincide with the common belief in dual causation which entails that almost any negative event may be understood and explained in terms of both natural and spiritual causes. An African may contract HIV from sleeping with a prostitute. Although he is educated and he understands how he got infected, he is likely to consult the diviner to find out who had cursed him so as to make him visit prostitutes or this particular one who was infected with HIV. The question is not how but why it happened to me, and who caused it. In such an environment of fear and mutual suspicion the power of suggestion is enormous. Hence we need to be extremely cautious in believing the supernatural explanations we are offered. We must be cautious in believing the testimonies of traditional religious practitioners, which usually are designed to advertise their great spiritual power in order to attract more customers. Unfortunately, the testimonies of many African pastors about how they overcame demonic powers and spiritual opposition often serves the a similar purpose. Putting yourself forward as an expert on spiritual problems has traditionally been an effective means for otherwise marginalized persons to be accepted by others as a respected person with status and authority (Barnes 1990:259-267), and within Christian circles often results in people putting themselves forward as healers, prophets, apostles or exorcists. For example, the pastor who reported that he invited the sorcerers in his area for a power-contest (Butler 1993:384) may well fit this common pattern as well as the confessions of the born-again former witch who brags he could change himself into an owl or that before his conversion he used to steal cattle by magically hiding them in his pocket (Chibaya 2007:15). In Africa such stories abound and they should be accepted as reflecting the worldview, the concerns, the interests and the ambitions of African people from a traditional perspective. Yet expatriate and African Christians who work with people in that context, should not just accept them as a valid reflection of reality. By the end of the day our theology and praxis should not be based on extra-biblical narratives but on Biblical teaching.

Another reason for caution in the area of power-encounters is that much of what passes as magic, demonic and evil spiritual power is the result of psychological problems, tensions in the community, and clever psychological manipulation (Butler 1993:385-386). Scapegoating is deeply ingrained in the African society and often takes the form of witchcraft allegations. The same applies to sociological problems and tensions in society. It is not accidental that streetchildren, orphans, the elderly, strangers from other areas, foreigners , the extreme poor and the disabled are likely to be accused of witchcraft, because they represent extra burdens in a society already burdened by poverty, disease and other problems. Other sociological causes include the rapid urbanization and modernization of African society which goes hand in hand with the breakdown of traditional culture and morality. Society is in flux, there is uncertainty, tension, corruption and inequality. Add to this the fear for supernatural evil and its resulting suspicion and emotional distress, and you have very high levels of societal tension and distress, which finds an outlet in the scapegoating of certain people as witches.

How then should we respond to the fear of the evil supernatural in the African context?

I would suggest that first and foremost this is not just a theological issue. In the first place it is matter of pastoral care. Many people in Africa live in fear and in mutual suspicion and many fear that they unknowingly may be witches themselves or in some way be demonized. The traditional response often includes consulting a diviner and obtaining protective ‘medicine’ or charms. From a pastoral point of view the many traditional forms of seeking protection need to be substituted by Christian rituals and practices. The wearing of charms can be replaced by wearing verses from Scripture which stress the supremacy of Christ and reflect his superior power and his love for us. Of course this should not be meant as a form of Christian magic, but as object lessons and reminders for the believers that Christ is their protector. Praying special prayers for protection can be an effective method of pastoral care in Africa. Such prayers may assist in alleviating the fear of the evil supernatural (Butler 1993:387-388) and could help the afflicted to focus on Christ as the One from whom our help comes. All this needs to be done carefully. We should not contextualize in an unbiblical manner, so that people put their faith in the ritual itself or in the paper that bears the portions of Scripture, but instead these pastoral methods should encourage people in their faith in the Lord about whom the Scriptures speak and whom we address in our prayers. The use of pieces of cloth supposedly from Mary’s garment, as amulets, among Catholic Haya in Tanzania in order to protect against witchcraft and other misfortunes is an example of unbiblical contextualization (Stevens 1991:18-19). We may also encourage the composing of songs that stress the power of and the protection by Christ, so that in singing and dancing the believers may rejoice in the fact that Christ is their all-powerful guardian. However, we should always remain cautious. Songs, dances, prayers and other aspects of the ritual in the African context are often understood as being efficacious in themselves. This then means that the one who has the secret knowledge of such rituals and controls them has an enormous power at his or her disposal. This power can be used to dominate, manipulate, marginalize, exclude and victimize (Barnes 1990:256ff).

Dealing with victims of demonic harassment

Victims of demonic harassment need to be led to Christ through Biblical instruction and in prayer for deliverance. They themselves need to renounce any dealings they may have had with the Evil One, and commit themselves to following Christ. We do not only mean ordinary people who seek refuge in the occult and become victims. Also former practitioners of witchcraft, divination or other occult activities must also be considered victims of demonic harassment, because their practices demonstrate that they were deceived and taken captive by the Evil One. Even those who we may judge as not truly suffering from demonic harassment but who still live in fear that they suffer from demonic harassment or from witchcraft, or those who think they may have become spiritually contaminated so that they may have become witches without knowing it, also should be treated in the same way. We must also consider their fear of the evil supernatural as a form of demonic harassment. Let us not be surprised when before, during of after a prayer there are some physical or psychological manifestations. Often this may simply be a psychological or psycho-somatic reaction to the relief that is experienced, sometimes it may be culturally conditioned or have other psychological causes. However, in some cases the psyche of the individual is so much under the influence of a demon or demons that this results in intimidating psychological and physical phenomena, such as in the case of the boy with an evil spirit who was delivered by Christ (Mk 9:17-18, 26). Such phenomena should not intimidate us or make us fearful. Instead we should continue to trust the powerful Christ, and in faith focus on Him. To focus on Satan and his power in any way is to lose our focus on God (Butler 1993:389). Personally, I discourage doing deliverance ministry in big public meetings, because of the dangers of possible stigmatization of the afflicted, and also to preserve their dignity. Moreover, in public meetings there is the danger of being trapped by ‘Christian’ showmanship whereby the deliverance minister or team is in the limelight rather than that the focus is on Christ who brings true deliverance. In Malawi I have witnessed several incidents in Pentecostal churches when exorcisms were done late at night in front of several microphones with all the speakers turned to their loudest volume, so that the whole suburb was kept awake in order to focus attention on the church and its powerful minister. Apart from the danger of showmanship in public meetings, I do not think deliverance ministry should be an individualist affair. We can involve a group of mature, sensitive and loving believers. Lutheran missionary Stanley Benson in Tanzania reports how healing or exorcism took place within the African Christian community. Christians would gather to restrain affected persons, so that they could not run away or hurt themselves, and then sing hymns and pray and take care of the person until freed from the demon (McConnell 1992:411).

Apart from a careful pastoral response, the issues discussed above need to be addressed theologically, in church, in theological education and in theological scholarship. In doing this the African context should be taken seriously. However, such a contextual approach must avoid the pitfalls of building our theology of on extra-biblical sources. This warning applies to our demonology as well as to our theology of spiritual warfare or power-encounter, so that both Africans and non-Africans may think and live in ways that are contextually relevant and at the same time authentically Christian.

Erwin van der Meer


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