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Child “witches” in Congo

24 September 2009

In recent years there have been disturbing reports about children being accused of witchcraft in Central and West Africa. There have been even more disturbing reports that some Christian groups are not only not part of the solution, they are part of the problem.

Now at last there comes some good news of some Christian groups trying to tackle the problem–Christianity Today reports:

Saving Witches in Kolwezi:

At the request of local church leaders, CT visited this area of Congo to report on how churches are handling—and mishandling—abandoned children who face accusations of sorcery and witchcraft due to parental neglect, birth defects, and disability. Tragically, some pastors attempt exorcisms in which they place children’s hands in near-boiling water to purge ‘spirits,’ resulting in severe burns.

One couple, Astrid Kayanga and her pastor-husband, Ngube Ngube, told CT about making routine pastoral visits one Sunday afternoon in Kasulu, a bustling community near Lubumbashi. They visited one home several times, each time hearing a child weeping in the backyard. Finally, Pastor Ngube asked to see the child. His request quickly turned into a rescue mission for 4-year-old Deborah, a suspected ‘sorcerer.’

The report goes on to say:

there are four categories of people intertwined in the child sorcery saga. First, there are the victims, the children. Second, there are the protectors—parents, guardians, and teachers who are supposed to shield children from false accusations. Third, there are the aggressors, who victimize children by accusing them of being witches. Fourth, there are the observers, who do nothing about the children’s plight. Mwebe is as enraged by this fourth group as by the second and third.

The Christian response has been complicated by some international agencies, such as UNICEF, that have accused churches of being a major part of the problem. In several high-profile cases, pastors have been implicated in promoting accusations, proclaiming deliverances, charging fees for exorcisms, and failing to report child abuse to police.

For the last 50 years the Democratic Republic of Congo has faced numerous problems — civil war, dictatorship, and colonial and neocolonial exploitation. I suspect that many people outside that country have had their perceptions of religion in Congio shaped by the novel The Poisonwood Bible, though it is set in an almost-forgotten past, nearly 60 years ago.

Recently I blogged about the debate in the All Africa Conference of Churches over whether the Kimbanguist Church, the biggest denomination in the biggest country in Africa, should be allowed to remain a member of the AACC, since it has changed its theology so that it is no longer recognisably Christian. But it seems that it is not the only body that is promoting unChristian theology; there are many others:

Lubumbashi pastor Mwamba Mushikonke added that churches where these abuses occur are steeped in mysticism and chase after miracles. According to Mushikonke, adults are promised blessings, but when the blessings do not come, a child—usually an orphan in the community—is picked on and said to be the hindrance to a spiritual breakthrough.

“This is because the children are defenseless,” Mushikonke said.

Kasanda Mandolo, another Lubumbashi pastor, agreed.

“The pastors claim to be engaged in spiritual warfare, but are simply after money,” he said. When pastors’ spiritual weapons appear to not work, they have to find a reason to explain the failure of their claims. “They promise someone that he will find a job after prayers, but if the person fails to find a job because of economic conditions in the country, they accuse a child of bringing bad luck.”

I suspect that the problem is not so much children bringing bad luck as preachers bringing bad theology. Up until about 20 years ago the fastest-growing Chtristian groups in Africa were African independent churches (AICs) with a pentecostal flavour. In West Africa they were called “Aladura” (praise) churches, while in southern Africa they were called “Zionists”. They differed from most of the Western-initiated churches (WICs) in taking the African worldview seriously. The worldview of Western modernity had no place for notions of witchcraft and witches and the Western-initiated churches (who like to think of themselves as “mainline”) shared that view. They generally thought that the solution to problems caused by witchcraft lay in education, which would eventually eradicate such primitive superstitions.

The Zionists, however, took witchcraft beliefs seriously. But their approach was different from that of most African traditionalists, who regarded the solution as to “smell out” the suspected witches, and either drive them out of the community or kill them. They tended to regard witches as incorrigible. Zionists, however, believed that no sin was so great that one could not repent of it, and welcomed repentant witches into their church communities (Kiernan 1990).

In the last 20 years, however, the “traditional” AICs have been overtaken by modernising Neopentecostal churches and “ministries”, which are growing rapidly in many parts of Africa. And many of these churches and ministries have been influenced by and propagate some form of the Word of Faith teaching. One prominent aspect of this teaching has been nicknamed “the prosperity gospel” by its critics. It appears to have started in the USA, and in the West perhaps missiologists could describe it as the gospel contextualised for yuppies.

And in Africa, too, it is perhaps also the gospel contextualised for yuppies, but with one difference. In a society in which belief in witchcraft is still strong, it can easily develop the distorted interpretations that we can see in Congo, leading to children being accused of being witches, and then being maltreated.

I would say that the “Word of Faith” teaching is bad theology, and it can lead to bad actions. But some of the solutions being proposed could lead to even worse things.

Mandolo believes the government must do something to bring these wayward churches and preachers under control. “You will find 20 churches on every street,” he observed. “Why let everyone do what they want?”

Mandolo wants to make it clear that he is not calling for the state to manage churches but to institute at least some oversight. “Let the government issue licenses to legitimate ministers,” he suggested.

That kind of thing has been tried before, with unhappy results. One of the better-known attempts was the Spanish Inquisition, whose history was not altogether happy; one should be very careful about letting governments decide who are and who are not “legitimate” ministers. In the DRC perhaps the Kinbanguist Church, which is the biggest, might have a great deal of influence in determining the criteria for “legitimacy”.

Rather let the government say that child abuse is against the law (if it isn’t against the law in the DRC, is should be) and that if anyone abuses children they will be prosecuted, and leave it at that.

But those who call themselves Christian should also look more closely at the kind of theology that leads to such abuses, and make sure that they are not teaching anything that can likewise be twisted to serve evil purposes.

____

Bibliography

Kiernan, J.P. 1990. The production and management of therapeutic power in Zionist churches. New York: Edwin Mellen.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. 30 September 2009 5:11 pm

    It’s interesting to see how the Word of Faith movement plays into this issue. I’m reminded of similar issues here in the U.S., though they aren’t as extreme.

    Whenever WoF ministers anywhere find that their promises aren’t panning out, they have to look for an explanation. That explanation usually involves blaming someone. Here, it usually results in an accusation that someone lacked sufficient faith or that someone has unrepentant sin in their lives. It’s unfortunate and tragic that there, accusations of child witchcraft are a possible rationalization.

    I agree with you that the idea of government-licensing for ministers is a scary thing.

    • 1 October 2009 5:36 pm

      I think some ministers in Word of Faith churches are aware of the problem. One said that they had a problem in their church with people who were not healed after prayer thinking that there was something lacking in their faith, and becomign depressed as a result. But, as you say, some try to “blame the victim”, which actually makes matters worse.

  2. Antoinette (Toni) permalink
    6 April 2013 8:29 am

    Good to have some light shone on this tragic trend. At least now I can make a little sense of it.

    When I was last in Namibia, Vistorina (Meme Bishop) was lamenting the fact that evangelical (or did she say Pentecostal?) and “satanist” churches have been springing up everywhere since the Constitution enshrined freedom-of-religion, while Anglican church congregations are shrinking.

    While I didn’t press her for her definition of “satanist”, I wonder if she meant this sort of witch-hunting crap.

    Maybe you’ll be interested in checking out the Pentecostal situation during your impending visit, Steve.

    Oh, and the North American neo-Pentecostal church scene makes me gag, especially the Prosperity lie, though fortunately it doesn’t seem to be as rife here in Canada as it is in the USA, where it turns out the likes of Sarah Palin. And since it is said that our Canadian prime minister, Steven Harper, is some sort of ‘fundamentalist Christian’, if his religion turns out to be a Prosperity type it would explain a lot of his utter disregard and even disdain for everyone who isn’t wealthy.

    Toni

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