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At last missiologists are paying attention to witchcraft and witchhunts

6 January 2015

For the last twenty years or so I’ve been urging missiologists to consider the issue of witchcraft and witch hunts, but few of them have thought it was sufficiently important to warrant their attention.

On a few occasions, when the Southern African Missiological Society (SAMS) were discussing the theme for their next conference, I suggested this topic, but the suggestions never got much support, and were never followed up.

An article I wrote on the topic, Christian responses to witchcraft and sorcery, was published in Missionalia, the SAMS journal, but that was about as far as it went.

Since I wrote that 20 years ago, things have got much worse.

Back in 1995 witch hunts were mainly carried out by people with a traditional fear of witchcraft, and where missiologists did pay attention to it, they thought that the solution was a good dose of modernity and the eradication of outdated superstitions that were relics of a premodern worldview.

Since then, however, witchhunting has started to appear in some (not all) neopentecostal megachurches that are seen by many people in Africa as agents of modernisation.

It was therefore good to read in John Morehead’s blog that at least some missiologists were beginning to pay attention: Morehead’s Musings: IBMR explores “Witchcraft and Mission Studies”:

The January 2015 issue of the International Bulletin of Missionary Research explores the topic of “Witchcraft and Mission Studies.”Essays exploring this topic include:

  • “Putting Witch Accusations on the Missiological Agenda: A Case from Northern Peru by Robert J. Priest
  • “Beyond the Fence: Confronting Witchcraft Accusations in the Papua New Guinea Highlands” by Philip Gibbs
  • “Healing Communities: Contextualizing Responses to Witch Accusations” by Steven D. H. Rasmussen, with Hannah Rasmussen
  • “Toward a Christian Response to Witchcraft in Northern Ghana”by Jon P. Kirby
  • “Witchcraft Accusations and Christianity in Africa” by J. Kwabena Asamoah-Gyadu

The witch hunts of early modern Europe and those in Africa in the late 20th and early 21st centuries have one thing in common: they occurred in societies that were making a transition from premodernity to modernity, and in that sense they are a feature of modernisation.

African children protesting against witchcraft accusations

African children protesting against witchcraft accusations

Modernity, however, came earlier to Western Europe, and since the 18th century the witch has no longer been seen as a figure of fear, as can be seen in the popularity of the Harry Potter books. Children in Western Europe often think it is rather fun to dress up as imaginary witches and wizards and pretend to be students at the Hogwarts school of wizardry.

In parts of Africa, however, children have sometimes been accused of being witches, and have been expelled from their families, churches and society in general, and subjected to verbal and physical abuse. In such places, far from playing at being witches and wizards, children often have to deny that they are any such thing.

A good article on the background to this can be found here: Understanding Witchcraft Accusations in Africa:

The so-called modern development in Africa, which some argue should have caused witch beliefs to disappear, has not succeeded in addressing the insecurities people encounter in their daily lives which spun witch beliefs in the first place. Many parts of Africa remain at the margins of completely outside the development equation. Development schemes are absent in rural areas, or they are not accessible or affordable to many people. Modern goods that make it to Africa are limited, outdated, adulterated, and second-hand goods including cars, electronics, drugs, computers, aircrafts, books. So “development” here rides the coattails of modern development.

And, lest any white people in southern Africa think that “Africa” only starts on the other side of the Limpopo, check this blog post: 16 Things Black People Wish They Could Explain To Their White Friends | Mukoko:

8 Witchcraft is a big deal.
This is linked to the fact that black people don’t do cats. Witchcraft is real. As real as the fact that when a black woman is pregnant she doesn’t announce it and everyone around her knows not to ask when she’s due. It’s linked to the fear that she will be bewitched if she reveals that kind of information.

So it’s good that missiologists are at last beginning to take this issue seriously. I’m only sorry that it was a missiological journal in North America, and not one in Africa, that is tackling it.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. 6 January 2015 7:10 pm

    Reblogged this on missiological rumblings.

  2. 7 January 2015 6:12 pm

    Thank you for a very needed response to a rarely understood subject. We need a balanced theological, missiological and pastoral approach to a real, complex subject. Many speak theoretically and have not practical experience in this area. Others have much experience practically but do not have balanced theological and social scientific grounding to interpret their experiences. Witchcraft and the demonic are very real. However, once aware of this phenomenon it is too easy to reduce, accuse and hunt. We need some real work in this area to guide our discernment. Research that is informed by scripture, sound theology, the social and behavioral sciences, neuroscience, and above all compassionate and wise pastoral theology.

  3. Steven D H Rasmussen permalink
    28 March 2015 9:10 pm

    Glad for your pioneering in this. It has also taken me some time to find opportunities to get published on this. I would love to know what you think about the issue and especially the article that my daughter and i wrote. We do have a group of us discussing this, presenting and writing on it. lets keep talking.

  4. Irulan permalink
    29 April 2015 9:56 am

    as an encouragement, I read your Missionalia article while working among Zionists in the Transkei 12 years ago. Enlightening and valuable, Steve – thank you.

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