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Saints, witchcraft and witch hunts

30 September 2015

In September 2015 the Roman Catholic Church officially beatified a new martyr in Southern Africa, St Benedict Daswa.

daswa1This event received quite wide media publicity, though some was rather misleading. Some said that he was South Africa’s first saint, though for several years previously Anglicans in South Africa had been venerating Manche Masemola, a teenage girl who was beaten to death by her family in 1928 when she became a Christian. She was preparing for baptism, and it was said that she was baptised in her own blood.

Another misleading aspect of the reports about Benedict Daswa is that they said he was killed for opposing or not believing in witchcraft. This diverts attention from the most significant aspect of his death and subsequent beatification: he was killed for refusing to participate in a witch hunt. Those who did particpate in the witch hunt opposed witchcraft just as much as Benedict Daswa — something that media reports sometimes failed to make clear.  Tshimangadzo Daswa: South Africa’s first martyr to be beatified | Daily Maverick:

In 1989 heavy lightning strikes caused some homes in his village to be burnt to the ground. The villagers believed this was not natural; they believed they had to find the person responsible for the fire. A decision was taken to consult a sorcerer in a nearby village to seek out the ‘witch’ responsible. Each villager was asked to contribute R5 towards the cost of the consultation. Daswa was not present when the decision was made and when he returned he tried to explain that lightning and thunderstorms are natural phenomena. His explanation was rejected and the people insisted that they consult a sorcerer. The villagers were angered by the fact that he refused to pay the money they had agreed upon.

There are several significant things here.

Not the least of them is that it indicates a huge change in the thinking of the Roman Cartholic Church. In the Great European witch hunt in the Early Modern period, the so-called “burning Times”, the Roman Catholic Church not only connived at witch hunts, it often took an active part in them, and in many cases initiated them. Declaring someone who refused to participate in a witch hunt a saint therefore shows just how much things have changed from 500 years ago.

Perhaps even more significant is that in the 1990s witch hunting was a big problem in South Africa, especially in the Limpopo Province, where Benedict Daswa lived and died. Twenty years ago I wrote an article on Christian reponses to witchcraft and sorcery, pointing out that the Zionists often had a better response than those Christian denominations that liked to consider themselves “mainline”. Declaring Benedict Daswa a saint, however, may be the best response of all.

It could be said that declaring someone a saint has a greater and more noble purpose than teaching a didactic moral lesson that witch hunts are wrong. But, at the very least, declaring someone a saint does draw attention to that person as having lived, at least in some sense, an exemplary Christian life, and if someone is an exemplar then one can tell their story to urge others to follow their example.

The article in the Daily Maverick goes on to point out that in many ways Benedict Daswa’s behaviour was countercultural Tshimangadzo Daswa: South Africa’s first martyr to be beatified:

the Daswa case does raise some broader questions about local cultures and Christianity. For many people in Africa there is still tension between the Christian faith and local culture. Christianity is still seen, largely, as mediated through a western mind-set. Many Christian symbols and expressions are western in origin. Christianity, in many forms, is growing in the southern hemisphere and, specifically, in Africa. The Daswa case highlights a huge challenge Christianity faces: In what ways will the church break free of its western dominance and become more accommodating of non-western cultures? How will Christianity interract with local customs and cultures so that it can be expressed in those local customs, cultures and symbols?

But if Benedict Daswa was countercultural, so were most Christian saints. Their lives were often lived in contrast to the prevalent lifestyle of the society around them. Another article on the Daswa beatification makes this point, comparing Benedict Daswa with Steve Biko Parallels between Biko and Daswa – The Mercury: “While they were very different individuals, both men rejected blindly following the herd, and took a stand for what is right.”

As I pointed out in the article referred to above, the dominant resposse of Western modernity to witchcraft and sorcery is to deny that such things exist, and therefore to believe that the best way to combat witch hunts is to give people a Western education and a modern outlook so that they will no longer believe in the efficacy of witchcraft. This was the approach of many 19th century Protestant missionaries who came to Africa from Western Europe and North Americas. They believed that “civilization” must precede Christianisation. I noted that the Zionists did not take this approach. They took African witchcraft beliefs seriously, and combated them in a non-Western but Christian way.

Declaring someone a saint is in a way similar. It makes no judgements on the efficacy of witchcraft and sorcery, but it holds up someone who refused to participate in a witch hunt as an example to be emulated.

The Roman Catholic Church has also tried the modern approach.

It has published booklets in various African languages on how to construct a lightning conductor, with explanations of how it works. It seems that Benedict Daswa himself gave such an explanation for why he would not participate in a witch hunt.

I recall buying some of those booklets and distributing them to self-supporting clergy in the Anglican Diocese of Zululand in the 1980s. There had been news reports of people being killed by lightning strikes, and I thought the self-supporting priests and deacons could show their communities how to protect themselves.

The booklets provoked a lot of theological and missiological discussion.

One of the priests, Charles Zigode, was a shopkeeper, and he said he refused to protect either his shop or his home with a lightning conductor. Some of the others asked him why, and he said that the Zionists protected their homes with prayer flags. These were bamboo poles with blessed flags on the top. He told the Zionists he did not need a prayer flag, because he trusted in God to protect him without such an artifact. He said that if he were to erect a “scientific” lightning conductor, the Zionists would not believe that it was scientific, but would see it as the Anglican equivalent of one of their prayer flags, and show that he too needed a concrete symbol of divine protection.

There was very little mention in the discussion of the pagan Zulu form of protection, which sometimes took the form of a horn or pair of horns filled with muti, attached to the roof. The Zulu folklore explanation of thunder was that it was the hooves of heavenly herds of cattle, and the best counter to lightning would be to enlist the aid of a heavenly cowboy (umalusi wezulu) to keep the cattle under control.

The point here is that there is not a simple antithesis of Western culture and African culture. There are varying shades of Western and African, modern and premodern, pagan and Christian, with perhaps the postmodern ability to switch between them several times in the course of a single conversation.

And large-scale witch hunts seem to occur most frequently when modernity and premodernity meet and mingle.

One Comment leave one →
  1. 13 October 2015 4:39 am

    As an ex-Anglican, one of the things that brought me to Orthodoxy was the sense that the Anglican way of making saints (recognizing saints?) was chaotic, and mostly seemed an afterthought as though none had been recognized since breaking with Rome… if not long before. Moderns recognized mostly weren’t even Anglicans… and some not even known as christians. Of course they can do what they want… but it just didn’t seemed a project to build up the people and church ..the friends of God within their own communion… as if they valued their own communion. I’m still puzzled. Thank God… perhaps the African infusion will bring a renewed sense of holiness, purposefulness, and intention? if not now, perhaps in time.

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