29 December 2013

Defend Witches

T.M. Luhrmann, an anthropologist writing an op-ed piece in the New York Times today describes how very demon haunted Christian churches are in Africa:
Certainly religion is everywhere — churches and church billboards seem to be on every street — and atheists are few. American evangelicals often say that faith is more intense in Africa. There is something to this. Compared with Ghanaian charismatic Christianity, American Christianity can seem like soggy toast. 
It is not just the intensity that seems different. In these churches, prayer is warfare. The new charismatic Christian churches in Accra imagine a world swarming with evil forces that attack your body, your family and your means of earning a living. 
J. Kwabena Asamoah-Gyadu, a professor at Trinity Theological Seminary in Legon, Ghana, argues that these churches have spread so rapidly because African traditional religion envisions a world dense with dark spirits from which people must protect themselves, and these new churches take this evil seriously in a way that many earlier missionizing Christianities did not. Indeed, I have been at a Christian service in Accra with thousands of people shouting: “The witches will die! They will die! Die! Die!” With the pastor roaring, “This is a war zone!” 
While this feels very different from soft-toned American evangelical Christianity, which emphasizes God’s loving mercy rather than God’s judgment, spiritual warfare is deeply embedded in the evangelical tradition. The post-1960s charismatic revival in the United States, sometimes called “Third Wave” Christianity (classical Pentecostalism was the first wave and charismatic Catholicism the second), introduced the idea that all Christians interact with supernatural forces daily. That included demons. 
In fact, I found American books on dealing with demons in all the bookstores of the African charismatic churches I visited. In one church where I stood looking at the shelf of demon manuals, a helpful clerk leaned over to fish one off for me. She chose an American one. “Here,” she said as she handed me Larry Huch’s “Free at Last,” “this one is good.” 
In many American evangelical churches, people will tell you that demons are real, but they do not treat them as particularly salient. Demons don’t come up in Sunday morning sermons, and for the most part people don’t pray about demonic oppression. Their encounters with supernatural evil were like the ghost stories I heard at summer camp: more exciting than terrifying. . . .  It is possible that identifying your envy as external and alien makes it easier to quell. 
But it is also true that an external agent gives you something — and often, someone — to identify as nonhuman. In West Africa, witches are people, and sometimes, other people kill them or drive them from their homes. 
Luhrmann is an anthropologist and not a theologian or religious historian.  But, as anyone who has taken time to read the New Testament and especially the Gospels and Acts, knows, the demon haunted, exorcism oriented churches of Africa are closer to early church of Jesus and his disciples than the American and European offshoots of the faith.

People didn't clamber to see Jesus and his disciples to learn radical Marxism, they came to have Jesus cast evil spirits out of their loved ones.  Newly literate African Christians can safely disregard centuries of doctrinal and cultural gloss to get at a superstitious core that is more relevant to their lives and worldviews.

The trouble is that while there are many redeeming features of organized religion, encouraging a belief that warfare with demons and spirits is an important life activity and persecuting witches is almost never one of them.  People who know that demons and witches are amusing but fiction, should unite to defend those accused of being witches and search for waves to tame yet another wave of misguided religious fervor.

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