Magazine article The Christian Century

Notes from the Global Church

Magazine article The Christian Century

Notes from the Global Church

Article excerpt

Just when it seemed that the interminable presidential campaign had plumbed every depth of the absurd, witchcraft entered the picture. To the hilarity of Sarah Palin's liberal critics, a video surfaced in which Kenyan Pentecostal bishop Thomas Muthee had invoked blessings on Palin, asking among other things that God "keep her safe from every form of witchcraft." To many people this request discredited Palin's faith, along with churches so apparently out of touch with modernity as to accept the reality of demons and witchcraft.

Yet understanding the modern experience of witchcraft is critically important for any attempt to appreciate the appeal of Christianity worldwide. Across much of the global South, and above all in Africa, belief in witchcraft--the idea that malevolent individuals can inflict harm at a distance, using occult means--is an unavoidable reality. Such beliefs have actually grown as rural people have flooded into great cities, where merciless witch hunts claim hundreds of lives. For Christians, dealing with beliefs about witchcraft is a central aspect of church life and one of the most urgent pastoral problems.

Overwhelmingly, Christians who confront witchcraft are not preaching or advocating a belief in supernatural evil, but rather recognizing that such an idea exists, and offering means to combat and eradicate it. This distinction is pivotal. Only someone who has lived in a society saturated with tales of curses and sorcerers can understand those tales' destructive consequences. Reports that one has been targeted by sinister rivals can destroy an individual, inflicting ruinous psycho logical damage and wrecking one's reputation. In that sense, witchcraft really can kill.

What can Christians do in such a demon-haunted society, where a simple denial of the reality of the problem proves utterly unconvincing? Some of the most imaginative solutions come from Roman Catholic and Anglican groups who struggle against malicious allegations and paranoia but who still treat the underlying belief system with respect. In 2004, for instance, the Inculturation Task Force of Zambia's Catholic Church produced a manual for Christian communities struggling with issues of traditional supernatural healing and witchcraft. (The document, Traditional Healing, is available at www.jctr.org.zm/downloads/tradheal.pdf.)

Once the obviously false cases have been weeded out, churches must deal with instances of real witchcraft and cursing. …

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