What do Christians & witch doctors have in common?

This entry is part 1 of 7 in the series Satan & demons: Thomas Farrar's commentary

Thomas Farrar, previously a Christadelphian, not only believes in a literal supernatural satan and demons, but also believes in the efficacy and value of traditional African witch doctors. In this correspondence with a Christadelphian, Thomas explains the reason for his position.

Furthermore, by denying the existence of spirits Christian missionaries risk portraying their Lord as impotent compared to heathen magicians. Speaking from his experience from a Hindu village in India, Hiebert writes:

“What happened to villagers who became Christians? Most of them took problems they formerly took to the saints to the Christian minister or missionary. Christ replaced Krishna or Siva as the healer of their spiritual diseases. Many of them in time turned to Western allopathic medicines for many of the illnesses they took to the doctor and quack. But what of the plagues that the magician cured? What about spirit possession, or curses, or witchcraft or black magic? What was the Christian answer to these?

Neither the missionary evangelist or doctor had an answer. These did not really exist, they said. But to people for whom these were very real experiences in their lives, there had to be an answer. It is not surprising, therefore, that many of them returned to the magician for cures.”7

Similarly, Hayes states:

“Comaroff & Comaroff (1991) have shown that most of the missionaries who came to sub-Saharan Africa from Europe in the nineteenth century were thoroughly imbued with the Enlightenment world view. These Western missionaries brought the Christian faith to pre-Enlightenment cultures. They soon became aware of the cultural gap, and the typical way of dealing with it was to say that before the Christian faith could take root, the pre-Enlightenment culture must make way for the Enlightenment culture, or, as they put it, civilisation must precede Christianisation. Since the Enlightenment such missionaries have said, in effect, “You must abandon your problems and accept our problems and explanations of evil”. Enlightenment missionaries could only offer solutions to Enlightenment problems. Civilised solutions demand civilised problems!”8

If we insist that people in pre-Enlightenment societies forsake their belief in evil spirits before coming to Christ, we are placing an undue burden upon them. By your own admission, the first century church did not use this approach but at the very least ‘accommodated’ beliefs in demons and spirits. To simply deny the reality of ‘trans-empirical’ evil compromises the relevance and power of the gospel for these societies:6

“The pre-Enlightenment cultures of Africa continued to accept witchcraft as an explanation of some forms of evil, however, and to those Africans who retained links with those cultures, the solutions proposed by Enlightenment missionaries appeared irrelevant. Among some there was a split response. This was to divide sicknesses into “isifo sabantu” and “isifo sabelungu” African disease and European disease. For the first one goes to the isangoma, and for the second one goes to the hospital or clinic.””9

Thus, our respective demonologies lead to very different responses to the requests for help in dealing with trans-empirical evil in missionary contexts. Your demonology calls for a denial that the requests have any basis, which (as the quotations above show) often results in the asker returning to pagan practices. My demonology calls for invoking the power of Christ over all such evil in faith, and opposing all other practices, as the apostles did (Acts 16:18; 19:11-20). The gospel message must come to the mission field not in word only, but in power (1 Thess. 1:5).

Hiebert includes the claim that ‘Western Christian missions have been one of the greatest secularizing forces in history’. When there is evidence for this claim, I may take it seriously. However, in context the claimant (Newbigin, 1966), appears to simply equate loss of belief in satan and demons, with secularization. This is contestable to say the least; Russell and Burton provide more detailed and well documented reasons for the secularization of Western society, ironically identifying the doctrine of the devil (“The most vulnerable part of theology”), as a contributing factor.1

“Furthermore, by denying the existence of spirits Christian missionaries risk portraying their Lord as impotent compared to heathen magicians. Speaking from his experience from a Hindu village in India, Hiebert writes:”2

Hiebert cites cases in which ‘Neither the missionary evangelist or doctor had an answer’ to claims of illness resulting from supernatural causes. No such risk exists when answers to such questions are given, and when the existence of spirits is denied on the basis that there is only one God, who is sovereign over all. This is exactly how the Old Testament dealt with the false claims of the heathen concerning their gods, their spirits, and their fortune tellers; it not only denies the existence of other supernatural beings (and the alleged powers of witchcraft), but does so while reinforcing the fact that there is only one being with such power, and that He exists in exclusion to all others (Isaiah 41:21-29).

Conversely, a theology which refuses to deny the existence of competing supernatural agents, will experience the problem of a God who is clearly not omnipotent and whose will may be contravened by His supernatural competitors. Mainstream medieval Christian teaching denied the existence of witches and witchcraft, as mere pagan superstition, flatly refusing to even countenance the beliefs, and  criticizing those who held them as unchristian.34 This practice was followed for centuries; examples include an Irish synod in 800,5 Agobard of Lyons,6  Hrabanus Maurus,7 the Canon Episcopi edited by Regino of Prüm,8 the Council of Anse, Buchard of Worms, John of Salisbury,9 Pope Gregory VII,10 and Serapion of Vladimire.11

This is the exact opposite of what Hiebert, Newbigin, and Hayes recommend, but it did not result in secularization or a return to the pagan gods and beliefs. On the contrary, it succeeded comprehensively in sweeping away the old superstitions. This action also bore the good fruit of ending the persecution of supposed witches, and their murder for imaginary crimes, as the traditional charges and punishments were condemned.1213 Where is the evidence that this led to secularization? This is a good result.

It is notable that Hayes’ article attempts to grapple with the problem facing Christians in South Africa; that their teachings concerning satan and demons reinforce and promote the vicious and bloody killing of people suspected as witches. He tries to find a way of retaining these teachings whilst dissuading witch hunts and murder; a radical departure from the Old Testament approach. Ironically his suggestion that accusations and talk of witchcraft should be both censured and censored is borrowed from Christian skeptics of the 16th century, and was the first step towards marginalizing and eradicating belief in supernatural evil. It is worth noting that Farrar condemns strongly the African witch hunts and the superstitious practice of killing albinos to use their body parts in anti-demonic rituals. However, he refuses to condemn the teachings which lead to such practices, and believes those teachings have value.

Hayes goes on to grapple with the fact that there is no empirical evidence that demons cause illness, despite the claims of witch doctors.

“It is all very well to speak disparagingly of the bio- medical model of illness, and of the varying mixtures of rationalism and empiricism that form the Enlightenment mind- set. But empirical research tells us, for example, that malaria is caused by parasites that are carried by mosquitoes, and that the best way to deal with malaria is to attack the parasite or its vector. Attributing such an illness to a human agency, such as a witch or sorcerer, is irrational.”14

Having said this, Hayes asks “But how adequate is such a narrow mechanical model of cause and effect?”. This is an easy question to answer; we can compare the success of attacking the malaria parasite or its vector, with the success of addressing malaria cases with exorcism and other acts aimed at combating supernatural evil. This empirical test will show us which approach is a superior explanation and solution, and we both know what that test will show. No one on the entire planet is treating malaria successfully with exorcism. Meanwhile, modern medical treatment of malaria actually works; secular anti-malarial medication, and the regulated spraying of DDT have been enormously successful. This is a point Farrar avoids addressing.

Farrar wishes to perpetuate beliefs which lead to murderous witch hunts, and which fail to provide any solution for physical sicknesses, including the most dangerous diseases afflicting the local African population, such as malaria.Yet he fails to give any Biblical or medical justification for this position.

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  1. The most vulnerable part of theology, the Devil thus helped to weaken the old structure further, and the new philosophies and ideologies of the eighteenth century provided the tools with which to pull it down. Before 1700 the traditional Christian view was still accepted by many of the educated, but by 1800 most had abandoned it or modified it out of recognition.’, Russell, & Burton, ‘Mephistopheles: The Devil in the Modern World’, p. 128 (1990); ‘The degree to which the eighteenth century actually “dechristianized” Western society is debatable, since the degree to which society had previously been Christian is also disputed.’, ibid., p. 128; ‘The secularization of Christianity had begun as early as the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, and the modernist views of some Christian thinkers, notably the Jesuits, preceded and influenced the philosophes of the Enlightenment. The Jesuits divided the cosmos into a world of revelation and a world of nature.’, ibid., p, 128; ‘Descartes, Lock, Leibniz, and Newton – like the Jesuits – all affirmed Christianity but created philosophical or cosmological systems that had no need of Christian explanations.’, ibid, p, 129. []
  2. Ibid., p. 8. []
  3. Certainly the early Church cannot be held responsible for the mass burnings of heretics which commenced seven centuries after its installation in power, or the great witch hunt which began eleven centuries later. During that long interval, Christendom itself changed.’, ibid., p. 257. []
  4. Clearly, there was an increase in sceptical voices during the Carolingian period, even if we take into account an increase in surviving sources.’, Behringer, ‘Witches and Witch-hunts: a Global History’, p. 31 (2004). []
  5. Likewise, an Irish synod at around 800 condemned the belief in witches, and in particular those who slandered people for being lamias (que interpretatur striga).’, ibid., pp. 30-31. []
  6. A Crown witness of ‘Carolingian scepticism’, Archbishop Agobard of Lyon (769-840), reports witch panics during the reign of Charlemagne. In his sermon on hailstorms he reports frequent lynchings of supposed weather magicians (tempestarii), as well as of sorcerers, who were made responsible for a terrible livestock mortality in 810. According to Agobard, the common people in their fury over crop failure had developed the extravagant idea that foreigners were secretly coming with airships to strip their fields of crops, and transmit it to Magonia. These anxieties resulted in severe aggression, and on one occasion around 816, Agobard could hardly prevent a crowd from killing three foreign men and women, perceived as Magonian people. As their supposed homeland’s name suggests, the crop failure was associated with magic. The bishop emphasized that thunderstorms were caused exclusively by natural or divine agencies.’, ibid., pp. 54-55. []
  7. ‘Hrabanus Maurus, Abbot of Fulda, wrote several attacks, including ‘On the magical arts’, much of which was derived from Isidore of Seville, on those who believed that magicians and sorcerers could accomplish anything that depended on their power alone.’, Jolly, Raudverre, & Peters, ‘Witchcraft and Magic in Europe: the Middle Ages’, p. 201 (2002). []
  8. ‘One of the most important ecclesiastical documents of the Middle Ages was the Canon Episcopi, ca. 900, which defined witchcraft as Devil-worship, but declared it to be nothing more than a foolish idea.’, Guiley, ‘The Encyclopedia of Witches, Witchcraft, and Wicca’, p. 50 (2008). []
  9. ‘Witchcraft beliefs however were not always endorsed by the upper levels of society. They were condemned as superstitious by the Council of Anse in 990 and by Buchard of Worms a few years after, as when John of Salisbury dismissed them as the imaginings of ‘a few poor men and ignorant women, with no real faith in God.’, Moore, ‘The Formation of a Persecuting Society: Authority and Deviance in Western Europe 950-1250 ‘, p. 133 (2007). []
  10. ‘In 1080 Harold of Denmark (r. 1076-80) was admonished not to hold old women and Christian priests responsible for storms and diseases, or to slaughter them in the cruellest manner. Like Agobard before him, Pope Gregory VII (r. 1073-85) declared in his letter to the Danish king that these catastrophes were caused by God alone, that they were God’s punishment for human sins, and that the killing of the innocent would only increase His fury.”, ibid., p. 55. []
  11. ‘Witches were executed at Novgorod in 1227, and after a severe famine in the years 1271-4 Bishop Serapion of Vladimire asked in a sermon: ‘you believe in witchcraft and burn innocent people and bring down murder upon earth and the city… Out of what books or writings do you learn that famine in earth is brought about by witchcraft?‘, ibid., p. 56. []
  12. ‘A capitulary of Charlemagne (747-814) for the Saxons in 787 imposed the death penalty on those who, like pagans, believed that a man or woman could be a striga, one who devours humans, and burned them.”, ibid., p. 30. []
  13. ‘A decree of King Coloman of Hungary (c. 1074-116, r. 1095-1116) against the belief in the existence of strigae (De strigis vero que non sunt, ne ulla questio fiat) suggests that they were thought to be human beings with demonic affiliation: witches.’, ibid., p 32. []
  14. Hayes, Christian responses to witchcraft and sorcery’, Missionalia (23.3.339-354), 1995. []

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