Did Missionaries Trigger the Witch-Hunts?

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  March 24, 2011 — 67 Comments

Observers to the horrifying phenomenon of witch-hunts and witch-killings in African nations like Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa, and Kenya have long wondered what role, if any, Western Christian missionaries played in the process. Some have defended missionaries, saying they have little to do with controversial figures like Helen Ukpabio, despite clear links with Western support and money. Now, Christianity Today reports that the problem of witch-hunts around the world has gotten bad enough that a major missiology conference has devoted an entire track to the subject. What these (Evangelical Christian) academics say is that indigenous ideas and reactions to “witchcraft” and malefic magic have been “Christianized” (their term), creating deadly consequences the missionaries could not (or would not) understand.

Missionaries have commonly responded [to witchcraft accusations] in two ways, said [Robert] Priest [professor of missions and intercultural studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School]. The power of witches to harm others is dismissed as superstition, but this seldom persuades local Christians to abandon the concept; or the reality of witchcraft is endorsed by missionaries not wanting to be “post-Enlightenment rationalists” with a non-biblical skepticism of spiritual warfare.

The result is that traditional witch ideas are fused with Christian theology, which obscures the social consequences: Accused witches are often destitute or outcast, and thus socially defenseless. Instead of seeing old women or children as scapegoats, said Priest, Christian leaders suggest that witchcraft participates in genuine spiritual evil and that the accusations are reasonable. “The church is providing the cognitive underpinnings for the past system in the contemporary world.”

This is a striking admission from the world of Christian missionary thought, a sign, perhaps, of how powerless Western Christian missionaries now are to halt a process they helped initiate. Another academic, Timothy Stabell, assistant professor of mission at Briercrest College and Seminary, notes that the Christian Holy Spirit becomes “just another source of witch-like power,” but one that is considered more powerful (“potent”) than indigenous magics, creating a power imbalance that would also alter reactions by non-Christian traditional practitioners.

When you take what is revealed here and apply it on a larger scale, the coercive missionary actions of organizations like Samaritan’s Purse in Haiti take a far darker turn, and the culpability of Christian missionaries in the recent anti-Vodou killings becomes a far more serious question.

[Vodou leader Max] Beauvoir said he suspected that representatives of some other religions might be stirring up popular fears against voodoo practitioners using the cholera as a pretext. “I saw this coming. Since the earthquake some people have been blaming us, saying that we cast spells and did evil things which brought the earthquake as a punishment,” he said.”

It should be emphasized that these revelations aren’t from Talk to Action or some right-wing watch-dog site, this is from the most respected evangelical Christian news organization, and from a highly respected evangelical divinity school. That the best closing spin that could be put on this story is that “missiologists have not yet done an adequate job of wisely engaging these realities,” and that Christian missionaries should “mobilize the effort to rethink our role in this,” make me wonder what hasn’t been revealed yet.

I’ve reiterated time and time again on this site that witch hunts “over there” aren’t some isolated problem that has nothing to do with us. It should concern us, not because these victims are being branded as “witches” and some of us have reclaimed that label, but because this animus, hatred, and violence share a common root. A root that fuels distrust and discrimination in Australia, badly disguised glee in the destruction of non-Christian faiths in Japan, and opportunistic panic-peddlers in the United States. That root is the anti-pluralistic and exclusionary theologies favored by some strains of the dominant monotheisms. Now that we know there is an acknowledged link between Western missionary efforts and the process that contributed to the current crisis of witch-killings, we need to ask if there will be any accountability beyond mild internal recriminations and academic discussion. Will anything be done to make missionaries who brought their ideas of spiritual warfare and demonic powers to co-mingle with indigenous ideas of malefic magic accountable?

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Jason Pitzl-Waters

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  • http://www.thorncoyle.com T Thorn Coyle

    This is an important article, Jason. Thank you for writing it, and for bringing these sources together in one place.

  • http://egregores.blogspot.com/ Apuleius

    There is no "comingling" going on here. Why should Pagans uncritically repeat the lame excuses of the Christians? Why is it so hard for Pagans to face up to the truth that the Christians haven't changed their stripes? Why do Pagans find it so necessary to hem and haw and squirm around, rather than just come right out and state the plain truth: the same people who brought us the Burning Times are at it again. Period.

    Let's be clear about this. This blaming the victim crap (even if it is prettied up as an attempt to be "fair and balanced") is without any merit whatsoever. Christians can and do pervert the ideas of other religions. Is that news to any of us? But this perversion is not "comingling". It is contamination. When otherwise healthy food has been poisoned, and then someone eats it, it is the poison, and only the poison, that causes harm.

    • http://quakerpagan.blogspot.com/ Cat_C_B

      Right. It's predictable; Jason posts a thoughtful and measured critique of one part of the Christian community, and Apuleius (or Robin Artisson–he'll be along in 15 minutes, I suspect) has to use that as an excuse to smear an entire diverse religious community as "poison."

      If anyone did that around the Pagan community, based on the actions of any of our constituent groups, the same people who see Christianity as fair game for this kind of treatment would set up a howling that could be heard from Mars. But it's Christianity, so any attack, however bigoted, is considered reasonable. (In fairness, Islam, too, comes in for this treatment.)

      It's gotten so that I dread Jason's reasonable, careful coverage of these issues, because attempting to have any kind of meaningful discussion of the very real failures of Christian extremists becomes as impossible as a discussion of the fate of Israel in the company of anti-Semites; it simply becomes impossible to hear the reasonable voices over the fury, or to see clearly amid the forest of pointing fingers.

      Its like being caught in an endless leaflet war; the Pagan equivalent of "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion." It's wearying.

      And yes, yes, it's predictable also that I will post an objection to this kind of rank stupidity. Which will garner me the usual accusations of being a secret Christian, about to become a Christian, or (because this is Apuleius I am responding to specifically) a similar attack on Quakers (all Quakers, whether Christian or not, whether Pagan or not, throughout all 350 years of our existence, because of the same series of examples–culled from Quaker discussions–of mistreatment of Native Americans).

      Let's consider that conversation, with the mutual acrimony and accusation, to have already taken place, all right? You've made your usual sweeping generalization of an entire religious movement throughout history; I've made my usual objection, and maybe, just maybe, somebody out there will be allowed to discuss… oh, I don't know–perhaps African religious traditions, animism, syncretism for better and for worse in the world of religion?

      Just a thought.

    • http://quakerpagan.blogspot.com/ Cat_C_B

      Right. It's predictable; Jason posts a thoughtful and measured critique of one part of the Christian community, and Apuleius (or Robin Artisson–he'll be along in 15 minutes, I suspect) has to use that as an excuse to smear an entire diverse religious community as "poison."

      If anyone did that around the Pagan community, based on the actions of any of our constituent groups, the same people who see Christianity as fair game for this kind of treatment would set up a howling that could be heard from Mars. But it's Christianity, so any attack, however bigoted, is considered reasonable. (In fairness, Islam, too, comes in for this treatment.)

      It's gotten so that I dread Jason's reasonable, careful coverage of these issues, because attempting to have any kind of meaningful discussion of the very real failures of Christian extremists becomes as impossible as a discussion of the fate of Israel in the company of anti-Semites; it simply becomes impossible to hear the reasonable voices over the fury, or to see clearly amid the forest of pointing fingers.

      Its like being caught in an endless leaflet war; the Pagan equivalent of "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion." It's wearying.

      And yes, yes, it's predictable also that I will post an objection to this kind of rank stupidity. Which will garner me the usual accusations of being a secret Christian, about to become a Christian, or (because this is Apuleius I am responding to specifically) a similar attack on Quakers (all Quakers, whether Christian or not, whether Pagan or not, throughout all 350 years of our existence, because of the same series of examples–culled from Quaker discussions–of mistreatment of Native Americans).

      Let's consider that conversation, with the mutual acrimony and accusation, to have already taken place, all right? You've made your usual sweeping generalization of an entire religious movement throughout history; I've made my usual objection, and maybe, just maybe, somebody out there will be allowed to discuss… oh, I don't know–perhaps African religious traditions, animism, syncretism for better and for worse in the world of religion?

      Just a thought.

      • http://egregores.blogspot.com/ Apuleius

        Cat, do you believe that Christianity is worsened through contact with African traditional beliefs and practices? Do you believe that it is not only worsened, but that through the influence of African culture Christianity is turned into an evil malevolent force that drives people to commit horrific acts of violence against children?

        Just curious.

        Oh, and could someone please direct me to Jason's "thoughtful and measured" posts on the Tea Party and pedophile priests? Better yet, can someone explain to me why we need a "thoughtful and measured" response to a massive wave of religiously inspired violence against children that makes all of the Catholic Church's child sex scandals look like a relatively minor lapse of judgement?

        • http://greattininess.wordpress.com cartweel

          See here's the thing. All pedophile priests are in the wrong, necessarily by virtue of being pedophiles. Christians are *not* all in the wrong necessarily by virtue of being Christians.

          Across the board condemnation of pedophiles is perfectly "thoughtful and measured" — they're *pedophiles.* "Thoughtful and measured" regarding Christianity requires taking into account as many Christian points of view as there are Christians, and that's what Jason has left room for.

          • http://egregores.blogspot.com/ Apuleius

            See, here's the thing. I am perfectly willing to accept that all Christians are not murderous psychopaths. What I see a problem with, though, is the claim that Christians only become murderous psychopaths when they comingle their otherwise peaceful and loving religion with the evil violent superstitions of darkest Africa.

          • whateley23

            You're lacking nuance. Sometimes, two reasonably good things can mix and become a bad thing, as each brings out negative aspects in the other.

          • http://egregores.blogspot.com/ Apuleius

            whateley23: "You're lacking nuance. Sometimes, two reasonably good things can mix and become a bad thing, as each brings out negative aspects in the other."

            So it's the "mixing" that causes the problem? You are blaming religious miscegenation? That's a very interesting position.

          • whateley23

            OK, if you're going to argue disingenuously and with insults, then there's nothing more to be said. Continue on, and enjoy yourself. If you're actually interested in discussion, try addressing what is there, instead of twisting it into a position that is far from what I actually wrote.

          • http://egregores.blogspot.com/ Apuleius

            whateley23, what is disengenuous in what I said? You were the one who said that the problem was with "mixing". It is not my fault that you did not think this through and realize that you were in effect arguing against religious miscegenation.

            And, besides, what is it about the mixing together of Christianity and African traditional beliefs that produces an evil proclivity to murder children? How does that work, exactly? Or, for that matter, even approximately?

          • whateley23

            It is disingenuous to so blatantly twist words. I did not say that the problem lies in mixing, those are your words. I said that sometimes, when things mix, they become a problem. That is, it is not the mixing that is the problem, it is the way they catalyze each other. Forgive me for failing to write so that you could understand.

            The particular catalysis of African and Christian beliefs in this case seems to occur because of variant concepts of "witchcraft" and what to do in response to it. When the concepts of each influence the other, in this case, it resulted in literal witch hunts. Or didn't you read the article this comment thread is attached to?

          • http://egregores.blogspot.com/ Apuleius

            whateley23: " it is not the mixing that is the problem, it is the way they catalyze each other.

            Translation: it is not the mixing, it is what happens as a result of the mixing. In other words: it is the mixing.

            Obviously Christianity doesn't need to be mixed with anything else in order for Christians to engage in witch-hunting.

            And when we look at the particular variant of Christianity involved here, Pentecostalism, we find that it originated in Los Angeles California in 1905, and that it was already a virulent hate-mongering and fear-mongering form of Christianity long before it ever set foot in darkest Africa. White Pentecostalists in America are obsessed with demonic possession and spiritual warfare.

          • whateley23

            "Translation"

            And the disingenuousness continues. I guess we're done here, since you can't be bothered to actually read the actual words, and are content with arguing with the voice in your head.

          • Baruch Dreamstalker

            Whateley23, this is Apuleius you're dealing with. You need to go back and see just what he pulled, and then go further back to get behind his position.

            You claimed that some mixtures of religious ideas are toxic (and some are not), He, absurdly, labeled this argument with an odious tag, anti-miscegenation. (This is what he does.) Instead of disputing the label, go back and lay the foundation for the argument. Can you provide a couple of other examples of toxic mixing of religious ideas, in addition to the lethal current admixture in Africa? Firm up the argument and the label will fall off.

          • http://egregores.blogspot.com/ Apuleius

            Baruch, what is this "toxic mixing" that you speak of? A bad idea is a bad idea, no?

            Now I can certainly see how a bad idea can become worse when mixed with more bad ideas. The combination, in fact, can be synergistically worse than just the sum of their separate badnesses. But the evidence of history is that no such mixing is required to explain the phenomenon of Christians murdering people they have accused of witchcraft. How is that not obvious?

            And the truth is that everyone who has studied this problem in any depth knows that there is, as a matter of fact, a "mixing" problem involved. The mixture is (1) Pentecostalist spiritual warfare mentality, plus (2) the almost unimaginable social dislocation and violence of the wars that took place in the Congo during the late 90s, in which millions of people died. From the major urban centers of the Congo, the "child-witch" phenomenon spread first to Angola, and then to Nigeria.

          • Baruch Dreamstalker

            Apuleius, you're having this argument with whateley23, not me. You've described a toxic mix; I'd like him to produce two others to show this is a class and not a one-off.

            I look upon mixing rather benighnly. The mix of Native and Catholic in Mexico has produced unique liturgy, and the mix of African and Catholic has given birth to independent traditions around the Caribbean. Mixture of Christian and Pagan has given us all the odd "secular" symbols of Christmas. Humans have rifled one another's traditions since the dawn of time; mixtures as a class don't bother me. But they evidently bother whateley23, so I want to get more out of him or her.

          • whateley23

            Not all mixtures of ideologies bother me, which is rather what the point has become. Some, however, reinforce aspects of the other in ways that catalyze them to problems.

          • harmonyfb

            What I'm seeing is not that "Christians only become psychopaths when they comingle", but that coercive proselytizing is wrong (and this is clear evidence), and that some Christians pervert all they touch because of their fear-fueled theology.

            But I also see that some indigenous people can find permission in such theology to let their darkest emotions have free reign (cause let's be honest – those "missionaries", while vile and culpable, were usually not the ones actually stoning old women and beating small children. That came from local people, and their guilt should not be hand-waved away as though they were mentally deficient.)

            Because acting as though the local population were too backward or stupid to understand that murder is wrong…well, that really reinforces the whole 'missionary' mindset, doesn't it? (Note the "superstitious" remark in the quote, above. Missionaries identify the native religions as "superstition", while their own unreasoning fear of their deity and anti-deity are classed as "faith".)

          • http://egregores.blogspot.com/ Apuleius

            The local people involved are those who have converted to Christianity, in fact it is those who are most fervent in their Christianity. Pastors, "Apostles" and "Prophets" play a major role in this wave of violence against children, as do materials produced by Christian publishers and also TV shows, movies and DVD's.

          • http://quakerpagan.blogspot.com/ Cat_C_B

            Ah, logic. That won't get you far in life, you know. *crooked grin*

        • http://quakerpagan.blogspot.com/ Cat_C_B

          I believe that syncretism is a human tendency around religion, and that ideas affect one another. Some of those effects are intriguing; some are frightening.

          I believe that the majority of Christian missionaries are pretty oblivious to , if not tacitly approving of, the ways their preaching interacts badly with other beliefs, because those beliefs are seen as wrong and therefore irrelevant; and I believe this is both irresponsible and wrong.

          However, not only am I aware of exceptions to this rule around missionizing, I was taught by my mama that two wrongs don't make a right, and making contemptuous dismissals of other folks' religion is a wrong that doesn't become right when it's done by Pagans on the grounds of, "He dissed me first."

          I will now step aside from this discussion, in order not to bore the audience at TWH with further exchanges between us on a worn-out topic, Ap. If you wish to continue it further with me, you can find my email addy via my website.

      • http://chrysalis1witchesjourney.wordpress.com/ Pax

        Thank you Cat for speaking for wisdom and compassion and reason.

    • http://www.facebook.com/YHWHINRI Brad Elijah Eggers

      People in Africa have been murdering each other for fear of their religious tradition, power, wealth and plain old tribal hatred, generations before white man and his Christian religion stepped in. As for the "burning times" get the fuck over yourself, you people blow this way out of proportion, making the death toll a hyperbole. Just because Christianity and African tradition mixed, does not mean that all of the sudden "peaceful African tribesmen" started relentlessly murdering poor little children, when in fact, you idiot, they have been doing this long before lil' Jesus was a twinkle in Joseph's eye.

      I'm going to suggest a book to you, it's called Western Civilization, or you know what, start with the basics, start with the Manuscripts of Herodotus, the father of history, then learn something with historical fact to it, buddy

  • Pagan Puff Pieces

    "…not wanting to be 'post-Enlightenment rationalists' with a non-biblical skepticism of spiritual warfare," strikes me as a very interesting phrase. It sounds more like fear of being labeled something that someone else has made a bad name of rather than something that would come from policy or belief.

    • Baruch Dreamstalker

      Right. This is absorption of an external criticism and an attempt to pre-emptively defend against its future application. Sometimes known as "prebuttal."

  • DamonLeff

    Thank you for a good read Jason. Please support '30 days of advocacy against witch-hunts' – 29 March to 27 April – this campaign is global and annual (since 2007). For more information please visit: http://www.paganrightsalliance.org/30_days.html
    Please do the right thing and condemn human rights abuses committed as a result of witchcraft accusations. Thank you.

  • Paul White

    I have always denounced the practice of missionary work; whether it takes place on my door step, in another state, or internationally, I will fight to keep it from happening. I despise the fact that they try to hide it as an innocent, "Oh, well we just want to 'spread the word'." WTF!?!? They are simply lying.

    I even actively question the motives of my new brother and sister-in-law who desire to go to Africa with their church (Glad Tidings Church) to "build churches and teach." Their only response is the typical shit regurgitated from the church with no further thought behind it. "We are going to spread the word and save them." Needless to say, the only respect I have for them is shallow and merely serves to keep things civil.

    "will [there] be any accountability beyond mild internal recriminations and academic discussion[?]" – I am very pessimistic about this.

  • http://egregores.blogspot.com/ Apuleius

    Concerning the murders of tens of thousands of children accused of being witches in DR Congo, Angola and Nigeria, Christians could just say, "Oh, Christians don't do that. Only evil, violent people do that, and Christians are supposed to be good and loving."

    But notice how they can't leave it at that. They cannot resist blaming it on the "ignorant" and "superstitious" beliefs associated with non-Christian religions found in Africa, India, etc. Because, you know, Christians would never, you know, go around accusing people of being witches and then killing them! Even more ridiculous, they blame it on "modernization"!! Because, you know, bad stuff like that never went down before we went and got all modernized!

    • http://greattininess.wordpress.com cartweel

      Yet notice that Jason's post is in direct contradistinction to the point of view you've just (badly) caricatured. After all, the scholars are in fact blaming themselves.

      • http://egregores.blogspot.com/ Apuleius

        The scholars are blaming African culture and absolving Christianity itself of all blame. And Jason is prevaricating.

  • http://greattininess.wordpress.com cartweel

    Jason, let me just say that I too was struck by how level-headed this response is, and that I hope your coverage of this topic becomes food for thought for a lot of pagans (including myself!).

    I especially appreciate this line: "That root is the anti-pluralistic and exclusionary theologies favored by SOME strains of the dominant monotheisms."

    Emphasis on the SOME. On my own blog I've started a series where I am attempting to highlight the pro-pluralism, inclusive stands of SOME Christian groups — this definitely adds a LOT to that conversation. Thanks.

    • freemanpresson

      I'm going to go read that gladly, because I keep hearing this and wondering where that kind of Christian hangs out, and whether there are enough of them to matter, since the other kind get all the ink.

    • http://egregores.blogspot.com/ Apuleius

      The time for Western Christians to become "pro-pluralism" is long gone. It doesn't count once you've already wiped out 99% of the other religions in your immediate vicinity (and then gone from one end of the earth to the other doing in as many religions as you can from a distance). Its like killing off almost all the Indians and then when the few who are left are good and conquered, standing back and admiring their stolen artifacts in a museum and feeling very "pluralistic" because you like some of their artwork.

      Show me a Christian community that has been "pro-pluralism" in its theology and has, in practice, lived in harmony side-by-side with other religions for centuries.

      • http://greattininess.wordpress.com cartweel

        I'll do so as soon as you find me any group of people, anywhere, who have lived "in harmony side-by-side" with other people "for centuries."

        Assuming that you won't be able to, since none exists, I'll take that as proof that your warrants are in error. Further, I'll take it as proof that while, yes, Christians have done terribly bloodthirsty things, in as much as any community is capable of making amends (which you seem to assume), Christians must also be theoretically capable of making amends. There is no "long gone" here, unless there's "long gone" everywhere.

        • http://egregores.blogspot.com/ Apuleius

          There are lots of examples in Asia. China, before the Communists came. Japan and Korea today (although the Christians are hard at work changing that in Korea). India. In fact, India is a place where other religions find refuge from persecution!

          Name a religion other than Christianity or Islam that has ever "extirpated", as the Christians themselves like to call it, even one other religion anywhere on earth in all of human history.

          • http://greattininess.wordpress.com cartweel

            Wait, we're talking about the same Japan that was involved in World War II? The same Korea that's split down the middle with a giant fence? The India that was partitioned because of tension between Muslims and Hindus? Come on, man. You seem to live in a world where centuries are pretty short.

            And speaking of Japan, I seem to recall Christianity being outlawed by the Tokugawa Buddhist regime and Christians being forced to apostatize on pain of torture and death. Something about folks being hung upside down in pits until they bled to death. Does that answer your extirpation question?

          • http://egregores.blogspot.com/ Apuleius

            1. WWII had nothing to do with religion (unless you want to count the fact that the Nazis were Christians and were merely trying to finish the job that the Christians had been working so hard to accomplish for 2000 years).

            2. The Korean War also had nothing to do with religion (unless you want to count the fact that Communism is just a modern mutation of the totalitarian ideology of Christianity).

            3. The partition of India is a modern phenomenon that was a direct result of the process of decolonization. Prior to the coming of the British, the only religious partition that had ever occurred in India was due to Muslim invasions and conquests. Muslims in India today enjoy far more freedom to practice Islam, or any other religion if they choose, than they do in any Muslim majority country.

            4. The Japanese suppressed Christianity when they realized the missionaries were just the advance team for European colonialists. If only the Taino and the Arawak had been so prescient in 1492. And that suppression was never complete, in fact it was far less complete than, say, the extirpation of all Native American religions in North America. And the suppression of Christianity in Japan was also temporary. Today Japanese people are perfectly free to follow any religion they like.

          • http://egregores.blogspot.com/ Apuleius

            Cartwheel, have you read "Zen At War"? I have. The Meiji clique that was responsible for Japan's rapid militarization and imperialization at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries was anti-Buddhist. It is true that Japanese Buddhists cravenly sought (and were rather successful in the attempt) to ingratiate themselves with the rulers, and thereby ended up being supporters of the militarization and imperialization of Japan.

            All human societies are violent and engage in warfare. This is not news to anyone. Therefore finding examples of violence and warfare in a predominantly Buddhist country proves precisely nothing. What you will not find is examples of Buddhists, or Hindus, or Taoists, or Shintoists systematically suppressing all religions other than their own.

            And as I said before, what the Japanese did to Christianity in the late 16th century and early 17th century is exactly what everyone everywhere should have done during that historical period — starting with the Caribs and Taino and Arawaks in 1492. Obviously people have a right to resist being conquered, and if some of the conquerers happen to be masquerading as missionaries, that changes nothing.

        • thehouseofvines

          I'll do so as soon as you find me any group of people, anywhere, who have lived "in harmony side-by-side" with other people "for centuries."

          How about Hellenistic Egypt? Upon the death of Alexander the Great his world-spanning empire was carved up by his generals and Ptolemy claimed Egypt as his portion. While still nominally a satrap he waged campaigns to retrieve the sacred images and temple treasury that had earlier been looted by the Persians. Likewise he made bequeathments of land, personally financed festivals and other religious observances and began a temple-building program on a grand scale. His descendants followed suit, recognizing that their claim to power could be legitimized in the eyes of their subjects only by promoting religion. Furthermore, they appointed Egyptians and other minorities such as the Jews to high-ranking positions within the government and military and took a keen interest in Egyptian history and culture. Important documents and royal decrees were given out in both Greek and Egyptian (the latter in hieratic as well as demotic) and separate law-courts were maintained for the native populations so that they didn't have to assimilate. In fact, though the Greeks represented an elite class in Ptolemaic Egypt they often opted to be tried in the native courts if they were of mixed heritage since natives had greater freedom and privileges, especially with regard to inheritance and the status of women. There was quite a bit of that mixing as well, especially in the khora or countryside where Greek soldiers and mercenaries were settled after their time of service and needed wives. So much so that early Roman visitors remarked that it was difficult to tell Greeks apart from Egyptians in certain areas. Culture, language, religion, etc. became increasingly blended as time went on; alternately many Greeks entirely converted to Egyptian ways. In fact, indigenous Egyptian culture saw something of a renaissance under the Greeks, especially in contrast to its condition under the Persians and Libyans and later the Romans.

          So it's not an immutable law of nature that when one culture takes over another it must necessarily eradicate any trace of the other.

          • http://greattininess.wordpress.com cartweel

            thehouseofvines, I agree with you that it's not "an immutable law of nature that when one culture takes over another it must necessarily eradicate any trace of the other. " In fact, I might go so far as to say that it's really exactly the opposite of that, that invading cultures never eradicate the last trace of those whom they've invaded. That's not what I was getting at in my argument with Apuleius.

            And while I appreciate that Hellenistic Egypt can be seen as a relatively peaceful place internally, I'd point out that they were still "waging campaigns" — that's code for killing people — over a treasury. That's not harmony, not on the edges where one government met up with another government.

            (Insert anarchist rant about governments.)

          • thehouseofvines

            Oh no, Ptolemaic Egypt was definitely not a pacifist state! In fact they were the dominant global superpower during the Hellenistic era, engaged in constant conflict with the Seleukids over control of trade routes and natural resources. They established a buffer between themselves and their enemies by directly annexing most of the Levant and the Greek Islands and funneling wealth, weapons and manpower to other states in order to get these allies to fight their battles for them when they didn't feel like it. There was even an arms race between the Ptolemies and Seleukids with regard to battle elephants. The Seleukids had inherited most of Alexander's elephants and further controlled the territory from Babylon to India. When the Ptolemaic elephants started dying off they were desperate to acquire new ones since elephants could completely turn the tide in battle. (Being the ancient world's equivalent of a Sherman tank.) So the Ptolemies had to send expeditions south into Africa to replenish their reserve. These then had to be properly trained before they could be used in battle, which was both expensive and time consuming. But it succeeded and they ended up weakening the Seleukids enough that when the Romans came on the scene they easily swallowed them up, as they did the other major Hellenistic kingdoms leaving Egypt as the only independent state for a while before they, too, fell to Rome. During the height of this conflict there were also insurrections at home with the dissidents even going so far as declare themselves rival Pharaohs before the Ptolemies managed to reassert their control of the area and unify Egypt once more. All of this, of course, is a matter of politics and while violent I think it's important to recognize its distinction from the sort of religious and racially motivated atrocities we see after the rise of Christianity. The Ptolemies may have killed to assert their control, but they had no interest in wiping out populations. After all, you can't tax dead men. Things like the Crusades, the Conquest of the Americas or the Shoa are a different order of action and motivated by a mindset that simply did not exist in antiquity.

          • http://egregores.blogspot.com/ Apuleius

            "Things like the Crusades, the Conquest of the Americas or the Shoa are a different order of action and motivated by a mindset that simply did not exist in antiquity."

            The importance of understanding this most basic point cannot possibly be over-emphasized. Thank you for stating it so clearly.

          • thehouseofvines

            I think it's very telling to compare the treatment of Jews under Pagans and Christians. Even though the Jews were opposed to traditional polytheistic worship they suffered no ill-treatment at the hands of the Ptolemies. (Minus Soter's exploiting the Sabbath to take Jerusalem.) In fact they were given a quarter of Alexandria in which to live and worship as they saw fit, they were appointed to important positions in the administration and military, the crown funded construction of synagogues and when Jerusalem fell to the Seleukids the Ptolemies even built a temple for them at Leontopolis so that they could continue to make proper offerings to their god. In fact, under Philadelphos the Hebrew scriptures were translated into Greek so that they could understand the history and culture of this unique people.

            Can you think of a single Christian country that treated its Jewish subjects even half as well up until comparatively recently? More often you find expulsion, pogroms, and complete disenfranchisement.

            Of course, Pagans aren't entirely without blemish in regard to their treatment of the Jews. The very first pogrom took place in Alexandria after Rome annexed Egypt. But that was not motivated by religious hatred – it was simply a matter of politics. When Octavian took over he abolished the boule and other forms of representative government for the Greeks while permitting the Jews to retain their politeuma. This bred intense resentment among the disenfranchised Greeks and they lashed out at the Jews whom they regarded as Roman collaborators. There were riots, lynchings and massive bloodshed until the Romans managed to reassert control and establish order once more. As shameful and disgusting as this portion of Alexandrian history is I still find it radically different than the situation that prevailed in Europe over the next two thousand years. The fact that it stands out as so exceptional says quite a bit.

  • http://www.hecatedemetersdatter.blogspot.com Hecate

    That the best closing spin that could be put on this story is that “missiologists have not yet done an adequate job of wisely engaging these realities,” and that Christian missionaries should “mobilize the effort to rethink our role in this,” . . . .

    No, they don't need to "mobilize the effort to rethink our role in this," which is the worst kind of mumble-speak, appoint-a-commission, do-nothing nonsense. They need to, like doctors, "first, do no harm." That means stopping their attempts to destroy native religions. Get out and quit doing the thing that has been causing harm. Of course, I expect them to do this, oh, about never.

  • chuck_cosimano

    It is foolish to even think of accountability in this context. The groups promoting the missionaries responsible are accountable to no outside agency. Their respective denominations support their theology. Their donors certainly don't care. And any official of the U. S. Government who tries will find his lifespan in office about the same length as the number 3 in Al Queda or a Mexican police chief because he would be run out of office in a matter of days.

  • Evan

    Very informative post Jason. I think many pagans in the West misunderstand the witch-killings in Africa. Witch-killings predate European influence in Africa, although the terms "witch" and "witchcraft" are, of course, imported terms. African people have their own terms for those who do negative magic, and these people are labeled "witches" in English. Traditionally, most people in black Africa relied very hevily on the beneficial magic of priests and medicine men, although people's relationship to these pre-Christian practices, I believe, gets complicated once they are practicing these evangelical strains of Christianity.
    This is just one of Africa's many problems. Christianity isn't the only cause, however. I think some of these traditional problems (like witch-killings) have been exacerbated due to the ways European influence has altered traditional ways of life throughout Africa.

    • Bookhousegal

      Well, somewhat, Evan, though one thing that monotheistic religious ideology did largely import is the idea that 'witchcraft' or any spiritual practice is inherently evil and that malefic magic can only be fought by enforcing Christianity, and violence. To their ideology, *all* magic is from their Devil and what *this* does is essentially to terrorize and disarm people in traditional societies, when before they might more often simply counter the suspected ill-work or consult an 'expert' to do so:

      The simple fact is that though these cultures weren't uniformly-gentle about 'witchcraft,' they also had means to cope, including *temporary* ostracism in some cases, …a lot of things which don't turn every bit of suspicion or jealousy or nonconformity into bloody divisions and hysteria, then just never seeming to find enough innocents to blame to try and combat the fear.

      Western missionaries (And frankly, a lot of Westerners in general) still have a tendency to see tribal religions as benighted, ignorant, 'superstitious' and dangerous, but for these missionaries, especially ones who want to believe in their 'spiritual warfare,' they really *want* to sell the notion that all magic or spirituality is *evil,* and must be *battled* with their religion and religious hysteria.

      Especially in a context of post-colonialism and climate problems, these are a lot of cultures which have been *off balance* a while, and we can see right here what they think about African witchcraft, cause they like to tell their tall 'tales of darkest Africa' and reimport the paranoia *here,* and direct it at Pagans or whoever they like.

      There's not-seeing traditional practices through rose-colored glasses and imaginations, (also by our own Western standards) and there's realizing there really are huge differences in how things have gotten due to the direct and explicit effort of missionaries and converts directly *hostile* to those many African cultures.

      We've also got to be careful of what assessments of those cultures we really believe, too: this isn't the first time a Western population has seen stuff about the 'barbarism' of tribal cultures we can't so easily find out about for ourselves. We're not the ones who have to think in absolutes, though.

  • Dennis Nock

    i do believe what cat said is true to some extant . we need to be careful not to paint all xtians w/ the same wide brush . but also responcibility has to be taken by those responcible . the entire christian church as a whole does't have a very good track record where it comes into contact w/ indiginous poeples and religions .but today the biggest culprits are our friends the evangelical protestants ,bastists , etc . i agree these poeple need to be held responcible for what they've done . the other problems the catholics have , etc are another issue . by pinpointing exactly who's responcible we'll be able to make our case and hopefully get our pagan friends some much needed help, and more importantly stop this from happening again . this kind of thing is nothing new , but this time maybe we can stop it .the evangelizing and spreading the word by these zealots needs to stop. b/f more damage is done .aren't we humans supposed to learn from our mistakes ?

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Mary-Switras/1660544172 Mary Switras

    Whenevery I meet someone who starts talking about how he or she or some relative is going off to some other country for missionary work, I always ask: is the main purpose of your going there to convert the "natives"? If they say no, they're going to "help", to "teach", to "build schools", I follow up with: if there was no religion involved, no church building, the schools were secular only, you could practice your religion in private but not make attempts to convert, would you still go? I usually get a confused look…does not compute. The actual goal of missionaries is to convert the locals, and all that "help" wouldn't happen if there weren't celestial brownie points to be gained.

    Yes there are many secular aid organizations; there are even spiritually or religiously based ones that provide secular aid only, respecting the local spiritual preferences. I prefer to support them.

    • Paul White

      "all that "help" wouldn't happen if there weren't celestial brownie points to be gained." – Beautiful, simply beautiful, Mary.

      I concur with support toward secular aid organizations, as well.

  • Neville Thunderbelly

    All monotheistic thought, by its very definition, is exclusionary.

  • Anon

    "…That root is the anti-pluralistic and exclusionary theologies favored by some strains of the dominant monotheisms…"

    Pointed, and elegantly worded, Jason, as well as paradoxical in that the Christian admonition to "love thy enemy" is ultimately subverted. Will we ever be able to be at peace within the pluralistic diversity that is humanity? Perhaps there is, after all, great wisdom in the idea to "let it be."

  • Tea

    I guess it goes without saying that if they really cared about people in Africa (of anywhere) they would cease all missionary work entirely.

  • http://erynn999.livejournal.com Erynn

    Jason – Thanks for calling attention to the discussion going on within Christianity regarding the horrifying results of their missionizing. I don't think they're doing nearly enough, but self-examination is a start. I really do believe that "missionary work" should be forbidden. The human and cultural costs are far too high.

  • Lori F – MN

    Is there something in the bible about not condeming someone elses religion even if they condem your religion?

    I do know there is "Judge not, lest ye be judged."

    Too many christians, and missionaries, forget those words.

    • Crystal7431

      There is. Someone quoted it recently here, I think. I've been trying to find it but no luck.

    • http://egregores.blogspot.com/ Apuleius

      Lori F-MN: "Is there something in the bible about not condeming someone elses religion even if they condem your religion?"

      No, there is not.

      In fact, Jesus explicitly states that those who do not accept his teachings will be condemned. Mark 16:16: "Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned."

      The original Greek has κατακριθ?σεται, which is usually rendered in English as "condemned" or "damned". It is a term associated with legal proceedings, where it is applied to those who have been examined and found guilty and deserving of punishment.

  • Cathryn Bauer

    There is another way that Christian belief would allow, but sadly, few embrace it. As a young Catholic woman, I was greatly influenced by the writings of Hans Kueng and other liberation theologists. Kueng was widely persecuted — we can look to the current pope for much of that — and his ideas about other religions approached with respectful emphasis upon common ethical standards rather than doctrine and quest for dominance rendered him no longer considered a Catholic theologian. At the time in my life, I saw Kueng only in books, not in my church experience, though I kept looking. A couple of decades later, I find myself wondering sadly why the Christian belief and practice turned toward the authoritarian and domineering and away from the cooperative, caring guidelines Kueng laid out. Sadly, Christians in the main appear to have turned from it toward a spirituality and ethic that has come to look downright pathological to me.

    Christ himself is recorded in the gospels as saying "You will know them by their fruits" in speaking of those who claim to speak his word. Clergy sexual abuse and the response to it indicated a tree that had rotted and should, I felt, not be propagated further. The missionary-induced situation is yet another of those fruits.

    Yes, this is a situation that needs our concern and action. I admit that to date, I have done little myself other than voting with my feet.

  • Sta?a

    Well-said, Jason. Thank you.

  • http://egregores.blogspot.com/ Apuleius

    That's ridiculous. Are you claiming that the Imperial Japanese version of the nation-state was somehow worse (due to it's being mixed with "Shinto-based Japanese governing models") than that of Nazi Germany or Fascist Italy or Stalinist Russia?

    Modern Imperialist Industrialized states are all savagely violent. This includes, most especially, the British Empire and the French as well, and also the Dutch and the Belgians. All of them butchers on a grand scale. It's true that the Japanese followed their model, and they did it up right.

    • whateley23

      See, you keep insisting on reading things I didn't write, and arguing against those things. I said nothing about Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, or Stalinist Russia, nor the British Empire or the French – each of those has its own particular tragic trajectory. I only described Imperial Japan and its problems combining ideas of the nation-state (some of which, Holland for instance, have not followed that terrible path, so it is not something inherent to the nation-state itself, but to particular historical situations) with its Imperial heritage. If you want to analyze those others, feel free, but don't attribute those analyses to my position.

  • syncreticmystic

    I'd be curious to find out what sort of language missionaries are instructed to use in trying to convert people who are traditionally animistic. I remember my Mami telling me that one thing the missionaries in Haiti will tell Vodou practitioners is "Jesus is a bigger lwa than yours."

  • http://slrman.wordpress.com James Smith João Pessoa, Brazil

    As always, the religious reich has no concern for the damage they cause. They have had a free ride on everything for so long that they truly believe that taxes, the law, common sense and even human decency are no obstacles for them when promoting their sick beliefs.

    Most of the problems of the world are, and always have been, caused by religion. For example, Northern Ireland, the Middle East, and family planning clinic bombing in the USA. Then there were the crusades, the inquisition, and the dark ages. Get the idea?

    Humanity will never truly be free until the black yoke of religion is lifted by the clear light of truth and rational thinking.

  • http://www.facebook.com/YHWHINRI Brad Elijah Eggers

    Sorry but it has long been known that BEFORE any Christians stepped foot in Africa that the leading powers of each Chief tribe within each clan hunted witches because they believed they posed a threat to the Chief and his dominion. Christianity has nothing to do with the hunting of witches in Africa, they may have encouraged it further, but this had been going on historically pre-Christianity.

    Sorry to bust your bubble (And I am in no way defending Christianity, it's dogma, theology, or any of the such, I am Jewish, but I am also a historian, who records proper history)

    • Jason Pitzl-Waters

      "I am also a historian, who records proper history"

      Do tell!

      Also, if you can't acknowledge the role evangelical missionaries have played in the modern witch-hunting crisis, something even evangelical Christian scholars are now starting to do, then I'm not sure what to tell you.

      Is your specialty in Africa? In the evangelism of Africa? Colonialism? What's the topic of your thesis? Being a "historian" doesn't make you an expert on this subject.

    • Jason Pitzl-Waters

      Also, REAL "proper" historians cite their sources. So cough 'em up!