Did Missionaries Trigger the Witch-Hunts?

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?