Two Kinds of Witchcraft? Resisting Cynicism, False Dilemmas, and Moral Panics.

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For several years I’ve been asking the question of what do we do when the men and women accused of “sorcery” and “witchcraft” are no longer “over there” in Africa or the Middle East, and are instead at our doorsteps.

“If this trend isn’t seriously addressed soon, we may find this madness turning its eye towards “safe” occultists and Pagans in places like America, the UK, Australia, Brazil, and Canada.”

Now, with the UK still reeling over the murder of Kristy Bamu, who died while being tortured under the auspices of an “exorcism” at his sister’s home, and British police being trained to spot cases of sorcery among immigrant communities, some Christian writers have seized on a largely constructed controversy over religious education in Cornwall to cynically launch attacks on modern Paganism. First out of the gate was  Catholic Telegraph columnist Christina Odone, whose anti-Pagan screed I recently highlighted on this blog.

“God, Gaia, whatever: school children are already as familiar with the solstice as with the sacraments. In pockets of Cornwall, children will point out a nun in her habit: “Look, a Druid!” Their parents will merely shrug — one set of belief is as good as another. How long before the end of term is marked by a Black Mass, with only Health and Safety preventing a human sacrifice?

To Odone’s credit, she doesn’t explicitly conflate the recent sorcery and exorcism-related deaths and attacks with modern Paganism, though she does bemoan liberals “who spy covert imperialism or racism in every moral judgment.” It took Beliefnet Senior Editor Rob Kerby’s insulting and sloppy article to do that. Interweaving Odone’s opinion piece with recent stories on witch-hunting and killings in the developing world, Kerby joins the imaginary dots.

“In 2005, Sita Kisanga was found guilty of torturing an eight-year-old in London, believing the girl to have kindoki. She told the court that, “Kindoki is something you have to be scared of because in our culture kindoki can kill and destroy your life completely.” But officials in Cornwall, England, say there’s nothing to fear. […] It seems that the politically correct Cornwall Council regards Christianity as no better than any other superstition.”

Beliefnet’s sole Pagan blogger, Gus diZerega, has posted his own response to Kerby’s piece, hinting that his time at the religion portal may be coming to an end soon if nothing is done. But even if Kerby does ultimately walk back his statements, the connection has been made, and Catholic columnist Christopher Howse has decided to use it to hammer on Cornwall’s curriculum.

Christopher Howse at Glastonbury.

Christopher Howse at Glastonbury.

“So it seems there are now two kinds of witchcraft: the bad kind that black people believe in, and the kind that should be celebrated because it is believed in by Cornish people.”

Howse seems to suggest that there should be no distinction, that all witchcraft is bad. However, he undermines this somewhat by shifting to a “Paganism and Wicca aren’t truly ancient so they shouldn’t be taken seriously” argument.

“What we do know is that there is no continuity between pre-Christian religions in Britain and the various branches of modern paganism. […] It [Wicca] was no more an ancient religion than Jedi.”

You can’t have it both ways, really. Either all forms of witchcraft and sorcery are indistinguishable, or they aren’t. If you acknowledge that Wicca is something other than the  phenomenon that led to Kristy Bamu’s death, you create cracks in the cynical false dilemma you’ve created to ratchet up the fear and misinformation. This misinformation not only harms modern Pagan religions, but African Traditional Religions as well, and obscures what may be the true culprit. According to groups like AFRUCA, the spread of anti-witchcraft and sorcery violence in the UK is centered in Pentecostal Churches, not indigenous, revived, or reconstructed pre-Christian belief systems.

Blood-spattered bathroom tiles at Magalie Bamu and Eric Bikubi's flat.

Blood-spattered bathroom tiles at Magalie Bamu and Eric Bikubi's flat.

“We were concerned about this before this trial of Kristy Bamu,” said Debbie Ariyo, executive director of Africans Unite Against Child Abuse (Afruca), who added that a boom in pentecostal churches was leading to more children being accused of witchcraft. “This is not a problem with all pastors or all churches, but the branding of children as witches is not abating. It is a growing problem. There are so many children suffering in silence.”

You see, what these concerned Catholics don’t want you to know is that this wave of violence is partially the fault of missionaries who inserted Christian triumphalism and a spiritual warfare dynamic into traditional beliefs about malefic magic. This created 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.”

Nothing seems to be the fault of Christianity, of course. Even though there are several high-profile Christian witch-hunters who make a name for themselves by casting out demons, and receive support from Western churches. Spiritual warfare is waged, perverting indigenous beliefs in the process, but the response isn’t to crack down on Christian churches, the response is to further demonize non-Christian traditions.

Writers like Kerby and Howse aren’t stupid, they know their assertions will have reverberations beyond the page or computer screen. But will they be willing to take responsibility if their words spark a new moral panic? One that engulfs anyone who is suspected of practicing “witchcraft?” Somehow I don’t think they’ll have the courage or stomach for it, and will instead find someone (or something) to scapegoat. Anyone but themselves.

The moment when “witch-hunts” over there come home to roost on our doorsteps is now. How Pagans react will be very important in how this issue plays out. We must resist at all costs the urge to fall into Howse’s trap and create a “two kinds of witchcraft” split on ethnic lines, and instead build a response that holds fear-mongering churches and writers responsible while creating new coalitions between Pagans and practitioners of African diasporic and traditional faiths. We must not let moral panics break out against adherents of Santeria, Palo, Vodou, or smaller groups, while we try to pretend there’s no connections or overlap between these traditions and modern Pagan faiths. The response to fear and growing hysteria is not to bury our heads, or isolate ourselves, but to show that we won’t sit quietly in the corner while our spiritual cousins are demonized, hoping they won’t turn their attention to us.

Among Pagans, the rallying cry used to be “Never Again the Burning Times,” calling to a distant, sometimes romanticized, past. Perhaps instead we should say “Never Again the Panics,” and use our very real experiences with the Satanic Panics of the 1980s and 90s as an instructional on how to fight these new attempts to “other” belief systems and groups most people don’t understand. The answer to exorcism-related violence and death isn’t to find a single scapegoat, but to instead ensure that education and enforcement are allowed to spread.