Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Child Witches, Evangelical Missionaries and African Traditional Religions

Sorry, Apuleius,
but you're no King Chuck.

On Wild Hunt, Apuleius Platonicus and I had a discussion about the relationship between American missionaries and the epidemic of "witch killings" in Africa.  AP, who has a rather intense hate-hate relationship with all things Christian, is convinced that this is all part of some Evangelical plot. (He also claimed that I called him "King of the Butthurt Pagans." If I did, I sincerely apologize. While Apuleius is certainly capable of huffy whining, he's got a long way to go before he claims that crown from Charlton "Chuck" Hall). And AP and I even agree on things every other blue moon or so: we recently came to a consensus that readily available birth control and sex education are the safest and most effective ways to prevent abortion and that A.C. Fisher Aldag, who thinks otherwise, is a reactionary wingnut.

In this case, though, we are of differing opinions. I believe the "Revivalist" churches which are behind much of this panic are inspired as much by traditional African beliefs as by Pentecostal Christianity and are as "Fundamentalist Christian" as Haitian Vodou is Roman Catholic.  What we are dealing with here, in my not entirely uninformed opinion, is an organic crisis which has roots in Africa and which is practiced by churches and groups that are at some remove from American missionaries.  The Revivalists are practicing something that is a gumbo of traditional practices and ideas combined with a veneer of Pentecostal Christianity.  (Yes, I know they "renounce and condemn" traditional practices. Lots of American Pagans loudly renounce and condemn Christianity while maintaining an essentially Christian moral code and metaphysics with a minor change of imagery and names).

AP suggested that the UNICEF report on Children Accused of Witchcraft in Africa supported his contention that this epidemic had been fueled, funded and encouraged by American missionaries.  Upon reading the PDF in question (which is an excellent summary of the problem), I noted these passages:

Vulnerable children accused of an act of witchcraft can be divided into three categories. The first category, which includes thousands of children, refers to the urban phenomenon of “child witches”. These children are typically orphans who have lost one or both natural parents; children with a physical disability (or any physical abnormality, including a large head, swollen belly, red eyes, etc.); those with a physical illness (epilepsy, tuberculosis, etc.) or disability (autism, Down Syndrome, etc., or even those who stutter); or especially gifted children. Children showing any unusual behaviour, for example children who are stubborn, aggressive, thoughtful, withdrawn or lazy, also make up this category.
The second category covers children whose birth is considered abnormal, such as the “bad birth” children from the Bight of Benin region. These children may be premature (in the eighth month), or presentation may be in any variety of breech positions, or in the posterior, face‐up position during delivery. Also included are twins, who are sometimes associated with the occult, their birth symbolizing the evil or anger of the gods.
The third and final category concerns children with albinism who are killed because of the magic powers supposedly contained in parts of their bodies, including their organs, hair, skin and limbs.
I was not aware that American missionaries preached against the evil of disabled children, twins, or albinos.  I am, however, aware that in many African cultures all these things are seen as signs that the child might be touched by evil or have a special contact with the "second world" - the invisible reality which lies contemporaneously with our own and which can have a (typically detrimental) effect on those living in this world.

American Pentecostal and Evangelical churches don't teach that albinos are inherently evil, that Down Syndrome is a sign of Satanic possession, or that one should throw pepper in a child's eyes, make the child drink noxious substances or play drums for hours on end while engaging in rites designed to "exorcise" the witch-spirit from the "second world" from the child. I am also noting that the "Revivialist" Churches which are most strongly connected with these "exorcisms" are in fact African with roots in Africa and generally have only tenuous connections to Evangelical and Pentecostal missionaries, if they have any at all. What we see here is more akin to the Lord's Resistance Army than to Pentecostal Christianity: it's a horrible cultural misunderstanding fueled by poverty and by social upheaval, not a Christian plot.

Desiree Arceneaux noted:
 For the most part, fundamentalist Christian churches moderate their behavior in the West because they know they can only get away with so much. That's why organizations like James Dobson's "Focus on the Family" would never dare call for death camps for LGBT people in America, but in Uganda they explicitly sponsor laws that make being LGBT a capital crime.
So no, the lack of comparable action in the West is in no way proof that these churches aren't substantially responsible for the situation in Africa. We know for a fact that missionaries whom they sponsor and local churches which they collaborate with are the principal actors in actively encouraging violence against LGBT people and against pagans. That makes them responsible.

I don't think the Fundamentalist and Evangelical churches are without sin in their dealings with Africa.  Desiree has hit upon a situation wherein American missionaries have actually gone out of their way to advocate murder and intolerance against an "other" who is demonized in many African cultures.  The role of American Evangelical and Fundamentalist pastors and churches in stirring up anti-gay hatred in Uganda and elsewhere in Africa is shameful and deserves to be shouted from the rooftops.  (In the case of fundamentalist and loudly anti-gay minister Scott Lively, it looks like a Ugandan gay rights group is taking him to court in an effort to hold him accountable.  It's a pity he hasn't yet been dragged before an international court and be charged with inciting violence and genocide like some of the major instigators of the Hutu-Tutsi conflict in Rwanda and Burundi).

And there is no question that missionaries have encouraged and continue to encourage converts to destroy their "idols" - which are often irreplaceable art objects that have been venerated for centuries and constitute a valuable cultural heritage.  They have definitely egged on violence against traditional priests and practitioners, and should be held accountable for that as well. But for the most part this has been aimed at leaders within African traditional religions, not street children. Frankly, in many parts of the world evangelical missionaries are the only reason why a lot of those street children aren't starving to death.  You may disagree with their theology and their methods: I certainly do. But I don't see too many of the Pagans whimpering about Ye Burning Times doing much to feed orphans or protect the cultures they seem so concerned about.  Other than using them as a convenient photo opportunity and a stick with which to beat the Eeeevil Christians, they seem singularly disinterested in actually contributing to their physical well-being.