Thursday, October 22, 2009

We Can't Ever Go Back To Salem

Having mused yesterday about the peculiar goings on at the Bethel School for Supernatural Ministry, I stumbled across this agonizing article from today's LA Times. The article recounts the more dangerous side of the charismatic Christian obsession with the supernatural, as putative Christians in West Africa root out "child-witches" from among them. The kids are beaten and driven from their homes...or just killed.

This isn't just the hand-wringing of West Coast Leftists about those Kwazy Kwistians. This sort of madness is painfully real. I met one such "witch" years ago at an orphanage in Nigeria. She'd been driven from her village because she'd purportedly caused the deaths of several people. She was a frail little thing, and would have made an easy scapegoat.

As the ties between charismatics in the West and African Christianity grow stronger, most evangelicals are excited by the tremendous growth of Christianity in Africa. We have something to learn from our African brothers and sisters, they say. If only we had the tiniest fragment of their enthusiasm and passion for the faith, they say.

That is, on many levels, true. I find much to admire in African Christianity, particularly as it has cast off it's colonially imposed form and become more authentically part of African culture. On the other hand, there are elements to both traditional and contemporary African society that can put an unpleasant spin on Christian faith.

One of the more notable obsessions of African charismatics and conservative denominational types alike is witchcraft and demonic powers. This is, in large part, reflective of a culture that did not experience scientific enlightenment internally, but had it aggressively imposed through colonial domination. With a significant portion of the population still minimally educated and focused on sustenance agriculture or hardscrabble urban life, the old memes of spirits and possession are still powerful and compelling. There are plenty of African Christians who are not obsessed with the occult...but for far too many, it's a defining issue.

The African evangelist who "blessed" Sarah Palin with protection against all forms of witchcraft is one famous example. Rev. David Githii, the former moderator of the Presbyterian Church in East Africa, is another. He's been the darling of the ultraconservatives in my own denomination, and is well known in Kenya for his relentless attacks on witches, Satanism, and the perils of Freemasonry. Plenty of Kenyan Christians think he's more than a little bit nuts...but his bellowing, self-righteous stridency makes him rather popular among conservatives here.

As African Christianity becomes a more and more dominant voice in our global fellowship, the reintroduction of this false and poisonous meme into Christian fellowship needs to be resisted. The challenge is, I'm not sure evangelical and charismatic Christianity can do it. There are far too many American Christians who've been raised to embrace concepts like spiritual warfare, possession, and the influence of magic and demons.

We really can't go back to Salem.