Pantheisticon: Sometimes, It’s Not About Us

Blacko by Immanuel Giel. Public domain. Via Wikimedia Commons.A few weeks ago the good folks over at Witchvox posted an article on their Facebook page from the UK Independent entitled “Police to be given specialist training to help child victims of ‘witchcraft’ beliefs.” Later in the day, the Covenant of the Goddess posted the article on their page as well. The reader reactions to the headline were swift, and many were sadly predictable:

WTF??…whats next? Witch trials? We need to Band together. it’s all really starting to spread like a plague now….They have no excuse accusing anyone of anything…But child abuse is no practise in witchcraft. I love children, animals and the nature…Those who claim that harm children are posers! they are not us!…why are we being lumped in with people who perform genital mutilation?!?…What these police officers need is proper training on what WITCHCRAFT really is and when people use it as a term to scapegoat themselves with a “religion” so that they can perform heinous acts!…Persecution by the Christians all over again, they are the worst on their children! Look at the catholic priest!

What’s so bad about a bunch of Pagans expressing outrage at yet another example of Christian persecution? Nothing, of course, when that’s what’s actually going on. In this case, however, the article in question had nothing to do with us whatsoever. The fact that the word “witchcraft” in the news headline was in quotation marks should have served as a useful hint that this was about something else entirely, but barring that, one could have actually read the article to understand the context:

He was speaking following the conviction last month of a woman and her boyfriend who beat 15 year-old Kristy Bamu to death because they believed he was a witch. Fuelled by their belief in kindoki, a Congolese term for sorcery, Eric Bikubi and Magalie Bamu horrifically tortured the teenager and his siblings over four days before finally drowning Kristy in a bath. The case shone an uncomfortable spotlight on the prevalence of belief in sorcery within some immigrant communities and whether the authorities were doing enough to tackle such abuses. Senior officers openly admit that the crime is underreported and are trying to examine ways to encourage more victims to come forward.”

Thankfully, not all of the Facebook comments were knee-jerk reactions. Several readers pointed out the difficulty of translating relevant terminology from indigenous African practices into English. An article on the subject over at Religious Tolerance notes that “‘Witchcraft’ is a term with over a dozen different meanings, some mutually exclusive. Definitions range from evil sorcery to Wicca, a benign, earth centered religion.” Words from other parts of the world having to do with possession by evil spirits and works of malevolent magic are usually translated into English as “witchcraft” simply because that is the closest term we have; those of us who practice Western/Pagan forms of witchcraft may find this irritating, but we don’t have a monopoly on the term’s use. While we can and should insist that “witchcraft” and related words be clarified when necessary to distinguish our own rites and beliefs from the non-existent malevolent acts that these children are being superstitiously accused of, there was nothing in the Independent article (or in many others like it) to even hint that the authorities in question considered our communities the slightest bit relevant where these cases are concerned.

A complicating factor here is that surviving medieval Christian beliefs regarding demon possession and the like can overlap quite a bit with similar indigenous beliefs in Africa and elsewhere. A recent UN report explains that:

“In many countries witchcraft accusations are exploited by revivalist, charismatic or Pentecostal churches. Their pastor‐prophets fight against witchcraft in the name of God, identifying witches through visions and dreams, and then offering treatment – divine healing and exorcism – to the supposed witches. This ‘spiritual’ work, often of a violent nature, reinforces beliefs in witchcraft and increases accusations…The persecution of witches has become a lucrative ‘business’ for many pastor‐prophets. The actions of the pastor‐prophets ‘complement’ those of traditional healers who also fight against the malevolent forces of witchcraft by detecting supposed witches.”

Christianity has long demonized indigenous religions (literally) as “witchcraft,” and all too often, we find that modern Christian evangelical churches are the ones whipping these communities into a frenzy over the harm supposedly done to them by the “witches” in their midst. Ancient beliefs in malevolent magic are all too easily exploited and re-interpreted by these churches as works of the Devil, who must be forcefully driven out of the people he has possessed (for an American example, see Bob Larson’s most recent fifteen minutes of fame for passing such idiocy on to his own daughters). The Independent article suggests that “rogue pastors” from “unregistered churches” may be a driving force behind these acts of child abuse and murder in these immigrant communities in the UK. An article from Sky News gives further helpful background:

“It is quite routine for children in some African countries to be accused of being witches and the phenomenon is particularly strong in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). It is illegal to accuse children of witchcraft in DRC but revivalist churches preaching the benefits of child exorcism have gained greater influence in the past decade. In Kinshasa, local charities say high unemployment and unaffordable healthcare is driving more people to rely on these fringe churches for guidance and support.”

Sound familiar? Widespread poverty+ cultural upheaval + local superstitions + encouragement of violent behavior from church authorities = scapegoating and witch hunts, generally targeted at women and children.

It’s one thing for members of a religious/spiritual community to choose to refer to themselves as witches for their own cultural reasons; it is quite another for a child, in an entirely different cultural context, to be accused of something translated into our language as “witchcraft” and to be persecuted, abused, and even killed for that “crime.” These children are no more true “witches”–in the sense that modern Pagans use the word–than were the tens of thousands of victims tortured and killed during the European Burning Times. Authorities working to prevent and punish these horrific crimes today deserve our wholehearted help and support, with the underlying understanding that this is not another “satanic panic” and not about going after practitioners of tribal or diasporic religions simply because they are strange or different. The people attacking and murdering these children, in whatever country, are the criminals and witch hunters here, not the authorities who are trying to stop them.

About Nicole Youngman

Nicole Youngman is a sociology professor living in Uptown New Orleans with her son, hubby, and pair of cats. An active member of the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids, she has been practicing Paganism for over two decades and is particularly interested in bioregionalism, ecofeminism, and urban environmental issues.

  • Peter Beckley

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for pointing out that many times when referring to ‘witchcraft’ these articles aren’t talking about anything related to what people in the US or UK are familiar with.

  • Gavin Andrew

    I agree with your main points, Nicole.

    However, it is worth pointing out the recent (cancelled) visit by Nigerian witch-hunter Helen Ukpabio. Evangelical churches in the U.S. and other Western countries fund the witch-hysteria currently unfolding in central Africa. It is a great pity that this is not scrutinized more closely.

    The narrative of Spiritual Warfare that underpins such behavior is alive and well within Christianity. The ‘Satanic Panic’ may have been debunked in the West, but the churches that promoted it have simply shifted their operations to a new battlefield. That is all that has changed.

  • Michael York

    Thanks for that, Nicole. It is a difficult one because all children deserve respect and protection and yet different religious orientations do things differently that are often intolerable for the rest of us. There can be no easy solution, but spelling the situation out as you have is one important part of encouraging a more open understanding of a complex situation and problem. We accept enchantment as a valid operative – both those profiting through taking advantage of the vulnerable and those of us who cherish the magical as a potential holy and positive force. Although a slow process during which many an innocent will suffer before a true maturity can be achieved, we need to make as clear as we can the determinative factor of the ethical in whatever joy there is with the miraculous.

  • Aeona9

    What they are forgetting is the victims are alleged to be witches! It’s not witches hurting people but rather someone in a paranoid and disillusional state thinking the child is a witch and attacking them.

    • Triandafylla

      Yes, but that’s not to say that there are not also people in those countries who do practice malefic magic. Just because that’s not what witchcraft is about in this country these days, it doesn’t mean everywhere else in the world thinks the same. And you have only to look at some of the older exhibits in the Boscastle Witchcraft Museum to see that malefic magic has in the past been practiced in this country too.

      • Jody Mena

         There may well be witches and bokors practicing left-hand magic all over, but that doesn’t justify torture or murder.  Even societies that practice capital punishment don’t generally do so without some kind of trial; even societies in which it is acceptable for witchcraft to be punishable by death, a person should be allowed a fair hearing.  The trouble for witch hunters is that a fair hearing would most often end in an acquittal, and that is not what they are after – they don’t want justice, they want to hurt someone so that they can build an illusion of power and safety by destroying what they fear.  Execution by a lynch mob is not justice, it is a violent act of cruelty and vengeance, and usually driven by fear-fueled mass hysteria, and perpetrated against an innocent scapegoat (who often conveniently happens to be an individual who is weaker or less able to defend themselves, such as children, the poor, the elderly, etc).

  • Eli

    I’m a bit saddened by this quote from the article: “The case shone an uncomfortable spotlight on the prevalence of belief in sorcery within some immigrant communities and whether the authorities were doing enough to tackle such abuses.”

    While many in the Pagan community worry about witch hunts, the more pressing concern seems to be about the prevailing attitude in the “advanced” world that belief in sorcery and witchcraft is a primitive habit, possessed only by unassimilated immigrants, and embarrassing for rational people to even contemplate. Of course we must protect children and others suffering at the hands of witch hunters, but ER must find a way to do it besides “helping” these “poor, unenlightened” immigrants see the “error” of their beliefs.

  • David

    I’m glad you posted this, and, sadly, it seems some Pagans (especially American Pagans) seem to be prone to seeing every negative statement that’s said about Paganism or Witchcraft, as a precursor to the “burning times”.  

    As you pointed out, Witchcraft in Africa is very, very different to what people, especially modern Pagans, consider Witchcraft to be.  While some people like to paint militant Pentecostal Churches as being responsible for the “witch hunts” in Africa, they’re not solely responsible, although, they have played their part.  Indigenous African beliefs about spirits, magic, curses, demons, witches, mixed with extreme militant versions of Pentecostalism  to create what you read about now. 

    People also seem to forget that Witchcraft has never ever been seen as “benign”, in ancient Rome, they had horrific witch burnings, and, I’ve read that the ancient Norse used to engage in “games” of hunting witches (real or alleged).  For some modern “witches”,  I’m sure they’ll blissfully ignore that, or just write it off as “Christian propaganda”, but, personally, as someone who identifies as a Witch, I have no problem with the real history of Witchcraft.

    I also loved how one of those commentators tried to make Christians out to be the “worst child abusers”, by bringing up  the image of a pedophile Catholic Priest (I guess, that poster is just in willful ignorance that pedophile Priests represent a tiny percentage of all Priests, and that a child is more likely to be sexually abused by a teacher or a relative).  I love how the commentator fights bigotry with bigotry, hatred with hatred.  

  • Jody Mena

    While these are excellent points, it is also true that accusations of witchcraft, even against non-witches, are a problem for all witches, because they indicate society’s view and value of witchcraft in general.  It indicates the continuing social attitude that witchcraft is an evil and a crime, something to be ashamed of, offended by, punished and eradicated – often through torture, alienation or murder.  Yes, there is a massive difference between self-proclaimed witches and accused witches; but I sincerely doubt that the proverbial angry mob would worry about the distinction while they grab their torches and pitchforks.  So yes, a lot of people do tend to leap head first into their persecution complex at the drop of a hat, however its also true that situations of attacks against accused ‘witches’ do involve us at least indirectly, because it really isn’t all about us – it is also about the views the accusers, especially those who see witchcraft, real or imagined, as a perfectly justified excuse for torture and murder.

  • LezlieKinyon

    We can blame the 19-early 20th century anthropologists & ethnographers  for spreading the words “witch” and “witchcraft” around to describe magico-religious belief systems where it never really fits.  They were an arrogant lot throwing everything from huna to voudoun to spiritualism into the same pot as “belief in witchcraft”.

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