Got to pick up every stitch

Got to pick up every stitch October 15, 2023

(What happened was the boss went on vacation, so for the past couple of weeks I was the boss, working boss hours and doing boss tasks while also still getting all the stuff I usually do done. And so I’ve been bone weary and brain-tired and now I’ve got a few dozen open tabs and a few dozen more bookmarks to plow through here.)

News outlets like to lean into the spooky season by seeking out stories that have some roughly Halloween-related angle. But these stories involving witches and witchcraft were published because they’re breaking news, not because of their vaguely October-ish connection.

It’s 2023 and witch-sniffers, witch-hunters, and witch-burners are still making news.

Seychelles opposition leader Patrick Herminie charged with witchcraft.”

Mr. Herminie and his co-accused face several charges, including possession of items intended for use in witchcraft, conspiracy to perform witchcraft and procuring services related to witchcraft, according to local media reports.

Prosecutors allege that the opposition leader’s name appeared in a WhatsApp message between a Seychellois national and the Tanzanian suspect, who was arrested on 21 September at the main international airport.

The Tanzanian was found with items related to witchcraft, including stones, black wooden artifacts, small bottles of brownish liquid, a collection of powders, and documents with strange language and “demonic and satanic” symbols, they said.

I know very little about the Seychelles and absolutely nothing about Seychellois politics. (Before reading that article, I’d have probably said “Seychellean” instead of Seychellois.) I have no idea what policies and ideologies are supported by Herminie and his opposition party or what policies and ideologies are supported by the current government.

But I do know this, having your political opponents arrested on charges of “witchcraft” makes you either: A) an authoritarian wanna-be dictator; B) a Very Silly Person who believes every urban legend, false accusation, and transparent lie you’re told; or C) both of those things.

That’s why I see this story as a more positive one: “Ghana’s Politicians and Christian Leaders Seek to Ban Witchcraft Accusations.”

This year, the Parliament of Ghana unanimously passed a bill criminalizing all witchcraft accusations. The legislation threatens accusers with five years in prison and declares that the accuser must also financially compensate the person he or she accused (including for legal fees and counseling).

The bill was introduced by parliamentarian Francis Xavier Sosu, who grew up seeing people—who he often believed were just struggling with mental illness—accused of witchcraft, beaten up, and attacked. …

In 2010, five men, including an evangelical pastor, set an old woman accused of witchcraft on fire. Despite widespread condemnation from those outside the country and the Ghanian government, the country returned to “business as usual,” said John Azumah, founding executive director of The Sanneh Institute, an organization that studies religion in Africa.

In July 2020, a similar death occurred through lynching. In response, the Ghana Pentecostal and Charismatic Council (GPCC) called for new laws about how to better take care of the more than 2,000 widows who had been exiled over allegations of working with demons.

I don’t know whether the GPCC is recognized by and able to speak for all of Ghana’s Pentecostal and charismatic churches, but even the possibility of such a council seems better than the market-driven pseudo-ecclesiology that we have here in American as the leadership of our Pentecostal and charismatic churches.

Here in America, accusing innocent women of witchcraft, or of consorting with demons, or of having a “Jezebel spirit” aren’t anything that Pentecostal and charismatic leaders would seek to ban. Those accusations are the core of the “spiritual warfare” claims those leaders use to generate the clicks, views, and — above all — donations that form the basis of their spiritual authority.

Thus, for example, when Pastor Greg Locke announces that “We will once again be burning all things related to witchcraft and the occult” in a Halloween service at his Tennessee church, this stunt will only serve to increase his “spiritual” prominence within the circus-like realm of Strang World Christianity.

And, of course, this isn’t only true of the wild fringes of Pentecostalism and nondenominational charismatic Christianity. It’s also true of mainstream white evangelicalism in its most staid, “respectable,” and institutional forms.

Yes, it’s encouraging to see this article published by Christianity Today and difficult to imagine such a thing being published by Charisma. But if any respectable white evangelical figure were to challenge the false accusation that all American women are potential baby-killers prone to being seduced by Satan, that person would very quickly find himself out of a job. He would be denounced as a liberal squish and an apostate who had abandoned what is now the central doctrinal tenet and essential matter of discipleship for every evangelical Christian.

The fiercely policed mandatory support for this ludicrous false accusation is less inflammatory than the showmanship of hucksters like Locke. He speaks of “witchcraft and the occult.” They speak of “defending the sanctity of life [from the threat posed by women]” or of “protecting the unborn [from women].” But they’re both aflame with the same fire that killed poor Ama Ahima in that Ghanaian village in 2010.

Another recent story about witches and witchcraft comes much closer to home — about two hours from here on the PA turnpike: “Police warn witchcraft shop in rural Pa. that tarot is illegal.”

The Serpent’s Key Shoppe & Sanctuary seemed like the perfect local small business for Hanover, Pennsylvania’s local chamber of commerce to highlight in its October newsletter, but they didn’t expect their puff piece to prompt an official visit to the shop from the police chief. The chief showed up to warn Beck Lawrence, the shop’s 26-year-old owner and proprietor, that she may be in violation of state laws banning “fortune-telling.”

Lawrence didn’t expect that visit either, since they have multiple disclaimers posted noting that the tarot-readings they offer are “for entertainment purposes only.” But, as Lawrence said to the local news station, “I certainly don’t have all the answers. If I did, I would have seen the police coming to my shop, in my crystal ball or whatever.”

The fortune-telling statute dates back to the 1800s, but even then it wasn’t prompted by superstitious fears of witches as much as by a genuine concern about con artists and predatory fraudsters taking advantage of the vulnerable. My native state of New Jersey has a similar law that might also tempt overzealous police — as in when the cops finally busted Madame Marie for telling fortunes better than they do. (The legend is exaggerated — Marie Castello was never actually arrested.)

I don’t “believe” in fortune-tellers or psychics, but I do believe that the successful ones are good story-tellers, and I don’t have any problem with good story-tellers getting paid for their services.

This local story connects to those stories from the Seychelles and Ghana in that they all involve the intersection of law and “superstition.” Each of these stories shows that it’s a Good Thing to have laws that prevent people from being harmed — physically or financially — because of superstitious beliefs. But each also shows that it’s a dangerous, Bad Thing to create laws banning “superstition” — because that category is too subjective and elastic for such laws to ever be anything other than a pretext for harassment and/or outright persecution.

Anyway, things ultimately worked out well for Lawrence and the Serpent’s Key. After that unsettling visit from the police, Lawrence told the story on TikTok, where it went viral, resulting in more new business and support than they gained from the local chamber’s puff piece.

(The title for this post comes from Donovan, covered here by Hole.)

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