When The Pneuma Review asked seasoned missionary Jim Harries to explain what “vulnerable mission” is, he wrote an article showing us how one aspect of understanding the host culture can change everything for a foreign missionary.
Can there be appropriate deliverance ministry in Africa? The viability of deliverance ministry in sub-Saharan Africa is a vexing question that this article seeks to examine. We must consider not only biblical study and spiritual awareness but also the context where ministry is to take place if we hope to design an appropriate practice. Are there any signposts for those of us who are concerned about practices of Christian deliverance from malevolent spirits?
An African Context
The small rural theological college in Zimbabwe had a new Principal from the USA. The new Principal noticed some tensions. He decided to investigate them. It seemed appropriate to give all campus members opportunity to tell him how they felt about things. So he and the deputy Principal invited them in small groups to meet with them in afternoons over a cup of tea.
This process turned out differently than anticipated. The Principal had expected to find a few areas of difficulty, and that they could be ironed out. Instead, mistrust and suspicion seemed to be everywhere. Teachers were plotting against students. The previous Principal was a tyrant. Students were in opposing factions. Grounds-crew were accused of theft and subversion. The senior administration was presented as if they were adulterers who were busy diverting school money into their own pockets.
Deeply perturbed, the new Principal felt like a friendly soldier walking through an enemy camp. Where was God in all this? People seemed to be at each other’s throats. It took him a while to realise—this was a context dominated by a perception of witchcraft. Yes, people need each other, so they are together. But this may be far from trusting each other. This was far from what he had known in America. There the ideal was people working in carefully thought out ways for the common good. In Africa people were reasoning in a way just as complex to protect themselves from the bad spiritual forces emanating from the very colleagues they also needed the most. Before realising what was going on, the new Principal had already supported what were seen to be attacks—attacks on various parties who were, in American terms, totally innocent but who were caught up in the ‘witch-hunt’.
In my own experience, 16 years of running a Bible teaching programme in rural Africa, similar difficulties arise in settings where people are supposed to be trained for Christian ministry. An initial flash of enthusiasm for something new is unlikely to last; suspicions soon set in. Someone seems to be making money unjustly; others become wary lest they not get their rightful share. People are getting tired and are less enthusiastic; they need an excuse to get out of commitments that they made initially. Someone is blamed for something and the teaching programme declines, then grinds to a halt.
The widespread belief in witchcraft drives a culture of fear; a culture where one wants to appear poor to avoid the witchcraft of the jealous. If you have the time, why not do more to loosen the grip of poverty on your family? Suspicions and whispered accusations that many Westerners would call superstition are rife throughout the culture.