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In Witchbound Africa


Witchcraft Emerges from Worldview

Rasmussen and Rasmussen tell us that witchcraft arises in societies in which causation is seen to be relational (2015:15). Witchcraft then is not a vestigial organ that can be excised. It seems to be an integral part of what I once called a ‘magical worldview’ (Harries 2000). Countering witchcraft, then, can be done at world-view level. The bible challenges the ‘magical worldview’ through its reference to the sovereignty of God. That is the message that missionaries should be sharing. They should be sharing it in word, and in deed; they should avoid accusing witches, and should remain faithful to God when themselves accused.


Witchcraft forces are NOT ‘supernatural’

Many of the authors in IBMR (39(1)) seem to assume that witchcraft forces are ‘supernatural’.[12] The very term supernatural implies that there is a ‘natural order’ and then another order that is ‘super-to’ i.e. above the natural, i.e. the term is inherently dualistic. I have shown elsewhere that much of Africa is monistic.[13] To consider witchcraft powers to be supernatural can be grossly misleading. Let us take a classic witchcraft practice of stabbing an image of a person with a knife; a practice which is thought will kill that person. Such a practice is only effective if either the person concerned knows (or is impacted upon by those who know) that the image has been stabbed, or knows that it is likely that an image of him has been stabbed (i.e. is aware that a witchcraft attack on him could be being carried out). The notion that there are ‘supernatural powers’ in African witchcraft can be a construction of poorly thought out translation of witchcraft discourse into Western worldviews.



The kind of writing engaged by our IBMR authors could, unfortunately, be interpreted as ‘racist’. They are after all accusing non-Western people of practicing witchcraft. This is where the global use of English is very problematic: Yes, Western missionaries need to be alerted to what they will find in Africa. On the other hand, it is probably wrong to accuse Africans of doing that which the West calls ‘witchcraft’. This issue of accusing people of being ‘racist’ goes much broader than our particular concern with witchcraft here. I have addressed it in more detail elsewhere (Harries 2011a).


Reflecting on ‘Holistic Mission’

Protestant mission activity has in recent decades, especially since Lausanne 1974, widely advocated ‘holistic’ or ‘integral’ mission. I have critiqued this in more detail elsewhere.[14] I take advocating this kind of mission to have arisen from translation-error. While scholars such as Padilla have a point, the English they use ignores, I suggest, swathes of the modern Western worldview that has been guiding Western mission. Christian mission activities by the West have been an essentially ‘spiritual’ venture by a decreasingly ‘spiritual’ society. Obliging Western missionaries to engage material generosity alongside their Gospel preaching under the label of ‘holistic mission’ is in practice to have them draw on Western dualism.

Some people from the majority world, such as Padilla, have been enthusiastic promoters of holistic mission (Padilla 2005). Unfortunately, missionaries with resources become victims to jealousy, and provoke outbreaks of jealousy against those they ‘help’. That is; resources brought onto the scene by ‘holistic mission’ can themselves aggravate witchcraft-tensions. I am not saying that NO Western missionaries should introduce outside resources, but that some Western missionaries should be allowed to NOT provoke such jealousy; that they should minister in a Biblical way, i.e. other than on the back of superior resources. (Biblical prophets and preachers such as Jeremiah, John the Baptist, Jesus, Paul, Peter, did not back their ministry with generous gifts from far-away to their potential converts. It should be clear that, as far as local people in Africa are concerned, missionaries who do not bring resources can be seen as being in an ‘inferior’ category.) Padilla, and others in the majority world, coming from a monistic viewpoint are sometimes apparently angered by the high levels of consumption of Western missionaries, who then refuse to share (Padilla 2005:15). Certainly in Africa, where envy powers witchcraft (Harries 2012), such sentiments can be considered under the category of witchcraft. Whether Western missionaries or which Western missionaries can survive such onslaughts is a very pertinent question. The practice of vulnerable mission would help to alleviate the intensity of such feelings of envy. (See ‘avoiding the flak’ above!) On the other hand, in a contemporary context in which material generosity of foreign missionaries is expected, one who does not so provide can be suspect.


Vulnerable Mission as the Way Forward

Contemporary Africa is changing. There are many established institutions in Africa that were not there 100 or more years ago. Today’s missionaries frequently meet communities who have heard the Gospel, are familiar with their language, even are using computers and surfing the internet. Today’s missionary to Africa is not, typically, meeting unreached tribes in the jungle. He is trying to engage a complex history of which his own forefathers (i.e. previous generations of Westerners) have become an integral part.

At the same time, it has been my experience in Kenya, that a combination of pressure from home to be ‘heroic’ as a missionary, plus a tendency for missionaries to be identified with money and local people’s need for that money, puts missionaries under pressure to be in charge, to lead, and to be powerful. Missionaries’ reports to their donors and potential donors frequently necessarily include accounts of how vital their role is to be in the poor community they are entering. This kind of power-play can be unhelpful.

Because institutions missionaries meet on the field, be they churches, businesses, schools, hospitals etc., are often poorly run, inept and corrupt on Western standards, missionaries easily pick up roles of correcting and ‘saving’ such institutions. How long such a process will continue, is rarely considered; is Africa for-ever going to be operated from the West (Bronkema seems to suggest that this is the way we are heading (2015))? Sometimes the only other option Western missionaries seem to see to being in charge and ‘saving’ African people from apparently self-inflicted moral and physical demise, is leaving the field. Sticking around while seeing what is happening is too much to cope with. Short-termers take the place of long-termers as a result. (Of course leaving the field does not resolve the issues, it only puts them further out of sight.)

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Category: In Depth, Spring 2016

About the Author: Jim Harries, PhD (University of Birmingham), is is professor of religion with Global University and adjunct faculty with William Carey International University. He works closely with a wide variety of churches in western Kenya in informal theological education. These include many African founded churches, Pentecostal churches, and the Coptic Orthodox church. Jim uses indigenous languages, and local resources in his ministry. He chairs the Alliance for Vulnerable Mission and is the author of Vulnerable Mission: Insights into Christian Mission to Africa from a Position of Vulnerability (William Carey Library, 2011), Three Days in the Life of an African Christian Villager (New Generation Publishing, 2011), Theory to Practice in Vulnerable Mission: An Academic Appraisal (Wipf and Stock, 2012), Communication in Mission and Development: Relating to the Church in Africa (Wipf and Stock, 2013), Secularism and Africa: In the Light of the Intercultural Christ (Wipf and Stock, 2015), New Foundations for Appreciating Africa: Beyond Religious and Secular Deceptions (VKW, 2016), and a novel African Heartbeat: And A Vulnerable Fool (2018). Facebook: Vulnerable Mission. Twitter: @A4VM.

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