The changing face of witchcraft in Africa in light of Christianity

In an academic piece titled, “Culture, Christianity, and Witchcraft in a West African Context”, Todd M. Vanden Berg attempts to chronicle the real on-the-ground beliefs about evil magic in the largely Christian region of Longuda, Nigeria. Lutherans, Catholics, Baptists and Pentecostals all make a strong showing in the area. From the pulpit, witchcraft is largely dismissed as the work of the devil and that Christians have no need or reason to fear his power. Jesus has conquered him and his work. In fact, it’s taught (or at least implied) by the Christian leaders that most of what passes for witchcraft is nothing of the sort and blaming individuals for unexplained misfortune is destructive and needs to stop.

Nevertheless, the everyday man and women on the street still believes very much in the work of witches (both male and female) and their evil work is still considered a legitimate explanation for sudden sickness or tragedy.

We have heard theologians and anthropologists alike often say that as Western religious ideas take hold, then belief in magic will naturally fade away. This hasn’t really happened though, argues the author. Instead, old beliefs about witchcraft have not gone, but rather morphed and integrated themselves into the Christian framework. He explores several affects of this.

One of the key ideas that Christianity introduced is the idea of “the devil” or Satan, a somewhat abstract big, global bad guy who works against God in the spiritual world. Before, demons always were relatively small and their power highly localized. In fact, with the tribe in question, witches were only thought to have power over other blood-related members of the tribe. Foreigners from the next tribe were largely immune.

Now though, if demonic activity as afoot, it must be the devil’s fault – not necessarily the PERSON’S fault though he or she may still be the vessel. Where before, a witch was internally and intrinsically evil in and of themselves, now, they are under the influence of the devil (perhaps even unwittingly) and can be delivered from his hold. Before, you got rid of a witch by killing them or casting them out of the community. Now, they can be restored to society through prayer or exorcism or religious fervency on their part.

Completely tossing out the idea of evil spirits at work in the day-to-day has shown to be much too much for these folks to swallow in just one generation or two. But their beliefs have been shaped by Christian ideas of evil and though still not nearly orthodox enough for most western palates, has at least improved the situation for potential victims of accusations. The people still live in some fear though and that calls for more gospel, more Jesus.