by Carolyn Butler
When I commented that she was getting thin, Kristina smiled and looked away in embarrassment. Getting thin in this survival society is not unusual, but as the widow of one of our preachers, she gets a small pension plus medical benefits.
When I commented that she was getting thin, Kristina smiled and looked away in embarrassment. Getting thin in this survival society is not unusual, but as the widow of one of our preachers, she gets a small pension plus medical benefits. She works in our mission guest house, and thus is well paid by national standards. Because she is a good friend, I pressed the issue in spite of her obvious reluctance to talk about it. The explanation, after a long and complicated story, was that she had used her last three months’ salary, plus her entire Christmas bonus, to redeem a grandchild from a curse put on him by a witch doctor at the instigation of an angry relative.
Whether westerners accept it or not, most Africans have witnessed or have undeniable proof that there are human beings who channel metaphysical power. And there are spirits that can animate any object for evil purposes. Their world view readily accommodates itself to the reality of the transcendent and supersensible, the supernatural. They know that witch doctors and sorcerers can turn themselves into leopards or crocodiles. They know that others can call crocodiles, leopards, or snakes to do their bidding. My African co-workers have seen with their own eyes a cursed woolen scarf turn into a leopard and run away when they prayed over it. A preacher and his wife have seen a plant growing in a neighbor’s yard disappear every evening and return every morning, having been sent out to kill someone.
These gleanings on the challenges of sharing the message of grace in an animistic culture are simply discernments from my readings and observations, mostly resultant from my own sense of failure and frustration. But more recently, thankfully, have come insights into how to combat the forces of evil actively at work in this culture.
Such personal findings must be viewed in a specific setting, discerned within a definite culture. This information is set against a background of the Bantu culture of Zaire, against the backdrop of the ministry of African Christian Mission (ACM). The language is Swahili, the mindset is expatriate in a Third World culture. And the conclusions are hard earned.
My working premise is that 98 percent of the Zairian population lives with the assumption that such people and such metaphysical power exists. Some few live in a daily struggle of renunciation of these animistic powers. Some few actively seek to serve as channels for it. The rest of the population fits into the middle category, where compromise and anxious tension pull them first one way, then another. Among them, many have sought to utilize such power themselves, and almost all believe that such power has been or can be used against them, and therefore regularly use some sort of charm for personal protection against metaphysical powers.
My husband, Ron, and I have lived in Zaire for over 25 years, and for most of that time have been blissfully and deliberately ignorant of this belief system that governs every action and reaction of most of the Africans with whom we live and minister. Aware of this lack of insight on our part, the African Christians willingly complied with our unspoken but evident reluctance to know or understand their belief system—that which we call animism.
ANIMISM: WHAT WE ARE REALLY UP AGAINST
A typical book definition of animism says that the animist’s world view is spiritual rather than material. Both reality and destiny are controlled by spiritual forces. Animism is a human being’s attempt to control the present and determine his own destiny by the manipulation of spiritual forces. This manipulation requires the knowledge and use of rituals, charms, spells, rites, and sacrifices determined and prescribed by one who serves as an intermediary between the person and the metaphysical power source.
Charms and rituals are performed at birth and death, and virtually every other incident in between: sickness, marriage, planting, harvesting, traveling, buying, and selling. Charms are tied on a baby’s body at birth, rituals are performed when the placenta is buried, rituals accompany the naming of the child. There are charms and potions to prevent sickness in a child, danger for a traveler, the loss of a spouse’s love. Even athletes have charms, and teams have their own witch doctors. Government and political leaders, notably the president, have their private sorcerers and witch doctors on salary.
The charms, spells, and fetishes for manipulating the spirit world are obtained through people variously known as witch doctors, sorcerers, diviners, and medicine men. To illustrate the scope and variety of terms, I list the Swahili names that differentiate between these channels of power. A mulozi is one who employs curses and has the power to do either evil or good; a mufumu has some elementary spiritual power but operates mostly by deceiving and manipulating clients through psychology and fear; a muchawi has real magical powers, sold for a high price, always for evil purposes. A muganga is one who uses native cures and portents, herbs, leaves and roots, and charges only for the medicine without any accompanying spell or ritual. But these are very rare; much rarer than people would like to believe.
These terms are used as a classification for the various levels and roles of sorcery, not actual fixed titles. Even among the three Swahili-speaking tribes we work with there is almost total disagreement as to which term is applied to which role.
For the sake of clarity and simplicity, the inclusive titles of sorcery, i.e., the use of power gained from the assistance or control of evil spirits, and sorcerer, i.e., one who uses the power gained from that assistance or control, will be used.
PREREQUISITES FOR CHANNELING GRACE: REALIZE OUR MISTAKE
If Western missionaries are to minister effectively in an animistic culture, one of the major prerequisites is recognizing the inadequacy of our Western religious world view. In the past we have been guilty of many mistakes:
1. A failure to recognize the reality of the spiritual world. The inherent weakness of our scientific world view is that it allows us to believe, or to claim to believe, only what we can see or measure. This has accounted for the justifiable criticism that missionaries in Zaire have been most successful at secularizing the people they work with.
Because of this inadequate and biased religious formation, many missionaries who have spent enough time on the mission field to know the language and culture well still find themselves virtually incapable of what is now termed a “power encounter.” Those of us who were taught in Bible college that the age of miracles closed with the finalizing of the canon are not equipped to say with Peter and John, “Silver and gold have I none, but … in the strong name of Jesus Christ, be healed!” We, on the contrary, have silver and gold, but no power!
A national preacher told me how he challenged area sorcerers to try to harm him and his family with their evil spells. They came and sat around his house and summoned evil spirits that knocked at the doors and windows and banged at the roof, but were forced to go away when the family called upon the Holy Spirit. Not only were the evil spirits forced to flee, but the witch doctors themselves were knocked to the ground, unconscious, and lay there until dawn. As I listened to this man who deals regularly with both evil spirits and the Holy Spirit, I realized with something of a shock that I don’t really believe in either.
2. A failure to meet heart needs. Because of this lack of expectation or even acceptance of a ready recourse to spiritual power, we have not dealt with the genuine spiritual needs of the people to whom we have come to minister. Ron and I are two of the 42 adult missionaries now serving ACM, offering health, education, and development programs, building and flight programs, evangelism, leadership training, and advanced theological education programs. But we were not offering alternative Christian responses to the spiritual needs of the Africans. Neither had we made any attempt to define and confront evil on its own territory.
Because our contribution as missionaries has not dealt with their genuine needs—the heart and spirit needs—the Zairians, even the Christians, have been forced to continue with or turn back to their traditional power sources. For physical, technical, and financial help, they come to us.
For spiritual, emotional, and heart needs, they turn or return to sorcery.
A faithful national pastor remarked with some bitterness that missionaries have spent their years here talking about love and giving and baptism, and not one has told them how to overcome the evil spirits that hold the country in captivity.
If we cannot show evidence of a spiritual power greater than the power demonstrated in animism, there is little hope of making any headway for Christianity among these people. The same power available to Moses and Elijah and Peter and Paul either is available to us today, or it isn’t. If it isn’t, then all we have to offer Zairians is just one more religion among many, and an inadequate one at that.
3. An underestimation of the power of evil. There is a demonic world. Sorcerers do have a channel to miraculous powers. Missionaries make a big mistake in underestimating the power of a genuine sorcerer. The sheer determination, the years of strict discipline and education, the fierce asceticism, and the centuries of accumulated knowledge of evil make him or her a formidable enemy.
The Scriptures never assume there are no other gods. In fact, the hundreds of scriptural admonitions against idolatry and following false gods rather assume that other power sources exist. The magicians in Pharaoh’s court matched Moses’ and Aaron’s signs through the first four miracles, then acknowledged that the hand of God had defeated them. The witch of Endor did in fact raise Samuel from his grave to converse with Saul.
The prophecies in the New Testament point to an increase of this power in the last days. The issue lies more in asking why such evil cosmic and metaphysical power would not be available today rather than asking how it could be.
Granted, much of the power that passes as sorcery is nothing more than psychological opportunism—a power-hungry charlatan claiming to have caused an event after the fact. The manipulation of guilt feelings and awareness of inevitable tensions and grievances that exist in every family and tribe, coupled with a shrewd knowledge of human nature, allows a clever fraud to increase his hold over an entire village.
But as long as missionaries persist in treating all animistic beliefs as superstition, illusion, or delusion, our response must be to use our Western mentality and education to correct a faulty and deficient belief system. It is only if we accept the fact that, yes, Satan has the power to turn a willing subject into an object to be used for perpetuating evil, that we will see it as a spiritual problem—and respond to it with spiritual answers.
In this matter of spiritual power, it is my contention that our Western religious world view is the one lacking. Our religious tradition, our humanistic education, and scientific mindset have blinded us to the reality of that spirit world that Paul describes in Ephesians 6. We don’t believe that there are spiritual forces in high places that are the real enemy—at least we didn’t. The spiritual armor has been relegated to flannelgraph boards and Satan has been caricatured right out of our daily thinking.
PRESENTING THE MESSAGE OF CHRISTIANITY TO AN AMIMISTIC SOCIETY
After we had spent several hours in discussion, an African pastor who has a powerful ministry of healing and casting out demons finally decided he could trust me with the answers to questions I was asking. He poured out hours of hair-raising experiences and powerful manifestations he and his wife have witnessed in their long years of ministry.They described for me the metaphysical world in which they and their family and neighbors live, leaving me feeling appalled and totally inadequate. And even more so when these recountings were coupled with a strict warning not to get involved in spiritual warfare lightly. They pointed out an example of an American missionary woman whom the witches of a certain area claim to have killed because she found out some of their secrets and threatened to reveal them to the church—a woman whose sudden death was relayed to me personally on the shortwave radio by a frantic husband several years ago.
Then they recounted to me some of the methods and teachings they have used effectively, restoring my faith and sense of direction with the sheer radiance of their faith and success. Out of my talks with them, study with fellow ACM missionaries, and many, many attempts and failures, here are some specific helps we’ve found:
1. Emphasize the characteristics of God. It is almost unanimously accepted among all peoples of Zaire that there is a supreme God who created the world and who once lived in close fellowship with people, but now has withdrawn. The story in one tribe is that a woman who was angry threw her pestle higher and higher as she pounded food in a mortar and hit God with it, so he withdrew.
In response to this general belief we have prepared a study of the evidences of the close and constant supervision this holy God still maintains. In this survival society we emphasize the regularity of the growing seasons, the unvarying life cycle of conception and birth, the reproduction of plants and animals after their own kind. We have incorporated the traditional characteristics such as omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence, into a song, so that those who cannot read can also learn and remember.
Most of all we insist that God is love, and that everything God does for his people is motivated by love, even though it may appear to be hard for the moment. Satan is evil and is motivated by hate, and everything that he does is for our harm, although it may appear good for the moment.
2. Make clear the concepts of blessing and cursing. The passage in Deuteronomy 18:9-13 lists the things that are an abomination to God, things for which his curses will be poured out, not only on the one practicing them, but also upon children and grandchildren, a powerful incentive here where family is all-important. When we read down through that list of strange Swahili words, it evokes no response. But when we begin to explain what sacrificing children and using divination and interpreting omens means in their own tribal language, giving examples, it inevitably evokes strong reaction because all those evils, and worse, are actively practiced. Then we carefully study the passages about blessing, and what kind of life one must actively live to receive blessing, not only upon their own lives, but the lives of their children and grandchildren.
3. Renounce, repent, and reaffirm. From our reading and study we have compiled a statement of affirmation and renunciation which we now explain in two-day seminars for church leaders and their wives, asking them to study with us, pray at home overnight, and then stand up and make a public commitment in front of the entire group, reaffirming their faith in Christ. After a prayer of repentance, they renounce any foothold Satan may have in their lives because of sins, either their own or their parents’. They renounce the power of any curse that has been put upon them, or that they caused to be put on another. In addition, they promise to burn or destroy all charms, fetishes, idols and medicines in their possession. Typically, slightly more than half the people attending these sessions will make the commitment.
In the early years of our mission work here in Zaire, people were required to renounce Satan at the same time they confessed Christ as part of the salvation process. The custom disappeared somewhere along the line andmost church leaders admit that weare feeling the sad effects of that.
4. Replace traditional protection with blessing. Although it is seldom verbalized, the question most asked, especially by mothers, is, “What do I get in exchange for this? If I give up all the tangible charms, what do I get in return? If I take the charms off my baby, what do I put there instead?” We are encouraging church leaders to pray for new babies in the church service, touching the child at the neck, the wrists, and around the waist, where charms would usually be fastened. Families who decide to take down charms and fetishes from their homes and compounds call for groups of Christians to come and stand in all those places and pray prayers of blessing and protection. One African congregation regularly has blessing services for new business ventures. We are also encouraging blessing prayers on fields at planting and harvesting times.
5. Create a church family structure of protection and provision. In a congregation where the church leaders and their spouses make the commitment of reaffirmation and renouncement together, the next step is the formation of a group that serves as a spiritual outpatient clinic for church members. Decisions about which are acceptable traditional medicines and how to use them, prayer for release from any kind of demonic hold, removal of curses, overcoming temptations—these difficult spiritual decisions are made by the entire church family in the security of a Christian environment.
These are the steps we are taking. The final results are not in yet, but they seem to be working in our church and in our area of Zaire. Since it does not necessarily follow that the solutions will apply to your area, we will go to more general conclusions.
CONCLUSION: IT WON’T BE EASY BUT IT BEATS HANGING WALLPAPER
I started this article months ago and have actually been gathering the material for a couple of years. But one of the things that kept me from completing the task was that I didn’t know how to end it. What possible conclusions can we come to as missionaries trying to minister as foreigners to Christians in an animistic society—Christians who have at best achieved an uneasy syncretism?
A few weeks ago Ron gave a workshop on spiritual warfare and power encounter at a missionary conference outside Nairobi. It was well researched, packed with information, and very challenging. As we left the session, a third-term missionary behind me remarked in resignation to her husband, “Honey, I think maybe we should just go back to America and hang wallpaper. We know how to do that.”
I laughed at the time, but I sympathize with her feeling of futility, and realize that she summarized the inevitable question: What can we do? Here are some starting points for consideration:
1. Missionaries can and must have a biblical understanding of the spiritual forces they are up against. It is essential for their own faith and for the effectiveness of their mission to others that missionaries develop a personal theology of the supernatural.
We must be praying for wisdom to read and understand the Scriptures so that we can overcome the barriers of our traditions and unlearn our misinformation. Set as a goal the understanding of the enemy, and the miraculous power we have at our disposal for defeating him. The battle to establish the kingdom of God on earth is as much a truth encounter as a power encounter. Knowing the truth is our first responsibility.
2. Consciously cleanse your own life of the areas where the enemy can build a stronghold. Those of us who live in countries where the political system is spelled c-o-r-r-u-p-t-i-o-n must fight a constant battle to refuse to “give Satan a foothold” in our own lives when every government office, border crossing, financial exchange, and customs official offers a ready occasion for compromise.
3. Study the culture of the people with whom you work and to whom you minister. It helps to read anthropological studies about their belief system, but itisn’t absolutely necessary. The best source of understanding can be gained by manifesting a sincere desire to comprehend, and listening with acceptance and a nonjudgmental attitude to their revelations about themselves. Be consciously credulous! A sympathetic willingness to identify with the daily pressures, fears, and tensions will provide you with a wealth of information.
4. Formulate a plan of teaching and guidance and counseling to meet the specific needs of the Christians to whom you minister. What I have shared here are my own teaching points and a plan of action that has proved effective to some degree. No one plan will meet all needs, and there is no shortcut to knowing the people and culture. And be ready to grow and change and be changed. It’s quite probable that God does not conform to our timelines, but to cultures. If the culture you are working in conforms to the culture of the city of Ephesus, why shouldn’t God manifest himself in the same way?
5. Our main ministries must always be the normative ones, the ones God called us specifically to accomplish. Priority must always be given to evangelism, translation, healing, leadership training, teaching—whatever the Lord originally called us here to do. To focus on Satan and his power in any way is to lose our focus on God and our calling. Very few of us are gifted for actual power encounters, and the Spirit will do it, not you or me. Paul’s calling in Acts 26:17,18 to “open their eyes that they may turn from darkness to light and from the dominion of Satan to God” must be our priority calling also.
6. Remember that the battle is not ours. Nowhere is this expressed more emphatically and positively than in 2 Chronicles 20. The prayer of Jehoshaphat when the people came together to seek the Lord’s help against the overwhelming enemy, the Spirit of the Lord’s revelation of a plan of action, the obedience to the plan God gave, and the inexplicable defeat are all models for spiritual warfare and power encounter. The key phrase: “Do not be afraid or discouraged because of this vast army, for the battle is not yours but the Lord’s” is the only hopeful plan of action we can employ.
Anderson, Neil. The Bondage Breaker (Eugene, Ore., Harvest House, 1990).
Arnold, Clinton. Ephesians: Power and Magic (Grand Rapids, Mich., Baker Book House, 1992).
Bubeck, Mark. The Adversary (Chicago, Ill., Moody Press, 1975).
Steyne, Philip. Gods of Power: A Study of the Beliefs and Practices of Animists (Houston, Texas, Touch Publications, 1989).
Wagner, Peter. Warfare Prayer (Ventura, Calif., Regal Books, 1992).
EMQ, Vol. 29, No. 4, pp. 382-389. Copyright © 1993 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.