In my posts thus far I have attempted to present the results of research I’ve been engaged in regarding some of the various ways that certain pastors in northeastern Congo (DRC) approach ministry in contexts where many live with a fear of witches.

As explained earlier, in conducting this research I’ve interviewed a number of well-respected pastors from denominations with roots in western mission work, asking them how they have addressed situations involving rumors, fears, suspicions, and in some cases accusations of witchcraft. As I’ve argued thus far, in analyzing the things that they have said, it seems to me that we can identify three different types of response. In the first place, there are particular theological perspectives that these pastors bring to bear in dealing with these matters (see “Greater is He Who is In You”). Secondly, they raise a number of questions of an epistemological nature (see “How do You Know?”). Finally, they talk about certain practical steps they have taken to demonstrate the love of Christ and the truth of the gospel in such situations (see “Loving Suspected Witches”).

The goal of this research has not been simply to describe a certain set of practices, however. Rather, my hope has been to use this work to stimulate further discussion and exploration on the part of church leaders, with the idea of working together to develop a pastoral theology and a set of best practices that could be used in ongoing pastoral training.

Meetings with Leadership

On my most recent trip to Congo (April-May, 2015), I made a step in this direction, presenting the same findings that I’ve reported in this blog to two different groups. The first was a gathering of about twenty church leaders from the denomination that my wife and I have been associated with over our years of ministry in Africa (Communauté Évangélique au Centre de l’Afrique – CECA), with its central offices in the city of Bunia, northeastern Congo. The second was a faculty colloquium organized by Shalom University, also located in Bunia.

stabell_384_266

My hope for these two meetings was that we would take time in each group to discuss the three perspectives identified above (theological, epistemological and practical), and that we would end up, as a group, affirming some of what I had said, adding other examples, perhaps making minor corrections or modifications to some of the principles, and so forth, as we worked toward that ideal set of best practices. Dream on! That is not really what happened. In hindsight, I should have known. I have after all engaged in open discussion of witchcraft with many different groups over a number of year, in courses on Cultural Anthropology and Spiritual Warfare, as well as in various seminars for church leaders. From that experience I should know how difficult—virtually impossible—it is to see consensus emerge. There is evidence that prior to the meeting with the Shalom faculty, I was experiencing some unconscious anxiety about my presentation. Several days before the meeting I had an awful dream in which I was about to stand and speak to this issue, only to find that I was not appropriately dressed for the occasion! Others in the room were in formal garb, while I was wearing just a T-shirt. I managed to find someone who was willing to loan me a sweater, but it was a complicated affair that was hard to put on. Meanwhile the crowd had swelled from the anticipated 20 or so to a crowd of thousands, and the TV cameras were ready to broadcast my remarks far and wide!

Outcomes of the Meetings

There are a number of difficulties or challenges that arise for anyone trying to engage in constructive dialogue concerning witchcraft. Most significantly, it is very difficult to keep discussion from devolving into a debate about whether or not witchcraft exists as an objective reality. This was particularly acute in the faculty colloquium, where the whole spectrum of conviction was represented. At the end of our session, one faculty member suggested somewhat jokingly that I should have locked the doors to prevent anyone from leaving until I had convinced everyone that there are no real witches. During the question and discussion period following my presentation, he had argued vehemently that although growing up as a child in Congo he had been as frightened of witches as anyone, he later came to see this system of belief as a cultural phenomenon with no grounding in objectively verifiable evidence. [I]t is very difficult to keep discussion from devolving into a debate about whether or not witchcraft exists as an objective reality.Meanwhile another individual talked with equal passion about his ministry of deliverance among those who are identified as and/or who confess to being witches, children in particular. Another participant insisted that although witchcraft is often used to harm others, he knew of people who talked about using those same powers for good, and he declared his intention to do his own research project on good witchcraft!

The other session did not go any better. One participant in the discussion was arguing for the possibility of “unconscious witchcraft”—the idea that one might be a witch, and might have harmed others with those powers without ever being aware of it. He claimed to have identified and exposed this in counseling sessions with some individuals. Another church leader spoke in terms that seemed at the time to express genuine fear of witches. Others joined in with their own perspectives and stories, with the overall result being an impression of confusion and lack of clarity.

Resolutions from the meetings

As I have reflected on this experience, I’ve come to a few resolutions. I would be more than happy to entertain other suggestions from anyone who reads this post.

  1. I remain committed to discussion and debate. I do not think that the complex issues involved in the problems associated with witchcraft discourse can be resolved unilaterally by theologians or social scientists of whatever persuasion. People’s real questions and real experiences need to be aired and discussed, as we continually ask the question, what guidance does the Bible give us on such matters? What can we learn from one another?
  2. Perhaps however large group discussion (15 or more) are not the best way to work on these issues. For every additional person added to a group, a new set of experiences and assumptions is added to the mix, and the complexity of managing the exchange and staying on topic increases exponentially. Perhaps a better way forward would be to work in smaller groups (4-6 people?), at least until principles for managing constructive dialogue have emerged. It would probably also be important not to try to accomplish too much in any one session.
  3. It seems to me best to avoid falling into debates about the ontological reality of witches/witchcraft in the abstract. In my experience, such discussions almost always lead to energetic efforts on the part of “true believers” to “prove” that witches are real by recounting amazing events that cannot be verified, and whose meaning is usually open to various types of interpretation, but which end up seemingly reinforcing local beliefs about such matters in many people’s minds. Somehow space needs to be opened up to say something like, Regardless what you believe with regard to the question of the objective reality of witchcraft in theory, how would you respond, as a pastor, to a woman who comes to you complaining that her neighbor is bewitching her child? How would you deal with a young child whose parents have brought him to you, saying that they have seen evidence that he is causing problems for the family through witchcraft? When Pastor so-and-so was warned not to work at a particular church because other pastors before him had been bewitched, he went anyway, trusting in the power of Jesus to keep him. Can you see yourself doing the same thing? Why or why not? What do you do when a woman comes to you confessing that she has been active as a witch for many years, but now wants to be free from all of that? What kind of counseling and prayer is called for in that kind of situation? More generally, what kinds of sermons should we be preaching, and what passages of Scripture should we focus on, that can undermine the fear that people have of witches?

Again, I would very much appreciate suggestions from others who have more or different experiences from my own in dealing with these issues.