When economic ruin mysteriously threatens, when sons and daughters inexplicably die, and when illness threatens life itself, people around the world struggle with the question, “Why?” Different answers to this question are provided in different cultures.

The wise men of Job’s culture “knew” that everyone “reaps what they sow” and therefore that Job must have committed a terrible sin to have merited these afflictions. Wise men and women (priests, diviners, shamans, soothsayers, witchdoctors) of some cultures agree with the wise men of Job’s culture –insisting that affliction and suffering only come to those who deserve it. Perhaps the sin was in a prior life, some suggest.

But in many societies the wise men and women of the culture have been more inclined to explain mysterious economic ruin, life-threatening illnesses, and tragic deaths as caused by malicious neighbors, colleagues, or relatives acting harmfully through psychic or evil supernatural means.  In such societies unusual tragedy often results in a quest to determine which relative, neighbor, or colleague is really a witch/sorcerer — in short, a murderer. Once the label is attached, there are often serious consequences to the accused.

In January I was asked to speak in chapel on the subject of “witchcraft” at Nairobi Evangelical Graduate School of Theology (NEGST), now a part of Africa International University. In consultation with others, I prepared a brief survey and administered it in chapel at NEGST, and also at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (TEDS) to two seminary classes (Introduction to New Testament and Introduction to Theology).  This gave me 48 TEDS students who were US citizens answering the same survey as 161 NEGST graduate students (and faculty/staff) with citizenship in African countries.

I wanted, first, to know what these two groups of graduate theological students thought about the idea that affliction or death might sometimes be caused by human beings acting maliciously through evil supernatural power.  Here is a bar graph comparing beliefs in the two groups.

The first thing to note is that neither among Americans nor Africans is there complete agreement — although each group tilts in different directions.  One reason for the lack of consensus among these Bible-believing evangelicals is that, on the one hand, most evangelicals do have a belief in the reality and power of evil demonic beings.  On the other hand, the Bible itself never directly addresses the question of whether or not any affliction may legitimately be attributed to the agency of another human being acting through evil supernatural power. These two facts combine to contribute to a lack of consensus on exactly how to understand such matters.

The fact that a majority of American evangelical seminarians expressed uncertainty on the question is doubtless also partially due to the fact that this is not a pressing question for most contemporary Americans, and thus has never really been thought about, as is suggested by the answer to a second question in the survey.

The vast majority of American seminarians have never had a colleague, relative, or neighbor accused of causing someone else’s death through witchcraft. Of the two who reported that they had, one wrote in the margins that this was while he was serving as a missionary in India. That is, contemporary Americans do not regularly experience the phenomenon of people attributing misfortune to others believed to be witches. By contrast 82% of African seminarians have one or more colleagues, relatives, or neighbors that they personally know who has been accused of being a witch-murderer.  Nearly one out of ten reports that eleven or more of their colleagues, relatives, or neighbors have been accused in this way.

Given the large numbers of people being accused of harming and killing others through witchcraft, what are the consequences to those being accused? The following are the reported consequences by NEGST seminarians.

Of the NEGST seminarians who knew a neighbor, relative or colleague accused of harming another through witchcraft, 34% report that one or more of these was killed because they were believed to be guilty as charged. Roughly half (47%) report knowing someone driven out of their home or community, or whose property was taken or destroyed (47%), or who was physically attacked or beaten (52%), because the charge against them was believed.  Fully 84% report knowing someone who was shunned or avoided because the charge was believed.  Since it is often the elderly, or widows, or orphan children who are accused of harming others through witchcraft, and since social supports for the elderly, widows, and orphans depend directly on neighbors and relatives taking care of them — the result of people shunning and avoiding them is often life-threatening in its consequences.  That is, there are serious consequences to being named as a witch.

Of course, it is one thing to ask abstractly whether it is possible for witches supernaturally to harm people.  It is another question whether the people that one actually knows who are being accused are thought to be guilty, which is what the following chart shows:

Fully two-thirds of NEGST seminarians who knew a colleague, relative or neighbor accused of killing through witchcraft doubt that one or more of the accused really was guilty. So while many NEGST seminarians believe in the possibility of witch killings, when confronted with concrete accusations against someone they know, a high proportion doubt that the accusation is true.  It is perhaps worth pointing out that 27% of NEGST seminarians know a Christian pastor that has been accused of killing someone else through witchcraft. So the accusations do not spare even pastors.

But on what basis are specific charges doubted?  Since the charges are often being made by non-Christian diviners or “witchdoctors,” it should not be surprising that Christian seminarians might doubt the truth of the charges. Also, as NEGST students pointed out to me, there is a wide range of beliefs about what evidence demonstrates that one is a witch (a woman having a few whiskers on her chin, having very white hair, or having red-rimmed eyes — after a lifetime cooking over dung fires) — and many of these beliefs are, in the views of NEGST seminarians, not to be relied on.  So naturally when charges against individuals rely on such evidence, or appeal to the authority of the diviner or “witchdoctor,” Christian seminarians are inclined to doubt the charges. Again I heard seminarians describe many cases where the accusers were clearly benefitting by the accusation, and where the accusation was thus rightly suspected.

My point here is that whether or not Christians believe that some people can maliciously and supernaturally cause the death of others, a majority of NEGST seminarians do suspect that when it comes to the people they know who’ve been accused, witchcraft accusations are often being leveled against those who are innocent. And since the results of being accused are serious (social ostracism, physical attack, property destruction, lynching, etc.), then the enormous harm being done to the falsely accused does merit consideration by the church.

Studies of witchcraft accusations today make clear that a high proportion of those being accused and attacked for being witches are the elderly, widows, and orphan children — that is, the very social categories which the Old Testament calls on the people of God to protect.

A variety of secular organizations (such as The British Humanist Association, The Nigerian Humanist Association, the Association for Secular Humanism in Malawi) have worked to publicize the plight of accused children or old women — and have condemned their accusers as superstitious. Many of these organizations have treated Christian belief in the reality of the demonic or Satanic as itself superstitious. Indeed, their solution to the problem of witch accusations often seems merely to be conversion to a secular worldview.  Not surprisingly, these secular groups have not been notably successful in influencing large numbers of Africans who are Christian.

What is needed, rather, is a conversation from within the framework of Christian faith about the theological and pastoral issues involved in these witch accusations.  This is a conversation which should be global.  But Christian theological leaders who live and minister in the settings where these issues are pressing concerns must be at the center of the conversation.

Recently, at the request of Dr. Tite Tiénou and myself, the Carl F. H. Henry Center for Theological Understanding at TEDS agreed to fund (partially) a two-and-a-half year cycle of events based at both TEDS and NEGST, where faculty from TEDS and NEGST, and with other leading theologians and church leaders from across Africa, will grapple with a range of pastoral and theological issues related to witchcraft.  One pressing question to be addressed, which I’ve raised here: “How should the church understand and respond to the widespread contemporary trend in major regions of the world in which orphan children, widows, and the elderly (among others) are accused of killing others through witchcraft, and where violence is then directed against the accused?” Other questions will naturally also need to be addressed.

Both at TEDS and at NEGST there will be periodic gatherings of faculty to discuss readings and various issues involved. Then in March of 2013 a three-day workshop focused on the issues will be held at NEGST. And finally, in the fall of 2014, an open conference will be held at NEGST for all who are interested — to be followed by an edited publication intended to address pastoral and theological issues involved.

But as a supplement to all this, I will periodically publish a blog post related to the topic, and invite others to thoughtfully respond or add to what is said. What are the questions that we ought to be considering? What are the current realities that need to be understood?  This is simply an effort to help facilitate a global conversation on this topic from within the framework of Christian faith. Let’s see if we can model here what a global theological conversation might look like. I encourage each contributor to introduce him or herself, especially in relation to this topic, before adding comments related to our theme.  This will help us get to know each other as one element in the conversation.