Witch Hunts, some notes toward better discussion

2 08 2010

[4/2/2012: Heavily revised to articulate the argument of this short essay in a more general fashion. Previous version relied over-much on a very narrow discussion of witch hunts going on in the online pagan community.]

One of the difficulties in making sense of the reports of Nigerian witch hunting rests not just on our inability to access the ‘life on the ground,’ but also on the presuppositions we bring to terms like ‘witch hunt.’  For those of us with roots in the European world, we have the cultural baggage of the Enlightenment to deal with as well.

The most extreme version of the myth appear in what Stephen Toulmin called the counter-Enlightenment. In myths shared by some early feminists and ‘pagan revival’ religion, the word ‘witch hunt’ refers to the legacy of the Burning Times, when the patriarchal forces of modernity targeted rival women for death.  While fewer and fewer endorse the Burning Times myth anymore, the idea of the Burning Times helped forge the modern identity of many groups as minorities under fire from a Christian, rational, and patriarchal majority.

I don’t want to contest that there are elements of truth in this story; myths are often good at exactly that–magnifying truths.  However, magnification is a form of distortion. Taken out of context and transformed into a crude history, the myth becomes something of a lie.

This general assumption (as I say, accurate in some cases) colors the way in which non-Western witch hunts are presented.  News stories from the pagan media approach the plight of Nigerian child ‘witches’ with headlines like “Christians Hunting Witches (Again),” with coverage to match those assumptions.

In contrast, other news agencies, operating under fairly traditional Enlightenment ideals, approach the story as evidence of bold-faced superstition and savagery in contemporary Africa. Those with Christian leanings bemoan this corrupt Christianity while those without may bemoan the ignorance of religion generally. Just like witches in the Middle Ages were unjustly accused, so now are these ‘witches’ unjustly accused.

The Christianity of people like Helen Ukpabio, however, cannot be understood without reference to the local African values and ideas that have been assimilated into it.  While it is true that the African Christianity of Helen Ukpabio has made inroads into charismatic Christianity in the United States (witness the infamous Sarah Palin-witch hunter debacle), it is not identical with it.

The rub is that the story we ‘Enlightened’ descendants of Europe tell isn’t even that helpful dealing with our own history of witch hunts. We take a pat view of the Medieval and Early Modern witchcraft trials and assume that the assumptions travel well.  However, scholars like Carlo Ginzburg and Wolfgang Behringer have shown us that while there were real people and real religious traditions being targeted in the witch hunts, they didn’t look much at all like those at the heart of both our Enlightenment and counter-Enlightenment myths about them.

For one, there was a great deal of regional variation in how ‘witch hunts’ took shape and who found themselves at the wrong end of them. It is often a contest not between Christians and pagans or patriarchs and matriarchs, but between rival conceptions of Christianity or about a rivalry between Christians, Jews, and Muslims. Especially in Catholic countries, heresy more than ‘witchcraft’ were the concern.  Witchcraft accusations illuminate the outline of both religious and political contests.

This approach helps us in the Nigerian case, too, where we see the power to identify witches being one of the forms of authority around which both religious and political struggle unfolds.

We also need to take the term ‘witchcraft’ seriously.  Frequently, what notions of witchcraft articulate is a communal sense of injustice and unequal distribution.  That sense of injustice can be manipulated toward violence and scapegoating, but it can also be a vehicle for the community to engage in an open dialogue about proper distribution.

Tellingly, many African rituals, especially those emerging from African Christians, for dealing with witches are not deadly but integrative. Simon Bockie’s accounts in Death and the Invisible Powers makes this much apparent. The emergence of more toxic and alienating strategies (witch camps, torture) seem to have their roots in modern conditions that have undermined and overwhelmed more traditional strategies.

Which means that targeting people like Helen Ukpabio may do more harm than good. She, and those like her, may regulate and moderate the alienation and disconnection driving the most toxic expressions of witch accusations in Africa. Rather than helping, we may participate in making matters worse. It may make more sense to help supposedly ‘superstitious’ Africans than to rush out to support some European-based NGO. Or, as well may be the case, it may make the most sense to support them both to the extent that they are each addressing the problem from different angles.

One important way we can surely help, is to take the discussion out of the constrained discussion that assumes there is only one strategy for resolving the problems faced by child witches. Discussing strategies in the plural without ascending immediately to the plane of ideological purity (‘only a strategy premised on Christianity/hard-nosed Enlightenment notions of uplift/etc. can succeed’) are one of the first and most important steps toward that. Setting up a school for people exiled to witch camps doesn’t preclude providing support for someone like Ukpabio who (without torture) cures children of witchcraft.

Regardless, we need to take a lot more care regarding how we respond to reports of witch hunts, attending to their local situation so that we better understand what help is or is not needed, rather than rushing in with fixes premised in half-thought assumptions.

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