Thou Shalt Not Suffer a Witch to Live

Regular readers of Kmareka know that I spent my teens attending a Pentecostal church and that I was exorcised to cast out the demons of depression. I can now say that like the song goes, I try to ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’.

It actually didn’t do me much harm, but our secular society and law are strong enough to keep a lid on violence. Even so, American children are injured or killed at the hands of parents or religious groups regularly, one case currently on trial here. Exorcism has the seal of Vatican approval and is practiced in many Evangelical churches, as well as non-Christian religions.

I’m not even saying that a religious rite that brings comfort and peace of mind is not a good thing. It can be. But literally demonizing troubled people can lead to ostracism and lynching, and has many times. Candles in the church are pretty if you don’t set the place on fire…

HOUSTON — At home in Nigeria, the Pentecostal preacher Helen Ukpabio draws thousands to her revival meetings. Last August, when she had herself consecrated Christendom’s first “lady apostle,” Nigerian politicians and Nollywood actors attended the ceremony. Her books and DVDs, which explain how Satan possesses children, are widely known.

So well-known, in fact, that Ms. Ukpabio’s critics say her teachings have contributed to the torture or abandonment of thousands of Nigerian children — including infants and toddlers — suspected of being witches and warlocks. Her culpability is a central contention of “Saving Africa’s Witch Children,” a documentary that made its American debut Wednesday on HBO2.

I am posting this to warn against complacency. Don’t be persuaded that this atrocious story is some exotic Nigerian oddity–tragic but nothing to do with us. In fact, this religion is some of the more extreme dogma of American and British missionaries, cycled through Nigerian culture and emerging in a nation where the government is weak and people are desperate. The photo in the NYT article shows Ukpabio preaching to a group of Americans in Houston. They have their hands up in praise. They love this stuff.

I am alarmed because I saw the same kind of thing in Warwick, RI thirty years ago. There was no better entertainment for the faithful than to have some traveling preacher tell lurid stories of demon possession and triumph over evil. If the preacher was from another country that was even more thrilling.

It’s relevant to note that American evangelical ministers are speaking to huge audiences in Uganda supporting laws that persecute homosexuals– even to the death penalty. It’s relevant to note that some of the troubled people I saw years ago who underwent exorcism were trying to make the gay go away. Dehumanization of the other allows people to practice brutality with a clear conscience.

There is wrongdoing under the cover of religion that should be exposed. We are reluctant to examine a candidate’s religious associations too closely–we have a tradition of respect– but this story has to be told. Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin was blessed by an African minister, Thomas Muthee, who was leading a service at her church in Alaska. Muthee likes to brag about raising a mob against a woman he called a witch, and how he drove her from her home, and the American believers say, ‘amen’. Disgraced evangelist Ted Haggard also liked to practice ‘spiritual warfare’.

There are groups more political than spiritual that label themselves Christian and are doing harm both in the US and abroad. Like a wise man said, ‘by their fruits you will know them’. The New York Times story is disturbing and enlightening, and shows that faith is not always a good thing.