guest column Fr Oskar Wermter SJ
Whenever some calamity befalls us; illness, catching an infectious disease, an accident and injury, a bankruptcy in business, a failed examination, a failed marriage — we want to know what caused it in the first place.
This is not just African thinking; it is a common reaction to very many misfortunes, and in many places and for many centuries.
Witchcraft was denounced as a very heinous crime, and people denounced as witches were in many cases killed. When a witch was brought to court, lawyers were rarely successful in saving their clients from being burned alive at the stake (which was the common cruel punishment).
I went to a school in Cologne (Germany) that had been founded in mid 16th Century. A teacher at that school was not only a brilliant professor, he was also a deeply caring and very charitable pastor, as well as shepherd of afflicted souls, Fr Friedrich von Spee sj. He was a legal scholar and author of books on jurisprudence. He knew the inside of many prisons all over Germany. That is where he found people (women more than men) who had been jailed for the crime of witchcraft, tortured cruelly, and eventually faced execution by being burnt at the stake. He was a man who was striving to establish peace by making justice prevail in the society of his day (17th Century).
A man of deep humanity, charity and compassion, but also of analytical intelligence and wisdom, he was convinced that most of these prisoners and victims of torture were innocent. The common belief was – among the educated and simple workers, learned priests and their church congregations – that people suspected of witchcraft were definitely guilty and deserved to die a cruel death by fire.
Cologne is an ancient city founded by Romans and famous as a city of trade, art and beautiful craftsmanship. It was also a city where many witches were held in prisons, awaiting their day in court, where they were most likely found guilty and sentenced to death; rich, noble women as much as miserable poor workmen, men of the Church as much as statesmen and city councillors.
Fr F von Spee sj was deeply distressed about these so-called “witches” being sent to burn without any proof of having committed a crime as well as executed merely because they pleaded guilty after they broke down as a result of unbelievable cruelty during torture. He accompanied the victims of torture to the place of their execution. His writings and public witness against beliefs pertaining to witchcraft and torture gradually changed public perception about this heinous cruelty, and witchcraft trials began to gradually fade away.
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Brothers in nasty fight over land, trade witchcraft accusations, read a headline in a recent Zimbabwean paper. Belief in witchcraft still exists in Europe, even more so in Africa. But there is also the Witchcraft Suppression Act which goes back to colonial times. Provisions of the Act forbid say none should accuse another of witchcraft which, of course, one could say, is the whole purpose of witchcraft beliefs. It is part of the universal “blame game”. It is a profound human desire to have people who one can blame for one’s own failures, moral defects and sins. It is vital for people to be able to get rid of their own feelings of guilt, by projecting them on substitutes.
Witchcraft belief is an expression of hatred, malice, envy and jealousy. Practising witchcraft and destruction with the power of evil spirits is related to Satanism. It is sheer evil in action. To accuse someone of being a witch is a way of destroying a person, his character and denying him a place in civil society.
You employ witches to destroy rivals and competitors in politics, business and even in sports. Allowing witchcraft allegations to be made against fellow citizens is a way according to the popular consensus – of eradicating the practising of witchcraft. That is the justification for the Witchcraft Suppression Act. But, in fact, the very existence of such legislation enhances the fear of witches and the dangers of such a mentality. The more people are accused of practicing witchcraft, the greater the psychological terror emanating from such beliefs.
The prosecution of witches was always linked to torture as the instrument used in making witches known and prosecuting them, more often than not by sentencing the alleged witches to death and executing them in a most cruel manner.
Torture is still being practiced under dictatorial and totalitarian regimes. It is used to eliminate one’s political opponent and rival of any kind. But witchcraft is irreconcilable with human rights and the upholding of human dignity and value attached to human life.
During wars of liberation, witchcraft was used not only against the colonial and imperial regimes, but also against fellow freedom fighters and party members who were suspected to be “sell-outs” and therefore guilty of treason. In this atmosphere of revenge, where unpopular members of liberation movements were eliminated by way of “extra-judicial killings”, the death penalty was considered acceptable.
Attempts to suppress capital punishment as a political instrument was shunned. But do we not want to create a society free of shedding blood and revenge ? Do we not want to do away with cruel forms of execution like “necklacing”, “disappearing” of political enemies or kidnapping and killing them as a matter of revenge, without anyone ever knowing where they were buried?
Once we believe that witchcraft is a reality, we sell ourselves to “Satan” and all the evil forces in our universe. Witchcraft was practiced even in churches. But Christianity is about light and life, not darkness and death. We must teach our children that they have nothing to fear from witches and evil spirits, if only they have faith in our God, who is light. In him, there is no darkness at all. There are also no witches and the malice of witches in Him (1 John 1: 5). We must be free of such fear.
Media, which provide entertainment that lacks humanity, respect for human life and compassion for “disappeared” people and their families. (“Mama, where is Papa. Why does he not come back home?” heard in films perpetuates cruelty and sadism. Kidnappers who kill for political reasons are the true “witches” of today.
Elsewhere it has taken centuries to stamp out fear of witchcraft. Hopefully, we will eradicate it sooner than that.