Many Africans, Christian or not, live in fear of generational curses. When misfortunes hit, they want to know who might have bewitched them. Non-Christians may turn to the witchdoctor while believers seek a deliverance minister to diagnose their problem and prescribe necessary spiritual steps forward. But why is this so? What does the Bible teach about curses? Can Christians be cursed? And how should a believer live in the light of witchcraft, which is prevalent across Africa?
Unmarried and Unsuccessful… Am I cursed?
Consider Birungi. At 40, she is unmarried. With a high-paying job, she is a well-educated Christian who believes that Jesus died for her sins. Because of her age, she has attended many weddings. Most of her close friends are married. Recently, driving home from one reception, alone, Birungi pondered her plight, with tears in her eyes: ‘Maybe it’s true. Perhaps I am cursed.’
Birungi and Kawooya represent countless other Africans flooded with fears whenever life takes a dark turn
Kawooya cannot seem to hold his life together. Raised in a dysfunctional family, he is continuously ‘broke,’ as his female friends jokingly tease him. Despite graduating from a good university, Kawooya has struggled to hold on to jobs. The businesses he’s tried to build fall flat. He too believes that Jesus died for him. But he often grapples with the relevance of this, given his empty pockets. So he wonders: ‘Could my youth pastor be right? Are there family altars I must break?’
Curses in the African Traditional Worldview
Birungi and Kawooya represent countless other Africans flooded with fears whenever life takes a dark turn. Deeply spiritual, Africans see omens in night owls and curses in cats crossing our paths. A curse, according to The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (TDNT) is, “a directly expressed or indicated utterance which in virtue of a supernatural nexus (or connection) of operation brings harm by its very expression to the one against whom it is directed.” In other words, it is a pronouncement intended to bring harm to the recipient with the help of a divinity or gods.
Appeasing the Gods
The fear of curses comes from how, traditionally, Africans have a transactional view of the gods. The gods want their backs scratched—at least that’s what the witchdoctors told us—before returning the favour by giving us a good life. If things do not go well, either the gods are angry, or someone scratched their back better. The gods are fickle. They can be bought. In The Christian Church and Witchcraft Accusations in Africa, Fabulous Moyo and Erwin van der Meer narrate how traditional healers specialised in, “divining spiritual causes of bewitchment and who…did the bewitchment.”
When problems mount against us, they often bring to the surface our surviving though unspoken presuppositions
James Nkansah-Obrempong, in Theology and HIV and AIDS, reminds us how Africans always look beyond or behind natural causes for the death of their loved ones. Africans commonly consider demons, curses, and witches to be the cause. And we would be much mistaken to think that these sentiments are buried under our baptismal waters. For when problems mount against us, they often bring to the surface our surviving though unspoken presuppositions about life. For most Africans—Christians and their pastors alike—the African Traditional Worldview (or ATR) might still form our core convictions.
How Deliverance Ministries Amplify Fear
Deliverance ministries ensure that such deeply held persuasions are merely clothed with, rather than reshaped by, the Bible. These ‘ministries’ explicitly amplify the fear of generational curses. Birungi’s pastor told her of the existing ‘altars’ in her family that must be ‘torn-down.’ Accordingly, her ancestors bewitched their descendants so that they may have families ‘with women who are not married or are divorced or are barren or in adulterous relationships.’
Deliverance ministries ensure that such deeply held persuasions are merely clothed, with rather than reshaped, by the Bible
I have witnessed people whose lives were ruined by their fear of the past. In Uganda, many dedicate their Friday overnight prayers to confessing the sins of their forefathers. The tragedy is that these same sins will be re-confessed next week, even months or years from now. This practice is repeated weekly without any hint that previous prayers availed at all. This ritualistic pattern of prayer grants pastor’s great power over their congregants, while also weakening believers’ trust in the efficacy of the cross of Christ and work of the Spirit. Many pastors, like the traditional healers, specialise in divining the spiritual causes of bewitchment.
The Curse and Cure in the Old Testament
God pronounced the first curse ever in the Bible in Genesis 3:14-19. Genesis 3 narrates Adam and Eve’s rebellion against God at Satan’s suggestion. The first man sinned and with all his descendants fell under a curse of death (Genesis 3:16-19; 1 Corinthians 15:22; Romans 5:12). This curse — and not the noisy night owl or the wild cat crossing our paths — is the principal cause of all human misery.
Medicine in the Malediction
However, and this is crucial, we must notice that in his wrath, God remains merciful (Habakkuk 3:2). With the curse came the cure (Genesis 3:15). Or, paradoxically put, the medicine is in the malediction. The “seed” of the woman (Jesus Christ) reverses Adam’s judgment by falling on the sword. The serpent will fatally wound him. And yet, his death is precisely the means through which he will triumph, crushing Satan’s head. As Abraham’s offspring, “all the families of the earth shall be blessed” through him (Genesis 12:3; see Galatians 3:15-20).
God is just and will not condemn the righteous for the sins of their wicked parents
In the meantime, Abraham’s immediate descendants, Israel, re-enact Adam’s tale of rebellion against grace with inevitable judgment (Deuteronomy 6:11-15). So the Old Testament is a story of Israel’s sin and how the Lord ‘visited’ the iniquity of fathers upon sons ‘of those who hate Me’ (Exodus 20:5). God judges those descendants who join with their fathers in idolatry. But those who do right shall not die for their parents’ sin (Deuteronomy 24:16; Ezekiel 18:20). Amaziah, king of Judah, exemplified this when he executed his father’s murderers but spared their children (2 Kings 14:5-6). God is just and will not condemn the righteous for the sins of their wicked parents.
Humanity under the curse
But God’s indictment of humanity is that ‘all have sinned’ (Romans 3:23). No one is righteous. As such, God’s judgment rightly falls on us. In sinning, we confirm Adam’s sin as ours. Therefore, following our sin, we become objects of his curse. Our ancestors were no more sinners than us, just as we are no more human than them. All people equally stand in solidarity with Adam in sin. It is ‘in Adam’, not ‘in our ancestors,’ that we all die (1 Corinthians 15:22). Because we are sinners by nature, living east of Eden, we are under Adam’s curse.
Curses and the Cure in the New Testament
In the New Testament, the noun ‘curse’ occurs six times (Galatians 3:10, 13; Hebrews 6:8; James 3:10; 2 Peter 2:14). The verb ‘to curse’ occurs five times (Matthew 25:41; Mark 11:21; Luke 6:28; Romans 12:14; James 3:9). These texts either prohibit Christians from cursing their enemies or declare God’s judgment against unrepentant sinners. But they do not suggest that Christians can any longer be under a curse.
God’s judgment of our sin fell on Christ so that we are now redeemed from the curse we deserved
Galatians 3:10-14 explains why believers cannot be under a curse. By his death, Christ rescued all those ‘in him’ from the bondage of sin. “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (Galatians 3:13). As such, the blessing of Abraham comes to the Gentiles, “so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith” (Galatians 3:14). As we all died ‘in Adam’, we all live ‘in Christ.’ The difference between whether we are cursed or blessed depends on our location. God’s judgment of our sin fell on Christ so that we are now redeemed from the curse we deserved, but only if we are ‘in Christ’.
Nailing the Curse to the Cross
The Gospel is the proclamation that God has borne our sin and judgment in his body on the tree, raising us to the newness of the resurrected life. The curse you deserve is nailed to the cross, forever forgotten. Birungi was beautifully reborn as a daughter and new creation whose identity is in God (2 Corinthians 5:17). Kawooya is the King’s son, an heir through God (Galatians 4:7). Believers are ‘in Christ’ and no longer ‘in Adam’, and, certainly, never ‘in’ their ancestors or ‘under’ their power.
Confessing ‘the sins of our forefathers’ forgets that our true spiritual Father is God alone
Confessing ‘the sins of our forefathers’ forgets that our true spiritual Father is God alone, in whom we are free indeed (Galatians 5:1). We are freer than those deliverance sessions will ever make us. The cross of Christ crushed the curse that weighed down our neck, raising us from despair. He alone is the Christian’s altar which we approach confidently (Hebrews 13:10-13).
Not Cursed – But in a Fallen World
In the meantime, we experience the residues of Adam’s rebellion on this side of heaven. We fall sick, face impotence and barrenness, even die. It may be that we do not always have the financial ‘breakthrough’ we desperately seek. But to us, those are dregs of the darkness disappearing as dawn draws near. The first rays of the impending morning already crashed through, tearing apart the temple curtain (Mark 15:38).
God has already ‘delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son’
Therefore, we require no more traditional healers or pastors to reveal the ‘spiritual causes of our bewitchment.’ God has already “delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son” (Colossians 1:13). “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed’ (John 8:36).
What About Witchcraft?
Perhaps one question remains in our minds. We do wonder, given the reality of witchcraft in Africa, how should the Christian live? When our lives take a downturn and rumours reach our ears that someone bewitched us, what should we do? How might Birungi and Kawooya respond to their troubles, especially if they have been ‘cursed’ by an enemy?
Faced with the reality of witchcraft, I can see two options before us. The first is that we succumb to the tyranny of fear. We can either drown in despair or even – as is the case for some – attempt to ‘out-witch’ the witch. With the help of a pastor some will ‘command the curse’ to ‘return to sender.’ But these actions only reveal that we have not yet been perfected in love (1 John 4:18). They show that the gospel has not yet shaped our worldview, suggesting that our God is not better than our ancestors in protecting his own. In short, we merely worship our ancestral gods under a new name.
Defeating fear through faith is the only way we show that the gods of the nations are idols, powerless against the one true and living God
Under Wings of Protection
Alternatively, we can stand firm in our faith and God’s promises. We can believe that as people ‘in Christ,’ nothing can separate us from God’s perfect love (Romans 8:37-39), which “casts out fear” (1 John 4:18). We can walk in strength to the throne of God and obtain grace in our time of need (Hebrews 4:16).
When claims of witchcraft rush headlong towards us, we should rest knowing that no one can bewitch those whom God already blessed (Numbers 23:7-8, 19-23). For, “No weapon that is fashioned against you shall succeed, and you shall refute every tongue that rises against you in judgment” (Isaiah 54:17). False gods can neither do good nor harm (Isaiah 41:23).
Thus, defeating fear through faith is the only way we show that the gods of the nations are idols, powerless against the one true and living God. God’s protection over his people is both a promise and a reality. No power can harm those under his wings.