In 2016, the former Ugandan Parliament House Speaker Rebecca Kadaga raised eyebrows and caused controversy for her re-election thanksgiving to the ancestors in a shrine. Before her, the then Vice President, Professor Gilbert Bukenya, had done the same. Indeed many politically influential Africans appeal to the power of witchcraft. But what is witchcraft? Why does it persist in Africa? And how do we respond to it as Christians? Answering these questions I hope to show that Christians need not fear witchcraft.
What is Witchcraft?
In A Biblical Study of Witchcraft, Festus K. Kavale notes a renewed boom in the interest and return to witchcraft. Ugandans, and I hear Kenyans too, love Nollywood’s witchcraft films starring the talented Patience Ozokwor. Most of us have encountered witchcraft, whether in word, life, or on a screen. And you or someone you know may be living in fear of witchcraft even now.
Witchcraft uses divination to manipulate supernatural forces in order to prosper oneself or harm enemies.
David Noel Freedman defines witchcraft as “the practice of sorcery or necromancy for divination or the manipulation of (generally evil) spirits.” Avraham Negev sees witchcraft as the use of occult or supernatural forces “to exert an influence over (one’s) fellow human beings or to change the course of events.” Witchcraft is when someone uses sorcery or divination to manipulate or use supernatural forces to prosper themselves or harm their enemies, or both. It is born out of our desire to control our destiny and future, do good or bad—our attempt to manipulate the gods.
The Fear of Witchcraft Pervades Time and Cultures
Witchcraft is universal. It existed in the Ancient Near Eastern world of the Old Testament. Greeks and Romans practiced it, and Paul’s letter to the Ephesians assumes it (Ephesians 6:12, 16; Acts 19:19). Salem, where our son was born, is America’s witchcraft capital. And I can recall one of my distant grandmothers practising divination in her shrine near my childhood home.
Witchcraft remains pervasive across time, cultures, and religious professions.
Witchcraft is not restricted to those who don’t know God. Israel was so inclined to enchantments and sorcery that prohibitions against them were necessary (Exodus 22:18; Deuteronomy 18:10). Paul found it necessary to remind Christians that sorcery stems from the flesh (Galatians 5:19-20).
Gilbert Bukenya and Rebecca Kadaga would certainly consider themselves Christians—so did my grandmother, whose Bible and rosary never left her shrine. As such, witchcraft remains pervasive across time, cultures, and religious professions.
Why Does It Persist in Africa?
Julius K. Muthengi, in The Art of Divination, notes that recurrent family sickness that claims lives, unexplained and untimely deaths, barrenness, and pandemics are some reasons Africans visit witchdoctors. Linked to this, many fear witchcraft being used against them, so they turn to it for protection. A shrine hosts guests when a student seeks answers for her failed grades, a politician fears the next polls, and a businessman’s bank statement displeases him. In short, problems and pain tend to move people towards shrines.
Problems and pain tend to move people towards shrines.
Yet for Kavale (who, as we saw, noted a renewed interest in witchcraft) some Africans explore witchcraft out of curiosity through ‘simple experiments’ until they are trapped. Others heed the call by schools for “a return to traditional practices as a way of showing patriotism.” Such a call is audible in Ugandan academic and political circles. Indeed, there remains a considerable reaction among African elites against Christianity for its supposed colonial roots, and a rallying call exists to return to traditionalism and witchcraft.
The Bible and Witchcraft
Though the word “witchcraft” does not occur in the Bible, “sorcery” or “divination” or “witch” communicate a similar idea. Pharaoh’s palace was a theatre where Moses and Egyptian magicians met (Exodus 7:8-13). As they enter the promised land, the Lord forbade Israel from practicing divination, fortunetelling, interpretation of omens, or sorcery (Deuteronomy 18:9-14). Indeed, God will destroy whoever turns to omens (Leviticus 20:6) and swiftly turn against sorcerers (Malachi 3:5), as he dealt with Jezebel (2 Kings 9:22).
The Bible says a lot about sorcery and witchcraft. But God’s messengers always defeated magic and sorcery.
The New Testament, too, contains comparatively harsh rebukes for sorcerers and magicians. Peter reprimands Simon, “the Magician,” for his greed and desire to manipulate the Spirit of God (Acts 8:9-24). The Lord, through Paul, blinded Elymus, a Jewish magician who sought to hinder proconsul Sergius Paulus from receiving the gospel (Acts 13:4-12). In Ephesus, “a number of those who had practiced magic arts brought their books together and burned them in the sight of all” (Acts 19:19).
Thus, the Bible says a lot about sorcery and witchcraft, and there were many power encounters between God’s messengers and magicians. But God’s messengers always defeated magic and sorcery. Likewise, God’s people need not be afraid today.
God’s Answers to Witchcraft
Despite God’s evident triumph over sorcery, magic, and bewitchment powers, many Africans, including Christians, live in fear of witchcraft. Keith Ferdinando reminds us that “while in the Bible the spirit and the occult world is effectively eclipsed by God, in African traditional religion the situation tends rather be reversed.” By this, he means that Africans, even confessing Christians, are more aware of evil powers than they are of the God who rules over all things.
Africans, even confessing Christians, are more aware of evil powers than they are of the God who rules over all things.
When the going gets tough, many Africans will draw on our cultural traditions. Our troubles and trials may lay bare our subconscious beliefs about the supernatural, feeding into a damaging lie that our dark days ensue from our neighbor’s witchcraft. If you are afraid of witchcraft, there are three things I would like to say.
1. Recall Christ’s Finished Work
Always remember that Christ conquered witchcraft on the cross. Jesus “disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him” (Colossians 2:15). Jesus is greater than Moses, who defeated the Egyptian magicians and set God’s people free from fear and bondage. He defeated Satan, sin, and sorcery.
Jesus defeated Satan, sin, and sorcery.
If you are a Christian, then “he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world” (1 John 4:4). His victory means that “there is no enchantment against Jacob, no divination against Israel” (Numbers 23:23).
2. Choose Faith over Fear
Faith clings to God’s promises and receives God’s work. Witchcraft works through fear: the anxiety for what tomorrow will be; a fear of what your neighbour may have done; or even the dread of death. Fear makes us feel like failed masters of our life—defeated captains who have lost control of the ship. Faith calls us to rest in Christ’s finished work as one who firmly holds our lives in his hands and rows the boat to its desired end. Fear drowns us in despair while faith ties us to the triumphant Saviour.
Fear drowns us in despair while faith ties us to the triumphant Saviour.
3. Live Obediently
Remember obedience. Recall that God’s promises are for those led by his Spirit (Romans 8:12-15). Prophet Samuel once told king Saul that “to obey is better than sacrifice” and “rebellion is as the sin of divination” (1 Samuel 15:22-23). That is, conscious disobedience is like bewitchment. Persistent personal sin invites Satan as sure as garbage summons flies. And I am not saying that our obedience saves us. Christ is enough. But how we live reveals whether we believe that Christ is enough, or we are lip-Christians. And lip-Christians lodge in Satan’s pocket. Believe and live out Christ’s victory over the powers of darkness. Give Satan no room in your life.