“My beloved great grandfather, who is long dead, cannot be equally on the same level as Jesus. Because death defeated him whereas with Jesus he actually conquered death – and that is a historical claim.”
Practicing Ancestral Worship
Blaque: “Hello everyone! Blaque Nubon here. Welcome to The Gospel Coalition Africa Podcast. We have David Kobedi joining us. David Kobedi, you were with us on our very first Podcast! Thank you for joining us.
Today we’re talking about ancestral worship. Evil spirits. African Traditional beliefs. Religion. You will frame that for us later on. But before we get into it… just tell us a bit about your own personal story in light of the conversation we’re having.”
David: “So, I grew up in a small village. Just 90km away from Rustenburg in the North West. I’m Motswana by nationality – oh not nationality! Because in Botswana they call me a visitor. By ethnicity. So, a born and bred Tswana boy. And from as young as I can remember my family – that’s my grandmother, my great grandmother, my mum and my two brothers – we were part of the AME Church. The African Methodist Episcopal Church. And we were very devoted to church and also very syncretistic. Which simply means that we are mixing religion or our faith – our so-called Christian faith – with ancestral beliefs and ancestral practices.
we were very devoted to church and also very syncretistic… mixing religion or our faith – our so-called Christian faith – with ancestral beliefs and ancestral practices.
I remember from early on if anything was going wrong in our family we would go to the grave as early as we could in the morning. Drop a stone onto my late grandfather’s grave and greet him. Like we are talking to a normal alive human being. “Dumela Oupa” – we used to say – and we would start…”
Blaque: “Is this your great grandfather?”
David: “Great grandfather yeah…and then we would start naming the issues that we had. The places where we wanted him to help us out. So that’s what we would do. And failing to do that, we would consult other mediums to help us in that regard.”
David: “So we would go to traditional healers, traditional doctors, and ask them to help us and aid us to communicate to the dead. I still remember – vividly – as a young boy, I must have been five years old. We went to this guy in a blue shack with a Kaiser Chiefs poster there hanging. And yah, we went to consult him for advice. And then in my own family my great grandmother’s brother was a traditional doctor. And I remember being intrigued with some of the stuff that he would do. Him throwing the bones and telling us our fortunes. And he said to me that if I ever wanted that gift… I could just take his stuff – his bones. And drink… boil it and drink the water thereof and I would receive that gift.”
Blaque: “Sjoe. You were obviously young when you were involved in all of this stuff. I mean you are obviously in your mother’s house. You lived there. Was there any point where anyone in the family questioned any of this stuff? Or did people just follow it without any questions?”
David: “So, I think there’s a thing that you learn when you are young in an African home. Especially living in a village. That there are so many things that you are discouraged to question. And I think that’s the thing I soon learned. Coz I would pick up a lot of things that they would say. Things that we were prohibited to do. Like don’t bring water into the house at night coz that would disrupt things at home. Because we went to a witch doctor to kind of protect our home. So if you were to do anything to disturb that, we were discouraged from that. And I think each time they would say that…
You don’t question tradition. It’s beyond us. It’s passed down from generation to generation. So who are you to dare question those traditions?
Blaque: “So the water would disturb the protection or the energy? OK.”
David: “Yeah. So they would say that and as a kid you are like “ssss – I’m not gonna do that! Why should I do that?” And they would say “stop asking questions. This is how we have done things and this is how we are gonna continue doing things.” So yah. We would question. Nobody would answer. In fact we were discouraged to even question. Coz that’s tradition right? You don’t question tradition. It’s beyond us. It’s passed down from generation to generation. So who are you to dare question those traditions?”
What is African Traditional Religion?
Blaque: “Earlier on I asked that you to explain what the thing we are talking about is. So what is African Traditional Religion? What is ancestral worship? What is this thing that we are talking about? Can you frame it for us? Is it a religion? Is it a tradition? You said you went to a church where it was syncretistic – you mixed the two. So what – was it part of your religion? So what is it? If I’m watching this for the first time and I’m like “I’ve heard of ancestral worship but…”
An African Traditional Worldview
David: “I think every single human being has a way in which they look at the world. A grid that helps them interpret how they see the world. Often that’s called a worldview. It’s the glasses that we wear. It helps us make sense of the world that we live in. So I think, when it comes to African traditional beliefs, ancestral worship, it’s a grid and a glass that we have – that we don’t realise we have – that helps us see the world in a particular way. So I would call it African Traditional Worldview. Or yah like a grid that we use to interpret the world that’s deeply rooted in worship. That is deeply rooted in culture. And sometimes those things overlap. And we tend to think that that’s part of the culture. But yeah. Part of it is worship. Part of it is cultural practices. But there’s a blurry line between those because… precisely because its the way – the grid that we use to look at the world. So I’d, yeah, I think I would define it as that. A worldview.”
Is there Power in African Traditional Religion?
Blaque: “The obvious question then becomes is the, is there power in ancestral worship and African Traditional Religion? Other people might think – “why are you even talking about this thing? It’s a done deal. We don’t even have to get into it. There is nothing there. People are just deceived and they are lying to themselves. There’s no real force. There is nothing drawing them in there that is powerful.” So would you say there’s power there? Or there is no power?”
If you have grown up in the places where I have grown up then you would realise that it’s more than just the material world. There is more to this life.
David: “I think the bottom line to answer that question is yes there is power. And depending on who is asking the question… if you are influenced more by the western materialistic worldview – that views matter, the things that we can see and touch, as the ultimate reality – obviously its kinda bizarre to be talking about ancestral worship. It’s in the realm of superstitions. But if you have grown up in the places where I have grown up then you would realise that it’s more than just the material world. There is more to this life.
A Blend of Power and Superstition
David: “And so, in my experience, there’s been manifestations of power that I’ve seen. For instance a witch doctor telling you things that he wouldn’t have known by himself. So you kinda experience that and you are like “whoa – this is, this is real. It’s not just somebody throwing bones and being superstitious.” But having said that there are aspects of it where it is superstition. There isn’t much power. It’s just a placebo effect. You believe that if you drink a certain type of water everything will go well for you – therefore yah – there is a placebo effect to that. So I think most of it thrives and continues because there is real power in it. It’s not just superstitions. But in the same breath I would say there are a lot of superstitions surrounding it.”
It’s not just superstitions. But in the same breath I would say there are a lot of superstitions surrounding it.
Blaque: “So, power and superstition together. When we think about power… I just remember a conversation I had with my mother about ancestral worship. And I think, just to summarise it, I boiled it down to two things. 1) We live in a broken world and 2) We want things to work around us as people.”
Our World is Broken and we Want Things Fixed
Blaque: “We want to fulfil our happiness. So we want jobs that will make us happy. We want the partner that’s gonna make us happy. We want money that is gonna make us happy. Our kids to succeed in school – that makes us happy. And whenever all those things are threatened – our security, our finances, etc. etc. there is a fear that arises. That life is gonna just, you know, go to the ashes. And we are not gonna amount to anything. And then we go to either witch doctors, healers, whatever it is, and then they give us access to the ancestors. Ancestors have power to fix our problems. We go back home. Things are fixed. And then because we live in a broken world something else happens. Fear arises, and we go back, and the cycle just keeps on continuing. What would your comments be on that? That whole dance of fear and power between us and the ancestors?”
Living in Fear
David: “I think I totally agree with you that… and I think it’s a problem for every human being. That we all seek for our ultimate happiness. The reason we exist is to be fully happy and everything that threatens us – we wanna get rid of it. And I think also you live in that world where you want happiness, but you realise that you can’t get happiness because the world is messed up. But there is another sense in which you realise that there is a supreme being that exists. So this feeling that there is something bigger than us. And this feeling that maybe we’ve done something wrong to this being – whoever or whatever that being is. So all of those things dance together. So, we fear losing our ultimate happiness. Therefore we appeal to these powers – or this supreme being or beings – to make us happy! And if he doesn’t we appease him – or it – to gain whatever it is that we want.”
we are using those powers that we recognise. We are using them for our own benefit and to enhance our own agendas.
A Man-Centred Dance
David: “Its a very man centred kinda dance. Because we are using those powers that we recognise. We are using them for our own benefit and to enhance our own agendas. So the spirit world is there. There is an awareness of it but it seems to exist for us! So we are at the centre of the dance.”
the only times when we went to worship, or when we went to consult, was when we were in trouble. Or trying to avoid trouble.
Blaque: “So, other people, who are probably very involved in that kind of world, would hear that and say “well, the same way you worship your god, I’m worshiping my ancestors. So you do all that you do to give glory to your god. I view it the same way.” And according to what you’ve described your answer would be no. So how would you further elaborate to that kind of person that your point is that this thing is man-centred. Meaning that it’s actually just about me. It’s not necessarily about giving glory to my ancestors or anything else. How would you further expand that?”
David: “I think that when you think of – or at least in my own experience – the only times when we went to worship, or when we went to consult, was when we were in trouble. Or trying to avoid trouble. So you’re having a funeral. You are in a place of grieving and you don’t want to have that again. So what do you do? You go consult. And so I think that’s the reality of it. That we tend to worship when things are bad or when we are trying to avoid bad things. Not necessarily for the sake of fellowshipping with those who are dead. Which goes to show, as if I were to go to my dad every time I needed money, I’m not actually interested in a relationship. All that I’m interested in is his money and what he gives me. So yah. I think it is in that sense man-centred.”
We only Consult when Something is Wrong
Blaque: “That is part of the conversation I was having with my mother. I asked her to give me a scenario where anyone goes to consult with a witch doctor or sangoma etc. when things are OK. And she gave me a scenario, I think, with marriage. And she said “no, but we go and consult when somebody is getting married and then… or somebody is giving birth” or whatever the deal may be. And I said to her “yeah, those might seem like joyous times but you are going because you fear that something might happen to the child. Or something might go wrong with the wedding. So you might have a joyous experience. Whether it’s a celebration of something. But underlying all of that is the fear that “this might go wrong.” So appeal to make sure that the good thing goes well.”
David: “Yep – that is true.”
Blaque: “But at the same time – it’s still about me.”
David: “And they would say that if you are not following protocol and those rituals something might go wrong. So it’s always an appeal to fear in the same light.”
Christians Dabbling in Ancestral Worship
Blaque: “So just before we get to the practicalities – because obviously there’s Christians watching this – I know some Christians who… because of the context we stay in – African continent where ancestral worship or African Traditional Religion is a big part of our culture – the family you come from might be dabbling with ancestral worship. And so there is a real tug of war in your heart. Where something happens to your marriage, something happens to your family, to your kids whatever. And then the natural response from those around you is “hey! You need to go appease.” And so you see the power in that world. And so there is a real struggle. And I want us to get to that. Just to speak about those practicalities.”
you can’t be a follower of Jesus and dabble with these things. Something has to give. You can’t do that because that is not who God wants you to be.
Are Ancestors Just Demons?
Blaque: “But before we get there, other people would be offended with some of the language that we use as Christians when we are speaking about ancestors. Other Christians have outright just said “those are demons! We are not gonna make much about that or engage and talk about it. That’s just demons. Stay away from it.” Other people have jokingly, or just out of ignorance or whatever, just said “ah! you talking to sand! Why are you taking a stone and talking to stones!?” Whatever the deal is. With being true to what the Bible says, you being a pastor, pastorally how would you speak to somebody who is outside of the faith and you are engaging with them about ancestors? Sticking true to what the Bible says about this subject. How would you speak to them about it?”
David: “Someone who is not a believer or..?”
Blaque: “Not a believer.”
David: “Firstly, I think wisdom is a key word there. We must apply wisdom in reading situations. Reading people and really challenging them in a winsome way. So I think for me hearing that ancestral worship is wrong was a lightbulb moment. But I think it’s… after I had become a Christian when someone made me realise that “hey, listen, you can’t be a follower of Jesus and dabble with these things. Something has to give. You can’t do that because that is not who God wants you to be.” So I think I needed to hear that as a Christian.
because of the nature of ancestral worship being part and parcel of our cultural identity, it is something dear to us… these people that we think we worship – have a close emotional connection with us
But I think for someone who is not a believer, because of the nature of ancestral worship being part and parcel of our cultural identity, it is something dear to us. In the sense that these things that we worship – or think we worship – these people that we think we worship – have a close emotional connection with us. So my great grandfather, people told me stories about him. How much he loved me. So there was an emotional connection to my worship. I was worshiping somebody who knows my struggle. Who’s seen me as a child. Who I was connected with. So for someone to tell me as a non believer that I was worshiping a demon or I was worshiping idols, that would not be a helpful thing to say.”
Ask Questions. Don’t Make Statements
David: “So I think we apply wisdom in just questioning the hope that somebody has. “So if you are saying you worshiping somebody who is dead is that your hope there?” Asking questions rather than making statements is way more helpful in dealing with people like that. Because after some time, if I am engaging with the thing myself, then I ask myself those same questions. So I think ask people questions rather than make statements. Which is the case which we saw with Nathan’s story. He came to David and presented him with a situation. He came to the conclusion – and I think there is just a great power in that. Of someone coming to the realisation that “maybe what I’m worshiping is not fulfilling or doing the thing that it promises to do.”
Blaque: “That’s good. At the same time, how would the Bible speak of ancestors? So if we go for the jugular. And this is… I’m not saying you are talking to somebody who is not a believer. But if you just say what it is.”
The Biblical View of Ancestor Worship
David: “The Bible talks a lot about dead people being dead. They couldn’t help themselves. They are powerless to help you because they remain dead. It will talk about worshiping God and not creation. And I know some people will say “no, it’s not ancestral worship it’s ancestral veneration. We are not praying to the ancestors we are just thanking them and asking them for help.” But I mean at the end of the day, it is worship. it is us praying and asking things that we should be turning to God for. And we are turning to things that God has created for that help. And so scripture would say that that is worshiping the things God created rather than God creator. That it is idolatry. So it’s quite clear. And it would make a mockery of idolatry that we are actually worshiping nothing. Coz the stuff that we do – like you are worshiping somebody who is dead. That’s bones. So… the Bible is not very… it doesn’t use cushioned language to talk about this.
The Bible talks a lot about dead people being dead. They couldn’t help themselves. They are powerless to help you because they remain dead.
In fact somebody tried to throw me a curve ball as well, chatting about this. And they said “well I just go for guidance.” And I gave them a similar response. It doesn’t matter whether we eat, drink, ask for guidance, dress, whatever it is, we do all things in worship. Coz we are designed to be machines of worship. And I use the word machine very cautiously. But, we are designed to worship. And so anything that we do is worship.
And so it doesn’t matter if you’re just going to ask for what the lotto numbers are. You are worshiping. And if worship is not directed towards God, it’s idolatry.
And I think I mean for me – coz we often speak in concepts right – if you had to boil down on the issue – the reason why we call it worship is precisely as you read the scriptures you see that God is in control of history. And if he is, the he is the one that we turn to for guidance for instance. Because we believe that he is supreme. And when we don’t turn to him for guidance… like it just changes the trajectory of our lives. And I think that’s the thing with the stuff they don’t tell you about ancestral worship and consulting the dead. Is that it actually makes you a person who is suspicious. Because you are suspicious of your neighbour because they might be witching you. Like give me somebody who worships ancestors, who consults with the dead, and I will give you somebody who is living in fear. Who is living in torn relationships. Suspicion. Yah. So its not as glamorous as it looks. Because when we do worship created things that’s what happens to us. We become… we function less like we are supposed to. So that’s one other side to the coin. It is worship because it changes the trajectory of our lives. It makes us function like different people. Yeah so just to add on that.
That’s good man. And I really want us to get to the practicalities. But one more! I’m not worshiping them, but instead they just… at the – exact words, I am quoting verbatim – “they’re at the same level as Jesus. If Jesus intercedes for Christians to God then my ancestors are interceding on my behalf to God. Jesus is the king of Jews. But my grandfather is the king of my tribe.” So if he came as a man in a particular culture, my grandfather was a man in a particular culture. And so when they both died… you as a Christian would ask Jesus for intercession. I’m asking for intercession.
One of the claims that Jesus makes in the Bible, and in his life on earth, was that he was equal with God. And so in saying that our ancestors are equal with Jesus we in the same breath would say that they are equal with God. But let’s park that. One of the biggest things that Christianity rises on and falls on is the resurrection of Jesus. That Jesus did not remain dead. And I think for me that’s like… that’s the breaking point. Either he’s dead and we are wasting our time or he is alive and his claims are true. And so if he is alive, then my beloved great grandfather, who is long dead, cannot be equally on the same level as Jesus. Because death defeated him whereas with Jesus he actually conquered death – and that is a historical claim.
So I think to say that is to really not understand who Jesus is. Because again we all like our own versions of Jesus. But the Jesus I see in the scriptures and the Jesus of history is a resurrected Jesus. So I think the key for me is the resurrection of Jesus.
That’s good bro.
Yah – that’s the message of the Christian faith.
That’s good. So practicals. To the Christian who is struggling serious anxieties. Serious fear. I go to a wedding back home. All I’m hearing is your marriage is gonna fail because you didn’t do stuff this way. There is a funeral and they are saying “well, at your funeral, when you die, we don’t know where you are gonna end up. Because you didn’t do things this way. I have a child. You didn’t bring the child to the village to… for certain rituals to be practiced. So, when your child becomes wayward, when your child suddenly has illness, don’t come to us! And so you love your family. You grew up in that environment, like yourself. But now you are a Christian. You are redeemed and there is just real fear. Real anxiety. How do you help them?
I mean I think, to say that fear is a real thing. I would firstly want to acknowledge that. Because I came from a church culture that was fearful but in our fear we confessed that we are not fearful. I’ll explain what I mean by that. We came from a place where ancestral worship was a big part of our lives and when we became Christians, we almost offended just about everyone and told them they were worshiping demons. Which was not really helpful. And we lived continually in fear, but we remedied the fear by turning to things like fasting and prayer. Like praying with vigour and invoking the spirit of God. Which is not a Biblical think to even do. But we are invoking God to act on our behalf. To protect us against those things. So I think there was unhelpful theology there. Because all we did was import our worldview into… and baptise it into Christianity and make it look like we have conquered our fears. But in actual fact we were living in those fears. So just to acknowledge that there will constantly be fears if you were raised a particular way. You are discipled in a culture of African traditional beliefs. And I think when you become a Christian it is a discipleship journey where you learn to think differently and to re-think some of the worldviews that you used to have. So just to acknowledge then that there will be fear. And I think personally for me there was fear. There continues to be fear of the unknown world. There are certain places in my village where if I walk past there at night I’m still scared, because I was told as a child that that place has such and such a thing. Evil spirits. So that’s still part of who I am and I’m learning – relearning – a different way in Christ. So just to acknowledge that we need to not offend people. To apply wisdom in our convictions. But to stick to our convictions. But at the same to acknowledge that there is real fear that we still encounter.
Yeah. And where would they find encouragement?
Shucks! That’s a brilliant question and I think when you read the Scripture you see a victorious Jesus. And I think it gives an answer to our struggle for power and for fear. It’s… man like Jesus is supreme. And so we just need to almost rework our whole thinking. First of all our understanding of what is wrong with our world. We need to rework that to understand that yes, there will be bad things that happen, and they happen because of human sin. We live in a broken and sinful world. And secondly, we ourselves are sinful because one of things that African traditional beliefs does is that there is no mention of sin and there is almost this fear of spirits that is like “it’s spooky! We don’t really know what it is.”
Yeah – a lot of mystery.
We need to re-gear our thinking around evil spirit and the spiritual world. That yes there is power but in the Bible we see the kingdom of darkness and the kingdom of light. And there are things that characterise the kingdom of darkness and things that characterise the kingdom of light. And to be aware of which things are and which things are not. Yeah so the ghost post needs to shift. Because we think of the spiritual world as like “Jeez I’m scared but I don’t know what I’m scared of.” But as you read the Bible study you realise that because of evil spirits sin came into the world. So primarily their goal is to lead us away from a relationship with God and to perpetuate human rebellion and to mess up human relationships. So anything that messes up human relationship its outside the kingdom of light. Any spirit that tells me, or causes disunity among brothers, is not from the kingdom of light. So just understanding that. But I think also coming to a point of understanding where the victory of God lies. The victory of Christ in Colossians is at the cross. At the cross Jesus disarms the evil spirits and their power to make us disobedient to God and he fulfils the law. He totally obeys God and he dies on behalf of us. Disarming, as Paul says in Colossians, the powers of evil. So the goal post is there. As we understand life in our world, it has to be through that grid of us rebelling and God coming to destroy that through the cross. But also understanding that we live in a world where sin is still rearing it’s ugly head. So there will be struggle and there will be challenges. But God has conquered and our world is headed towards that victory. So whether or not my child dies of a sickness I can find comfort in the fact that God is leading me somewhere. My marriage is not gonna rise and fall on whether or not I’ve appeased the ancestors or not. No. Christ has defeated sin through the cross and through the cross I see a new way of living. With my wife, in my family. That’s the thing that gonna sustain me. So it’s a mind shift. that understands the story of God and the story of his world and what he is doing in the world.
That’s good man. There is a helpful illustration – just in light of that. I mean we all watch court dramas or whatever. Suits etc. If you are old it’s Law and Order, Boston Legal! But when we know the thug has been guilty, or is guilty rather, and we are all waiting for the judge to hit the hammer and pronounce that person guilty, when that hammer hits there is a sense of relief in all of us. People in the court room, even us watching the thing. There is a sense of relief that justice has finally prevailed. But, before the cops come in to take the criminal to the cells we are all in that courtroom still looking at that criminal. Or that thug or whatever it is. In the face. And it’s a picture of what God has done for us on the cross. That when Jesus Christ died God hit the hammer and said evil is dealt with. It’s done. The judgement has been pronounced and it’s gonna be done away with. But we are still in that moment we’re in the courtroom where we are waiting for Jesus to come pull it out completely and take it into the dungeon. So there is a sense of relief as Christians knowing. Hey it’s done. But we are still looking at him sitting there, waiting for Jesus to come and pull him into the dungeon. I thought that was a very helpful illustration. Just describing the kind of world that we are in. We are still in the court room. The judge is there. We know he is there. We know that he has pronounced this thing guilty and so we will wait for him to finally come pull him.
And I think that kind of thinking helps us way better than African traditional beliefs to make sense of human suffering. Because it still prevails and we still are left in this place where we think “well maybe I am suffering because I did something wrong.” But the victory of Jesus at the cross gives us a better understanding of human suffering. That God cares – which is why he came to do that. And the verdict is clear that this criminal is gonna go into the dungeons. And so we find comfort in that. Much as we are still looking at him and there is still suffering we can actually look forward to a time when there isn’t suffering. And that is the same picture we see in Revelation. The saints are suffering and they are experiencing hectic times but John points them to a picture of the crucified lamb. A God who died on behalf of sinful people. A God who’s defeated the dragon. The dragon is still causing terror in our world. Like those sort of pictures that Satan is defeated but he is still kicking about and causing trouble and havoc in our world. Appearing like our beloved ones to us so that we can be tricked into thinking that we are worshiping our ancestors when in actual fact they are long gone. They are dead. There is no communication between the dead and the alive. So yeah, I mean I think for me living in the reality of that victory daily is the thing that I would say helps us make sense of our world and leads us away from the fear of the unknown. Of the spirit world.
That’s good. I think we should all buy hammers and every day just hit them to remind ourselves!
Anyway – that’s good man. Thank you so much for that. Really appreciate it bro. Hopefully it was helpful to somebody out there. We appreciate your questions. We appreciate your comments. So please do engage with us and help us to help you. So if this was helpful, let us know. But thank you so much for that man – appreciate it. Check us out on all our other platforms. Our Instagram, Facebook, and obviously the website. There’s other resources that are really helpful.
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Grace and peace.