Saturday, January 7, 2017

America's witchcraft

In the last year or so, we started sharing more stories of our struggles with witchcraft in this region. Like how Bashi Future spent all his money and a year of his life building a house and then immediately vacated it because he dreamed that someone had cursed him out of jealousy. Or how Sam experienced an unexplained palsy and the entire community agreed that he was taken over by an evil spirit after sleeping with a pregnant girl. Or that time Bana Mwansa lost her phone and paid the witch doctor $5 to divine who had taken it and the witch doctor accused a young boy who instantly went mad, hurling himself into fires.

pc: nanga
Our awareness of and encounters with witchcraft (both real and perceived) has grown steadily with our integration. To give an idea of the frequency we're now experiencing, the Chief has come to our village three times this year to address those who are flinging curses, living in fear and dealing in darkness. Ya’ll knock it off, he pleaded. His charge was knowingly simplistic. The animistic world is all encompassing and one cannot simply cease believing it any more than one can stop breathing air.

pc: lusaka voice
The bondage of sorcery and witchcraft translates poorly to the Christian west. Despite all the anecdotes, it's still a mystery for the most part. Not only is there conflict between science and reason – (for example, science tells us that one cannot be protected against seizures by tying a snake fang around one's neck) – but there is also strong disapproval regarding the syncretism between faith and culture. Zambia is, after all, a "Christian nation" and the acceptance of the demonic into every day life registers indefensible. HOW, the Westerners ask, how can a family conclude a Christian funeral, complete with a Christ-centered homily and then transition into a ritual coffin chasing? 

pc: lusaka times. mourners hoist the coffin in the air, letting it direct them to the front door of the "murderer" 
To the culturally removed observer, it all just looks... wrong.

We too feel your angst.

From a ministry perspective, we’ve prayed long and hard about the problem of witchcraft in our communities. The bondage is real and the effects sobering. Over the years, we’ve talked ourselves blue in the face – hashing and re-hashing the scientific, scriptural, rational and theological foundations for rejecting witchcraft outright. The result has been consistent: two versions of reality clash again and again and we are the recipients of the sometimes gracious, sometimes patronizing response: We don’t expect you to understand our culture. My white skin belies me as “other” and I lose my foot to stand on.

A handful of times, usually in frustration, we have blurted out the ultimatum: You CANNOT serve both God and Satan! Period! The response is always and forever the same. No madam, no, we are all Christians here. This is something that our black culture deals with. I bristle at the racial divide, but who am I to argue?

pc: kitwe online

Our burdened sharing draws out sympathy and fervent prayer from folks back home. For a long time, I concurred with the indignant response. Yeah, that’s right. This witchcraft stuff is CRAZY! Inexcusable. Can’t understand it. Pray for them. They are so lost.

It’s easy – too easy – to see another’s blind spots. And that sliver in my own eye grows the size of a tree.

I'm thankful that the ex-pat metamorphosis has been working its magic as of late. The ability to view ones birth culture with a fair and critical eye is a rare and beautiful gift. I don’t know whether "culturally neutral" is a thing, and if it is, I’m not there yet. But I find that each passing year, the distance between the west and myself widens a bit more, and I begin to ***see***.

With greater reflection specifically on America's reaction to the witchcraft of Africa, I've seen more and more of the similarities between the cultures. At one point, somewhere in the muddle of the US election, Thanksgiving, Black Friday and Christmas season, after listening/reading a stream of greedy, snarky, buy, sell, want, must have everythings, I found my lost marbles long enough to yell at Jeremy: OH MY GOODNESS...
                       Materialism is America’s witchcraft. 

He nodded. And I mused. And we both felt a little ashamed.

I know that sounds extreme - maybe even unfounded - and I might be all alone out here in left field, but that's the ex-pat life anyhow. For me, the evidence stacks high enough. I admit that I am strongly influenced by my Zambian neighbors who look on the same evidence with horror and pray (long and hard and publicly, mind you) for us all.

For example...

When American Christians started expressing disdain for rising health costs because of all of the “freeloaders,” our Zambian friends (every last one of which believes that health care is a human right) judged that attitude HARD.

Charitable giving amongst evangelical Christians does not, on average, breach 3%.  And yet, how many times have one of our neighbors emptied their entire savings account to help a friend in need?

The goal to save money for retirement or investment or business or the next big purchase drives Americans to work to the point of neglect and save to the point of stingy. In contrast, just the other day, my friend Carol dropped all the money she has in this life down the pit latrine… and she laughed about it. (Though for what its worth, Carol would like to advise everyone to not tuck all your cash in the fold of your chitenge - especially when using a pit latrine. You're welcome.)

When someone starts wasting an American's time, the first thought is (say it with me now,) TIME IS MONEY, (of course). Our Zam neighbors admire the inherent ambition there but but reject the motive and prefer a higher principle which is that time is relational and not to be monetized.

Corporate greed. Widening class divide. Emphasis on individual responsibility over community care. Shopping, shopping, shopping. More, more, more. $$$$$$$$$$$$$$.

It's the American way all right. I could paint broad strokes and list examples for days but I think most Americans already know its true, deep down. Freedom and capitalism are basically synonyms and my RIGHT to consume and hoard and buy and own is the good life, says the culture. 

I'm mindful of the fact that this is all so poignant now more so than at other times because we have just exited the Christmas season – the time of year that displays America’s spirit of materialism with all the flourish of a billion twinkle lights.

You know, I used to think that Zambians didn’t celebrate Christmas, and then I realized that it's just that they don’t give each other presents as if that were the purpose of the holiday in the first place.

The Zambian Christians get a whiff of our adulterated Christmas culture and are all like, wait, who the baby-Jesus-cradling hay is Santa?

Witch. Craft.

That the buying of material things has competed for and won the spotlight on the day we celebrate God With Us demonstrates an unredeemed worldview, akin to the evils of animism.



That’s what the villagers say about their coffin chasings.

No, no, this is different, American Christians say.

Feel free to make your case, though I am not your judge. BUT, from an African cultural view point, in the timespan between Thanksgiving to Christmas in America, syncretism is spelled R E T A I L.

BUT, (the justification comes flying at me with a tail of tinsel trailing behind,) we give gifts because Jesus is the greatest gift! It’s symbolic.

I love giving gifts for this reason! But that excuse is as tacky as the above gif. (SO. TACKY.) Tell me, how many American kids wake up at the crack of dawn on December 25th and cry out GIVE ME JESUS!!! Four years now of MK training and mine don't! Our culture has failed our theological convictions something awful.

Many Christian families have just stopped trying. Christmas is a cultural construct emphasizing  socially acceptable, albeit unnecessary and exessive material accumulation, and we read the Christmas story too and go to church on Christmas Eve (but never Christmas morning, because, hello… presents…) and somehow that’s all ok. I know it shows the depths of my cultural deviance, but as I see all the Christian parents on facebook facilitating Santa, my Zam side comes out and I can only think, “What manner of juju is this!?!”

But its different, they say. It’s just a holiday, they say. Jesus is the reason for the season! We keep our gift giving (euphemism for materialism) in check! … Kind of like the money our neighbors give as an offering to a chief to "bless" the land, or the necklace around the baby’s neck to “protect” her… That too is “just tradition.”

The ultimatums I've declared to the animists reverberate in my head though they sound different this time...

You cannot serve both God and Mammon 

The Good Book says it straight, if we have ears to hear.

So… really now, we’re going to pray spiritual freedom over this: 

pc: lusaka times

but not this:

Not all culture and tradition is evil, obviously, and the antidote to cynicism is identifying and amplifying the aspects of culture that disclose their heavenly DNA. Like so many things, this too integrity and introspection; parceling out what is “mere tradition” vs. straight idolatry is not as easy as I wish it could be.

But I check myself often with a word of caution, lest I assume that I am on the straight and narrow. As the old proverb goes, "a fish doesn't know it's wet."

I don’t think I would have ever been able to criticize my own culture minus having immersed myself in another. I see fallen aspects of Zambian culture much more readily than my fellow Zambians do because I don’t swim fully in that water. And perhaps I see America's fallenness more sharply now too because I don't swim fully in that water either.

Few readily accept being told that they are idolaters, and conviction only truly comes from above. But I still maintain: America needs African missionaries. The same West that sees clear as day the evils of witchcraft desperately needs non-American, prophetic voices decrying our worship of material things. We mustn't forget, America does a disproportionate amount of sending not because we need the least amount of cultural renewal, but because we have the financial resources to do the sending whereas many other's don't.

As for me, I haven’t backed off of witchcraft due to my rising convictions that, well, America is evil too… but I have grown in my empathy in the struggle for right perspective, and I’ve doubled down my efforts to weed out my cultural presuppositions and make them as answerable to scripture as I expect animism to be.

Anyone else want to join me?