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The Devil in Our Midst

By Paul J. Utterback

Paul J. Utterback recently returned from Malawi, where he served for two years as a Peace Corps volunteer, teaching English and history at St. Pio Catholic Secondary School, a Capuchin institution that strives to operate preferentially for the poor. A “revert” to Catholicism after turbulent college years, he aspires to the religious life.

Malawi is a small country in sub-Saharan Africa about the size of Indiana but heartily populated by nearly fifteen million souls, the majority of whom live on approximately a dollar a day. The Catholic Church in Malawi is a fascinating and, at times, disconcerting mixture of Christianity and native custom. Some see it as a strength of Catholicism that it permits enculturation to a certain degree, which, it is argued, enhances her ability to speak to people in their concrete experience. Others see it as a dilution of the faith, rendering the Church incapable of denouncing some rather peculiar — and at times troubling — cultural practices clung to in the name of tribal heritage. Serving as a Peace Corps volunteer at a Catholic school in Malawi, I’ve had to overcome my tendency to see Westernization — meant in a Catholic sense, a sort of Europeanization in terms of behavior, temperament, liturgy, culture, etc. — as the panacea for any and all ills, and to accept that this place offers the Church universal a perspective that could do much to wash away the malaise that has settled over much of Catholicism in the West.

For lack of a better term, living in Malawi has supernaturalized my worldview. It has helped me to reassess the realities on the ground in southeast Africa and stirred me out of my torpor with regard to the battle the Church militant wages daily against forces that, whether we in the West want to acknowledge it or not, beset us on every side. One area in particular in which the scales have fallen from my eyes is that of witchcraft, which at one time I held to be merely a superstition — a silly one at that — and a nonsensical stumbling block to harmonious community and interethnic relations.

Witchcraft as Superstition?

In his 2012 book The Future Church, John L. Allen Jr. analyzes ten trends that he predicts will shape the Church in the years to come. Trend number one is the rise of a world Church wherein the concerns of the global south do not match those of the global north. Allen discusses several currently peripheral issues that may come to bear with great force on the Church if she becomes truly global in her pastoral approach. One such issue is that pagan mainstay, witchcraft. “While Northerners may see magic and witchcraft in largely benign terms as a form of New Age spirituality,” writes Allen, “across the South the working assumption is that magic and witchcraft are real but demonic, so the proper response is spiritual combat.”

Combat is indeed the proper response: People in Africa are terrified of witchcraft because the consequences for merely being suspected of practicing black magic can be devastating. As Allen writes:

In Nigeria, an elderly woman was beheaded in 2007 after she was accused of placing a member of another tribe under a curse. In turn, her murder triggered a spate of interethnic killing that left eighty dead…. In 2007, a gang of villagers in Kenya beat an eighty-one-year-old man to death, suspecting him of having murdered his three grandsons through witchcraft.

As a Westerner (or a Northerner, as Allen has it), my unstudied reaction to the first example was that it was an excuse to engage in ethnic fighting; magic was simply the pretense. In the latter example, magic was the rationalization of tragedy.

Allen continues by noting that in Nairobi, Kenya, at a three-day symposium held at the Catholic University of East Africa, “experts warned that witchcraft was ‘destroying’ the Catholic Church in Africa, in part because skeptical, Western-educated clergy are not responding adequately to people’s spiritual needs.” I was one of those people: a Western-educated man who consigned magic to his childhood books, who had carefully filed witch doctors away as benign and powerless eccentrics and not as men and women who can wield great power in a village, even destroying it through their various machinations.

A quick search query of the term witchcraft at the Nyasa Times website, a popular online newspaper in Malawi, returns stories that absolutely confound the Western imagination. Here is a brief sampling of a few of the headlines:

-"Megadinho saga: Bullets to sue Wanderers over witchcraft claims” (this would be like the Green Bay Packers suing the Chicago Bears for casting spells against their players)
-“Malawi mortuary supervisor Mphimbi held over cutting private parts for trade” (the genitals and appendages of albinos are used in various concoctions of witch doctors)
-“Malawi lawmakers persuaded to review punishment of men who sleep with women magically”
-“Malawian man torches mother to death over witchcraft suspicion”
-“Court in Malawi saves alleged Witch from village eviction”

These stories come from the first of several pages of returns. Many of the returns seem ludicrous, but even on a purely human level witchcraft has power. Until recently, I thought that this was the only power it had — the power to make people hysterical and make them do or justify doing ridiculous things.

To relate a personal story: About a year ago I was living in a Malawian village where an elderly man was severely beaten because his neighbor had accused him of witchcraft. The evidence offered by the neighbor for said sorcery was that Bobo Mtonga had “obviously” cursed his field because it was doing so poorly in relation to Mr. Mtonga’s. Obvious to any impartial observer, however, was that there were far fewer weeds in Mr. Mtonga’s garden than in his neighbor’s, thus indicating that he took a great deal more care of it, with predictably favorable consequences. The whole business of magic, I gathered from this incident, was a great deal of malarkey, with disparaging accusations tossed about willy-nilly, their impetus in jealousy and nothing more.

Recalling the Council of Paderborn (A.D. 785), which dealt with the Christianization of the Anglo-Saxons and, among other things, sought to temper witch-hunt mania by making the accusation of witchcraft itself a punishable offense, I wagged my finger like a schoolmarm at Christians in Malawi who placed a heavy emphasis on witchcraft to the exclusion of the many other evil practices on which they could have focused their energies. For example, while witchcraft can get you killed in a village, fornication, drunkenness, and general debauchery are the stuff of giggles and winking nods among polygamous Malawian men. I would point out that the Bible condemns these things more frequently and, in most cases, more vehemently. Furthermore, in a society with a fourteen percent HIV rate, I also thought that these issues were much more urgent to address — not the way the world deals with them, with condoms and other bits of petrol tossed onto the raging flame of human concupiscence, but the way the Church deals with them, by inspiring sinners to sanctity.

Witchcraft as Reality with Concomitant Lessons

My naïveté was brought home to me one evening while I and the Capuchin friars with whom I lived and worked sat in the common room after vespers. We were discussing why so many of the faithful were indulging in a very common African tendency — namely, acting like Catholics on one Sunday, Pentecostals on another, and going to charismatic prayer and healing services occasionally during the week. For my part, I can’t stand such things: howling and shouting and writhing about, screaming to high heaven, getting all emotionally worked up — to what end? And yet our students would sneak off the school grounds to indulge in these things. Why?

“It’s because there is evil here,” said Cosmas, one of our workers.

He uttered this matter-of-factly, as if he were telling us that the night was cloudy and it might rain. “There is a strong presence of evil spirits in Lusangazi. There are so many people practicing witchcraft, and people don’t feel like you do enough to protect and heal them. So they turn to people who do.”

“What do you mean?” asked one of the priests, himself a Malawian. “For those needing strength against evil, we have the sacraments.”

“Plus,” I interjected, “for those who feel they have been victims of possession, there are exorcisms, and for those who fear the force of witchcraft, there’s the sacrament of the sick.”

“No, no!” Cosmas retorted, shaking his head. “We need real power.”

Putting aside the notion that the sacraments are not powerful, Cosmas’s emphatic but calm and rational statement caught me and my intellectual snobbery off guard. What finally sank in after two years of dismissing this “superstition” was that it was indeed real. Again, Allen: “In the South, the spiritual realm is tangible, palpable, and constantly nearby — in some ways, more real than the physical world. Illness is as likely to be attributed to evil spirits as to physical causes, and thisworldly misfortune is seen in light of personal sin instead of bad luck.” This is not to say that I have come to believe that someone can get cancer because he tells lies with impunity, but I have come more readily to understand what Anglican theologian John Mbiti meant when he wrote that, for Africans, as indeed it should be for all of us, “this is a religious universe…. The invisible presses hard upon the visible: one speaks to the other.” We should not, of course, chuck science out of the window — all knowledge is, after all, God’s knowledge — but we should similarly not rush to embrace a reductive materialism.

I’ve asked myself many times over: Why did I doubt the veracity of demonic interference manifesting itself in witchcraft? Scripture deals with it at length: It is mentioned over ninety times from Exodus to Revelation. It is, for example, one of the works of the flesh, according to St. Paul: “Now the works of the flesh are obvious: immorality, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, rivalry, jealousy…. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Gal. 5:19-21; italics added). These are tough words, and Africans seem much more willing to heed them to the letter than we are in the West, who take our cues on sorcery from Harry Potter.

Allen is essentially correct when he remarks that, “in the North, even believing Christians are sometimes reluctant to talk too openly about the spiritual world. Claims of miraculous healings…or of demonic possession are sometimes greeted with skepticism, likely to be taken as indications of mental imbalance or emotional immaturity.” This aptly described me — until I dropped my posturing and decided to see the world through an African spiritual lens. I admit that in Malawi I rushed home after darkness fell, despite the fact that I was much safer there than I ever was living in cities in the U.S. I give credence to Cosmas’s claim that evil is particularly concentrated in Lusangazi, borne out as it was by the fact that I had to struggle so much harder to avoid sin and subdue concupiscence at this mission than I did in my previous village.

“Is it me seeking to excuse myself, Father; am I just imaging that it is more difficult here?” I asked the mission’s guardian one evening at supper, concerned about a sin I thought I had conquered long ago.

“No, there is a presence here,” he replied. “Here in Lusangazi there is evil. I feel it, and I know it to be true.”

I too now know it to be true.

We ignore the devil at our own peril, and we Westerners especially need to awaken from our slumber. We seem to have forgotten that the Church is divided into three parts: the Church triumphant (the members of the Church in Heaven), the Church suffering (the members of the Church in Purgatory), and the Church militant (the members of the Church in the world). Those of us in the latter category are engaged in spiritual warfare, whether we want to admit it or not. As St. Paul teaches, “For our wrestling is not against flesh and blood; but against principalities and power. Against the rulers of the world of this darkness, against the spirits of wickedness in the high places” (Eph. 6:12).

I am grateful to His Holiness, Pope Francis, who, in the early days of his papacy, made frequent reference to evil and Satan, because we have forgotten them. Satan is present when we calumniate, when we destroy, when we break the commandments, when we act in hate and not in love, and yes, when we dabble in black magic. We in the West have fallen for his trick of convincing us that he doesn’t exist, and we do so at our own peril. By ignoring the influence of the devil, we allow the Church to languish. In a call to action in 2000 at the Faith of our Fathers Conference, Rod Pead, editor of the British publication Christian Order, stirringly stated:

If the Church is not militant, she cannot thrive and flourish: Her sword of unity becomes blunt and useless. And if we have thus far not been sufficiently militant — if that sword has lost its edge — it is surely because so few in the orthodox camp have taken Pope Leo XIII at his word when he said that Catholics were “born for combat”: by which he meant that a Catholic enters a spiritual war zone when he leaves his mother’s womb, that his baptism enlists him into the ranks of the Church militant and that the war is there to be fought daily, for his own soul and for the life of the Church, until he departs this world in a box!

We must strive to be worthy of this battle; we must fight alongside our brothers and sisters in the global south and not pooh-pooh their fervor with contemptuous smugness. We should not question why people encounter God with shouts and trembling; rather, we should ask why our own faith is so cold.

I am grateful to The New Oxford Review for permission to reproduce the above article which first appeared in the December 2013 issue of this publication.

Copyright ©; 2013 New Oxford Review Inc.

This Version: 12th December 2013

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