Wednesday, January 12, 2011

A Witch Burning in Ghana: How the role of Christianity has been obscured (Part One)

In November of last year, Ama Ahima, a 72 year old Ghanaian woman, was brutally murdered by a mob who accused her of being a witch. After holding her captive and abusing her violently for hours, they doused her in kerosene and set her on fire.

Although there are some conflicting accounts, the main facts of the case are not in dispute. It is important to emphasize that the following have been agreed to by the accused themselves (a number of sources are listed at the bottom of this post):
  1. On November 20 Pastor Samuel Fletcher Sagoe accused Ama Ahima of being a witch.
  2. Sagoe gathered together a group of six people (including other members of his family) to "deliver" Ahima, that is to conduct an exorcism. Alternatively, this has been described as an effort to forcibly make Ahima "confess" through torture.
  3. The exorcism (and/or attempt to extract a confession) proceeded for several hours, until Ahima was doused in kerosene and set on fire.
  4. At this point a neighbor intervened and Ahima was taken to the hospital, where she died the following day.
Amazingly, an concerted effort has been made to obscure the role of Christianity in Ahima's murder. Even more amazing is the fact that this has not only been largely successful, but at the same time many people have been convinced that African Traditional Religion, not Christianity, is to blame!

At first glance, this might seem to be an impossible attempt at full-bore Orwellian propaganda. After all, the accusation that Ahima was a witch was made by a Christian Pastor. The subsequent attempt to exorcise Ahima and/or force her to confess is in line with longstanding Christian traditional practice. Ahima's execution by burning is also part of Christian tradition with respect to the punishment of witches, heretics and others accused of being in league with Satan.

But there is, already in-place and ready to go at a moment's notice, a highly successful formula for damage control in situations like this.
  1. First and foremost it is insisted loudly and repeatedly that this kind of horrific violence is the sad result of the inherent ignorance and irrationality of Africans themselves.
  2. Then the role of Christianity is explained away by insisting that real Christians would never do anything like this, therefore what was at work was not real Christianity, but rather Christianity tainted by African ignorance and superstition.
  3. If further obfuscation is required it is then implied broadly, or, if necessary, explicitly asserted, that the Christians involved were "Pentecostalists" or "Evangelicals" and, therefore, not representative of modern, enlightened, well-behaved, "mainstream" Christianity.
These days, of course, it is not fashionable to present Christian apologetics openly and plainly. But that is just as well, since the whole purpose of this line of "reasoning" is precisely to obscure the role of Christianity in the first place.

Therefore the whole presentation, while primarily constructed out of the above three elements, is embedded within a master narrative whose theme is not the spreading of the Christian gospel to the Heathen, but rather the noble upliftment of ignorant savages out of their native state of mental enthrallment, in which their their poor deluded psyches are darkened by magical thinking, up, up to the bright new day of Modern Western Reason.

When properly "spun" like this, a glaring example of Christian mob violence, such as the murder of Ama Ahima, is turned into evidence that Africans are in need of more missionaries, more NGO's, more "aid", etc, and that this will be the case until such a time, if ever such a time should come, that Africans are finally capable of thinking properly for themselves.

to be continued ....

Here are some of the media sources concerning this incident:

2 comments:

KatyDid said...

There seems little doubt that burning witches comes out of an old, largely European tradition.

At the same time, I am not sure that witch burning goes hand-in-hand with Christianity. In North America and Western Europe, my guess is we'd be hard-pressed to find examples of it in modern times.

Occasionally, there are rural exorcisms that we hear about because a kid ends up dead or something - in the same way that we hear about Santeria-related incidents once in a while.

So while I agree that the attempt to ignore the Christian connection to this shocking incident is shocking and reprehensible, I don't agree with it being cast as "There go those wacky Christians burning witches again!"

Apuleius Platonicus said...

Hi KatyDid, and thanks for your comment!

The reason why the European "witch hunt" period is especially relevant to what is going on Africa today is that it demonstrates that when we find Christians accusing people of witchcraft and then setting them burning them alive, there is no justification for insisting that this is something that real Christians would never do. They have done it, and now they are doing it again. Clearly there is a pattern here. Not an unbroken, continuous pattern, but a recurring one.

More generally, religious violence has been an essential part of Christianity throughout its history, and what people refer to as the "witch hunts" was just one particular episode in that history of religious violence. While the "witch hunts" per se ended during the 18th century, Christianity's violent proclivities did not.