Friday, June 18, 2010

"A new Frankenstein religion"?? (More on Christianity and Africa's Witch Children)

Richard Hoskins is a frequently cited authority on "African witch children" and the origins of this phenomenon in the war-torn, HIV/AIDS ravaged urban centers of the Democratic Republic of Congo in the 1990's. Hoskins has been called upon as an expert by the London police in the course of investigations involving abuse and murder of children among Britain's large African immigrant community.

Below is the final portion of Richard Hoskins' February, 2005 piece for the UK Sunday Times, "Torment of Africa's 'child witches'" (emphases added):
Child exorcism in the name of Jesus has as little to do with mainstream Christianity as suicide bombers have with mainstream Islam. Nor has it anything to do with traditional African beliefs. Out in the villages of the Congo I found headmen and traditional healers horrified at what was happening in the name of the revivalist churches in Kinshasa. Traditional Congolese society rejects these exorcism practices.

“We believe in kindoki,” one told me, “but it’s something that merely troubles a person from time to time and hardly ever affects children. It can be treated with potions made from plants and herbs. It’s not a question of beatings and deliverance. ["Kindoki" is a generic term for any kind of spiritual power in the Lingala language] We think the churches put about this kindoki idea because it increases their influence. The whole thing is a racket.”

The phenomenon appears to spring from a new Frankenstein religion, an unholy marriage of perverted Christianity and an ingrained African belief in the spirit world, fueled by the grinding poverty and desperate need of the people of west and central African cities.

The family is the glue that holds African society together. If that bond weakens and breaks, chaos takes over. Whatever the reasons for it, the fact that children are suffering in the name of Christianity — not only beyond the horizon, but even in our own back yard — is undeniable and absolutely unacceptable.
The "new Frankenstein religion" that Hoskins refers to, however, did not start in Kinshasa in the 1990's. Rather it started on Azusa street in Los Angeles in 1906. This Frankenstein religion is called Pentecostal Christianity.

As right as Hoskins is in stating that the "child witch" phenomenon does not have "anything to do with traditional African beliefs," he is just as wrong in his sweeping acquittal Christianity in this matter. It is perfectly legitimate to in this way accept one part of Hoskins' conclusion while rejecting the other because of the simple fact that Hoskins is an expert on the subject of African religions, but he is no expert on Christianity, much less on the specific form of Christianity at work here.

Once one takes a closer look at Pentecostal Christianity it is immediately obvious that there is no need to invoke "an ingrained African belief in a spirit world" in order to explain the existence of Pentecostal missionaries, pastors, "Prophets" and "Apostles" in Africa who claim that they can identify those who are possessed by the devil, and, moreover, can "deliver" these individuals by "casting out" the demons that afflict them. That is nothing more than standard issue Pentecostalism.

One of the world's most famous "charismatic" Christians is undoubtedly Pat Robertson. Pentecostalism is decentralized to a fault, and so it should come as no surprise that Robertson is not formally affiliated with any official Pentecostal denomination. In fact, he is a Southern Baptist, and was an ordained minister in that denomination for many years. This is typical of Pentecostalism in the US, where only 5% of the population belongs to Pentecostal churches, but 23% of the population share the core beliefs and practices of Pentecostalists.

"Charismatic" is a looser term that refers to individuals and churches that may not be formally or officially "Pentecostal", but which nevertheless share important, defining characteristics of Pentecostal Christianity, especially speaking in tongues, prophesying, exorcism, miraculous healing, and apocalyptic ("end time") thinking. Technically, "charismatic" and "Pentecostal" are often used as mutually exclusive terms, and when this is done the umbrella term "renewalist" is used to refer to both.

While Robertson himself might technically not be a Pentecostalist (but, rather, a "charismatic"), the dean of the "Divinity School" that Robertson founded in Virginia Beach, Virginia, Regent University, is Vinson Synan, former General Secretary of the International Pentecostal Holiness Church (the denomination that gave the world both Oral Roberts and Charles Stanley), and he is also author of no less than 15 books on the subject of Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity. (Here is an interesting profile of Robertson, based in part on an interview with Synan.)

A brief review of just some of Pat Robertson's antics over the years should put to rest any notion that this form of Christianity only became "perverted" once it came into contact with Africans and their "ingrained beliefs":

In 1991, Robertson said, of his own fellow Protestants, "You say you're supposed to be nice to the Episcopalians and the Presbyterians and the Methodists and this, that, and the other thing. Nonsense. I don't have to be nice to the spirit of the Antichrist."

In 1992, Robertson explained his opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment by stating that "The feminist agenda is not about equal rights for women. It is about a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians."

In 1995, Robertson referred to Hinduism as "demonic", and stated that the Hindu religion of India "has put a nation in bondage to spiritual forces that have deceived many for thousands of years."

In 2005, he said of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, "I don't know about this doctrine of assassination, but if he thinks we're trying to assassinate him, I think that we really ought to go ahead and do it. It's a whole lot cheaper than starting a war, and I don’t think any oil shipments will stop."

On January 6, 2006, Pat Robertson suggested that God had punished Ariel Sharon by causing him to have a stroke because Sharon had agreed to "divide God's Land" in negotiations with the Palestinians.

It even turns out that Pat Robertson is personally associated not merely with Pentecostalist missionary work in Africa, but specifically with Pentecostalism in the Congo, going back at least to the early 1990's. Robertson developed a close relationship with Mobutu Sese Soku, the dictator of DR Congo (then called Zaire) from 1965 to 1997. As soon as Mobutu was overthrown, however, Robertson sent a personal letter, written on Christian Broadcasting Network stationery, to the former Maoist revolutionary Laurent Kabila, the new president of DR Congo.

Robertson even had his letter to Kabila hand delivered by his own lawer, Pat Mitchell. The letter stated in part, "I would like to extend to you my cordial invitation to visit the United States as my guest in any way your schedule would so permit." Robertson also offered Kabila the services of his attorney to "offer assistance to you in a wide range of enterprises which I hope would be of benefit to you and the nation of Zaire."

Previously (here) I highlighted the 2006 report issued by the international charity organization Save the Children titled "The invention of child witches in the Democratic Republic of Congo." That report stated that "A first step towards understanding the phenomenon of so-called child witches is to recognise that witchcraft is a real system of belief, rooted in popular mentality." But this is highly misleading in the same way as Hoskins' reference to a "marriage" between one variety of Christianity and "ingrained African beliefs". The first step to understanding the child witch phenomenon in Africa is to understand the American-made religious phenomenon known as Pentecostalism.

Future installments in this series will look more closely at the history (and the prehistory) of Pentecostal Christianity and its missionary work/spiritual warfare in Africa. But it should also be kept in mind that "an ingrained belief in the spirit world" has been a common feature of the Christian religion all along, not to mention the fact that persecuting accused witches was a practice among European Christians (and officially condoned by the Church) 500 years ago. And memories of the great "witch hunts" in early modern Europe are still very much "deeply ingrained" in the collective psyche of Christians throughout the world.

[This post is part of a series. Click here for links to related posts, including much more on Africa, Christianity, Colonialism, and African Traditional Religion.]