03/01/2014 04:43

Science not Religion to defeat Sorcery

By Fr Franco Zocca SVD – Melanesian Institute

“Christianity in Papua New Guinea has so far failed to eradicate the belief that malevolent sorcery and witchcraft is the cause of sickness, death and disasters.” This was a common observation at the recent Conference on “Sorcery and Witchcraft Accusations – Developing a National Response to Overcome the Violence” held at the University of Goroka from 3-5 December 2013. From the history of Europe, in fact we know that Christian leaders, especially during plague epidemics, did accuse and prosecute people for allegedly having caused sickness and death through the practice of sorcery and witchcraft. For a long period of time Christian leaders as well as the simple people and the civil authorities did believe that sorcerers and witches could cause sickness, death, and disasters in collusion with Satan and demons. And those witch-trials were to continue for centuries during and after the Middle Ages.

In modern Papua New Guinea the situation is the same. From statements heard at the Conference from the mouths of Christian leaders, and from the interviews conducted by the research team of our Melanesian Institute, it is clear that the great majority of Christian leaders in the country still hold firmly to the conviction that sickness, death, and disasters are normally provoked by sorcery practices. As happened in the past in Europe, pre-Christian beliefs in evil power possessed by sorcerers and witches have been connected with the activity of Satan and evil spirits. Many Christian leaders still believe that even carvings and poles can convey satanic influence on people, as we have seen in the recent destruction of carvings in the House of Parliament.

Accusations and prosecutions of alleged sorcerers in the West only ceased after the scientific and medical discoveries of the natural causes of sickness and death were accepted by religious, political and academic leaders. The success of the health institutions in curing ailments originally attributed to sorcery and witchcraft also contributed to wipe away the belief that sickness and death are caused by sorcery practices. Therefore, the eradication in Europe of the belief that sickness, death and disasters can be caused by sorcerers and witches is not to be attributed primarily to religion, but to experimental sciences and education.

Suggestions were made in Goroka for the Churches to convene in order to reach a national consensus on what religious institutions can do to prevent people from accusing others of causing sickness, death, and disasters by sorcery practices. But in my opinion such a conference should rather be convened by the education and health institutions in the country. Christian leaders in PNG remain highly divided on the matter, as the conference in Goroka has clearly shown.

Sorcery and the Bible

During the above mentioned Conference held at the University of Goroka , many voices were heard, affirming that the attribution of negative events to the evil power of sorcerers and witches is based on biblical teachings. I don’t think so. It is true that the Bible always condemns the practice of sorcery and witchcraft, as well as any forms of magical practices (see Deuteronomy 18: 9-12; Acts 8: 9-24; 13: 6-12; Galatians 5: 19-21; Revelation 22: 15), but the Bible never attributes sickness, death or disaster to human agency: they are always attributed to God or evil spirits. To God as punishments for sins (see, among many instances, Genesis 19: 24; Exodus 12: 29; Numbers 21: 6; 1 Samuel 6: 19; Matthew 9: 2; John 5: 14b; Acts 5: 1-11; 1 Corinthians 11: 30; Romans: 5: 12). Angelic or human mediators of God’s punishments are sometimes present (for instance, angels, Moses. Peter, etc.) but the punishment ultimately comes from God. In the New Testament various kinds of sickness are attributed to evil spirits as a consequence of them taking possession of persons: epilepsy (Mark 1: 26, 9: 18); madness (Mark 5: 1-4); dumbness (Matthew 9: 32); being crippled (Luke 13: 11). During the Conference a few Christian leaders referred to the two “sorcerers” who are mentioned in the New Testament: Simon in Acts 8: 9; and Elymas in Acts 13: 11. They should be considered magicians rather than malevolent sorcerers, since they are not said to have caused sickness or death. In conclusion, nowhere in the Bible can one find cases in which the sickness or death of a person is ultimately attributed to the evil magical power of a human being. And this fact is quite amazing, since in those biblical times people did not know the natural causes of sickness and death and, as human beings, they would have been keen to find one. (F.Z.)