Orphan Witches and Demoniacs

Did you see this story in the Christian Science Monitor? “In Congo, Superstitions Breed Homeless Children: The number of street children in Congo’s capital has swelled to around 20,000. Many have been shunned as ‘witches.’

It had apparently been acceptable in Congo to label old people as witches, as a way to expel them from families and community life; now it’s also acceptable to label children as witches for the same reason:

“‘Witchcraft has been there for a while, but it was never used against children in the past. Families that have old people used to accuse that old person of being a witch, when they were no longer productive,’ says Javier Aguilar, a child protection officer for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in Kinshasa. He says that 70 percent of the 20,000 street children in Kinshasa have been accused of being witches.

“‘But the perception of children started to change very quickly in the 1990s, when you had child soldiers starting to appear with weapons,’ says Mr. Aguilar. ‘So the general perception was that children were a threat. Congolese society is using children as a scapegoat.’ [emphasis mine]

This is apparently a new development, as the story ends with these words: “‘Yesterday, the African family would fight to keep their children. … Now, they are throwing them away.'”

There’s much Girardian fodder here … What strikes me is the inevitability of the most vulnerable in a society as its scapegoats. First old people, now children, both seen as unproductive and a threat to the lives of others, either directly (via violence) or indirectly, via use of resources like food and money that the rest of the family or society needs to survive.

The underlying assumption here seems to be that it’s valid, acceptable, and efficient to accuse, blame, abandon, exile, and effectively kill those who are not seen as productive enough.

When I thought about this for a minute, it seemed to me that this rationale operates in the U.S., too, in a slightly more subtle form. I think that we routinely abandon a portion of the mentally ill, the developmentally handicapped, the undisciplined, the unambitious, the uneducated, etc., to welfare, homelessness, lawlessness, poor schools, etc.  … And then we blame them again for being on welfare, for being poorly educated, for committing crime, for not having jobs.

But without that witchcraft thing thrown in … (or is it?)

Both scenarios (ours and Congo’s) reminds me of the story of the Gerasene (sometimes Gadarene) Demoniac in the Bible (Luke 8:26-39; also in Mark 5:1-20 and Matt. 8:28-33) although in the case of the Gerasene demoniac, the demoniac himself is complicit with the community’s label of him and with his relegation by them to the edges of society; he plays the part well, to everyone’s seeming satisfaction.

What seems similar is the society’s need for someone on whom to offload their communal inner demons. The people in the story are “afraid” when they see the healed demoniac, sitting there in his “right mind,” no longer possessed of their demons — now who will bear the burden of these demons, and how will the society function in “peace” if each member is re-possessed of them? As Rene Girard, in his chapter titled “The Demons of Gerasa” in The Scapegoat, says of the community to which the demoniac belongs (in a sense): “These unfortunate people fear that their precarious balance depends on the demoniac. … It is a society based on the collective expulsion.” [emphasis mine]

Girard explicates the story in detail [scroll down to the Luke section], seeing it as an inversion of “the universal schema of violence fundamental to all societies of the world.”

James Alison’s commentary on the same passage [scroll even further down the page] is even more enlightening, in my opinion:

“Yet there is one thing you cannot do: whether you are a townsperson or the demoniac, you cannot imagine the innocence of the demoniac. The structure which holds everything together is relatively tolerant, as is the case in most human groups. It is fairly ready to turn a blind eye to a whole lot of failings, indeed has mechanisms for reincorporating those who fail. Yet there is one point where this apparently easy-going form of life is implacably totalitarian, where there is a definition of good and evil which cannot be overturned. … Before the arrival of Jesus, whether you are a townsperson, or the demoniac, you are all fundamentally yet tacitly agreed on what holds the whole of your order together. … If someone had come along and said ‘Well, of course, your demoniac is really innocent, and all he’s doing is acting out what all of you are dumping on him,’ you would resist this violently. It would be inconceivable to you that such a person was anything other than a troublemaker, someone who wanted to disturb order and subvert morality. The key word here is ‘inconceivable.’ The notion is not one you could imagine, let alone tolerate. You would read the claim entirely from within your own group structure, and would reject it as impossible. So impossible that it could not really be talked about at all. In fact, you wouldn’t need to talk about it. All you would need to do is point to the indisputable evidence of the evil and craziness of your demoniac.”

[ When I was writing this, I came across Buck Eschaton’s comparison of Iraq and the Demoniac at Chronicles of Indestructible Life; worth reading. ]


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