My Christian friends need to read this, especially those who consider themselves missionaries or who support foreign missionary work. My conservative friends need to read this, especially those who consider certain religious regimes like Saudi Arabia to be our allies. This post is not just for Wiccan or pagan eyes, for us to share amongst ourselves. This post is for everybody.
The Burning Times have never ended.
Earlier this year, a controversy erupted over a couple of Facebook pages advocating witch-burning. Through massive collective effort by pagans around the world, Facebook finally became aware of the nature of these pages and took them down, agreeing that the pages were a violation of Facebook’s own terms against hate speech.
Let’s be clear about one thing up front: Hate speech is not simply speech you disagree with, or speech that hurts you emotionally. True hate speech, the kind that constitutes a crime, the kind that violates Facebook’s Terms of Service, the kind that I will fight against, is like yelling fire in a crowded theater. True hate speech is speech that intends to move people to action, specifically action that will cause harm.
I am not one to jump on the hate speech bandwagon. I’m not going to protest the KKK or Westboro Baptist Church. I’m not going to complain when somebody says “nigger” or “honkey” or “spic.” (Actually, I’m more likely to completely miss things that others point out as racist or bigoted.) I do not subscribe to politically correct speech. My favorite comedians and talk show hosts are those who pride themselves on offending as many people as possible. I myself am not easily offended. I will laugh at sexist jokes, mock porn, and make fun of people who nit-pick every word and phrase they hear for some way to take offence.
When I first saw the “Witches Must Die” pages, my first reaction was to roll my eyes, maybe even engage in a little crazy-poking with others in the comments before moving on and forgetting the whole thing.
Then I stopped and looked closer. I saw many pictures of apparently African people and places. I saw English being used like a second language, with what appeared to be bits of African languages sprinkled around. I remembered all the stories I’ve heard and the gruesome pictures I’ve seen about witch persecutions in Africa. Children who are tortured, abandoned, maimed, even killed, sometimes by their own parents, out of a conviction that they have been possessed by demons, corrupted by the devil, and become witches themselves.
That just made “Witches Must Die” hate speech in my mind. It appears to be African in origin, so it is already in a place where people are, in fact, hunting down people, labelling them as “witches”, and subjecting them to torture and murder in the name of Christianity. Further incitement of this behavior and belief is not funny. It is not humorous. It is not something to roll your eyes at. This is hate speech, this is speech that could lead to somebody’s death. So I reported it myself, and was happy to see the page come down shortly after. Similarly, if I ran across something that advocated the death of any other group, like blacks or transgenders or nerds, I would report those as well.
I suspect that many, if not most, Christians in America are unaware that these things are still happening. (That would certainly explain the initial reaction by Facebook, which blithely dismissed all the hate speech reports as though the whole page were just a joke.) The fact is they have never stopped. The common saying among pagans today is, “Never again the Burning Times,” but that implies that they ended at some point. They did not.
Evangelical Christianity spreading among African and South Pacific cultures is one place where the Burning Times continue. Christianity seems to become a different beast entirely, once the missionaries have come and gone. Ideas of the devil become conflated with local demons and evil spirits. Cherry-picked phrases, once badly translated into English and now again badly translated into native tongues, become twisted. Verses like Exodus 22:18 become a tool for local preachers to exercise power and control over their congregations…and the witch hunts are on. Larger-than-life personalities like Helen Ukpabio continue to spread their version of the gospel in a sort of reverse missionary style, and churches following these witch-hunt practices are growing in the United Kingdom and even touching the United States.
Another place where the Burning Times continue is in the Middle East. Granted, there is not much burning involved here, as these regimes mostly use beheadings. There are many Islamic regimes where being a non-Muslim carries a death sentence. Here I think Christians are more familiar with the dangers, and I know they speak to each other about the risk of missionary work in those areas, and try to help converts escape. Yet the same people who will go to church on Sunday and listen to and empathize with the stories of new Christians facing a death sentence in Iraq, will then go to work on Monday and talk about how Saudi Arabia (which also has a death sentence for religious belief) is our ally. I don’t know how they miss the obvious conflict in these views.
It is important to be aware of all of these things. Remaining ignorant of the Burning Times allows them to continue. Knowledge is power. When things like witch hunts and public beheading of witches remains in the shadows, when people just roll their eyes and dismiss them as rare, unlikely, or even not real, they can continue, because when you dismiss something, you don’t act to stop it. When you don’t stop it, it grows and festers. We shouldn’t wait until the cops shoot our dog or flashbang our house at 2 a.m. before we protest militarized police and the drug war. We shouldn’t wait until it’s our children in government custody before we protest government overreach and corruption. We also shouldn’t refrain from protesting the Burning Times just because they’re not happening here.
Not “Never Again the Burning Times,” but “STOP the Burning Times.”