Animism and Corruption

Most people that live around us live in constant uncertainty. They work hard: clear their fields, plant crops, frequently go out as the crop grows to clear the weeds, and hope for a good harvest. However, they never know if their crop will fail due to out of control fires, rodents, torrential rains, thieves, or for no discernable reason in particular. It is crushing when they come to us at a loss, all their efforts and money spent, with nothing in return. So, many turn to witchcraft. They speak to a “witch doctor” and figure out what sort of offering the spirits might like to protect their fields, or bring rain. They put a “charm” in their fields to scare off thieves, and curse them should they try to enter.

Some (recognizing the futility of sustenance farming) pick one child, push them through school, and set their hopes on them attaining a government job. It is VERY difficult to get fired from a government job, which means once you are in, you are good for life. But of course, that means that EVERYONE wants a government job. One of our friends applied to be a police officer, passed the tests, and arrived one day in front of a recruiter. The recruiter asked: “Who in the government do you know?” Our friend had no way to respond and walked away dejected and rejected.

These two examples demonstrate animism and government corruption. Is there a connection between two? Yes, I believe there is. But before that connection is teased out, I first start by asking the questions: What is animism? and What is corruption?

What is animism?

Animism is all about manipulation. To be precise, animism is defined as…

“…the belief that personal spiritual beings and impersonal spiritual forces have power over human affairs and, consequently, that human beings must discover what beings and forces are influencing them in order to determine future action and, frequently, to manipulate their power.”
Communicating Christ in Animistic Contexts by Gailyn Van Rheenen.

What does this manipulation look like in day-to-day life? Funerals are very common here and if you were to attend a Kwakum funeral, you would come into the main living room the deceased and find women mourning over the body. You would then sit down and observe the clean, well-dressed cadaver and subsequently notice that in one of his hands is a branch of some type. One of the grieving women would then explain that it is necessary in order to hold off the rain so that people can sleep outside the home of the deceased for six days. The branch thus gives people the power to manipulate the weather to fit their plans.

Other examples of animism include going to a local keeper of traditions and paying for them to concoct a potion that can be used to make someone fall in love. Or, if someone is searching for a job and wants to secure a certain position, they too can go to the local keeper of traditions and pay them to mystically ensure they would be the one selected.

Animism is about harnessing power in order to get ahead in the world in the domain of your choice: heath, wealth, romance, or employment.

It’s nothing personal; it’s just how the game works. Animism is humans forcing impersonal spiritual forces to act on their behalf.

What is corruption?

Corruption can be defined as,

“dishonest or fraudulent conduct by those in power, typically involving bribery.”  

Examples of corruption are numerous. For instance, in corrupt nations, justice is bought. The one who has the most money is the one who has the other party in the dispute arrested. People steal from one another’s fields and the crimes are never reported because the poor know that nothing will be done on their behalf. On one occasion, an alleged murderer was running loose in a village and the authorities were contacted. They said they would not make the 3-minute walk to the neighborhood to arrest the individual unless they were paid something first. The alleged murderer got away.

Some prosecutors in corrupt nations delay the prosecution in order to allow enough time for family members to pay the expected bribes. Once that is settled, then the hearing can take place.

Corruption, lying, and stealing can be so bad that even to get one’s car repaired, people have to sit and watch the mechanic do his job or else he will take the properly functioning parts out of the car and sell them and then replace them with unreliable parts.

As in animism, it is the manipulator comes out on top; it is the cheater who wins.

Manipulation and man-centeredness

At the heart of both animism and corruption is manipulation of a higher power in order to receive something. Imagine with me that a woman’s daughter dies. She goes to the local seer and pays a sum of money to determine who is responsible for the death. Then, at the funeral, she places a certain branch in her daughter’s hand to stop the rain. This same woman, when she desires for the police to act on her behalf then goes to the police station and pays the police to take her side. In all these instances, this woman is using her money and influence to manipulate those in power. She calls up the spirits to tell her who killed her daughter; she uses a branch to stop the rain; and she uses money to bring “justice” against one of her enemies.

Animism and corruption are also both incredibly man-centered. In both systems, the will of the Creator for his creatures is not considered. A person has a desire and that desire must be fulfilled at any cost. Manipulation must be used in both systems because powers are to be outsmarted, not trusted.

Jesus changes everything

Within animism and corruption, powers are meant to be used and manipulated for personal gain, but Jesus is not like a typical power. Jesus is seen as one who rebuked water and it obeyed him (Mark 4:41). He is one who rebuked demons and they fled (Matt 17:18). Blindness, sickness, and debilitating diseases no longer plagued those who came in contact with Jesus (Matt 15:30). Jesus forgave sins and commanded complete strangers to follow him (Mark 2:5, Matt 4:19).

Jesus Christ is not a typical power that can be bought because he owns everything. He is the Lord of the universe.

One who comes face to face with Jesus Christ starts to understand that he is a power like none other and there is only one appropriate response to him: submission. When someone truly is born again, they start to ask, even in light of all their cultural baggage of manipulating those in power, not what they can get from Jesus, but instead how they can serve their newfound King.  

They also start to understand that there is a judge who is more powerful than all the sickly village healers and all the little men with their polished shoes and government titles. Christ alone is “to judge the living and the dead” (2 Tim 4:1). Unlike the judges of corrupt nations, Jesus cannot be bribed. He judges based on his own nature, not taking into account your friends or family. In such, he can be trusted, but must also be feared.

Those who are truly born again, also start to see people not as steppingstones to get where they want to be, but rather as image-bearers of God, as sheep without a shepherd, who are there to be loved. They start to live out what their king says, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt 22:39) and realize that they would not want someone to cast a spell on them nor cheat them out of money.  

The reality is that here in Cameroon following Christ might mean that thieves will not be afraid to steal from your field because you have refused to put up a charm. Following Christ might mean that your family abandons you because you did not take your dying child to a witch doctor. Following Christ might mean a hard life of farm work even when you have a PhD. These are some high costs of following Jesus. When discussing such costs, Peter mentioned how much the disciples had given up. Jesus responded by saying: “Everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first.” (Matt 19:29-30). The only way our neighbors and friends can live such a costly life is to believe this promise. At the end of the day animism and corruption have a lot in common, and as such their solution is the same. They can only be overcome by faith.


Author: Stacey Hare

Stacey is a servant of Jesus Christ as well as a wife, mom, linguist, and Bible translator among the Kwakum people of Cameroon.