Do You Believe in Magic? (2/3) Magic for Africans

I am not sure how many Africans read our blog, but if you do, this blog is for you. I don’t believe for a second that all Africans hold the same views. With over 1,500 languages in Africa, there is bound to be a great deal of diversity. That said, I have noticed some patterns in African cultures in regard to magic. The Bible has a great deal to say about magic, and I wanted to sum up three biblical truths that deal with the issue of magic. If your culture already agrees with these principles, praise the Lord! If not, I hope these points help.

Not Everything is Magic

Several times I have talked to Cameroonians about magic. There is a common belief here that “white people” have a stronger magic than “black people.” I have tried to tell friends that there are very few people in America that practice magic, but many will not buy it. Every time I have had this conversation, I have been asked: “What about airplanes?” Science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke once said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” That is to say, if you don’t understand technology, it can seem like magic, but it isn’t. Airplanes were developed through science, not magic.

The issue of magic is much more serious than misunderstanding airplanes. I attended the funeral of a man who died because he fell off of his motorcycle while driving drunk. At this funeral they performed a ceremony to decide who killed him using magic. This is a misattribution of magic for a death due to drunkenness. I don’t believe anyone was attacked because of this process in this case, but it does happen. People are hurt, and even die because of a false belief that every time someone dies, it is due to magic.

When you ask the Bible why people die, the answer is not magic. Paul says,

“Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned” (Romans 5:12).

Do some people die because of magic? Yes. But even then, ultimately, people die because of sin, not because of magic. And the young man whose funeral I attended died because he was driving drunk. We do not need to look for magic behind all deaths. And, in fact, most deaths that I have seen in Cameroon were not caused by magic.

Magic Makes You God

I put the question of magic to the test with our discipleship group. We were discussing the importance of prayer and I brought up the subject of Elijah. James 5:17 tells us: “Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain and the earth bore its fruit.”

  • Me: “Who do you go to when you want it to rain?”
  • Them: “We seek out the shaman.”
  • Me: “So, was Elijah a shaman?”

They knew, of course, that Elijah was not a shaman (French: marabout, Kwakum: kaah, Cameroonian English: ngambe man). So, we talk a bit about how people approach the shamans, and how the shamans act. First, you come to the shaman with a list of demands. They tell you what you have to do to get what you want. Often times it is costly (hence the man I mentioned above spending $400/year). The shaman works with the gods and the spirits to get you what you want, whether it be rain, or protection for your family, or for a man/woman to fall in love with you.

But it was interesting to look at the way in which Elijah brought about the rain. 1 Kings 1:22 says, “and he bowed himself down on the earth and put his face between his knees.” Does this seem like someone who manipulates God for his own interests? Is this someone to whom you would come with a list of demands? No! Elijah was a man submitted to God. He did not control God. He did God’s will. He did not demand that God do his will.

When you use magic, you are trying to submit the spirits and nature to your will. Only God is allowed to do that, and you are not God. Elijah was not a shaman because he was asking God for rain. He was not telling, demanding, or forcing. He was prostrate on the ground, submitting himself to God. This is exactly why God forbids magic. Even if you are wanting to use magic to heal/help/save, you are the one doing the choosing. God’s children have the privilege to ask God for what they think is best. However, when we pray we pray like Christ: “not my will, but yours be done.”

All Magic is Bad

One of the Christian missionaries that we sought counsel from when we first arrived in Cameroon told us a story about their project. He said that when they went to translate passages that condemned magic in the Bible, they wanted to use a word that essentially meant “black magic.” This left the door open for the use of “white magic.” By this, they were referring to the use of magic to do positive things. For instance, they might perform a ritual to make it rain after planting a crop, or to ensure a good catch of fish. This type of magic is not hurting anyone, right?

We have not yet addressed the issue with our translation project, but the Bible very clearly condemns all use of magic (Lev 19:31; Rev 21:8; 2 Kings 21:6; Isa 8:19; Acts 19:19; Deut 18:10-12; Ez 13:18-20; Deut 18:9-14; Lev 19:26; Gal 5:19-21; Micah 5:12; Rev 22:15). And the reason is clear: you should trust God, not other powers.

One story in the New Testament is particularly telling in regard to how God expects us to respond to magic. It is found in Acts 19:11-19

And God was doing extraordinary miracles by the hands of Paul, so that even handkerchiefs or aprons that had touched his skin were carried away to the sick, and their diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them. Then some of the itinerant Jewish exorcists undertook to invoke the name of the Lord Jesus over those who had evil spirits, saying, “I adjure you by the Jesus whom Paul proclaims.” Seven sons of a Jewish high priest named Sceva were doing this. But the evil spirit answered them, “Jesus I know, and Paul I recognize, but who are you?” And the man in whom was the evil spirit leaped on them, mastered all of them and overpowered them, so that they fled out of that house naked and wounded. And this became known to all the residents of Ephesus, both Jews and Greeks. And fear fell upon them all, and the name of the Lord Jesus was extolled. Also many of those who were now believers came, confessing and divulging their practices. And a number of those who had practiced magic arts brought their books together and burned them in the sight of all. And they counted the value of them and found it came to fifty thousand pieces of silver.

We have some pretty amazing spiritual happenings in this passage. People are being healed of their illnesses just in touching things that had touched Paul. Jewish men were trying to use Jesus’ and Paul’s names like magic, and were beaten and fled naked. The Bible never questions the reality of these spiritual claims, accepting that God really healed people, and demons really harmed people. But when some people tried to use Jesus like magic, they were judged. The people understood the message: you have to choose between God and magic. The result is that people brought all of their magic books and burned them. The value of these books was 50,000 silver pieces, or between $4-5 million. Why would they waste such a great sum of money? Because they had come to realize that all magic is bad. To use any magic is to fight against God.

An amazing truth that I have learned is that truth can be found in every culture. However, truths that one culture accepts are often rejected by other cultures. Many people in Africa have an advantage over Westerners: namely, they acknowledge spiritual reality. I have never met an atheist African (yes, I know they do exist). This gives most Africans a head-start when it comes to biblical reality. But this strength can also be a weakness. Spiritual reality cuts both ways: God exists, but so does the Devil and his angels.

The biblical encouragement for Africans is this: do not be deceived. Do not let a shaman tell you how you should respond to these spiritual realities. Renounce magic, trust the Lord and submit to him. If you have books, or charms, or statues, or anything related to magic, burn it. Never ever go to a shaman. Don’t pour out libations for the dead. In doing so, you lose the false idea of control that magic gives you. You might have people unafraid to steal from your fields. You might lose a lot of money. However, you gain entrance into the family of God. It is worth it!

And in the next post, I will share a bit about how these biblical truths apply to my home culture.


Author: David M. Hare

Dave is a husband, father of four Africans, and is currently helping the Kwakum people do Oral Bible Storying and Bible translation in Cameroon, Africa.

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