Yesterday, as I was preparing to teach this weekend, a friend of mine stopped by the house. He appeared to have been crying and was clearly shaken up. I followed him out to the porch to talk. A few days ago, he had stopped by with his little girl, Spendie, to show us some sores that had developed on her body, particularly on her backside. At that point, he'd been to a clinic, which had given him an ointment and sent him to a hospital that could do further testing. He told me that after that day, he'd taken Spendie to two hospitals and they both told him the same thing: "This isn't a sickness medicine can fix. If you're a Christian, pray; if you're not, take her to a witch doctor." He continued to tell me about heightened voodoo activity in our area (he is one of our neighbors) but that he doesn't know who would put a curse on his little girl. In tears, he told me he didn't want to take her to the voodoo temple, because he doesn't believe in that stuff. He's a Christian and goes to the same church we do. At the same time, he was at whit's end and desperate to help his little girl.
I told him I wanted to go pray for her, so we left my house and walked down the street to his house. There she was, lying on a mat on the floor, visibly uncomfortable. After greeting his wife and others in the house, I talked with them, sympathizing with their situation of watching their child suffer without being able to truly help. I assured them that God sympathized with them too, as he watched Jesus suffer for us. We prayed together, for Spendie, for the family, over the house. When I left, their spirits seemed to have been lifted in our time of prayer. After calling them this morning, they're still holding on and doing better as a family, so I praise God for that.
Unfortunately, this kind of situation is not all that uncommon. When a sickness or misfortune can't be explained, the default assumption is that it was a witch doctor that cast a curse or one of the lwa (spirits) were upset with the individual or family. The Western concept of free will is almost non-existent in this context. People strive to appease the spirits around them so that no harm or sickness will befall them. Some refuse medical treatment in the belief that what is going on is purely spiritual.
Here is where two worlds collide: The Western tendency is to deny the reality of the spiritual realm. In doing so, everything is reduced to purely materialistic explanations - science. The other extreme, as exemplified by animistic cultures, is to explain everything through spirits and magic. The spirits dominate reality and humans must constantly fight to appease them in order to survive. Or through magic, people can control supernatural powers in order to achieve their desires. In the Western world, science deals with the empirical world and leaves religion to handle the other-worldly stuff. But as scientific knowledge expands, the need for religion decreases.
But what about the "excluded middle"? If on one end we have the world as experienced by our senses and on the other we have beings and forces that cannot be directly perceived, then what about that middle ground where these two collide? In this culture it's ghosts, spirits, ancestors, demons, gods and goddesses that live in trees, rivers, etc. These aren't part of another time and place, but in our world and time. And what about the questions that arise when doctors have done all they can and a child continues to get sick? In the Western world, many situations are chalked up to accidents, luck, or unforeseeable events and we just shrug it off. But many people, such as in this society, are not content to leave such important matters unanswered. So, often times, the answers are in the form of ancestors, demons, witches, local spirits, or magic. These are the questions of the "excluded middle" level. When Christian missionaries dismiss these questions or fail to give definite answers, people return to the witch doctors and the mystics who have answers.
A missionary must have a theology of these things; theologies of divine guidance, provision, and healing; a theology of ancestors, spirits, and invisible powers of this world; a theology of suffering, misfortune, and death. Paul tells us in Ephesians 6 that "we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places." Scripture offers us this third worldview. Our central message needs to focus on who God is - His greatness, holiness, and His power, and His work in humanity. We need to not just sing these words, but make them personal:
"Our God is greater, our God is stronger, God You are higher than any other. Our God is Healer. Awesome in power our God. Our God..." It is He who delivers us from evil and empowers us to live in freedom!