In Madagascar, a witch hunt is not a fiction. I do not have in mind taking these people to jail or burning them at the stake, but witches do exist here. In every bush village, in every bustling town, even in other countries there are Malagasy witch-doctors (ombiasa). They are normal-looking people, but their methods are strange. They shake old bones in a cup like Yahtzee and scatter them over the ground. They bind together human hair, mud, scraps of books, and goat poop. They slit the throat of animals and pour their blood out in oblation. They drink until they lose themselves and the spirits begin speaking through them.
Here the situation is very simple: everyone will tell you that the ombiasa gets his or her power from the spirits. Most are more honest and say the power comes from evil spirits. And, as our own folk tales go, there is always a price to pay in a deal with the devil. You can give the ombiasa money, or a goat, or a cow if it’s a big ask, but you are going to give up something. Sometimes it may even be a child. But unlike Johnny and his fiddle, these stories never end up well. The devil always get his due.
Several ombiasa, thanks be to God, are now following Jesus. One of them is in the group of leaders we are training. He recently asked, “So what about in America. Do you all have witch-doctors there?”
It is not the first time I’ve gotten that question. But it always vexes me. On the surface there is nothing similar. Maybe it’s different where you are but I’ve never lived near the local witch. When someone has a problem or gets sick, they do not immediately run to the local ombiasa. Or do they? Surely there must be some cross-over.
Think about it again. Listen to the job description of an ombiasa: They offer healing and power–the chance to be or to have who you want to be or what you want to have. They make charms for sick stomachs. They make charms that make people fall in love with you. They make charms to curse your enemy. They make charms to help you get pregnant. There are even charms to get you that car you want, or more money.
Are we sure we don’t have anyone in America who fits this job description? True, we don’t carry around sacks of hair and goat poop around our necks thinking they’re making us better people. But one look on YouTube or even eavesdropping in a coffee shop will remind you that we do indeed have a professional we go to for power. Oh now, we don’t call it power. But that’s what it is. We want healing, so we take the miracle pill. We want to be our best self, so we listen to our trainer or our therapist. We want be spiritually healed, so we give money to the man on TV.
The reason it always vexes me when they ask about our witch-doctors is that I feel, deep down, like we should be way past witch-doctors. Of course we’re better than that! But I don’t think we are.
The answer is, perhaps, more clear here in Mada. Those who are still hanging on to their charms cannot be baptized. They are hanging on to a way of life that is the end of Satan’s leash. Until they cut that leash and throw themselves into Jesus’ arms we know they are not ready to follow him. That’s not to say they don’t still struggle with health, or money, or their marriage. They simply stopped going to the professional and started going to God for the answers. And they are better for it.
Because the gospel does not ask for payment up front. None of us can afford the cost of true change. The catch is that Jesus paid up front for us. We can boldly approach God, free of cost. But only if we cut the leash and throw ourselves into Jesus. But that’s not just here in Madagascar. What does that look like where you are?