Bush Medicine—Should Christians Seek Its “Cures”?
GENERALLY, people in North America and Europe view superstitions current among some of the population as absurd. They laugh at beliefs that handling toads produces warts, that sleeping with the moon shining on one’s face can cause lunacy, and similar ideas. Yet many of them are just as superstitious in different ways. For example, fear of the “unlucky” number thirteen prevents hotels from having a thirteenth floor or such a room number. Moreover, many prominent persons, even political leaders, consult astrologers and fortune-tellers.
In Central and South America, Africa, Asia and islands of the sea, “bush medicine” and Voodoo are often taken very seriously by much of the population.
The practitioners of bush medicine and Voodoo attribute all or most sicknesses to evil supernatural powers, to “witches” and evil spirits. Therefore, they appeal to the supernatural in their treatment of disease. Sometimes they seem actually to effect a cure by their incantations, rites and sacrifices of chickens, pigs and goats.
Consequently the question arises: May those who become Christians properly look to bush medicine or Voodoo for healing of their afflictions?
The answer to this question would depend on the source of such “healings” and what the Bible says about them. The whole issue revolves around whether the person is giving exclusive devotion to the true God or not—whether he is dividing that devotion with other “gods.” For the God of the Bible says: “I Jehovah your God am a God exacting exclusive devotion.”—Deut. 5:9.
A person’s present life is not so important that he should violate the principles of righteousness and turn to other gods for help. (Matt. 16:25) For example, a real Christian would not commit murder or adultery to save his own life. But do bush medicine and Voodoo call upon the Christian to turn from his allegiance to God, to share it with other gods?—Compare Isaiah 42:8.
BUSH MEDICINE AND VOODOO RITES
It is true that bush medicine uses many herbs that are known to have healing effects. And, due to Western influence, some “medicine men” have come to be, to an extent, specialists in herbal medicines for certain illnesses. But the Voodoo and bush medicine “healers” hold that the herbs and potions they use are powerless in themselves. Medicines, these men believe, are effective only in connection with the power of the nomma, that is, the life-force that comes through the power of the medicine man’s word, whether the “medicine” is swallowed, rubbed in or carried by a cord around the neck. Therefore, all bush medicine dispensed through such “healers” is connected with magic, with worship of the sorcerer’s gods, even though some of it may also have a specific, natural effect on the disease.
The !Kung Bushmen of Africa (the exclamation point represents a “click” sound) say that “medicine” was given by God to Bushmen in the beginning, but that men can transfer “medicine” from one body to another. When, by means of dancing, the “medicine” is brought to the ‘boiling point,’ the vapors rise up through the spinal column, and when the vapors reach the brain, the dancer enters a trance. One expressed the effect in this way:
“Bushman medicine is put into the body through the backbone. It boils in my belly and boils up to my head like beer. When the women start singing and I start dancing, at first I feel quite all right. Then in the middle, the medicine begins to rise from my stomach. After that I see all the people like very small birds, the whole place will be spinning around and that is why we run around. . . . You feel your blood become very hot just like blood boiling on a fire and then you start healing . . . then when I lay hands on a sick person, the medicine in me will go into him and cure him.”—Natural History magazine, November 1967.
A variant of this rite is that of the “Zionists” of South Africa, a religious group originating from the work of missionaries of a sect in Zion, Illinois. During the circle dancing, the dancers grasp the afflicted parts of the body of persons to be ‘cured.’ This “laying on of hands” is supposed to impart “holy ghost” to heal them.
In Peru, the curandero or “healer” may have a mesa or table divided into three sections. The first is supposed to be governed by Satan. It contains artifacts associated with black magic and evil forces. The opposite section is called “the field of divine justice,” and contains artifacts related to “white magic.” This zone is said to be governed by Christ. The third (middle) section is of a neutral nature, governed by Saint Cyprian (said to be a powerful magician who was converted to Christianity).
The curandero acts as consultant for his clients on love, business or other matters. For these he may use divining cards. But for sickness or suspicion of possession by the spirit of a witch, he may rub the patient with a live guinea pig, then open the pig’s stomach and perform entrail divination. If witchcraft has caused the ailment, it is expected that the guinea pig’s spine will be found broken. If there is organic disease, the corresponding organ in the guinea pig is expected to be found spotted or black.
TWO TYPICAL ACCOUNTS OF “HEALING” SESSIONS
A researcher, writing in Natural History (Nov. 1972), recounts attending a “healing” session in Peru, held at night. A man had become sick and unable to walk. His business was declining and his children had become dropouts from work and from school. The curandero’s diagnosis was that a sorcerer had cast a spell and that this was responsible for the family’s troubles. During the ensuing “healing” ritual, a daughter of the family began to cough and sputter, regurgitating the brew of boiled San Pedro cactus juice she had drunk (she had also imbibed a mixture of cactus and wild tobacco juice). She began to lean crazily backward. Someone cried that a monster was pulling the girl’s hair from behind. At this, the curandero grabbed a sword from the mesa and went into furious battle as though with an invisible foe, slashing fiercely and wildly. This, he said, was to break the spell of the sorcerer. The researcher reports that when he saw the family later, the man’s health as well as his family and business had improved.
Louis C. Whiton, another researcher, who has led six expeditions to Surinam to make a study of the people known as the Bush Negroes, reports an account of his own experience with a prominent witch doctor in Paramaribo. (Natural History Aug.-Sept. 1971) “Many of the city’s more educated people employed his talents even though they attended Christian churches,” he writes. Whiton was suffering a lameness and severe pain in his hip and leg. Over a period of eighteen months, specialists and Whiton’s own physician had been unable to give relief. The following is a very condensed summary of the “healing” ritual.
The ceremony began at midnight. Clay that had been blessed with ritual so as to have the power to ward off evil was rubbed over his body. Chanting and prayers to the jungle gods followed. The patient’s “soul” was then questioned about his past life. The witch doctor prayed to the god Misah to “protect this Child of the Earth, even though he has sinned, so that no harm will come to him.” The Voodoo altar was paraded around Whiton’s head and the flags of the Indian gods were waved over him. After about two hours he was told that the gods had arrived. He was told to lie on the ground, and the “healer” lay in the opposite direction, the tops of their heads touching. Then an extremely large and heavy mortar was set on the witch doctor’s chest, while one of his assistants stood on his stomach and another on his thighs, pounding the mortar with large wooden pestles. They believed that the pounding would keep his heart beating regularly during the ordeal, in which the evil spirit was supposed to leave the patient and enter the witch doctor.
The witch doctor, now supposedly possessed by the evil spirit that had been in the patient, became quarrelsome, speaking in English, instead of his native Taki-Taki, in angry and unfriendly terms. After this, the evil spirit had to be transferred from him to an altar of snake bones, and finally, to the body of a chicken, which was held up by its neck feathers in front of the patient. If the evil spirit had been completely exorcised, the chicken was to die without the witch doctor’s injuring it in any way. The chicken did not die, so the patient was told that probably not all the evil was ‘pulled out of him.’ Therefore he was to open the chicken’s beak and spit into its mouth. He complied, and at this, the bird flapped its wings violently, went limp and died. Whiton reports that after the passage of two years since the rite there has been no recurrence of the pain in his leg and hip.
BY WHOSE POWER?
It seems evident from these reports that there is some kind of power in the bush medicine and Voodoo rites. But whose power? Is it the power of Jehovah God, the Creator of heaven and earth, or of some other “good spirits”? Who are really being called upon by those who seek healing by bush medicine or Voodoo? For an answer, let us look in on one of the Voodoo sessions—not a healing ritual, but one held periodically to appease their gods, called loas. It demonstrates who really gets into control of those who practice Voodoo and bush medicine:
In an appeal to the loas to appear, the worshipers begin to dance to the accompaniment of songs and drums. As the drums get louder and louder, the tension increases. The dancers fall into a trance, leap, and begin to scream. Then the loas ‘appear,’ taking one after another of the dancers into possession, or, as they say, ‘mounting and riding’ them. The person becomes the “horse” of the loa. He then manifests the characteristics of that particular loa, of which there are many, one governing fertility, another, ruler of the seas, another, governor of agriculture, a group that are gods of war, of death, and a sex goddess, to name a few. The one ‘ridden’ embodies the loa; he becomes that loa, in effect. Then he may break forth with crude and very obscene words and actions. Often the person possessed by one of the loas of fire will walk barefoot upon the burning embers of a huge bonfire, holding red hot tongs in his hand, and laughingly walk slowly back down, without apparent injury.
Note that Jesus Christ acknowledged that demons actually exist, these wicked spirit persons being under the direction of Satan the Devil, the enemy of God, a fact that the Jews also accepted. (Luke 11:14-20) Most people from whom Jesus expelled demons had an “incurable” physical or mental malady. Some were epileptic or paralyzed. (Matt. 4:24; 17:14-16, 18; Luke 9:38-43) Some were fierce, violent and dangerous. (Matt. 8:28-32; Mark 5:2-13) The demons had made some blind and mute.—Matt. 12:22; Luke 11:14.
Jesus expelled demons from possessed people, not by any ritual, and not by appealing to “the gods,” but in the name of the true God, his Father, Jehovah. (John 10:25) He did not try to appease the spirits or employ ritual to get their help. He “rebuked” the unclean spirit with authority from God. On one occasion he healed an epileptic boy afflicted by an unusually strong demon that Jesus’ disciples could not expel. But Jesus simply “rebuked it, and the demon came out of him; and the boy was cured from that hour.”—Matt. 17:14-18; Luke 9:42.
Whom, then, is a person serving who calls on “the gods” to exorcise evil spirits, or who divines by cards or entrails, observes omens and offers sacrifices?
Jehovah God revealed his attitude toward all forms of divination, magic, astrology and occult practices when he said to the nation of Israel as they were about to enter the land of Canaan:
“When you are entered into the land that Jehovah your God is giving you, you must not learn to do according to the detestable things of those nations. There should not be found in you anyone who makes his son or his daughter pass through the fire, anyone who employs divination, a practicer of magic or anyone who looks for omens or a sorcerer, or one who binds others with a spell or anyone who consults a spirit medium or a professional foreteller of events or anyone who inquires of the dead. . . . For these nations whom you are dispossessing used to listen to those practicing magic and to those who divine; but as for you, Jehovah your God has not given you anything like this.”—Deut. 18:9-14.
The apostle Paul warned Christians of the danger of dividing their devotion by looking to gods other than Jehovah: “You cannot be drinking the cup of Jehovah and the cup of demons; you cannot be partaking of ‘the table of Jehovah’ and the table of demons. Or ‘are we inciting Jehovah to jealousy’? We are not stronger than he is, are we?”—1 Cor. 10:21, 22.
TRUE CHRISTIANS GIVE GOD EXCLUSIVE DEVOTION
Does the true Christian view mean that the Christian is forbidden by the Bible to seek a cure from herbalists, medical doctors, chiropractors, and so forth? No. But true Christians will avoid Voodoo, bush medicine, witch doctors and all forms of spiritism, including those viewed by practitioners as “good spirits.” (Rev. 21:8) There is no doubt curative value in some herbs and other remedies. But Christians realize that no cure is to be sought from witch doctors, medicine men, curanderos or any other practitioner who uses any form of spiritistic practice, charm, amulet or ritual, whether that doctor includes herbs or any form of medicine along with it or not.
Some may feel that they have received a cure, or a partial cure, for some ailment from bush medicine. However, those who have formerly practiced bush medicine acknowledge that the only “cures” the spiritistic healers generally claim to perform are those that involve affliction by the spirits, the demons. Some, it is true, use herbs that have curative powers, along with their magic. But they attribute any benefits to their spiritistic ability, and not to the herbs. Thus they deceive the patient into believing it was really the magic, not the herbs themselves, that brought some relief. Persons going to such healers come under the influence of the spirits, the wicked demons, because they have appealed, through the witch doctor, to the demons, and have accepted what the demons offered.—Rom. 6:16; 1 Cor. 10:20, 21.
Many persons in Africa, Asia, South America and other parts of the earth where bush medicine, Voodoo, juju and other magic are practiced are being liberated from their superstitions and fears of witches and Voodoo gods by learning the truth of the Bible. As Jesus said: “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:32) This freedom from fear of the demons gives them a wholesome outlook on life and contributes much toward their physical and mental health. They see, on the other hand, what degradation the practice of bush medicine, with its appeal to spirits, actually to wicked demons, has brought to the people. They realize that only through Christ’s ransom sacrifice can man receive real, lasting recovery from his imperfection and sicknesses. They also learn that the application of such ransom benefits will come during the thousand-year Messianic rule, now near at hand.
As an example of this clean break and the determination to give exclusive devotion to the Creator, one of Jehovah’s witnesses in Africa was asked to type out some instructions provided by a witch doctor to tell his client how to use a special medicine he had prepared. The Witness refused to become a party to the treatment, saying to the “medicine man” that he had abandoned the use of such potions himself and did not want the responsibility before God to encourage someone else to use them. Such course shows true faith and obedience, assuring God’s blessing.
So the clear-cut answer to the question, ‘Should Christians seek bush medicine’s cures?’ is an unequivocal “No.” Christians will realize that they cannot hold onto true Christianity and at the same time include as a sort of “interfaith” an appeal to any other god, even if they feel some healing of physical afflictions might come from that source. Jesus Christ, God’s Son, said: “Whoever wants to preserve his own life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for me will find it.” Also: “No one can slave for two masters.”—Matt. 16:25, AT; Mt 6:24.
True Christians know that God’s approval is to be sought above all other things. They avoid attempts to get healing or anything else in a way that is lawless in God’s eyes, and that would divide their devotion. They trust in his promised new order, for there they can enjoy a healing that will last, not for just a few years, but forever.