A few days ago, a Presbyterian pastor received threats from members of Malawi’s Gule Wamkulu secret society and complaints from the head of the Chewa Heritage Foundation (CHEFO). The pastor, known for broadcasting his sermons and stirring up people, was caught on video saying that God brings rain to the righteous and the unrighteous, even to the Gule Wamkulu cult members as they dress in their shrines. He was speaking to say that church members should act likewise and bless those who are in the church as well as those who are not, but his message was interpreted by Gule Wamkulu members as slander against their cultural practices. Of course, people were not happy that the cult members were labeled as “oipa” which means not only unrighteous, but has additional meanings of evil or bad. But they also felt that the sermon illustration was an attack on their culture. The dance of the Gule Wamkulu is one of the most important cultural dances for the Chewa tribe. Those who practice it believe that they are connecting with souls of the dead through the dance, that they fish out the souls as they transform in their shrines prior to the dance.
Many people in Malawi do not see why cultural witchcraft practices would be troubling for Christians in Malawi. One newspaper highlighted how the church had been present in Malawi for a few hundred years, but the Gule Wamkulu were practicing for thousands of years. The head of CHEFO, a leader and spokesman for the Gule Wamkulu, reported that he was also a church leader in his Presbyterian church, and he saw no reason why Christianity and cultural practices could not co-exist.
Of course, Christians should respect culture, and one of the commendable features of Christianity is that it can transform communities while maintaining and redeeming the best parts of cultural practices. But there are certain practices associated with traditional Gule Wamkulu activities – witchcraft, curses, abduction, assault, and rape, which are not consistent with Christianity and which these pastors, at their own risk, took a stand to show had no place in a God-honoring church. Amidst the threats and the meetings, the delegations and the goats demanded for restitution these past few days, it has been encouraging to see the church leaders take a stand and say that some practices, while important for culture and heritage, are not part of Christianity or the church.
It is especially hard to draw lines in Malawi, because many people are culturally Chewa but also culturally Christian, without always knowing the religious and social implications of either group. Greg brings up these issues with students in his Church History class. “Christianity is more than just religious beliefs” on student said at the end of a leading class discussion, “Christianity is a community of believers, followers of Christ, who do the will of God.” Another student concluded, “Christianity is a community that comes together to worship and serve.” And we are seeing the results of some of that mindset change as pastors we know start leading their communities towards food security, improved family relationships, and health. We pray that we may see more and more Christian leaders transforming their communities from within their own culture and relationships.