The New York Times today has an interesting article , which talks about a prayer service held late at night for the express purpose of spiritual warfare.
The students, taxicab drivers, homemakers and entrepreneurs, all Christians, mostly from French-speaking Africa, attend a midnight service four nights a week to seek deliverance from lust, anger, fear and sadness.
They sing. They pray fervently. Finally, they kick and shadowbox with what they contend is the real force behind life’s problems: the witches and devils whose curses they believe have ground down their families, towns, entire nations in Africa and that have pursued them to a new country, making it hard to find work, be healthy and survive.
“Some situations you need to address at night, because in the ministry of spiritual warfare, demons, the spirits bewitching people, choose this time to work,” said Nicole Sangamay, 40, who came from Congo in 1998 to study and is a co-pastor of the ministry. “And we pick this time to pray to nullify what they are doing.”
The ministry was started by a Congolese couple and illustrates a significant feature of African Christianity. For many Christians, especially African ones, the battle really is against spiritual forces, not those of the flesh. One of the great joys for African Christians is the conquering freedom that Jesus brings over the old order of witch doctors, spells, and totems. The Bible talks about this, but since idol worship and magic are not in our immediate cultural past, the Bible’s words do not resonate as deeply for Westerners. Not so for African Christians: “The day before, the parishioners began a fast. ‘Why do we fast toward the end of the year?’ Mrs. Shinga said to the worshipers. ‘That is when Satan wants sacrifices, blood, and so we ask God to protect us and our families.’”
This article made me think back to a performance of IphigÃ©nie en Tauride that I saw Friday night at the Metropolitan Opera. The story is a retelling of the Orestia in which Iphigenia is not actually sacrificed, but rather snatched away by Diana to serve in her temple. The form of her service is as the offerer of human sacrifices, and much of the production involves characters crying out to blood-lustful gods for mercy.
IphigÃ©nie en Tauride and the Times article have reminded me that this picture of religion is not just a Baroque construction of foreign cultures. Indeed, it is what most of the world throughout history has known as religion. Once we see remember what the old order was, we can see all the better the extent to which Christ overthrows it as the one who takes the Curse upon himself and the one who is the final sacrifice to end all sacrifices. As Christmas approaches, we can recall the pious legend that when the infant Christ entered Egypt, his mere presence toppled the idols of the land. The presence of the baby in the manger is the first glorious step on the path to conquering the darkness and fear of the pagan powers of the worldpowers literal and figurativeand bringing about the joy of the Kingdom of God.