What witch-hunters can teach us – The Daily News of Newburyport

Posted: May 26, 2017 at 3:52 am

It is hardly a new observation that political leaders seeking populist appeal will exacerbate popular fears about immigrants, terrorists and the other.

President Donald Trump plays to fears of immigrants and Muslims. Benjamin Netanyahu inflames Israeli fears by constantly reminding citizens about the threats around them. And many African leaders bring up fears of satanism and witchcraft.

Such observations explain how leaders use fear to create popular anxiety. But this focus on fear and evil forces, I believe, does something else as well it could actually contribute to a leaders charisma. He or she becomes the one person who knows the extent of a threat and also how to address it.

In my book Evil Incarnate, I analyze this relationship between claims to discern evil and charismatic authority across history, from European and African witch-finders to modern experts in so-called satanic ritual abuse.

In popular parlance, one calls a person charismatic because he or she seems to possess some inner force to which people are drawn.

Social scientists have long perceived this ostensible inner force as the product of social interaction: Charisma, in this interpretation, arises in the interplay between leaders and their audiences. The audiences present their own enthusiasms, needs and fears to the leader. The leader, for his part, mirrors these feelings through his talents in gesture, rhetoric, his conviction in his own abilities and his particular messages about danger and hope.

In sub-Saharan Africa, over the course of the 20th century, charismatic witch-finders swept through villages promising the cleansing of evil. In both Africa and Europe, communities had long been familiar with witches and their modes of attack in general. It has been common in many cultures throughout history to attribute misfortune to witches, who are both a part of society and also malevolent.

Witch-finders have offered four new elements to the basic image of witches:

They proclaimed the immediacy of the threat of witches.

They revealed the new methods witches were using for harm.

They offered new procedures for interrogating and eliminating witches.

Most importantly, they proclaimed their own unique capacity to discern the witches and their new techniques to purge them from the community.

The witch-finders indispensability to the growing crisis of threatening evil shaped his rarely her charisma. People came to depend on his capacity to see evil and on his techniques of ridding it from the land. An uncleansed village felt vulnerable while a village a witch-finder had investigated seemed safer and calmer, its paths and alleys swept of evil substances.

Of course the witch-finder needed auspicious historical and social circumstances. These could be catastrophes like the plague, or new ways of organizing the world (such as African colonialism), or political tensions all of which could make his identification of evil people especially useful, even necessary. Also, he had to come off as professional and channel local fears in compelling ways.

This pattern can cause atrocities. Charismatic discerners of evil in medieval and Renaissance Northern Europe (often Christian clergy and friars) promoted false charges against local Jews and organized hunts through Jewish houses to uncover signs of mutilated Eucharist or childrens bones hunts that swiftly turned into pogroms as participants in these hunts felt a conspiracy of evil was emerging before them.

The contemporary West has in no way been immune to these patterns. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, the United States and the United Kingdom found themselves facing a panic over satanic cults, alleged to be sexually abusing children and adults.

In this case, a number of psychiatrists, child protection officers, police and evangelical clergy were styling themselves as experts in discerning the abuses of satanists both in daycare centers and among psychiatric patients. Many people came to believe in the urgency of the satanic threat. Yet no evidence for the existence of such satanic cults ever came to light.

In many ways, we can see a similar interplay between charisma and the discernment of evil in those modern populist leaders.

For example, in his campaign, Trump insisted that he alone could utter the words radical Islamic terrorism, which assured members of his audience that only Trump was calling out the terrorist threat. In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte threatened publicly to eat the liver of the terrorists there. These leaders, I believe, are trying to convey that there is a larger threat out there and, even more, they are assuring people that as leaders they alone understand the nature of that larger threat.

As my work on witch-finders shows, an anxious culture may invest itself in a leader who, it feels, can discern and eliminate a pervasive and subversive evil. Perhaps, in todays world, the terrorist has become the new witch a monstrous incarnation of evil, posing a unique threat to our communities and undeserving of normal justice.

Do our leaders provide the charismatic leadership for this current era?

David Frankfurter is a professor of religion at Boston University. A version of this story appeared online in The Conversation.

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What witch-hunters can teach us - The Daily News of Newburyport

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