Friday, February 8, 2013

witch burning

Today, in a small Papuan town, villagers stripped, tortured and then burned alive a woman suspected of sorcery, of witchcraft, of wickedness.

I write the line above with emotions held in check. Too much emotion seldom conveys the messages that others need to hear for themselves.

But beneath the declarative words ....

I am horrified.
I am incredibly sad.
I am angry.
I want to skin someone alive!

Here in my warm house, with my relatively comfortable surroundings, with my pampered education and generally peaceable neighbors ... well, I don't burn witches, do I? That would be barbaric. It makes my pink and plush skin crawl.

The barbarisms of belief ... well, I do what I can to sidestep responsibility for them. If I believe, well, my beliefs are the 'good' beliefs, the 'kindly' beliefs, the 'thoughtful' beliefs... and they do not include burning women alive.

But I too have done my share of witch-burning -- tried might and main, with a force akin to red-hot pokers, to subdue and excise and bring to heel those personal bits of black-magic habit that caused pain to me and to others. I have done this in a variety of ways, one of the most insidious of which has been under the cover of spiritual endeavor ... you know, the good stuff full of soft and consoling words; the approved and praise-worthy stuff.

As surely as those villagers burned their living nemesis, so I have touched off the pyres of imagined goodness."Out damned spot!" Anyone who has tried this, under cover of goodness or religion or discipline, knows it doesn't work worth a shit when they are honest. Immolating greed, anger and ignorance is like trying to scrub sight from two perfectly good eyes. It is like putting gasoline on a fire in hopes of dousing it.

But of course all this witch burning seemed like a good idea at the time. It had the stamp of spiritual or philosophical approval ... or so I imagined. I was doing a good thing, burning the witches of my own Papua heart.

OK, I suppose everyone is as dumb as they need to be for as long as they need to be. But when the flames grow too hot and the foolishness reaches bright and searing to the heavens....

Now what?

All I can think of is this, when it comes to the witches of belief: Watch and watch and watch some more. Don't agree and don't disagree ... just watch and watch and watch some more. Use the energy generated by horror; use the energy generated by longing; use the energy that invests a world of witches ... and watch. See what happens.

Watching is like a bright scalpel ... it'll skin any witch alive. Bad witches, good witches, evil witches, holy witches ....


Skin 'em alive!


  1. The beliefs we share define our culture, and most began with some purpose. I imagine burning a witch supports the belief that our tribe is on the job of protecting itself. And perhaps it's a pressure relief valve for group anxieties. And sadly, burning one might not be enough... pray harder, burn more...

  2. Horrible news.

    Olcharlie, I don't know what you're saying here.

  3. I think i'm saying that small groups under stress will blame someone and burn them. And sometimes one is not enough.