What witch-finders can teach us about today’s world

(The Conversation) It is hardly a new observation that political leaders seeking populist appeal will exacerbate popular fears: about immigrants, terrorists and the other. Read the original article.) Fr Lawrence Lew, O.P., CC BY-NC-ND
For example, in 15th-century Europe, the Franciscan friar Bernardino was able to instigate horrific witch-burnings in Rome but failed to persuade the people of Siena of the dangers witches posed. This article was originally published on The Conversation. The witch-finder could show people material evidence of witches’ activity: grotesque dolls or buried gourds, for example. Perhaps, in today’s 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. These leaders, I believe, are trying to convey that there is a larger threat out there and, even more, they are assuring people that the leader alone understands the nature of that larger threat. (David Frankfurter is professor of religion at Boston University. Trump’s several attempts to ban Muslim visitors since his election have made his supporters feel understood and safer. This path to leadership takes place in much smaller-scale situations too, as I have studied in my own work. 20540
In sub-Saharan Africa, over the course of the 20th century, charismatic witch-finders swept through villages promising the cleansing of evil. But there are times when this pattern has come together and witnessed outright panic and ensuing atrocities. And many African leaders bring up fears of satanism and witchcraft. Misfortunes can thus seem to be the product of human malevolence rather than some abstract divine or natural cause. The audiences present their own enthusiasms, needs and fears to the leader. 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. Benjamin Netanyahu inflames Israeli fears by constantly reminding citizens about the threats around them. But this focus on fear and evil forces, I believe, does something else as well – it could actually contribute to a leader’s charisma. The contemporary West has in no way been immune to these patterns on both large and more restricted scales. How charisma works
In popular parlance one calls a person charismatic because he or she seems to possess some inner force to which people are drawn. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 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 both Africa and Europe, communities had long been familiar with witches and their modes of attack in general. These charismatic leaders organized hunts through Jewish houses to uncover signs of mutilated Eucharist or children’s bones – hunts that swiftly turned into pogroms, as participants in these hunts felt a conspiracy of evil was emerging before them. Often, he would present himself as the target of witches’ active enmity, detailing the threats they had made against him and the attacks he had suffered. Also, he had to come off as professional and he had to have the ability to translate local fears in compelling ways. 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. They revealed the new methods witches were using to subvert the village or afflict children. 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. And most importantly, they proclaimed their own unique capacity to discern the witches and their new techniques to purge them from community. 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 Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte threatened publicly to eat the liver of the terrorists there. 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. Bernardino of Siena. The witch-finder’s authority over – and indispensability to – the growing crisis of threatening evil shaped his charisma. Witch doctors in Africa resting between dances. President Donald Trump plays to fears of immigrants and Muslims. In earlier times, too, American and European leaders invoked threats of communists and Jews. Such observations explain how leaders use fear to create popular anxiety. Do our leaders provide the charismatic leadership for this current era? He – rarely she – could coerce others to testify against an accused witch. It has been common in many cultures throughout history to attribute misfortune to witches, who are both a part of society and also malevolent. They offered new procedures for interrogating and eliminating witches. St. An uncleansed village felt vulnerable, awash in malevolent powers, one’s neighbors all suspect; while a village that a witch-finder had investigated seemed safer, calmer, its paths and alleys swept of evil substances. Witch-finders, as I see it, have offered four new elements to the “basic” image of witches:

They proclaimed the immediacy of the threat of witches. Indeed, there were many situations in both Europe and Africa when such claims to authority failed to stimulate a sense of crisis or to legitimate witch-finders’ procedures. People came to depend on his capacity to see evil and on his techniques of ridding it from the land. Witch hunts, satanic cults
Of course, in order for a witch-finder to be successful in activating fears, there were many extenuating circumstances, both historical and social, that had to work in his favor. He or she becomes the one person who knows the extent of a threat and also how to address it. As historians Miri Rubin and Ronald Hsia have described, various such charismatic discerners of evil in medieval and Renaissance Northern Europe (often Christian clergy and friars) promoted false charges against local Jews that they hungered for stolen Eucharists or for the blood of Christian children. Needs of an anxious culture
In many ways we can see a similar interplay between charisma and the discernment of evil in those modern leaders that seek a populist appeal. Yet no evidence for the existence of such satanic cults ever came to light. 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. 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.