Willie Hucks (WH): Dr. Donkor, thank you so much for taking the time to be interviewed by Ministry. You edited the book The Church, Culture, and Spirits: Adventism in Africa.* What was the motivation for publishing this book? And could you tell us a bit about what went into selecting the authors?
Kwabena Donkor (KD): This all began when the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists held the Faith and Science Conference during the early part of the last decade. There were meetings in Africa, and the former director of the Biblical Research Institute (BRI), Ángel Rodríguez, happened to attend one. At this particular meeting, one of our theologians, Brempong Owusu-Antwi, who wrote one of the chapters of the book, made a presentation on an unusual topic. I think it was on something like “magic and the end times” or something to that effect. The response from the audience was amazing. So, subsequent to the presentations, Owusu-Antwi and the associate ministerial secretary of the West-Central Africa Division (WAD), Andrews Ewoo, spoke to Dr. Rodríguez and said, “Listen, we have some issues here in Africa.” They presented a plethora of issues, problems about members dabbling in spirits, even ministers confronting spirits—all kinds of things. So, Dr. Rodríquez came back to the Institute and decided that something had to be done about the issues raised. This was about the same time I was coming on board at the BRI. So we decided to meet and see what we can do about it.
We had the first meeting in Africa, on the compound of Valley View University in Ghana. We invited many theologians and some administrators. We really didn’t know where we were going with this whole thing because there was really no precedent for it. So we met, spoke, shared, and outlined some topics that could address the problem being described to us. As the topics were being outlined, we asked ourselves, “Who can address this or that topic?” Some of the people who met with us volunteered to write on some topics or suggested other scholars who eventually became partners in this writing project.
WH: How pervasive is the reality of spiritualistic manifestations on the African continent?
KD: You’ll notice how we have tried to describe the issue with the phrase spiritualistic manifestations. We are talking about a very complex phenomenon that includes witchcraft, magic, voodoo, spells, curses, demon possessions, and several other kinds of things that can be included under this umbrella of spiritualistic manifestations. How pervasive are these phenomena in Africa? Quite pervasive. Permit me to answer the question by making this general observation. For a typical African, these things have real currency in daily life. I mean, it’s not like I have to sit and ask myself, “Are these things really true? Are they really real?” This is just a part of life in Africa. So, it’s quite pervasive. Let me illustrate. In disposing of articles like hair cuttings and nail clippings, the African is not just mindful of issues of hygiene but also of the possibility of someone laying their hands on them and thereby causing them spiritual harm. Many Christians, including Adventists living in Europe or America, when visiting their native countries will keep their dates of arrival and departure secret for fear that they may be harmed by spiritual forces. This is not to say that spiritualistic manifestations are on the minds of Africans all the time, but their occurrence does not come as a surprise to your typical African south of the Sahara desert.
WH: Is it solely an African issue?
KD: It is not, really. Not too long ago, I was surprised, while on assignment overseas, when a union ministerial secretary came to me, and asked me whether I could recommend an exorcist for his field, because it was an important issue there. When we launched the book at the world headquarters this past fall, the reaction from delegates from East Asia, the Pacific Islands, and Latin America reassured me that the problem of spiritualistic manifestations is evident around the world, not just in Africa.
WH: Are there differences between the manifestations of demonic activity that we see in events recorded in Scripture and what is seen in modern-day settings?
KD: I think we are looking at pretty much the same phenomena. Take, for example, demon possession, which is one of the phenomena we talk about in the book. We described this phenomenon as we see it in the Bible and outlined its symptoms. They include demonstration of unusual strength, foaming at the mouth, wailing, and crying out loud. We then provided a few cases of demon possession as we experienced them in Africa, and compared them to the Bible accounts. It is clear it’s about the same thing. The Bible talks about sorcery, which includes magic and witchcraft, and this looks like what we are seeing in Africa. Another biblical experience very rampant on the African continent is apparitions such as ghosts. The notion of ancestors and ancestor veneration in Africa makes the issue of ghosts a very live and persistent spiritualistic manifestation.
WH: What lessons can we learn from Scripture as it relates to casting out demons today, in the twenty-first century?
KD: There is a whole chapter in the book devoted to this question of casting out of demons. But let me make a few fundamental remarks here about some things we can learn. First, in Scripture, demons are presented as real. For a long time, I think because even as a church, we had not faced these issues squarely, there had been the tendency among many to relegate demons to the realm of superstition. Superstition was modernity’s response to spiritualistic manifestations but it flies in the face of biblical evidence and the real-life experiences of many Africans. There are some who still cling to the notion of superstition. I am not denying that some reports of spiritualistic manifestations may border on the superstitious but to bracket them all out as superstition is really a modern thing.
The Bible provides the needed corrective, and we can learn from Scripture that this is all part of reality. How can Scripture then help us deal with these phenomena? It’s interesting that when you look, for instance, at encounters with demon possession and casting out demons, the Bible never really gives a technique or formula. And that, I think, is something important we can learn. See, most practitioners of deliverance ministries we see have techniques and formulas that they develop and follow. Not so in Scripture. It’s amazing. Never a set formula, methodology, or prescribed technique. All that happened with the disciples is that they were endued with power, and they went out in the name of Jesus and cast out demons and evil spirits. So, as we relate to this issue in the twenty-first century, Scripture will teach us first and foremost that spiritualistic manifestations are real. It will also teach us the biblical way of understanding and confronting these issues, and that is what the book is all about.
WH: What can pastors, who read this interview, do about such manifestations that they encounter? If possible, how can we, as pastors, instruct or assist our churches in addressing such manifestations?
KD: I think that, first of all, pastors should help our members understand that these forces, these phenomena, are real. Beyond this affirmation, however, pastors should help our members internalize the truth that at the Cross all demonic powers were defeated and subjected to the sovereignty of Christ. But I suspect your question has to do with practical ways in which pastors can address the problem of spiritualistic manifestations among their members. I have said that there isn’t a set formula or technique to address these things. But throughout the book, and especially in an appendix at the back of the book, we have a set of guidelines that I think pastors can take a look at and adopt or adapt as necessary. In the guidelines, we have identified specific phenomena. For example, we take witchcraft, and say, “Suppose a member would come to you and say, ‘I have witchcraft.’ Or suppose one came and said, ‘I have been a victim of a curse.’ How would you go about understanding what is going on?” We provide some kind of diagnosis, and then give specific guidelines as to how you would go about ministering and helping such a person. And we have done this for all kinds of phenomena in the set of guidelines we have provided in the appendix.
WH: Do you have any closing thoughts for our pastors and other ministers?
KD: What I find significant is that we understand from prophecy that towards the closing scenes of earth’s history, spiritualism is going to be a big issue. I find it quite interesting and instructive that in Africa, for some strange reason, even though these issues have been with us and within the church all the time, it is beginning to rear its head in a quite unique way—a way that we had not known before. I have said in some places that for me the one sign that tells me we are in the last days is the phenomenal spread of spiritualism and the charismatic influence throughout churches in Africa and elsewhere. This is a huge thing. So in Africa, we see spiritualism expressing itself in forms akin to the traditional religion. In the West, what are we seeing? There is talk about the new spirituality, New Age spirituality, contemplative spirituality, emergent spirituality, and things like this. And see how the whole phenomenon is growing! What is this but the growth of spiritualism? And I could go on and on, not to talk about the growing alliances between science and spirituality in the new physics. So, what I have to say is that this issue we are addressing in Africa is beginning to tell us what Adventism has believed all these years, that spiritualism will be a last-day event. I think those times are upon us.
WH: Dr. Donkor, thank you very much for spending this time with us and helping our readers understand the reality of spiritualistic manifestations—that this is truly a spiritual battle.
* Kwabena Donkor, ed., The Church, Culture, and Spirits: Adventism in Africa (Silver Spring, MD: Biblical Research Institute, 2011).