Birungi is distressed. At 40, she remains unmarried. With a high-paying job, she is a well-educated Christian who believes that Jesus died for her sins. At her age, she has attended many weddings, even those of her close friends. And driving home from one reception, alone, Birungi ponders her plight. ‘Maybe it’s true; perhaps I am cursed’ she mutters to herself, silently sobbing.
Kawooya cannot seem to hold his life together. Raised in a broken family, he is continuously ‘broke’, as his female friends jokingly tease him. Despite graduating from a good university, Kawooya has struggled to keep a job for more than five months. The businesses he tries building fail. He too believes that Jesus died for him but cannot see how that is much relevant given the constant emptiness of his pocket. ‘Could my youth pastor be right?’ he wonders, ‘are there family altars I must break?’
Curses in the African Traditional Worldview
Birungi and Kawooya represent countless other Africans flooded with fears whenever life makes a dark turn, as it often does. Deeply spiritual, Africans see omens in night owls and curses in cats crossing their paths. The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (TDNT) defines a curse as ‘a directly expressed or indicated utterance which in virtue of a supernatural nexus (connection) of operation brings harm by its very expression to the one against whom it is directed.’
The fear of curses comes from how, traditionally, Africans have a transactional view of the gods. The gods want their backs scratched,— at least that’s what the witchdoctors told us— before scratching us, with a good life. If things do not go well, either the gods are angry, or someone scratched their back better, inciting them against us. Fabulous Moyo and Erwin van der Meer in their article The Christian Church and Witchcraft Accusations in Africa narrate how traditional healers specialized in ‘divining spiritual causes of bewitchment and who is the one who did the bewitchment.’
James Nkansah-Obrempong in Theology and HIV and AIDS states how ‘Some of the major causes of sickness and death in African thought include sin, curses, witches, demonic forces and as punishment from God or gods as well as the ancestors.’
How Deliverance Ministries Amplify Fear
We would be greatly mistaken to think that the sentiments above remain buried under our baptismal waters. When problems pound us, they often bring to the surface our surviving and unspoken presuppositions about life. For most Africans— Christians and their pastors alike—, the African Traditional Worldview still forms the core of those convictions. Deliverance ministries ensure that those deeply held persuasions are clothed with, rather than reshaped by the Bible.
These ‘ministries’ instead of ministering to the soul often amplify the fear of generational curses. Birungi’s pastor told her of the existing ‘altars’ in her family that must be ‘torn-down.’ Accordingly, her ancestors bewitched their descendants so that they may have families ‘with women who are not married or are divorced or are barren or in adulterous relationships.’
I have witnessed people whose lives were ruined by their fear of the past. In Uganda, many dedicate their Friday overnight prayers to confessing the sins of their forefathers. The dilemma is that these same sins will be re-confessed next week, a month and year from now, without a hint that previous prayers availed much. This ritualistic pattern of prayer grants the pastor great powers over the congregants while weakening the believers’ trust in the efficacy of cross of Christ. The pastor, like the traditional healer, specializes in ‘divining spiritual causes of bewitchment.’
The Curse and Cure in the Old Testament
God pronounced the first curse ever in the Bible in Genesis 3:14-19. Genesis 3 narrates Adam and Eve’s rebellion against God at Satan’s suggestion. The first man sinned, and with him, all his descendants fell under a curse, for ‘in Adam all die’ (1 Cor 15:22). Thus, all humanity is born estranged from God, in sin and exile east of Eden, citizens among thorns and acquainted with misery and pain (3:16-19). This curse, and not the cat crossing our paths, is the principal cause of all human misery.
Crucially, however, we must notice that in wrath, God remembers mercy (Hab 3:2). With the curse came the cure (Gen 3:15), or, paradoxically, the medicine is in the malediction. The Seed of the woman reverses Adam’s judgment by falling on the sword. The serpent will fatally wound him. And yet, his death is precisely the means through which he will triumph. As Abraham’s offspring ‘all the families of the earth shall be blessed’ through him (Gen. 12:3).
In the meantime, Abraham’s immediate descendants, Israel, re-live Adam’s tale of rebellion against grace with inevitable judgment (Deut 6:11-15). The Old Testament is a story of Israel’s sin and how the Lord ‘visited’ the iniquity of fathers upon sons ‘of those who hate Me’ (Ex. 20:5). And yet, in wrath, God remembered mercy (Ex. 20:6).
Humanity Under the Curse
God’s indictment of humanity is that ‘all have sinned’ (Rom. 3:23). In sinning, we confirmed Adam’s sin as ours. We do not need to look to the neighbour for our misfortune. As such, ‘confessing the sins of our fathers’ can be a spiritualized substitute for blame-shifting. Many spend hours casting out their uncle’s demon of anger instead of learning how to ‘be angry and sin not’ (Eph. 4:26). Our ancestors were no more sinners than us just as we are no more human than them. All people equally stand in solidarity with Adam in sin. It is ‘in Adam’, not ‘in our aunties,’ that we all die (1 Cor 15:22). We are sinners by nature, living under Adam’s curse.
Curses and the Cure in the New Testament
In the New Testament, the noun ‘curse’ occurs six times (Gal 3:10, 13; Heb 6:8; Jas 3:10; 2 Pet 2:14) while the verb ‘to curse’ occurs five times (Mt 25:41; Mk 11:21; Lk 6:28; Rom 12:14; Jas 3:9). James 3:9-10 argues against being double-tongued, blessing and cursing at the same time. Lk 6:28 and Rom 12:14 prohibit Christians from cursing their enemies. Mt 25:41, Mk 11:21 (metaphorically), Heb 6:8 (recalling Gen 3:17-19), and 2 Pet 2:14 pronounce judgment against unfruitful Israel, including apostates and false teachers. In none of those texts does Scripture suggest that Christians can be under a curse.
Believers cannot be ‘under’ a curse because they are ‘in Christ’ as Gal 3:10-14 explains. We recall that the curse comes with the cure (Gen. 3:15) and that in wrath, God remembers mercy (Hab 3:2). We also remember that in Gen 3:15, the Seed of the woman conquers through His humiliation, destroying death through His demise. We saw that the same Son is the Seed of Abraham, through whom ‘all the families of the earth shall be blessed’ (Gen 12:3).
Paul makes the same argument in Gal 3. In his death, Christ rescued all those ‘in him’ from the bondage of sin. “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (Gal 3:13). As such, ‘in Christ’, the blessing of Abraham comes to the gentiles ‘so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith’ (3:14). As we all died ‘in Adam’, we all live ‘in Christ.’ The difference between whether you are cursed or blessed depends on your location. Because Christians are in Christ, they cannot be cursed.
The Good News
The gospel is that God has borne our sin and judgment in His body to the tree, raising us to the newness of the resurrected life. The curse you deserve is nailed to the cross, forever forgotten. Birungi was beautifully reborn as a daughter and new creation whose identity is not in marriage but God (2 Cor 5:17). Kawooya is the King’s son, an heir through God (Gal. 4:7). Believers are ‘in Christ’ and no longer ‘in Adam’, and, certainly, never ‘in’ their ancestors.
Confessing ‘the sins of our forefathers’ forgets that our true spiritual Father is God alone, in whom we are free indeed (Gal 4:7, 5:1). We are freer than those deliverance sessions will ever make us. The cross of Christ crushed the curse that weighed down our neck, raising us from despair. He alone is the Christian’s altar to which approach (Heb 13:10-13).
In the meantime, we will experience the residues of Adam’s rebellion on this side of heaven. We will fall sick, face impotence and barrenness, and even die. It may be that we do not always have the financial ‘breakthrough’ we seek. But to us, those are dregs of the darkness disappearing as dawn draws near. The first rays of the impending morning already crashed through, tearing apart the temple curtain (Mk 15:38).
We require no more traditional healers or pastors to reveal the ‘spiritual causes of our bewitchment.’ For, God has already ‘delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son’ (Col 1:13). And ‘if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed’ (Jn. 8:36).