Why Do Witches Burn?

Blogger’s Note:  The extremely long gap between posts here is mainly due to my latest beloved son with whom I am well pleased–except when it comes to sleeping on his own.  I have not given up blogging, but my already sketchy publishing schedule will probably continue to be super-sketchy for the next few months.

If one wants to trump up the historical atrocities of Christianity, the list of go-to sins is really pretty short. The Crusades and the Inquisition generally find the top spots on most lists, and science fetishists might add the popular but largely fictionalized narrative of Galileo being executed for telling the truth. Once you get past those, the next big one is our propensity for burning witches at the stake.

We all had to read The Crucible in high school, we’re all taught to be tolerant of other religions, and we’re all horrified at the image of medieval peasants goaded by a priest into lighting some poor old woman on fire because her neighbor’s daughter was stillborn and she happened to have a wart on her nose and a bundle of dried sage hanging in her house. Accordingly, the wrongness of burning witches is basically taken for granted in the West today by Christians and non-Christians alike.

Unfortunately, some people are inadvertently working hard to change all that, but they’re not Christians—they’re witches.

It seems that various covens, orders, and other mystical groups from around the world recently organized in order to cast a “binding spell” on President Trump—preventing him from doing harm as they see it and enforcing their political ideology through magic. Supposedly, this is non-violent towards Trump (so not a hex or curse or something), although the final image of him blowing apart into ash and the author’s acknowledgment that if it works we’ll be stuck with Pence makes me a little skeptical on that front. Either way, though, the intention is to control the course of the U.S. Government through mystical powers rather than democratic rule of law.

So what does this bit of silliness have to do with the witch-hunts of the olden days? Well, like most things taken for granted, we have largely forgotten why we no longer burn witches. What exactly happened that caused the shift in the West’s sense of justice? C.S. Lewis helpfully reminds us in Mere Christianity:

But surely the reason we do not execute witches is that we do not believe there are such things. If we did—if we really thought that there were people going about who had sold themselves to the devil and received supernatural powers from him in return and were using these powers to kill their neighbours or drive them mad or bring bad weather—surely we would all agree that if anyone deserved the death penalty, then these filthy quislings did? There is no difference of moral principle here: the difference is simply about matter of fact. It may be a great advance in knowledge not to believe in witches: there is no moral advance in not executing them when you do not think they are there. You would not call a man humane for ceasing to set mousetraps if he did so because he believed there were no mice in the house.

In other words, we grant accused witches an irrevocable presumption of innocence because we simply don’t believe they’re capable of doing what they claim. Even self-proclaimed witches cannot really be guilty of ruining crops and dominating wills because they cannot really do such things. But the flip-side of this is that when we watch Supernatural to see Sam and Dean gut a witch, we still cheer them on because in the context of the story, their powers (and their dangers) are real. Do witches really want people to start thinking of fiction as reality?

This fact puts those who are taking part in the ritual in a kind of double-bind. If, as I believe, this is a bunch of nonsense carried out by volunteer demon-fodder, then they simply reinforce their reputation as a bunch of self-deluded crazies harvesting eye of newt by candlelight before getting up to feed their 13 black cats. We all get a good laugh, and Trump does what Trump does, for better and worse.

But the alternative is worse for the witches. Because if this is real and efficacious, then that instead makes them a powerful mystical cabal intent on subverting legitimate governments and controlling the very destiny of the nations through their supernatural abilities. It would mean that the modern West has simply been deceived about the existence of witches, in which case, it’s only a matter of time before the muggles catch on once again and organize to defend themselves from magical tyranny. Every old story about a musclebound warrior cutting the malevolent witch in half with his broadsword in order to save the kingdom becomes an inspiration. History will repeat and the age of witch-hunts will return because people will once again believe in witches in the old sense of the word.

If witches are looking to bind something, then they might want to consider binding the kind of stupidity that voluntarily walks into a no-win scenario like that. Perhaps its wiser to just stick with positive energy and white light and whatnot.

About Matt

Software engineer by trade; lay theologian by nature; Lutheran by grace.
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