Benedict Daswa, Benedict XVI, and the African Future

Pope Benedict XVI’s trip to Benin leaves us with much to digest – mercifully free of wall-to-wall condom commentary. Quick to praise Africa’s “freshness,” its openness to God and life and family, his affection for Africa’s peoples is obvious. He has cautioned against the “toxic spiritual garbage” exported by the West. This is, he says, an indication that a form of colonialism persists to this day – a remark that should be of great interest to the professional critics. But his affection and his respect for African lives is genuine enough to clearly call for the purification of African religions – the “uprooting for good” of harmful practices such as witchcraft.

That’s just not something you say in our age of superficial multiculturalism. Silence, however, is tantamount to making peace with the fact that tens of thousands of innocent and vulnerable people – children, Albinos, the elderly – are accused of being witches, chased out of their villages, and viciously killed every year.

He framed his call for the “definitive eradication” of this regional scourge in such a way that it has universal application: “the hearts of the baptized” in Africa “are torn between Christianity and traditional African religions” – and thus fall into “practices that are incompatible with the path of Christ.” Do we not walk, at best, with divided hearts in our own sterile, materialistic and secular terrain so replete with practices incompatible with Christianity?

I myself was in the northern part of South Africa recently (the Diocese of Tzaneen), near the borders of Zimbabwe and Mozambique. There, I got to know about the life of a remarkable man, the Servant of God Benedict Daswa, whose opposition to these practices cost him his life.

            Servant of God Benedict Daswa

Born in 1946, baptized in 1963, and married in 1980, he led a full and active life, before it came to an abrupt end in 1990, when he was just forty-three.  He was a teacher and a principal at the local primary school. He and his wife had eight kids. Their family prayed together every day. He gave generously of his relative abundance and found time, over and above his responsibilities to family and work, to encourage local youth in the faith and tend to the poor and the sick.

As might be expected, his faith clashed with some aspects of his local culture, which he was not afraid to challenge.  He took the revolutionary step of assisting in menial tasks traditionally done only by women (such as cooking, dishwashing, and looking after children), especially when his wife was sick. His good friends sharply objected. They were adamant, as the local saying went, that a man who does any woman’s job is on a slippery slope to doing whatever she says.

Many people in that region become immersed at a young age in forms of witchcraft or “muti” – traditional medicines administered as a means of guaranteeing success in one’s ventures or protection against witchcraft from other people, enemies, and the like. Though not often openly discussed, it grips many with great fear. A time came when Benedict Daswa paid the ultimate price for his constant stand against it.

One day, lightning struck some huts in the area. Neighbors felt they needed to consult a diviner or witchdoctor in order to determine who was responsible – who was “the owner of that lightning.” They passed the hat around for that purpose. Benedict refused to participate.

He did not squirm his way out of conflict by our own methods of rationalization – by saying that the practice leads to some “greater good,” that it is up to each person’s conscience, or that he was “personally opposed” but had no business making judgments about a matter that threatens innocent lives. Nor did he perceive Church teaching as discriminatory – as inherently anti-African.

The church in his village that Daswa helped build 

His enemies devised a plan. Knowing he would be returning in the evening, they barricaded the dirt road leading to his house with logs. And laid in wait. Armed with stones. On either side of the road. When he got out of his car to remove the logs, they ambushed him. Wounded, he ran for his life, and hid in a woman’s home nearby. When members of the mob entered and threatened to kill her if she didn’t reveal where Benedict was, he came out.

He pleaded with them, asking why they wanted to kill him. They plainly told him that he had to go since he always opposed what they wanted to do, because of his faith. He made a final prayer – “God, into your hands receive my spirit” – before they finished him off, crushing his skull and then pouring boiling water over his head.

At his funeral mass the following week, the priests wore red – indicating they felt him to be a martyr. With the canonical inquiry into his life (see this brief video) completed in 2009, he could become South Africa’s first saint.

The impulse to stand in “solidarity” with poor, developing nations is laudable, but often vague on particulars. Sometimes solidarity gets confused with unconditional affirmation of all things “other” – including the other’s destructive customs. That, however, is usually more like broadcasting what we imagine to be our own magnanimity.

By contrast, we see in Pope Benedict XVI and Benedict Daswa, men of wildly different cultural backgrounds, a much better model of solidarity because they are united in truth – in opposition to that which is incompatible with following Christ.  Nothing else can unite us.

If we wonder sometimes what we can do “for” Africa or a world full of complicated problems, we might listen to Benedict Daswa’s mother, who found some peace about her son’s death by saying simply: “he died for the truth.”

We can at least live for it.

Matthew Hanley’s new book, Determining Death by Neurological Criteria: Current Practice and Ethics, is a joint publication of the National Catholic Bioethics Center and Catholic University of America Press.