The aunt of a friend of ours works as a cook for a household of Roman Catholic priests and brothers. According to the traditional Catholic custom, she prepared fish for the men one Friday. After the meal, an elderly father of European extraction who has just retired on the compound offered the cook some leftovers.
"No, thank you, I don't eat fish," she said.
"How can you not like fish?" the father retorted, his anger rising. "Jesus served the disciples fish. It was very important to the early Christians."
Later, another brother who is friendly with our friend and her aunt briefed them on the elderly father's subsequent fumings. The father is now seeking to have the cook fired on the basis that the brothers must only employ Catholics, those who will respect cherished traditions such as consuming fish on Fridays. The father had one further grievance.
In the course of his tirade concerning the fish, he noticed that the woman wears a bracelet on her wrist. "She is a witchdoctor," he told the brother.
The woman later confided in her niece, "I am not a witchdoctor. But once I was very sick and I had to wear this bracelet to show honor to the ancestors in order to get better. I was healed and so I wear this. But I still pray to Jesus."
Our friend later reported her aunt's rationale to the brother, who in turn, relayed it to the elderly father.
"There are no such things."
Period. Such was the father's take on the spiritual forces which have a real effect on the life of this Xhosa woman. And there are many others who experience the same.
"There are no such things" does not constitute a missionary response to the concerns of health and prosperity in the hearts and minds of African brothers and sisters.
If not that, then what might a faithful missionary response be? I offer the following to inform a pastoral response and engender sensitivity among those who've committed to walking among African brothers and sisters.
1. The Christian theology of creation and redemption--the invisible Spirit giving birth to, "taking on", visible flesh--blesses the things of creation as channels through which humans can be healed. According to this criterion, there is no reason to elevate one method employing the things of creation over another. In terms of their constitution as types of "flesh", there is no difference between a capsule of ibuprofen, for example, and a bracelet thought to possess healing properties. The efficacy of each is a thing determined by the testimony of the respective human communities in which each is utilized.
2. On the other hand, being blessed or imbued with power--as the things of creation are--is not the same thing as Power itself. Creation as a power or as a diffusion of powers is merely derivative; it is dead apart from the God who gives it life. As a result, the traditional healer's bracelet and the western doctor's drugs are not necessarily equal. Rather, the lasting efficacy of each is dependent on the spirit in which each is given and received.
3. Spirit, or power, in biblical context, is not morally neutral or void. The Spirit who created the world did so out of love, joy, and peace. Powers derivative of the Creator Spirit have strayed from his love, joy, and peace. As a result, humans are both ill and must exercise caution when confronted by the array of powers, some of ill-will, which make themselves available for our "healing". This can include both modern and traditional practitioners.
4. The only way humans can be sure of our ultimate healing is in the name of Jesus, which is to say, far less a matter of words--a verbal formula--than a Spirit of love, joy, and peace. This potentially rules out both the western doctor--judged by the fruits of his/her spirit--and the traditional healer--judged both by the fruits of his/her spirit and by the prohibition that binds God's people from trusting in any other ancestor/human brother or sister, accessed via the traditional healer, than "the prophet whom God has raised up/appointed from among us" (Deut 18). For Christians--be they African or western--that prophet is Jesus Christ. Quite literally has he been raised, for the sake of all flesh.