Defending Obeah Rights?
'Why defend obeah rights' was the caption given to letter writer Devon Grey's response to my article 'Threats to religious freedom' (January 29, 2015). Grey claims that it is paradoxical that as a Christian pastor, I would advocate the right to practise obeah. However, it is not paradoxical, but just part of one's Christian duty to be fair to all, based on equality of all. We are called to love our neighbours as ourselves, therefore, all Christians should treat persons who practise obeah as our equals and do unto them as we would want others to do unto us.
The Christian faith is the dominant faith in Jamaica and we ought to treat minority religious expressions with respect and love. There are places in the world where Christians are in the minority and they are persecuted and killed by other religious practitioners. These other religious people feel that Christianity is false and that they have the right to kill Christians as infidels.
is obeah witchcraft?
Grey asked if obeah is not witchcraft, which is forbidden in the Bible. There were some writers of the 18th and 19th centuries such as John Henry Buchner, superintendent of the Moravian mission, who believed obeah to be witchcraft, sorcery, black magic or something evil. Along that line, J. Stewart claimed that obeah has similarity with European witchcraft because of the ingredients used in plying the trade. For clergyman, Thomas Banbury, obeah was evil personified.
Grey further states, "Every mention of a visit to the obeah man was always out of evil motives, such as to bring harm to others and to set back their progress." I cannot challenge Grey based on experience. I have never consulted or visited an obeah man. However, my research and reading show that some people visit obeah man and obeah woman to get visa, get job or promotion, and pass GSAT and other examinations.
Indeed, there are others who had a positive perspective of obeah. It was said that when a Negro was robbed of a fowl, he applied directly to an obeah man to determine the thief, and when a Negro was ill, enquiries were made of the obeah man to ascertain the cause of his or her sickness. Other positive benefits obeah included protection from danger; protection of the insurgents against the Europeans during resistances; and explanation of misfortune. Obeah was also a means to get revenge for insults, to cure disorders, to punish an adulterer or to predict future events.
infringing on the rights
Obeah was outlawed in Jamaica in 1760. In addition, having the tools of obeah was punishable as a crime. The tools of the trade included 'grave-dirt, hair, teeth of sharks, alligators, and other animals, parrots' beaks, blood, broken bottles, feathers, eggshells, images in wax'. This does not look like witchcraft as described in the Bible. And if obeah harms someone, then the court is available as recourse for justice.
In 1865, the colonial authorities executed Arthur Wellington, who had a reputation among the people of Somerset, St Thomas, as an obeah man. A constable cut off his head from his body and the head was placed on a pole. Colonel Hobbs said the execution was to dissuade the people of the folly of their belief in obeah. We do not want to go back to such barbaric behaviour.
There are provisions in Jamaica's Charter of Fundamental Rights 2011 which guarantee religious freedom. The Charter guarantees the right to freedom of expression, thought, conscience and belief, and also the freedom to peaceful assembly and of association. We might be infringing these rights if persons are not allowed to express their religious beliefs, including the practice of obeah.
- Rev Devon Dick is pastor of the Boulevard Baptist Church in St Andrew. He is author of 'The Cross and the Machete', and 'Rebellion to Riot'. Send feedback to columns@ gleanerjm.com.