Teenager Kirsty Theologo tragically died in Johannesburg in October 2011 after being set on fire in some sort of group ritual. Unlike the Michael van Eck murder case, there appears to be some actual evidence of Satanism in this case albeit probably of the dabbling variety. The trial of those charged with her murder will resume soon, and I expect the media to squeeze every drop of sensationalism that they can out of the Satanic angle. I would love to be proved wrong about this, but I won't hold my breath (note that using quotation marks around the word Satanic and adding "alleged" or "suspected" to the word Satanic does not count).
The good and the bad
I am not going to try to explain or defend Satanism per se as I am not an expert on the subject and, like Christianity and Paganism, practitioners have different opinions about it and no individual has copyright on the term. There is a fair amount of information on the Religious Tolerance website if anyone wants to educate themselves.
While reading up on Satanism and trying to wrap my head around it, I asked myself why anyone would choose to focus on the force of darkness or "evil" in the universe (assuming that the Satan in question is the Christian concept of Satan, which is not the case according to some practising Satanists)? I suppose one could ask a similar question about Christianity, i.e. why only focus on the force of light in the universe? One of the main differences between Christianity and other religions often cited is a greater emphasis on the balance of light and dark forces in other religions, however I don't think that's strictly true. Christianity has effectively divided the God depicted in the Old Testament into two polarized forces, a "good" God (Jesus) and a "bad" God (Satan). The God depicted in the Old Testament was a much more balanced character:
"I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things."
Isaiah: 45:7, Old Testament, King James Version
In Christianity (especially the fundamentalist variety), the manifestation of the "bad" force is not explained as something natural or necessary or serving a higher purpose, but as an abomination or "evil" perpetrated by Satan or an agent of Satan. Incidentally, this is the dualistic thinking that underlies the travesty of the so-called "witch" hunts in Europe in the Dark Ages that still plague Africa today. Christianity does not provide a satisfactory explanation for why bad things happen, and some Christians have acknowledged that their missionaries may be encouraging witchcraft accusations today:
"'Most missionaries go out knowing the answer - namely, Christ - without knowing the questions the local people are asking that the local religion answers,' said Carol McKinney, an anthropologist who teaches at the Graduate Institute of Applied Linguistics ...
Instead of seeing old women or children as scapegoats, said Priest*, Christian leaders suggest that witchcraft participates in genuine spiritual evil and that the accusations are reasonable. 'The church is providing the cognitive underpinnings for the past system in the contemporary world' ... 'Missiologists have not yet done an adequate job of wisely engaging these realities,' said Priest*. 'We have a solemn responsibility to mobilize the effort to rethink our role in this.'"
Warning on Witches by Ruth Moon, Christianity Today, 24 March 2011
*Robert Priest, professor of missions and intercultural studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School
Last year the media labelled Chane van Heerden, who was convicted of murdering Michael van Eck, a Satanist, an "occult killer" and, to the dismay of actual self-identified Witches who practise a nature-based religion, "the Welkom witch". There is no evidence that Chane van Heerden is a Satanist or a Witch, there is only evidence that she is a Christian (according to news reports she attended Bible classes regularly before the murder, and she wore a crucifix to court).
In January 2012, Jacaranda 94.2 radio station spent a week focussing on the occult and/or Satanism.
"South Africa was rocked by two cases of murder last year, with potential links to the underground and satanism in particular.
Earlier this week all six accused of setting alight two girls in October last year appeared in the Johannesburg Magistrate Court, while 23-year-old Michael van Eck was lured to a cemetery in Welkom last year where he was killed and dismembered.
Both cases have strong links to the occult.
This week the Jacaranda 94.2 News Team explores this world of satanism."
Jacaranda 94.2's special feature on Satanism, 19 January 2012
In response to public comments, the station's news editor Denzil Taylor had this to say:
"We have not - for a second - suggested that the two murders are the workings of the OCCULT or SATANISTS. We have merely used what the experts have had to say in this regard."
"We will bring the news to all our listeners in a truthful and yet practical way. Society is an integrated entity - and we report in our news bulletin not only the news - but also the impact it will have on society as such. That is our responsibility."
The News Focus this week is on the Occult, 19 January 2012
I can't imagine what else Jacaranda 94.2 could possibly be suggesting. Besides, according to news reports forensic psychologist Professor Dap Louw, social worker Marilise Vergottini and "occult crimes expert" Dr Kobus Jonker all testified in the trial of Chane van Heerden in November last year that Satanism could not have played a role in the murder of Michael van Eck. It also transpired in court that any link between "occultism" and the murder was tenuous. (See Occult killer shows no remorse and Skinning murder unique, expert testifies.) Is the court testimony of all these experts really not good enough for Jacaranda 94.2?
"This week the Jacaranda 94.2 News Team explores this world of satanism." "The News Focus this week is on the Occult." Well which one is it, Satanism or the occult? Using these words interchangeably is a clear sign of bias towards Christianity (especially the fundamentalist variety). Occultism simply means the exploration of unseen and unexplained phenomena, which fundamentalist Christians view as heresy as they do not tolerate any questioning of their dogma. Occultism is not Satanism or "evil". I am an occultist, I am not a Satanist. Satanists and/or occultists are not murderers. I don't care if 85% or even 99% of the population is Christian, I am not one of them and the media has a responsibility to respect my constitutional right to freedom of conscience, religion, thought, belief and opinion without unfair discrimination. Painting me and others as something that we are not, and furthermore painting us as something that is misunderstood, feared or hated, is beyond irresponsible.
This stereotyping starts the ball rolling in a campaign to alienate or harm anyone that someone does not approve of or wants to get rid of. It works something like this:
X is an abomination! (a subjective term, it could refer to murder or walking with a limp)
X is the work of Satan or supposed agents of Satans, i.e. "Satanists" or "witches"! (what other explanation could there possibly be? - an actual comment made about the Michael van Eck murder case)
Y is a "Satanist" or a "witch"! (any sign will do including a limp, and no proof is necessary)
Get rid of Y! (rather be safe than sorry - an actual comment made about local "witch" hunts)
To illustrate my point, some News24 readers made the following comments about homosexuals on the News24 website and on Facebook in connection with a recent News24 article (Mbeki slams Uganda's anti-gay bill):
A: "Gays should be hung, it is the practice of satan" (14 people gave A a thumbs up for this!)
B: "Burn them gays!!"
Subsequent to these homophobic remarks, one of these individuals also made the following comment on Facebook about the recent Democratic Alliance Student Organisation recruitment poster showing an interracial couple embracing:
"If the liberals didnt rewrite the bible in 83 ud see it says that hybrids may not become part of society, in Duet 23:2 in the old bible" (sic)
In the ensuing debate shameless bigots referred to people of mixed race as hybrids and cross-breeds, despite the fact that Homo sapiens is the only living species in the Homo genus.
I wonder if the media has any idea how big this Satanic panic bandwagon that they love riding on potentially is? (Bandwagon, Urban Dictionary: "When someone adopts a popular point of view for the primary purpose of recognition and/or acceptance by others.") Some people just can't help themselves and will inevitably behave badly, but the media has a legal and ethical responsibility to respect our constitutional rights and not to abuse their freedom of speech. My freedom is also your freedom. I am (free) because you are (free).
[I support TouchStone Advocacy, an initiative of the South African Pagan Rights Alliance advocating an end to "witch" hunts globally. Ugogo wami, ugogo wakho nawe. My grandmother is your grandmother.]
"Freedom is indivisible; the chains on any one of my people were the chains on all of them, the chains on all of my people were the chains on me."
Long Walk to Freedom, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela (1918-)