It was 5th November 2020 and like many people around the world, I was watching my television screen, horrified by what I was seeing. President Trump’s spiritual advisor was on a stage, calling on angels from Africa to come to fight against the powers of darkness that were trying to stop Trump winning the election. She was punching the air with her fist, praying in tongues and binding demons. People unfamiliar with extreme charismatic Christian practices were either bemused or found it funny, if rather bizarre. Others were horrified to see such a parody of the Christian faith being used in such a way. Sat in my living room, I felt physically sick. To explain why, I would like to tell you a story.
We are going back 30 years, or maybe it was 35. No matter, the exact date is unimportant for our purposes. What is certain, is that whatever the year, the date is the 31st October, Halloween. It is a cloudy night and the moon’s light is hidden from view. Our time travel finds you standing in the shadows on a lonely hillside, tucked behind some trees, just above a pub carpark. You see several cars arriving. People emerge from the cars, wrapped up against the cold, scarves around their necks and hats pulled down. Voices drift on the air and you can feel that there is a sense of excitement or anticipation in their voices as torches are tested and gloves pulled on. One man raise his voice to get their attention and the rest gather round him. Silence falls, just the sound of the breeze in the trees.
It’s hard to hear what he is saying but you catch the occasional words. Jesus, Almighty, Protection, Glory. The man has raised his arms and as his voice gets louder, people follow suit, raising their hands towards the sky, some with fists clenched, others with their palms flat as if pressing against something. There are many shouts of ‘Jesus’ and ‘Amen’ before arms are lowered and silence falls. The man is talking to them now in serious tones and you hear the odd word such as warfare and powers before they begin to walk up the dark hillside, their torches bobbing up and down lighting the stony path, their voices subdued. Conversations stop as the path gets steep and people need their breath for the climb. The track turns a bend and suddenly the space opens right out and you realise that you have reached the top of an escarpment. In the distance you can see the lights of a town twinkling. The breeze has got stronger, the clouds are breaking up, allowing the moon to illuminate the hillside. As the people gather in a circle, someone starts to sing and the air is full of song. It’s hard to hear the words but you can tell by their expressions and the beautiful harmonies that they are songs of love. Some heads are thrown back, arms outstretched, cheeks wet with tears. Other stand with their hands on their heart, expressions of rapt devotion as song blends into song. Gradually the voices fall silent and they stand in the moonlight, the wind blowing their scarves and hair. The man who is clearly the leader begins to speak. Quietly at first. There are murmurs of assent as people nod their heads and the occasional ‘Amen’. The clouds are racing across the sky as his voice changes, taking on strident tones. The previous atmosphere of love and devotion disappears as you hear him using words like bind them, cast them down, enemies. As his voice rises, so do the voices of those gathered around him. Gone are the expressions of love, the rapt expressions and tears of devotion. Faces become contorted as people shout in unfamiliar languages. The air is full of phrases like ‘Bring them down, cast them out, have the victory.’ People are shaking their fists at the sky, some are walking around, some on their knees beating the ground with their hands. Then above the tumult you hear the man roar, “Bring those witches to their knees”. All is suddenly quiet and the cloud covers the moon as if protecting her from such hatred. In the darkness someone begins to sing again, songs about majesty and victory. The people begin to hug each other and they begin their descent down the darkened hillside, huddling against the cold, linking arms, some laughing, some more thoughtful. You watch their faces. A mixture of ages, they look like the sort of people you might see in the local bank or shops. Faces of teachers, nurses, car mechanics and stay at home mums. The contorted expressions of hatred are gone now, replaced by smiles. They look like people who know each other well, people who share friendship and experience. There are fond embraces as they say good bye, climbing into their cars and driving off, leaving the hillside, the moon and the rocky slopes the only witnesses to their strange mixture of love songs and curses.
The truth is, this is not just a story. It is my story. I was one of those people up on that hillside. Part of a charismatic evangelical church who believed that Halloween was the night when witches took part in occult rituals that were evil. As I write those words now, I am filled with sadness and remorse. My journey away from such beliefs has been a long and sometimes painful one.
On that journey, I have come to know people of many faiths, including many pagans. As I have got to know them, I have found so many of them to be deeply spiritual people whose rituals and spells are aimed at spreading love and healing to a broken world. Committed to social justice, many campaign tirelessly on behalf of the earth, an Erath they experience as sacred and the embodiment of the Divine.
The words of the pastor echo across the years “Bring those witches to their knees”. I realise that on that night and on many other occasions, what we were doing was actually what we were accusing the pagans of. We were cursing, not praying, engaging in bad magic. A big part of my spiritual journey since those days has been about discovering what prayer is. One thing that I am sure of is that what we were engaged in that night wasn’t prayer. Or if it was, it wasn’t healthy or prayer that I want to be a part of. Prayer that prays against, that tries to dominate others and exercise control has more in common with what is often thought of a black magic or cursing. In all the rituals I have taken part in in with pagan friends over the last fifteen years, I have never experienced such negative invocations. It has been a humbling experience for this once dyed in the wool evangelical, to be taught how to pray with love and integrity, by Druids and Wiccans.
The other realisation I have had as I consider those words, is that they are part of a long tradition in the church, a tradition that has robbed women of their voices and their dignity. This tradition of misogyny led to an atrocity that lasted for over 200 years and saw many thousands of women brutally tortured and executed by strangulation, hanging or being burnt at the stake. Older women who were disabled or different were targeted, along with many others. Those who lived on the edges, spoke up against those in power or somehow threatened the authority placed in priests, were targeted.
And still it goes on.
I didn’t know how to make amends to my Pagan friends, or how to say I am sorry to the thousands of women who lost their lives. So I did the thing I often do when I am in a wordless place, I went to creativity. I made a doll.
This doll is my apology. An apology for the lie that witches are in league with demons and devils and that Halloween is their special night for rituals that involve evil.
An apology to the thousands of women murdered because the church and secular authorities were afraid of the power they had. The power to be in touch with the seasons and nature, to be able to communicate with their kin the animals, and their ancestors who guided and helped them.
An apology to the old and frail killed because they were dependant and considered a burden or killed because they looked different.
An apology to the women who were killed because they owned land or spoke out against injustice or simply disagreed with the men in power.
An apology to those women who were manipulated into speaking out against other women, seeding fear and mistrust.
The doll is faceless because of the millions of faceless women still abused and murdered by patriarchy across the world.
I made her because I am sick of being silenced. I am sick of a society and institutional religions that denigrate women’s wisdom, who treat our bodies as if they are the source of evil and who use the word witch as an insult.
But most of all I made her because my silence has made me complicit in all of the above and it is time to speak out.
To speak out and say: I’m sorry.