Bad luck wus dan Obeah! — Anonymous Jamaican adage
There is no Jamaica tradition that is as openly rejected, yet so secretly embraced, as Obeah. This paradox of rejection and secret embrace, I believe, crosses all social strata of Jamaica, land we love.
The Sunday Observer of July 8, 2018 shouted a headline ‘Powerful Obeah: Many Jamaicans still see practice as vital and relevant to society — study’. Staff Reporter Tanesha Mundle quoted the views of Kesia Weise, researcher at the African Caribbean Institute of Jamaica. Weise had written an unpublished paper on the ‘Persistency of Obeah in Jamaica’ after completing two years of research in 2009. The Observer report went on: “Despite being outlawed in the island for a little over two and a half centuries, Obeah remains relevant in the lives of Jamaicans and, contrary to popular belief, is being practised right across the island by rich and poor people alike.”
Now the researcher did not reveal some unknown truths. It has been fairly common knowledge that some Jamaicans use Obeah for protection. Criminals use it to gain a more favourable result in court cases, and even some church-going Jamaicans dabble in Obeah for varied outcomes. But what exactly is Obeah?
Obeah can be defined as a system of spiritual, occultic practices that uses spiritism to cast spells, omens, curses. It utilises objects, animals, and evil spirits in an attempt to manipulate and alter events, circumstances, and behaviour of people. It carries the intent to instil fear, neutralise perceived or potential harm to a person, and/or ensure harm and destruction.
The Obeah law of 1898 states a “person practising Obeah” means any person who, to effect any fraudulent or unlawful purpose, or for gain, or for the purpose of frightening any person, uses, or pretends to use any occult means, or pretends to possess any supernatural power or knowledge. And “instrument of Obeah” means anything used, or intended to be used by a person, and pretended by such person to be possessed of any occult or supernatural power.
Some argue that Obeah should not be unlawful as it was a tradition that our ancestors practised as their religious expression and interpretation of spiritual reality. Those who so argue would have us believe that Christianity was imposed on us as a conquered people. Since we have therefore shaken off the shackles of slavery, we should also shake off the shackles of our slave masters’ religion and return to our historic, cultural and traditional practices.
Let me quickly and correctly advise that because something is historic, cultural, or traditional and African, is simply not enough cause to embrace it. Would those naysayers want us to return to female circumcision, the veneration of the dead, cannibalism, or lip plates? We must distinguish between what is culture and what is evil. Some things in our culture are evil and ought not to be carried forward, elevated, or passed on to our children.
The current minister of justice seems to be one of those who don’t believe Obeah should still be an offence on our law books. Consequently, a credible news source on June 5 carried the headline ‘Justice minister wants the Obeah law to be repealed’ The accompanying article went on to state that: “The House of Representatives on Tuesday decided against increasing the penalties for breaches of the Obeah Act after Justice Minister Delroy Chuck gave a commitment to have a review of the law done with the possibility of it being repealed.” ( http://rjrnewsonline.com/local/justice-minister-wants-the-obeah-law-to-be-repealed)
The church was quick to respond. Another credible news source the very next day shouted, “Obeah clash — Church leaders vow to resist minister’s bid to legalise practice’.
Why would the justice minister be interested in legalising Obeah? Let me begin with this assumption of unawareness. Many who speak favourably of legalising Obeah are either deeply involved or simply unaware of the negative spiritual forces of Obeah. I suspect the good minister falls in the latter.
I hear many speaking with great authority out of the ignorance of expertise in spiritual matters at whatever end of the spectrum. Historians, economists, lawyers, or even politicians may be experts in their fields, but are not necessarily experts in Spiritism, occultism or spiritual matters. Therefore, they need to listen to the experts in these areas as equally as we listen and respect their positions. We can, out of proven knowledge, state that Obeah is perceived to be and actually is evil in intent and practice. Evil and its power are real and can be harnessed and directed.
Sure many Obeah practitioners are ginnals. Admittedly, there is a side of Obeah that is hilarious! People can actually buy, I am told, things like “Oil a Leave Mi Not”, “Return to Me Oil”, “Court Case Oil”, “Come to Me Oil”, “Pay Mi Now Oil”. For the trained mind, that’s laughable. For the easily tricked mind, that’s not a laughing matter. This is where Obeah begins to become disconcerting and the more serious nature sets in.
Here is the seriousness of it. Obeah is designed to instil fear and manipulate people. Anybody who goes to an Obeah man is either trying to take some evil off self or put some evil on someone. It promotes retribution, vengeance, hurt, and even murder, instead of reconciliation and peace. If such action can be proven it should be treated like any other action to cause grievous bodily harm or conspiracy to murder. Sure the difficulty will always be whether there is sufficient evidence of proof; however, the principle is the same. Justice demands that if it can be proved, and it often can, the opportunity to do so should be there. This is why careful thought must be given before we say repeal.
Obeah cannot be considered a religion as defined. It has no God that it worships or form of liturgy. The only time any form of worship can be attached to it is when it is mixed with some forms of Revivalism order, as some use Obeah practices to various degrees.
Another point to consider in the Obeah debate is the appearance of American psychics and Indian palm readers inviting us to have our fortunes told and our palms read. Should they also be declared unlawful? While I do not believe that they are in the same category as Obeah, I think from a Christian perspective they should be avoided. For they are all in the realm of occult practices that the Bible guides us to avoid:
* Leviticus 20:6 — I will set my face against anyone who turns to mediums and spiritists to prostitute themselves by following them, and I will cut them off from their people.
* Deuteronomy 18: 10-12 — Let no one be found among you who…practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead. Anyone who does these things is detestable to the Lord.
Lastly, for those who argue that Jamaica is not just a country of Christians; therefore, we can’t expect every law to uphold some Christian tenet, consider this: Whenever Christians speaks their biblical world view on such issues, there is a cry that they can’t force their belief on society. However, as citizens of the country, they have a right to share their views, and the Government should consider their opinions as they shape laws to govern. Yes their views are informed by the infallible Bible, but everyone’s opinion is informed by experiences or information from some source, and all law is based on someone’s world view. Is there a better world view than one rooted in perfect love for all?
In summary, Obeah has been deemed by our culture as evil and has been made popular as a tool to cause harm to others. It is fed by people acting on their jealousy, anger, hatred, ‘bad mind’, and revengeful heart to seek a way to cause the hurt or demise of others. We have all heard actual accounts of someone’s strange and sudden demise set upon by Obeah.
We may need to amend the law to current relevance, but not to remove it. To decriminalise will send the message that we sanction the malicious and evil intentions of those that use Obeah to harm others.
Should a Government choose to sanction action that deems or intends to cause harm, injury or death to citizens?
Copyright © 2019 by Rev Dr. Al Miller.