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Close link between form-filling and witchcraft

27 March 2015


From the Revd Alastair Ferneley
Sir, - I identified with Judith Robinson's article "The Daily Penance of Paperwork" (Comment, 13 March) but was left troubled by the last phrase about the Church being at the forefront of "good practice".

It was "good practice" in the first century to sacrifice to pagan gods and the emperor to avoid what we would call accidents, which they put down to the displeasure of the gods. Not to do so was considered negligent. The refusal of the early Church to take part in this was no small part of why they were persecuted.

Many pre-Christian cultures are like this. They blame accidents on "witchcraft", and seek for a witch to blame (see E. E. Evans-Pritchard's anthropological works on African culture).

Is this the situation we find ourselves in today? The decline of monotheistic belief leads to a cultural inability to cope with accidents - what we might loosely describe as "acts of God" - without finding someone to blame. The "witch" is often believed to be the person who refuses to bow to the witch-doctor's control, purchase his charms, take his advised "good-practice" precautions, etc.

It looks to me as if our obsession with avoiding risk, endless paperwork (which, like witchcraft, does little or nothing to actually prevent accidents) takes the same cultural place in our thinking as witchcraft or sacrifice to idols takes in pre-Christian culture.

If I'm even a fraction right, it is very worrying if the Church is seeking to be in the forefront of this. Shouldn't we rather be saying: "Even if you persecute us for it, we will not serve your gods!" Then perhaps we may free ourselves from this culture of fear and anxiety that is crushing everyone with its paperwork "charms", and potentially get our whole society to rethink.

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