Healing in African Christian Spirituality—A Holistic, Integrated, and Multidimensional Approach

medical labyrinth

+ This article responds to “Perspectives of Christian Healers on Biomedicine in Sub-Saharan Africa

Dr. Lado’s article seeks to address the question, How do Christian healers in sub-Saharan Africa perceive biomedicine? Drawing upon field research carried out in Côte d’Ivoire, his native country, the anthropologist and activist draws two conclusions: that, for religious practitioners, (1) biomedicine is necessary but limited and should therefore collaborate with spiritual healing practices, and (2) biomedicine and spiritual therapy are complementary but not equal. In his latter conclusion, spiritual healing practices held sway over biomedicine. Dr. Lado concludes that in both approaches the effectiveness of biomedicine is beyond question, but notes the disparity between those who want to confine biomedicine to the physical realm of the natural sciences and those who argue for a collaborative, more integrated approach that blurs the lines between sacred and secular approaches.

The relationship between biomedicine and spiritual therapy is part of a larger issue within African studies: namely, the tension between the sacred and the secular. In recent years, ob- servers of the development of Christianity in Africa have become increasingly aware of two distinct realms within which many African Christians now live and that are at the heart of Lado’s article. John Pobee identifies these realms as the new world of modern technology and the old world of traditional values,1 pointing out that Africans have two different names and use them on the basis of the worldview they are operating within at any given time. Desmond Tutu highlights the same dualism that has arisen in Africa, calling it “a split in the African soul” that leads to what he calls “religious schizophrenia.”2 David Bosch believes that this dualism in the African Christian outlook is caused by the failure of the Western mission endeavor to integrate Christianity into the “whole life” of the African people.3

One domain in which this dualism is patently clear, as Lado’s article elucidates, is in the area of healing. A few initial observations are worth noting. First, it is interesting to note that both of Lado’s conclusions, stated above, recognize the value of both biomedicine and spiritual practices. The conclusion that biomedicine has no place whatsoever was not an option. On the contrary, the African leaders in Lado’s research maintained an integrated approach that avoids a complete dichotomizing of the sacred and the secular. The biomedicine and spiritual healing approaches are not mutually exclusive, but part of an integrated whole that is tied into the African epistemology and cosmology. Second, Lado further notes that when placed side by side, spiritual healing practices were seen as being more important by African Christian healers than a biomedical approach. The reason for this preference is also significant and needs further elucidation. My response to Lado’s article is therefore not a critique—as I affirm his methods and research findings—but a further explanation of African integrative and collaborative healing practices, which I believe will advance his discussion further.

The African Independent Church (AIC) and African Pentecostal leaders adhere to a biblical vision of healing and wholeness in which sickness is viewed as the result of personal sin, and where the link between sickness and the demonic is established through the ministry of Jesus. The African Christian spiritual healers’ preference for spiritual healing practices has strong biblical precedents. The Bible is replete with examples in which spiritual healing was the prerequisite for physical healing and deliverance.4 The African Christian healers and leaders that Lado interviewed refused to separate biological and biochemical approaches as possible resources from spiritual healing because medicinal practices have long been part of the spiritual healing ritual for curing sickness. Biomedicine is therefore not outside of the scope of African spiritual healing. This approach to illness adopted by AICs and African Pentecostals, however, goes beyond the symptomatic reductionist approach of clinical medicine to consider the deeper underlying causation behind sickness. To move beyond cure toward wholeness, one needs to recognize the deep-rooted relationship between the immanent and the transcendent or, put another way, the natural and the supernatural. Integrated entities include not only natural and supernatural binaries, but all aspects of life in which harmony is needed. This outlook on healing and wholeness—an integrated approach—can provide valuable insight in addressing some of Africa’s pressing needs. Questions of nutrition and health are inseparable from the economic and social system. Disease and malnutrition do not exist in a vacuum; they are, rather, the results of human beings existing in a state of disharmony with each other and with the world they inhabit.

For AICs and African Pentecostals, sickness is associated with the presence and activity of evil forces, and healing is seen as deliverance from their hold by the superior power of Jesus Christ. This naming and thus concretizing of the forces of evil—which, though hidden, inflict real pain on real people—calls for a reevaluation of the “principalities and powers” that operate in the visible universe where men and women are their chief victims. In this respect concrete, historical responses must be given to the scourge of sickness and disease in Africa. Confining its source to the realm of the supernatural and treating sickness as nothing more than the consequence of sin do not get at the heart of the African approach. To AICs and African Pentecostals, healing and wholeness suggest reciprocity between polarizing forces such as individuals and society or the invisible and tangible elements of the universe. Individuals are able to hurt the community by their failure to act in the interest of the whole, and collective sin results in sickness within the bodies of individuals or in the dysfunction of the natural order. Healing is therefore something that does not concern itself just with individuals, but with the healing and liberation of all creation. The need to heal and liberate creation is a response to the impact that a “wounded” creation is having upon the community: sickness, death, poverty, famine, and other forms of devastation.5

The holistic approach to healing of the AICs and African Pentecostal churches is further relevant in that it is multidimensional and integrated: multidimensional because of its “simultaneous geography” comprising both the physical and the spiritual universe, and integrated in that it does not fragment the cause, effects, and need for restoration but sees them as interrelated. It does not seek to heal the body without accessing and rooting out the cause of the sickness, because the two are related. Neither does it transform its sick members into objects of care, pity, or sympathy. Rather, in the face of sickness and death it proclaims the source of all life and health, pointing toward a Christ who comes in the name of the Supreme One, empowered to heal all disease and protect from those who are its perpetrators.

1. John Pobee, “The Church in West Africa,” in The Church in Africa: Papers Presented at the Symposium at Milligan College March 31– April 3, 1977, ed. Charles R. Taber (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 1977), 139.
2. Desmond Tutu, “Whither African Theology?” in Christianity in Independent Africa, ed. Edward Fashole-Luke (London: Rex Collings), 365–66.
3. David Bosch, Het Evangelie in Afrikaans Gewaad (The Netherlands: J. H. Kok, 1974), 43.
4. See Matt 12:22–28; Matt 10:1; Luke 8:2; Acts 10:37–38.
5. The idea of a wounded creation is explored in Marthinus L. Daneel, African Earthkeepers: Wholistic Interfaith Mission (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2001), 8–11.