On a mission trip years ago, I visited a country that very few Westerners, especially Americans, have ever visited: the Republic of Benin, in French-speaking West Africa. It is just a sliver of a country in a very large continent. The nation’s entire population (about 14 million) is only slightly larger than the city of Los Angeles.
And Benin was where I got the shock of my life. I’ll detail that experience after I give you the background of it, which relates to something Americans know all too well: the institution of slavery.
The Country of Benin
Benin is one of the countries from which the Africans sold their own brothers and sisters to the rapacious slave traders of Europe. It wasn’t the only African country to engage in that dirty business, by any means, but it was a significant point of origin and debarkation for those poor souls who never saw their homeland or relatives again. The very thought of it ought to bring a decent person to tears.
It is estimated that, overall, 11 million souls were sent into slavery across the Atlantic Ocean in a 350-year period (early 1500s to late 1800s). Most of the slaves from Benin were transported to the Caribbean (particularly, Haiti) rather than to North America or Europe.
The City of Ouida on the coast of Benin has a huge monument called the Door of No Return to commemorate the injustice of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and to memorialize the souls who never returned. It is a somber place, for sure.
An Unholy Connection
There’s a deeper darkness to slavery, though, that is purely spiritual. In the oceans of ideological ink spilled on the subject, there is hardly a mention of its spiritual side, but it’s not hard for a Christian to see the connection between the evil human institution and the spiritual forces that generated it. They are what St. Paul terms the “principalities and powers, rulers of this world of darkness” (Ephesians 6:12).
Westerners are largely unaware of the murky origins of voodoo, which originated in Benin. Hollywood movies sensationalize the dramatic elements (voodoo dolls, incantations, ominous drum beating rituals, etc.), but those things exist in the real world and are not even the worst elements of it.
The word voodoo comes from the pagan religion called Vodun. Apart from the Hollywood drama, it is a strange phenomenon that mimics true religion but distorts its basic aspects.
For example, there are voodoo priests—and also priestesses; they have ceremonies, but these include bizarre trance-like rituals and animal sacrifice. They worship ancestors and nature spirits and have their own version of saints.
Magic vs True Religion
Current-day practitioners of Vodun are quick to distance themselves from the dark side of their religion (what they call “black magic”), but that is a rationalization that all esoteric religions have in common. There is no way to separate the negative from the so-called positive practices of pagan religions.
In the Church’s mind, the terms “white magic” and “black magic” are just two sides of the same illusion. Any form of occult practices are superstitious attempts to marshal invisible powers under human control, which is a fool’s game given the possibility of demonic deception.
In other words, there is no “white” in the business of invoking spirits that are not of God. All attempts to do so are offenses against the First Commandment and openings to the influence of evil spirits.
If you’re interested in the Church’s reasoning here, one paragraph from the Catechism says it all (but there are many other teachings on these matters):