Do we still burn witches?

I have always been fascinated by the Salem witch trials. What made folks turn on their neighbors? What made some so vulnerable?

I always thought that there were lots of witches found…and a lot burned at the stake. However, as I grew older and did more reading, I found that what I had thought I knew wasn’t so.

Yes, there have been witch hunts for several hundred years, beginning back in the 15th century. And yes, many people were executed for “being” witches–both male and female. However, there was a difference in how they were executed. In Europe, witches tended to be burned, because that was a more painful death. In America, judges seemed to prefer hanging.

Whichever form of execution was used, the fact remains that over the years, somewhere between 40,000-50,000 people were killed because they were seen as being witches.

We look back at that and talk about how misguided and barbaric people were then. We take pride in the fact that–in the United States, at least–we don’t execute people for being witches today.


What made people vulnerable to that charge?

There were many reasons for witch hunts, but they usually arose because of some kind of bad luck. Perhaps there was a drought. Perhaps a number of people fell ill. Sometimes there were religious reasons…or feuds between individuals. There was no one reason.

But when the witch hunts began, the most vulnerable were the ones who didn’t fit in for one reason or another. Some had the misfortune to be on the wrong side of a powerful individual. Others believed the wrong doctrine. Some may have had mental issues. Others (especially women) were healers and herbalists whose knowledge went against accepted medical understanding of the time.

Today, we don’t accuse people of being witches and execute them for those reasons. But we still turn against the vulnerable…those who don’t fit in…those who confront the status quo and force us to face ourselves in ways we don’t like.

So…we don’t burn witches.

But neither do we do a very good job of helping the most vulnerable be safe.

According to figures I found for 2014, approximately 33% of the homeless are dealing with mental illness. Many of them are vulnerable to being attacked physically. And the odds of them being able to get better through medication are slim.

Somewhere between 40% of the homeless population are under the age of 18, and 20-40% of the homeless youth are members of the LGBT communities. Many of these kids are fleeing domestic violence or are “throw-away” kids.

Transgender women are vulnerable to assaults and/or murder. Transgender women of color seem to be especially vulnerable.

Why do we continue to divide ourselves? For those of us who claim to follow the one called Jesus Christ, we are called to stand with those who are marginalized and vulnerable. It’s far too late for the many who were accused of witchcraft in the past–and who often found themselves persecuted (and executed) by those who claimed to be followers of Christ.

But it’s not too late for the many vulnerable today.

God’s Spirit is on me;
    he’s chosen me to preach the Message of good news to the poor,
Sent me to announce pardon to prisoners and
    recovery of sight to the blind,
To set the burdened and battered free,
    to announce, “This is God’s year to act!” — Luke 4:18 The Message