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Further Reading

Foreign Intel

A Martyr for Science

A Schoolteacher's Rational Faith

by Michael Cook

Article originally appeared in
Salvo 35

In mid-September the Catholic Church proclaimed a South African schoolteacher a martyr for his faith. The word "martyr" evokes lions in the Roman Colosseum or Blackrobes being tomahawked by bloodthirsty Iroquois. But Benedict Daswa, who was beatified on September 13, is our contemporary. He died only 25 years ago and is a thoroughly modern figure who drove cars and watched television.

What is unique about him is that, in addition to being declared a martyr for his faith, Daswa could just as appropriately have been declared a martyr for science. In his case, not only the church but also the world of science had cause to celebrate and honor him.

Daswa's Story

Daswa was born in 1946 as Tshimangadzo Samuel Daswa and adopted the name Benedict when he became a Catholic in 1963. As a child, he herded cattle, but eventually he earned the qualifications needed to become a primary-school teacher in his local community. In 1977 he became principal of Nweli Primary School in South Africa's northeasternmost province, Limpopo. He and his wife Eveline had eight children. He was respected for his community spirit, his hard work, and his piety.

So far, so good. Yet this obscure family man, a poorly educated teacher of farm children who lived in a dusty provincial town on the Dark Continent, far, far from the laboratories and libraries and bells and spires of Oxford University, was destined to do more for science than its celebrated professors, like Richard Dawkins, ever did.

Daswa was not an intellectual, but he had a profound understanding of Christianity. He believed that God rules the world in his providence but allows nature to exercise its own causality. That seems obvious to those of us who live in developed Western countries, but it was not so obvious in Limpopo. Many people there still believed in traditional sorcerers and in muti, their word for witchcraft.

Daswa felt that in conscience he could never support muti. In 1976, his local soccer team was on the skids, and some of his teammates wanted to consult a sorcerer. Rather than go along with them, Daswa resigned and started his own team. On other occasions when troubles arose or someone died tragically, and people suggested that the "witches" presumed responsible should be sought out and killed, he spoke up against it.

Near the end of his life, people remembered how insistent he was: "Look, no one can bring about death except God, so why spend our money? Death comes, people pass away, doctors can verify that the person has died because of an illness, but no one can say that Mr. X died because of muti. We must not take the law into our own hands."

In late 1989, the local district was hit by heavy rain and lightning, which caused much hardship. When the storms returned in January 1990, the elders demanded that everyone contribute five Rand (the -local currency) to pay for a traditional healer who would finger the witch who had brought on the storms. Daswa spurned this as a superstition. He said that storms were just a natural phenomenon and that he would refuse to pay for a witchdoctor. The locals were enraged.

Then, on February 2, 1990, a mob ambushed him while he was driving home. They blocked the roadway with logs, then hid in the bushes and waited. Daswa had to stop at the barricade, and when he exited his car to investigate, they emerged and pelted him with stones. He sprinted for safety to a nearby house but was caught. One of the crowd brained him with a knobkerrie (war club), and then boiling water was poured over his head to ensure that he was dead. Before dying Daswa said, "God, into your hands receive my spirit."

Several people were arrested for the murder, but the charges against them were dismissed for lack of evidence.

A Man with Two Wings

Benedict Daswa's life and death pose some fascinating questions.

For instance, given his life story, one might wonder why prominent scientists like Richard Dawkins didn't celebrate his beatification. Couldn't Daswa be described as a martyr for the Enlightenment, for -science? After all, in the last 500 years, the closest thing there has been to a martyr for English science is Sir Francis Bacon, who died of a bad cold in 1626 after stuffing an eviscerated goose with snow. Not even Galileo had to give up his life to dispel the darkness of ignorance; he lived under comfortable house arrest.

It took a poorly educated schoolteacher in a remote town in South Africa to pay the ultimate price for standing up against superstition as a witness to the autonomy of natural causality. Professor Dawkins ought to have been bursting with pride.

Or was Daswa a martyr for his Christian faith? Of course he was, which is why the good atheist professor never dreamed of attending the beatification festivities, or even taking note of them. He couldn't acknowledge that one man could be both a hero of science and a saint of the Church.

That was a mistake. Benedict Daswa's death is a dramatic demonstration that Christian faith and science do not conflict at all, but support each other. In fact, Christianity endorses the notion of an ordered, intelligible universe governed by its own rules. That's why modern science originated in the Christian West, rather than in the Islamic, Hindu, or Buddhist cultures. Thanks to Christianity, scientists had the intellectual confidence that there was a key to the mysteries of the universe. As Pope John Paul II put it in a poetic epigram, "Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth." 

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