African Christianity's Public Role Today


Notes of a talk by  Paul Gifford (SOAS)

(Based on the book,
African Christianity: Its Public Role, Hurst & Co, London, 1998)


Introduction

Our starting point must be the recognition that Christian traditions and communions in the West are mostly not the same as their equivalents in Africa, and vice versa. The same is true of state and national forms. In this context we may note the following key issues:

1. Neo-patrimonialism. One of Weber's 'ideal types', but nonetheless useful. African societies do not approximate to the formal legal structures of non-patrimonial states, but they have moved beyond a purely patrimonial society. The current situation is marked by reciprocal assimilation of elites. To what extent are church leaders co-opted into this system?

2 Extroversion. By this we mean an empirical or juridical statehood marked by intense reliance on outside forces. Most of Africa's microstates are of this kind, independent in theory but massively dependent in a global context. In Africa globalisation is, in fact, marginalisation from the rest of the world. In some countries it is enough for European countries to have an EU mission or to work through NGOs, for example. Africa simply does not matter enough. Again, where do the churches link in? The possibility for widespread economic collapse is there all the time. GDP per person in many regions has declined dramatically. So the church finds itself a crucial player in capacity building and state-sustaining.

3. Civil society.  There are intense arguments over the extent to which this applies in an African setting.  In Africa alternative, popular (people-based) mechanisms have been both instrumental in change and, also, repressed consciously by one-party states. Is the church part of civil society, or perhaps a hegemonic force within or instead of it?


Christianity in Africa today


In Liberia the Christian rhetoric and presence is overwhelming, but it has been part of the nation's problem not its solution. This is true also in Rwanda, where people waded in a mythological genocidal culture in spite of the Christian message and the role of the churches in local society. The resulting complicity in genocide was horrific to witness. But if two of the most 'Christian countries' on earth can sink into bloodshed, what is this saying about the challenge to African Christianity?

De Gruchy argues that the churches in Africa are the midwives of democracy. Others (Fisher) argue exactly the opposite, that the Catholic Bishops (for example) are a major block on change.

(Neo) Pentecostalism in Africa has been little examined compared to the work done on Latin America.  The sociologist David Martin suggests that the skills learnt in Pentecostal cells tend towards self-management and autonomy. This, he says of Latin America, will bring social transformation. It is an overwhelmingly good thing. We may have reason both for doubting this optimism and applying it to Africa.

What is the true state of church development in Africa today?  The statistics are notoriously fragile. The Ghana Evangelism Committee counted heads through outreach teams on motorbikes, both in 1987 and 1991. Their picture suggests that the mainline churches are holding their own, classic African independent churches are losing out significantly, while Pentecostal and mission-related churches are booming. There is enough evidence to suggest that this is broadly representative of the situation in other parts of the continent.

The theology of the Neo-Pentecostal (charismatic) groups is one of health and wealth based on the blessings brought about by Christ's cross. This 'faith gospel' is financially hugely beneficial in the USA, and is proving fecund on African soil too. David Martin tends to overlook this aspect of the movement in Latin America. It is axiomatic in Africa.

Pentecostalism is an enormously diverse and changing phenomenon. But we cannot overlook the overall trends. The prosperity message has moved in an entrepreneurial and developmental direction in some cases, however. Success is then seen as not just being to do with individuals and their belief. The significance of blackness in the Bible is similarly used to counteract the idea that Africa cannot be self-determining. Nevertheless, the great majority of Neo-Pentecostal pastors and preachers remain highly individualistic, and even the 'entrepreneurs' are promoting a religious vision which is miles away from social liberation and is basically consonant with market forces.

It is easy to ridicule the faith gospel. Some of its assumptions are astounding. ("If you drive to the coast but not in a Mercedes you have not understood the Gospel," says Kenneth Copeland!).  But 'miraclism' also has massive socio-political consequences. It reduces society to demonology and makes persons wholly dependent on invoking a divine (melo)drama going on around them.

The 'deliverance' phenomenon is very important in this context. If you are not succeeding with the 'faith gospel' then there must be a blockage, and this means that a demon is responsible. In many churches Satanists are effectively more important than Christ and absorb experts in huge diagnostic exercises! Where does this emphasis come from? In part from local conceptions of spirits. But the likes of Derek Prince and Rebecca Brown from the West feed on it and develop it for their own religious purposes. This kind of theology is also deeply political. If demons are always responsible for what goes wrong a discourse about power and development is short-circuited. In Liberia prosperity preachers talked of a 'demon of shortages', effectively ignoring the socio-economic factors behind their country's crisis. This is music to the ears of those who weald power and wealth. It is significant that 'deliverance' has followed in the wake of the failure of the 'faith gospel'. So it meets a 'real need'.

What of the mainline churches? They are expanding but continue to be under pressure from the newer churches. The AACC is very concerned about this. In each country the denominations work differently. In Ghana ecumenism is developed, in Uganda you have an Anglican / Catholic duopoly, in Cameroon even the three Reformed churches cannot co-operate. In Zambia collaboration is patchy due to the evangelicals. The pattern is very variegated.

There is a big divide between the Roman Catholics and the other churches. It has more missionaries, stronger global links and therefore greater resources. This is very evident, say, in development in Uganda. But the clergy can then end up being functionaries administering money overseas. Some regard the Vatican link as exercising 'foreign control', with local bishops marginalised and dismissed if they do not toe the line. The damage to the moral stature and influence of the Church can therefore be considerable. In the Cameroon 5 Roman Catholic bishops have been removed from office in the last 10 years. This is not possible within Anglicanism and other denominations. It is a prime example of an unhealthy form of extroversion.

Generally, among the Protestants, most external church links are US ones. This is part of the paradigm-enforcing power of the agencies in the West. Cardinal Touhmy in the Cameroon has been very successful at exercising leverage through global connections.  'AD2000 and Beyond', the evangelical movement, is in theory worldwide - but it is actually thoroughly US in its influence. Just look at its Internet sites to see how and why.

There is a deep irony in all of this. In spite of globalisation, academics, businesses and others are pulling out of Africa. This is the opposite of neo-imperialism, but with similar effects. But religious networks are booming, alongside (strangely enough) with criminal ones. These are the two globalised forces with the greatest potential to shape the future of Africa.

A large dose of 'Afro-pessimism' also has to be factored in, with regional variants. In some places there is a great desire to get out of the country on the part of aspirant individuals and classes. CNN feeds this negativity by focussing on disasters. When American missionaries present their own country as Christian they both feed the appeal of their faith and also assist the growth of local pessimism.

Within Africa people still talk about Christianity, but it would be much more accurate for us to talk of 'Christianities'.  Mainline churches are thoroughly structurally involved, and share the disenchantment of reality that produced modern consciousness through the Enlightenment. But indigenous and Pentecostal Christianity is about the prediction, explanation and control of events on the basis of an enchanted worldview. 

Western Christianity is directed towards communion with the divine, not control. It is still 'odd' in terms of the historic role of religion on a world scale.  The great majority of religion until recent years has been based on an enchantment model of the world. The African mainline churches, formed in association with Western assumptions, have inherited some of this. As a consequence they are somewhat schizophrenic. This explains, in part, the success of the new churches. Mainline churches have responded to the crisis of African society and the oddness of their own theology to many in traditional societies by 'growing' charismatic wings. Where this happens the Pentecostalisation of the mainline churches shrinks the difference between Neo-Pentecostalism and the traditional denominations.

Africa Christian scholars like Bediaku claim that this is a great thing. African Christians can reclaim the dominant spirits, he says. Others argue that Africa needs a more reflexive, structurally aware theology.

The real new phenomenon in Africa is Neo-Pentecostalism not the independent / instituted churches. And, note, the former is about prosperity precisely at a time when the collapse of African economy is occurring. Also, the 'Jesus will do it' ideology militates against goals and ambitions in a correspondingly depressed cultural context.

There is a notion held by some that the 'faith gospel' in Africa will perform the same enabling function as Methodism did in Britain. But actually it is more likely to spawn an entrepreneurial class of evangelists, dependence of the people, and an undermining of movements challenging power. The parallels are highly questionable.

Regarding civil society, the churches are often the only elements in one-party states which have retained some measure of independence of structure and thought. The role of the church in this context has been significant, sometimes benign and sometimes insidious. Pentecostalism emphasises personal redemption, recovery from drunkenness, etc. But there is little evidence that this spills over into the socio-political realm. President Moi in Kenya has understood this weak link well. There is for the most part no theological bridge to a new understanding.

In Zambia now you have to be 'born again' to be part of the elite, but the system itself is, if anything, more corrupt than ever. The social thinking of the 'born again' sector of Christianity is so underdeveloped and / or partisan ~ its concerns are the marginalisation of Islam and the direction of more resources to the churches.  It may be that Neo-Pentecostalism and evangelicalism transforms local civil society, but this does not imply a wider transformation. Some argue that 'deliverance plus development' is possible, a welding together of spiritualism and liberation. But there is a case for arguing that the different emphases of Christianities in Africa today contain far greater incompatibilities than this scenario allows.


Questions:


Where are the signs of a more radical edge to Pentecostalism?

The Kampala Central Church in Uganda has some wonderful structures and approaches to society, but (some argue) a theology which is still very inadequate.

Is African Pentecostalism organised, if so how and to what extent?
The traditional 'classical evangelicals' are being squeezed out. The Evangelical Fellowship of Zambia, for instance, has been hollowed out by Pentecostals, as has been the Baptist Convention of Ghana. Others have networks directly in America and Europe. Conventions are a major tool. Churches which in theory are autonomous and independent are influenced by major charismatic figures to a greater degree than the authority-systems that traditional denominational structures can possibly manage.  (Roger Williamson's observation ~ what we are looking at is a pre-critical theology aligned with post-modern technology and organisation. This is a potent blend.)

Should we engage, listen and learn from Pentecostalism?  Deal with demons and water?
Yes, this can be helpful as a process towards new possibilities. Even in the face of repugnant theology, change is possible. Collaboration, where this is possible, is better than confrontation. The United Church of Zambia expelled many Pentecostals and this has, if anything, assisted them.

We must be aware, however, that traditional African culture is effectively being demonised by Pentecostalism. This is another way of alienating black people from their roots. Yet local cultures are crucial to development.

What is the future of mainline churches that refuse to adapt?
The demography is threatening to them. But it still depends on outside resources. The younger generation, however, lack the loyalty to (say) CMS and the Anglicans. Aid money and projects keep older churches going, especially where the state is being rolled back.

Can you clarify the terminology you are using to describe the new movements?
'Evangelical' is broadly equivalent to its classical use in the West. 'Pentecostal' traditionally connotes a trend within denominations. 'Neo-Pentecostalism' is an alternative term, or 'charismatic'. The term 'right wing' as a catch-all for these phenomena is not that helpful in the post-Cold War context.

Is there a window of opportunity for liberation theology in Africa?
Yes. But it is a minority development because it questions the enchanted worldview as much as the modernism of Western societies. And both these, ironically, are popular...

How much US money is going in, and how much is being recycled locally?

Much less money to neo-Pentecostals than to mainline churches, actually. It is a question of how it is used ~ the extent to which it is propping up old structures or growing new forms of connectivity.

With suffering and AIDS, is there a 'new celestialism' (everything will be marvellous in heaven, so forget the now)?
No. Millennialism is also a minor trend. The 'faith Gospel' emphasis is on prosperity now.

What happens when you have de-demonised your converts and the 'Gospel of prosperity' has failed? Is there a theology of the suffering Christ?
No. The 'faith gospel' has more or less abolished this. It is the opposite of traditional theodicy and the Corinthian critique.

The experience of many Catholic missionaries in Latin America is that Pentecostalism has hit communitarian theology and action by intense individualisation. To what extent is this incidental and to what extent is it a product of global forces?
Individualism is part of the agenda of a regnant middle class. Is this a good thing? Yes and no. Individuation can be part of empowerment. It is modernising. But it also quells dissent and pacifies. Global forces play a powerful role, but we should be cautious about conspiracy theories.

What about the deposit of faith and deep ideological moorings of ethnic groups within Africa? Is this not important?
Yes. We are not just dealing with imported ideology but with the limits of local ideology.

People who are poor and exposed to the elements will naturally look for health, and those rooted in kinship will look for fertility. In addition, Christianity appears to be allied with wealth in the West. Are not these the factors which create conditions for neo-Pentecostalism?
Yes

Demons should be understood in relation to spirits, the spiritual dimension of sociological events. can this not be seen as a positive search for depth rather than a simplistic 'enchantment'?
Well that is a possible trajectory. (See Herman Browne, Theological Anthropology, Avon Books.)

Your analysis of Christianity in Africa is despondent. Aren't your expectations rather high, say in relation to Rwanda? Where has Christianity ever stopped war anyway?
Agreed. But the levels of collusion in Rwanda were very high. A more critical theology and religious consciousness could surely have a counter-effect.

Berger says that both capitalism and socialism are 'cargo cults', promising what they cannot deliver. Yet pre-critical theology and post-modern technology is a potent alternative. The mainstream churches that have bought into the development paradigm are in real trouble.... People are looking for hope elsewhere.
This is true. The question for the mainline churches is about the search for alternatives in a context of captivity systems and captive (religious) ideologies. Christianity is now playing a public role in Africa that it hasn't been asked to perform in Europe since the Middle Ages.

Not just the Pentecostalisation of mainline religion, but a 'pick and mix' culture not unlike that of the West?

Yes. An 'insurance policy' theology can develop, an astute use of the system!

AICs are often held to meet the needs that mainline churches cannot. Why are they 'going down the tube'?
Statistics in Africa are, as we have observed, fragile. The AIC's hammering in Ghana seems representative, however. The cultural needs they have met are no longer central. 'Even the Methodists do that.' Despair and marginalisation are the issues. The neo-Pentecostal alternative is both affirming and denying African culture in a potent way. You can believe in traditional spirits by demonising them, ironically. Odobil in Ghana deplores this.

Where are the spaces in Africa for a theological re-think?

Unclear....

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SB Comments: This talk was delivered two years ago, but its themes live on. Gifford refuses to be swayed by missionary romanticism, though some may argue that there is more to the world than his sociology dreams of...

(c) Simon Barrow, Paul Gifford
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