The Politics of Prosperity: Pentecostalism as Critique – By Naomi Haynes

Naomi Haynes on Ilana Van Wyk’s The Universal Church of the Kingdom of God in South Africa

Ilana Van Wyk, The Universal Church of the Kingdom of God in South Africa: A Church of Strangers, Cambridge University Press, 2014, 299pp., $99
Ilana van Wyk, The Universal Church of the Kingdom of God in South Africa: A Church of Strangers, Cambridge University Press, 2014, 299pp., $99

In 2013, ten years after I had first begun studying Pentecostal Christians in Zambia, I took a taxi to one of the most controversial churches in the country. The Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (UCKG) occupies a formidable building in the center of Lusaka, Zambia’s capital city. Several years earlier, an angry mob had thrown stones at one of the group’s buildings and burned another to the ground after rumors circulated that church leaders had kidnapped two men and made them participate in satanic rituals. The Zambian government subsequently banned the UCKG. Even after the ban was lifted, unease about the group remained. Before I set out to visit the church I had a conversation with an old friend, who was concerned about my plans. Like most people in Lusaka she had heard stories about the UCKG, including reports that its leaders killed people in order to drink their blood. My cab driver was equally alarmed when he heard where I was going. As we crawled through the evening’s rush-hour traffic he told me that one of the chief causes for concern was the church’s oddly elevated foundation; most buildings in Zambia rest on low concrete slabs, but the UCKG sat some five feet off the ground, perched atop a low brick wall that concealed who-knew-what behind its sweeping front steps. By the time we reached the church the sun was an orange ball on the horizon, fading light refracting through a filter of dry season dust. Looking up at the imposing white columns that spanned the front of the UCKG, my driver asked if I was frightened. I had to admit that by this time my guard was up, even as my curiosity was genuinely piqued.

The Universal Church of the Kingdom of God is a Brazilian-born Christian denomination that has expanded far beyond its country of origin to include branches in 80 countries worldwide, with 400 churches in southern Africa alone. Globally, it is perhaps the best-known (and most radical) promulgator of the “prosperity gospel,” a Christian movement that turns on the notion that God wants all believers to be rich, healthy, and successful. Also known as the “faith gospel” or “health and wealth gospel,” the prosperity gospel has North American roots, which Kate Bowler, in an excellent recent history, has traced through diverse influences including the New Thought movement that emerged in the late nineteenth century. While the basic principles of the prosperity gospel are evident today in some branches of western Christianity, for instance in the teachings of celebrity pastors such as Joel Osteen, this movement has enjoyed its most enthusiastic reception in places like Zambia. Although Christians from a variety of backgrounds have embraced the prosperity gospel, it is most commonly associated with Pentecostalism. The message of divinely authored health and wealth has played a central role in the Pentecostal revivals that have swept across the globe in recent decades, contributing to Pentecostalism’s current position as one of the fastest-growing religions in the world.

The particular emphases and techniques of the prosperity gospel vary with different groups, but its basic tenet is that believers must access God’s blessings through demonstrations of faith. These demonstrations fall into two categories. The first are actions and words that show that a believer expects God to do something — or, better put, that she believes God has already given her a blessing, even if that blessing has not yet been realized. So, for example, a young person who is hoping to go to college in the coming year will tell people he is going, even if he does not have the money to pay. Some of the Pentecostals I know in Zambia encourage women who want to get married to buy wedding dresses, while those who are hoping to have a child are told to start buying diapers. This sort of faith is said to attract God, causing him to reward those who have put their reputations on the line by asserting that he will come through.

The other way that followers of the prosperity gospel seek to demonstrate their faith is by giving money to the church. The underlying logic behind these contributions is that of what anthropologists call a “gift economy,” a framework of exchange in which a gift creates the obligation of a return. Here believers attempt to take God at his word, citing biblical texts like Jesus’ injunction to “Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap” (Luke 6:38). As with positive confessions, money given to the church is meant to provoke a response from God, to compel him to make good on his promises lest — to put it bluntly — believers inadvertently call him on a bluff.

In the light of these characteristics, it is no surprise that the prosperity gospel has been the target of frequent critique, even a congressional investigation in a well-known case in the United States. Seen from this angle, the prosperity gospel is easily subject to allegations of hucksterism. In this movement, it seems, church leaders have duped well-meaning people into parting with their money. While it is easy to see why this line of interpretation is appealing, it is also problematic, not least because it implies that followers of the prosperity gospel are foolish, easily inveigled, perhaps even incapable of thinking for themselves. In an effort to move away from this type of argument, scholars have sought to understand what — or rather, what else — is happening in the prosperity gospel. What many of us have found is that participation in this religious movement, especially the giving of material gifts, produces a range of social relationships that are particularly valuable to the people we study. My own work in Zambia has focused primarily on the social ties that Pentecostal adherence engenders, and on how these relationships reflect established cultural values. The Pentecostal churches I have studied are key sites of patronage; believers attach a great deal of importance to the relationships they have with pastors, whose closeness to God provides access to divine power, just as traditional patrons serve as links to things like material wealth or employment opportunities. It is therefore no surprise that believers are happy to give to church leaders, as these gifts not only initiate an exchange with God, but also strengthen connections to their spiritual patrons. Other scholars have found that gifts given in prosperity gospel churches serve as a means of expanding the self, embedding individual believers in wider networks of spiritual connection and power. Here again, participation in the prosperity gospel is connected to the personal and social projects it fosters.

It is in the light of this scholarship that the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God emerges as especially interesting. Ilana van Wyk’s monograph The Universal Church of the Kingdom of God in South Africa: A Church of Strangers offers a thorough (and often troubling) account of the UCKG in South Africa, and more specifically of one large congregation located in Durban. Van Wyk’s analysis hinges on the fact that the UCKG is very different from other Pentecostal or charismatic churches found in the region. While participation in one of these latter groups often produces key social relationships and institutions, van Wyk describes the UCKG as “a church of strangers,” a group that “looked and acted like a multinational business.” The congregation was “unsociable,” while church services were “usually devoid of the spiritual comfort and euphoria that marked other [Pentecostal and charismatic churches].” Van Wyk found that most people who attended the UCKG did so for only a few months, and during this time they did not form ties with other believers — indeed, they often regarded other church members with suspicion. Nor did UCKG attendees establish connections to their pastors, as is the case of their Pentecostal counterparts in Zambia. Rather, church leaders remained aloof from their congregations and, in a model that points to the influence of Catholicism in the Brazilian-born UCKG, were regularly moved from one congregation to the next.

Attendance at the UCKG in Durban also put a significant strain on existing social relationships. Drawing on rumors similar to those I heard in Zambia — most notably allegations that a large invisible snake lived in the church’s baptismal font, sustained by the blood of those who had been kidnapped and killed by the pastors — family members were quick to accuse UCKG members of witchcraft. Moreover, the endless requirements to give to the church meant that money earmarked for things like rent or school fees wound up in the offering plate instead, easily leading to further resentment on the part of family members whose needs became secondary to the demands of the UCKG. Finally, since the church’s teaching forbade participation in ancestor veneration rituals, believers faced regular accusations that they wanted to thwart their family’s spiritual progress, again through witchcraft.

If the UCKG did not succeed in generating the kinds of social relationships that have elsewhere been shown to be among Pentecostalism’s central attractions, and in fact put stress on existing relational ties, why would anyone want to be part of it? In an effort to respond to this question, van Wyk explores how UCKG theology and practice fits into the broader socio-religious context of South Africa. She identifies two key elements at work in the UCKG: prosperity and demonology. With regard to the first, it is clear that this church stands as an extreme example of the prosperity gospel, promoting a demanding program of sacrificial gifts that often exceeded the monthly income of participants. These ongoing sacrifices represent the primary mechanism through which believers hoped to secure and protect their blessings. The emphasis on protection indexes the second element identified by van Wyk, namely demonology. Protection of blessings like a baby or a car or a job was necessary because, in the eyes of people at the UCKG, these divine gifts were vulnerable to witchcraft, perhaps at the hands of a jealous relative. It is the constant threat of supernatural attack, the ubiquitous presence of the occult, that sits at the heart of the UCKG’s well-developed teaching on this topic. Members of the UCKG believe that anyone, even a Christian, can be possessed by demons — indeed, van Wyk states that in the UCKG demonic possessions were regarded as “inevitable,” and exorcism was a feature of nearly every church service. Faced with ever-present spiritual dangers, UCKG members were always on their guard, always “fighting,” as van Wyk’s research assistant Phukile does throughout the book.

This emphasis on what is often called “spiritual warfare” sheds new light on the lurid rumors that surround the UCKG, both in South Africa and in Zambia. In one of the most insightful parts of her analysis, van Wyk argues that the UCKG’s spiritually suspect status was in fact a key source of its power. Following Harry West’s provocative work on sorcery in Mozambique, van Wyk points out that by tackling the powers of darkness head-on, first and foremost through exorcism, the UCKG gained a reputation as a place where people knew how demons worked. The implication, then, was that UCKG members, and especially church leaders, were somehow connected to the occult. After all, one cannot beat the powers of darkness without getting one’s hands dirty; it takes knowledge of witchcraft to overcome a witch. This apparent familiarity with the occult made the UCKG not only a dangerous place, but a powerful place as well. As such, the great appeal of this church was, in van Wyk’s words, that it offered “rituals that worked.” The UCKG gave people techniques through which they aimed to respond to the spiritual forces responsible for ills as diverse as unemployment, childlessness, and HIV.

Van Wyk makes it clear that she had a hard time during her fieldwork, and in particular that she found the leaders of the UCKG harsh and domineering when it came to the members of their churches, dismissive and derisive when it came to her. She includes in her introduction a very nice discussion of the difficulties involved in studying people one does not like — a useful piece of writing that I plan to include in my research methods syllabus next year. Beyond these observations, probably the most helpful thing about van Wyk’s analysis is the particular nature of her research site. Throughout the book she makes much of the fact that the UCKG is not like other Pentecostal churches — indeed, this becomes a bit of a tired trope by the end. Still, there is something to be said for having a limit case; often, the ends of a continuum tell us a great deal about what is in the middle, thanks to the particular clarity with which they crystalize qualities that are present, but not as easy to recognize, in less extreme forms elsewhere. With regard to the UCKG, a church that is exceptional in almost every regard, van Wyk’s decision to portray this group in very practical, pragmatic terms sheds important light on the global popularity of the prosperity gospel, and of Pentecostalism more generally. Let me briefly explain what I mean here.

Around the world Pentecostal churches are sites of struggle, places where believers engage the problems facing their communities, families, and nations. Pentecostal practice is therefore, I would argue, political in the truest sense of the word. As the political theorist Ruth Marshall points out, Pentecostalism is an intervention, a commentary on how power should be used and articulated. Add to this observation the fact that the retributive aspects of Pentecostalism often take aim at those who appear to have enriched themselves through nefarious means, and it is clear that through Pentecostal adherence believers are making a claim to power, a claim that asserts that the contemporary order of things is not what it should be. Little wonder then that Marshall refers to the recent rise of Pentecostalism in Africa as a “revolution.” Little wonder then that this form of Christianity is so compelling to millions around the world. Seen from this angle, followers of the prosperity gospel emerge not as hapless juggins deceived by Elmer Gantry-like preachers, but rather as political actors pushing back against often-faceless powers that they believe are propped up by occult forces. Pentecostals, who are frequently found on the margins of the global political economy, are inserting themselves in this field of power, getting God on their side, and claiming victory.