Tracing out the Limits of Pentecostalism in Africa – By Konstanze N’Guessan

Konstanze N’Guessan on Martin Lindhardt’s edited volume, Pentecostalism in Africa

Martin Lindhardt, ed., Pentecostalism in Africa: Presence and Impact of Pneumatic Christianity in Postcolonial Societies, Brill, 2015, 387pp., $84
Martin Lindhardt, ed., Pentecostalism in Africa: Presence and Impact of Pneumatic Christianity in Postcolonial Societies, Brill, 2015, 387pp., $84
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On 18 September 2010, I witnessed about 500 women following the call of Pentecostal prophet Ruth Agbo as they marched from the Ivorian National Assembly to the former colonial prison in Grand Bassam. Their march re-enacted the so-called “Marche des Femmes sur Grand-Bassam” on Christmas Eve 1949, when Ivorian women protested against the unjust trial of their husbands, fathers, sons, and brothers who had been incarcerated after a series of protests, strikes, and boycotts which had resulted in about fifty deaths and 3,000 arrests. The 1949 women’s march was, at least from a contemporary perspective, a call to “free Côte d’Ivoire from the colonial yoke.” The Pentecostal version of the march in 2010 also claimed to be a march of liberation. Prophet Ruth Agbo disclosed her own revelation: God had told her to mobilize the Ivorian women to march to Grand Bassam in order to “liberate the country from dependence.” The women dressed in national colors and prayed and chanted as they marched along. The event culminated in a status-reversing ritual that was said to free Côte d’Ivoire from the neo-colonial yoke. Recitations from the Bible, signifying the voice of God, performatively broke the colonial pact and its insignia subjugating the Ivorian people; they rid Côte d’Ivoire of the bad spirits of neocolonialism and dependence. The enchained silhouette of the Ivorian territory was freed from these chains by one of the women and a “solemn proclamation” was read aloud stating that from now on Côte d’Ivoire was a free nation. The whole ceremony was acted out as a performative ritual that would not only symbolically, but also truly free Côte d’Ivoire from any spiritual bondage. “Côte d’Ivoire has just been definitely and totally liberated; God has answered our prayers,” a pastor announced jubilantly.

Shortly after this event, presidential elections in Côte d’Ivoire led to a renewed flair-up of the Ivorian civil war. Outgoing President Laurent Gbagbo, a born-again Christian, refused to accept election results declaring his opponent Alassane Ouattara the winner and hid in a bunker in the presidential palace waiting for God to decide the battle in his favor. His Pentecostal followers believed that Gbagbo was the chosen one; they had waited for Côte d’Ivoire to be reborn as a truly independent nation in Christ. The post-election crisis was interpreted as another battle in the continuous struggle for true independence, which lay in the future, a prophecy that was about to become true. The revelations of Pentecostal prophets such as Koné Mamadou Malachie had become veritable master plans for real politics. The struggles of the present as some sort of apocalypse were proof that this bright future now was close at hand. Past, present and future were imagined as following a hidden script. In these tumultuous months between October 2010 and April 2011 Pentecostalism ceased to be about faith alone (though perhaps it had never been).

At present Gbagbo is awaiting his trial in The Hague, since God and the heavenly army did not descend from the heavens to establish a kingdom of God in Côte d’Ivoire as had been predicted by Pentecostal prophets such as Jean-Pierre Zoungrana and Koné Malachie. What does this example of political spiritualities tell us about Pentecostalism in Africa more generally? In what ways is the Ivorian civil war and post-electoral crisis of 2010/2011, which has been referred to as a “guerre mystique,” exemplary? What does it have in common with other instances of Pentecostalism in Africa, such as the seed-and-harvest theology of this-worldly success that is promoted by Winner’s Chapel in Nigeria; with the moral role-models provided by Pentecostal pastors, prophets, their wives, and church elders when it comes to marriage and social relationships; or with car stickers, dances, and TV shows as cultural spaces for the creation and negotiation of Pentecostal selves? Can and should these disparate stories be compared with each other as symptoms or variants of “African Pentecostalism”? Where are the limits of comparison? And in what ways do homogenizing categories such as “African Pentecostalism” obstruct our view of differences? Finally, in what ways do these stories differ (or not) from those that are narrated from Latin America or Asia?

Apostolic Faith Mission. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Apostolic Faith Mission. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

The main goal of Pentecostalism in Africa: Presence and Impact of Pneumatic Christianity in Postcolonial Societies, edited by Martin Lindhardt, is to discuss and present African Pentecostalism in a comprehensive, multifaceted, and interdisciplinary manner. While some contributions to the book address overarching topics with a number of illustrating examples from diverse African countries, others offer detailed accounts of particular phenomena and thus open a diverse range of windows onto African Pentecostalism. The first three chapters provide a taxonomy of variants of pneumatic Christianity and their historical roots, and thus frame the following chapters which deal with the theologies and ontologies of particular churches, the history and development of certain movements, and their positioning in a context of cultural/religious pluralism. There are chapters that detail the ways in which Pentecostal churches and Pentecostal believers enact their faith and live their lives, paying special attention to social relationships, presence in the public sphere, and economic and political engagements. Some describe the way Pentecostal believers create enchanted ontologies that stretch out to many other aspects of daily life. The book argues that particularly the last aspect is peculiar for Pentecostalism in Africa.

Despite the introductory disclaimer that notions like “African worldview” or “African cosmology” have to be used with caution — relegated to footnotes as if to anticipate and calm down the expected protests by anthropologists favoring an empirical particularism — the set-up of the book aims at a “big picture” approach. Despite its merits, the problem with this approach is fairly straightforward: Looking at “African Pentecostalism” and its peculiarities homogenizes and simplifies the “African case” by contrasting it with other seemingly homogenous cases in, for example, Europe. So even if the topic of the book is inherently global and has fueled a wide range of scholarly interest in the relationship between Africa and “the wider world” and the question of globalization, the approach taken by Lindhardt bears the risk of turning Africa — once again — into an exotic exception. One can not blame the individual papers or the introduction to have contributed to the religious Othering of Africa. It is rather the larger epistemological set-up of the book series Global Pentecostal and Charismatic Studies, of which Pentecostalism in Africa is the third volume after a volume on South America (2010) and Europe (2011), with the aim to “focus on large cultural and geographic zones so as to examine and illustrate contextual influences upon the Pentecostal and Charismatic movement in those regions” that could be accused of this. Still, I think this could have been balanced had either the introduction addressed this problem, or had the individual papers commented on the question of what was peculiar, or “African” or rather globally “Pentecostal” in their individual case studies.

Nevertheless, the question of why Pentecostalism in Africa has seen such an explosive growth in recent decades and why so many aspects of life in many African cities and villages appear in Pentecostal clothing is legitimate. Scholarly occupation with Pentecostalism has addressed this question from two poles. One pole claims that religiosity is a basic need that seeks fulfillment one way or the other; the other more functionalist perspective sees religion as a placeholder for sociological and economic factors. And indeed, the Ivorian post-electoral crisis that was perceived and enacted as a cathartic apocalypse announcing the second coming of Christ demands an explanation that takes into account both sociological and theological aspects. Both approaches have their partial truths and their weaknesses.

Functionalist or instrumentalist explanations draw on the fact that Pentecostal and charismatic Christianity has grown exponentially since the 1980s, a time in which many African countries witnessed severe economic hardship and the retreat of the state as a major supplier of jobs and care (because of structural adjustment programs imposing neoliberal laissez faire capitalism as a “solution” to the African crisis). The growth of Pentecostal and charismatic churches is explained by their offering an explanation for, and a handy solution to, all kinds of problems. They emphasize prosperity and propose a “by myself” approach both concerning economic life (Jesus wants you to start your own business and be successful, the seed and harvest approach, and so on) as well as social relations towards the extended family (by favoring monogamy and a nuclear family model).

These explanations have to be judged with caution, particularly because they often tend to deny the individual actor’s agency and their intrinsic motivations for joining a particular church. They therefore come across as somewhat paternalistic and unwilling to take into account the emic and eschatological reasons of Pentecostal believers (which, particularly when one is talking about Africa, conjures unfortunate reminders of colonial and racist approaches towards African religiosity that should have been overcome ever since Evans-Pritchard’s classic on African religion Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic Among the Azande, 1937). These theories, however, seem to be supported by the fact that Pentecostal and charismatic churches have not only grown in Africa, but also in other (more or less deprived) parts of the world suffering from similar problems (particularly Latin and South America and to some extent post-Soviet countries). To many Western minds it seems persuasive and comfortingly reasonable to assume that actually the Ivorian civil war was not fought for religious reasons, but for mundane things such as power, money, and influence, and that all the “God vs. evil” talk only served to legitimize the violence and was not the intrinsic reason behind it. And certainly it is true that the prayers that were prayed in support of Gbagbo were prayed for political reasons.

Nonetheless, taking the emic perspective seriously adds complexity to the phenomenon and might help to understand what seems to escape the functionalist paradigm. Pentecostal believers explain how politics, economic dependence, and African plight almost sixty years after independence, individual sicknesses, and more general societal problems are related to bad spirits, Satan, and a cosmic world order. In other words, the counter-functionalist position argues that Pentecostal and charismatic churches are successful because people like their theology and their religious practices. The key characteristic of Pentecostalism as described by these approaches is the blurring of boundaries between the sacred and the secular. Indeed, the way in which Pentecostals in Côte d’Ivoire enacted their faith in terms of politics, and performed politics as expressions of being “born again,” may be read as a symptom of an enchanted worldview that does not separate the secular from the sacred realm. This is also the case for the many interconnections between Pentecostalism and popular culture, or other forms of business, as described in some of the book chapters.

Katrien Pype’s contribution, for example, is not only about the manifold ways in which Pentecostal churches have extended their influence beyond the confines of the church itself, but also tells us something about the blurring of boundaries between the mundane world and the spirit world through the performative power of songs, words, images, videos, and so forth. She describes Pentecostal culture as being first and foremost characterized by a “live” experience, an active encounter of the believer with the Holy Spirit and spiritual forces (whether good or bad). Being born again is then very much a performance (in the anthropological sense) — a way of doing things. This necessarily transcends the narrow boundaries of church life and concerns our daily work or business, the food we eat and the way we spend our leisure time, the importance we attribute to education and the way we look at politics.

The book’s editor, Martin Lindhardt, argues that this Pentecostalization of many spheres of society has to do with the “cultural resonance between Pentecostal and charismatic churches and African ontologies.” In his chapter he analyzes the complex and situational relationship between (traditional) local spirits and their Pentecostal cousins, or how traditional beliefs in witchcraft, for example, are translated in the Pentecostal worldview into expressions of Satan’s influence. In his dense ethnographic description Lindhardt focuses on the way in which people individually situate themselves in relation to these spirits and how they navigate in an environment of spiritual pluralism. In their view different sources of spiritual power (both defensive and offensive) are available, some being superimposed by a Christian meta-narrative of the struggle between God and Satan, and some not. A major point of Lindhardt’s chapter then is the question of how “traditional” these “traditional spirits” and beliefs really are, or in what ways they only take shape as against the Pentecostal Othering that occurs when believers perform a break or rupture with their former, pre-conversion selves and their non-Pentecostal families. This in turn raises questions about the “modernity” of Pentecostalism, an issue that has been addressed by a number of scholars (most prominently perhaps Peter Geschiere and Jean and John Comaroff).

Although it seems sympathetic that these approaches do take into account local understandings and explanations of Pentecostal success, they do bear the danger of falling for culturalist or essentialist explanations. To my mind there seems perhaps to be a hint of this in J. Kwabena Asamoah-Gyadu’s argument that “the experimental and interventionist nature of this [Pentecostal] theology […] resonates with traditional African religious sensibilities and aspirations.” If it is true that there is an “African cosmology” or common belief in spirits which makes Pentecostal and charismatic Christianity attractive or adaptable to Africans, it raises the question of why Americans, Russians, and Melanesians are equally touched by this approach. Moreover, it might be more logical for such a viewpoint to argue for a revival of (neo)traditional beliefs, or for a Pan-African imagined movement such as the Bossonisme in Côte d’Ivoire that flowered in the 1960s and 70s, or the Rastafari movement. To strengthen the “cultural chord” argument one would have to ask in which ways this is also true for contemporary radical variants of Islam in Africa, which have also seen considerable growth in recent decades (such as Boko Haram in Nigeria and Niger and the Azawad movement in Mali). But what still remains problematic is the question of which differences are downplayed by looking at the continuities between Pentecostalism and “traditional” (pre-colonial?) worldviews and beliefs. Can Pentecostalism in a remote and ethnically more or less homogenous village really be compared to the urban, internationally linked mega-churches such as Winner’s Chapel or the Deeper Life Bible Church? What role do differences in age, gender, class, or social status of the church members play?

While some of these issues are addressed in the contributions to the book, others are left out. One that I think might profitably have been explored in more detail is the question of the heritage of colonialism. If one takes the early independent African Initiated Churches (AICs) at the turn of the twentieth century as precursors of the latter Pentecostal explosion, the question of the heritage of colonialism is important precisely because these churches developed largely in reaction to — and protest against — the mission churches, which were at best paternalistic and at worst racist. Moreover it would be important to look at the differences between colonies. In some, missionary activity was closely intertwined with colonialism, for example through the delegation of western education into the hands of missionaries, as was common practice in British West Africa. In French colonies, by contrast, education became a purely secular state affair at the beginning of the twentieth century. In other colonies African Independent Churches competed not with classic mission churches, but rather with Islam or with traditional religion. To some extent the problem that arises here is well-known to scholars of African studies: up until today there appear to be two Africas when it comes to research, both of which claim to tell the whole story. One is constructed through research carried out by mostly Francophone scholars in Francophone countries, the other through research carried out in Anglophone Africa. Quite often they not only ignore each other but also claim that their insights count for the rest of Africa. The problem at times becomes evident in this volume, for example in chapters like that by Richard Burgess, in which evidence from Nigeria and Zambia is used to make claims about Africa. Similarly, Asamoah-Gyadu talks about the “African Christian landscape” but illustrates it with examples from Anglophone Africa alone.

Other chapters are more sensitive to the matter of colonial heritage. The historical approach of Allan Anderson offers some background on the emergence of Pentecostal Christianity. He rightly points to the fact that most African Independent Churches and early Pentecostal churches did not develop as secessions from European mission churches, and that in regions where Catholicism dominated (particularly in Francophone Africa), schisms appeared less often because Catholic missionaries were more willing to accommodate local beliefs and customs in modified form in their religious practices. Nonetheless there are relevant exceptions to this, such as the extremely successful prophetic movement of William Wadé Harris on the West African Coast (particularly in Liberia and Côte d’Ivoire), which recruited large numbers from the Catholic Church. The Harrist movement and its successors were apparently successful because they spread a message that was relevant to Africans. In part they explicitly lined up with anticolonial movements, but at the same time they pushed for modernization and development, very much in line with the assimilation politics of the French colonial project (as argued by Jean-Pierre Dozon).

How does one best deal with the problem of bringing together highly particular case studies and individual histories of Pentecostal Christianity with the general development of a Pentecostalization of religiosity and the public sphere in Africa? Stephen Ellis and Gerrie Ter Haar have appealed for studies of African epistemologies that take religious modes of thinking about the world seriously and do not assume a static difference between a religious and a secular realm. At the same time, it is important not to be seduced by cultural relativist explanations of Pentecostal politics in Africa. The secret lies somewhere in between, as already nicely demonstrated by a number of contributions to the book: careful, empirically-grounded analysis is needed that takes into consideration the ideas and explanations of those involved and relates it to other aspects of social life. Paul Gifford’s convincing analysis of two churches that have their origin in Nigeria — Daniel Olukoya’s Mountain of Fire and Miracles Ministries and David Oyedepo’s Living Faith World Outreach (Winner’s Chapel) — describes the Christianity of these two churches by allowing Olukoya and Oyedepo to speak for themselves through their numerous publications, televised sermons, services, and online material. Gifford does not attempt to use the material thus presented as “illustrations” of a more generalized picture of African Pentecostalism. This analysis of the practices and theology of a particular case study could and should then be rooted in a historical analysis of how (and maybe why) these churches developed so successfully, thus providing a genealogy of certain ideas or practices.

To return to the Ivorian case, Gbagbo is not the first Ivorian president to whom a quasi-religious status has been ascribed. The first president Félix Houphouët-Boigny was also referred to as savior, apostle, and as a mythical Nan-gama, believed to live up to a foretold destiny. Ever since Wadé Harris, prophets have played a major role in the making of the Ivorian nation. One could argue that ever since the 1950s Ivorian nationalism has been grasped in terms of a “new covenant.” Migration to Côte d’Ivoire has been perceived in religious terms: Côte d’Ivoire as Canaan, as land of convergence. During the civil war these ideas were quickly appropriated by a Pentecostal discourse of Côte d’Ivoire as God’s chosen people and the war as a war between God and evil. Additionally the “spiritual warfare” (as described in Andreas Heuser’s chapter) of prayer and political sermons was accompanied and promoted by popular culture (such as songs, performances, flags and commemorative cloth). The linking of a Pentecostal discourse of liberation, re-birth, and renewal to Ivorian national sovereignty and to Gbagbo as “chosen one,” had developed such a self-perpetuating dynamic that Gbagbo could not simply step down when the election results declared his opponent to be the winner.

The vitality and violence of this symbiosis cannot be understood through instrumentalist explanations or through the assumption that a hidden agenda, such as a hunger for power, lies behind the interrelation of Pentecostal discourse and politics in Côte d’Ivoire. Instead, we will gain insight into a multifaceted picture of Pentecostalism by disentangling the different layers of Pentecostalism as religious practices on the one hand and as social practices on the other, with their historical genealogies. This kind of “thick description” might in the end lead to an empirically grounded comparison of pneumatic Christianity in Africa. Pentecostalism in Africa takes a large step towards this goal. I would certainly recommend it to anyone interested in religion in the contemporary world.