From Periphery to Center

Pentecostalism is transforming the secular state in Africa.

By Simeon O. Ilesanmi

Few academic disciplines in the humanities with the possible exception of history, can rival religious studies in the bold claim it makes about having an attitude of radical impartiality toward all religious traditions. Textbooks proliferate on world religions, and students are enjoined on their first day of being introduced to this field of study that they should be objective, detached, and cultivate an attitude of respect for all religious traditions.

Yet, any cursory survey of many of these textbooks would quickly show that they are anything but impartial; the religious universe of their imagination has a limited territorial scope, with its constituents understood in a more or less hierarchical relationship. Notably, Africa is consistently treated in standard survey textbooks as an outer periphery among the global religious communities. If its religions are not classified under the general rubric of primal religions (by which many imply pre- or antimodern), they will be treated in what can be regarded as an afterthought in the last few pages of those books. Like much else about Africa, including its political, economic, and cultural appurtenances, the conventional tendency, even within the academy, has been to create a separate category for the continent in our general quest to understand the world and make sense of its wide array of traditions and practices.

A curious feature of our current discursive practices is the competing vocabularies we have invented to explain the development, or lack of it, in world affairs. One of these vocabularies is globalization, an exotic-sounding term that virtually every academic discipline strives to tweak, and whose import is to capture for us the contemporary processes and dynamics of human and social interaction. Globalization’s central thesis is that the world is undergoing an irresistible mutation, tending toward shrinkage and interdependence, in which the media, economy, religions, and migration are playing active and mutually reinforcing roles. The grand achievements of the phenomenon we call globalization include the ways in which it has joined our divided histories in new and unprecedented ways, forced open hitherto relatively closed horizons, compressed space and time so that the effects of distant causal chains are felt almost simultaneously, as it displaces cultures, and made mobility often a matter of necessity not choice. One would have expected intercultural harmony and pacific social existence as natural results of these processes. To our dismay, however, globalization has accentuated conflict and authoritarianism because, rather than eclipsing our differences, it has made us more acutely aware of them, creating more of a clash of civilizations rather than dialogue among them, competition rather than cooperation.

Globalization has accentuated conflict and authoritarianism because, rather than eclipsing our differences, it has made us more acutely aware of them.

Among all aspects of this morbid race, the competition among religions has been the most ferocious. This is true in part because it is only in the religious arena that the “City of God” is intimately connected with the earthly one, but also because members of both cities struggle over the creation and maintenance of boundaries and the rights and privileges that are associated with each recognized sacred space. Differently put, issues of conflict and authority in religions cannot be divorced from the larger cultural project of constructing and articulating mystical history and mystical geography, by which I mean the fundamental concerns about how human beings establish their sense of communal solidarity over time in a particular place. Mystical history has to do with our need to recite the founding charters of our societies and to link these with national narratives of martyrdom and patriotism. Without such recitations our communities cease to be, but our recitation easily becomes liturgical rather than reflective. What mystical geography adds to this is a definition of sacred areas and of the right borders guaranteeing social and communal integrity. Very few societies are able to achieve a consensus, in the absence of a civil (civic) religion, about what the content of those founding charters should be, which explains why many societies today are entangled in a vicious circle of integration and disintegration, with religion as the main culprit.

Which religions? Is there one African religion?

There appear to be no other regions more appropriate than Africa for considering the subject of authority and conflict precipitated by religion. That Africa is religiously pluralistic is not the interesting fact in this regard, for that is obvious and is a condition about which Africa cannot claim any sociological uniqueness. What is of interest is the debate that Africa’s religious plurality has generated. This debate has principally revolved around the complementary issues of authenticity and legitimation, the former having to do with the cultural credibility of the religious traditions domiciled in Africa and the authority to speak for these traditions by those who study them. Legitimation raises the issue of religion’s capacity to define the normative boundaries for an individual’s self-understanding, as well as to provide the cultural framework for the construction, critique, and reform of sociopolitical order. In colonial and for most of postcolonial Africa, the latter sets of functions were almost exclusively identified with the theological postures of Islam and Christianity, but it is indisputable that the indigenous religions also provide a language and a set of idioms for conceptualizing and contesting the unjust and unequal conditions in which adherents live. This does not, of course, settle the controversy about what religions should be regarded as indigenous or authentically African. The African religious landscape is usually mapped along three axes of differentiation—Islam, Christianity, and the traditional religions—and many see the first two as “foreign” and regard their adherents as, at best, rootless hybrids and, at worst, cultural traitors. Muslim and Christian Africans have lived under the historical burden of justifying the legitimacy of their religious choices and the extent to which those choices are compatible with an African ontology.

There are scholars who are reluctant to ascribe religious content to what we generally regard as indigenous African systems of thought and action. Contrary to the frequent affirmations made especially by some pioneer African scholars of the immanent religiosity of the African mind or that Africans are given to supernatural explanations (Idowu 1962; Mbiti 1969), other scholars have argued that there is nothing inherently religious in the features of life and thought of Africans so characterized. Their argument rests on two premises. First, that there is no word in many African languages that translates the word “religion.” As the Ghanaian philosopher Kwasi Wiredu argues, that religion came to be used to designate African worldview “is the result of the superimposition of alien categories of thought on African thought-structures” (Wiredu 1996:51). Second, Christianity has been singled out as the source of this superimposition whose missionaries invented such Yoruba words as esin (religion), igbagbo (faith) or the Akan word Anyamesom (Christianity) as a way of distinguishing “between their own religion and what they perceived to be the religion asa (tradition) of the indigenous ‘pagans’ ” (Wiredu 1996:46). Properly understood, the realm of the Orishas (divinities) is an extension of African social (i.e., nonreligious) ethics, not the other way round, for “the reverence given to the beings in question [divinities] bears closer analogy to secular esteem than to religious worship. The reverence given to the ancestors is only a higher degree of the respect that in Akan society is considered to be due to the earthly elders. For all their postmortem ontologic transformation, the ancestors are . . . members of their families” (Wiredu 1996:48).

In sum, we are being asked here to adjudicate two interrelated (and possibly more) questions about religious legitimacy in Africa. We are to determine whether the practices and thought structures that are putatively described as religious are indeed derivative of an African moral philosophy, or is it the case that Africans are incurably religious, as the evidence seems to suggest? If the latter, which religions properly belong in Africa, and which ones are to be regarded as foreign intrusions? Africans themselves, rather than scholars, may be the best qualified to answer these questions. In a recent unscientific poll conducted by the BBC about the level of spirituality in Nigeria, it was reported that 100 percent of those interviewed admitted to being religious and that religion is an explanatory factor for their ostensible positive attitude toward life. As in other parts of the world, religious growth is outpacing the developments in other relevant sectors of Africa’s life. Even more remarkable is the extent to which changes in these other spheres are being triggered by religious events, such as open confessions of transformed lives by corrupt politicians and public officials at religious crusades and the increasing rate at which many ordinary Africans invoke religious evidence as a basis for their trust in the services provided by secular professionals. No one has studied these trends more than the historian Philip Jenkins, who observed that “the twenty-first century will almost certainly be regarded by future historians as a century in which religion replaced ideology as the prime animating and destructive force in human affairs, guiding attitudes to political liberty and obligation, concepts of nationhood, and, of course, conflicts and wars” (Jenkins 2002:2).

Paradigm shift in global Christianity

There is a great demographic shift under way in world Christianity. It is a shift with profound implications for the territorial identity of the religion as well as for the assertion of the right to provide spiritual leadership within the global church. The erstwhile vertical relationship between the South and the North, in which the former was seen as a mission outpost for the latter, is now being restructured. This Christian revolution, which began during the second half of the twentieth century and peeked considerably by the onset of the new one, has taken many forms—a steady upsurge in conservative Protestant Christianity, the admixture of charismatic expression of faith with traditional Catholic liturgy, the sheer rise in the number of Christian denominations, and the expanding influence and acceptance of Pentecostalism as an index of Christian legitimacy. With Africa as a leading laboratory for these new theological experiments, it can be argued that the “religious surplus” of the continent is a compensation for its deficit in the areas of stable politics, a flourishing economy, and an advancing science and technology.

With Africa as a laboratory for new theological experiments, the ‘religious surplus’ of the continent is a compensation for deficits in other areas.

The rise of non-Western Christianity has come as a huge surprise to the secular West. Some decades ago, Christianity outside of the West was thought to be a product of European imperialism, and it was expected to wither and die in the postcolonial era. With the huge and growing Christian population in Africa now exceeding 360 million, as compared with 260 million in North America, the erstwhile assumption that African Christianity was solely an extension of colonial ambition needs to be revisited. Rather than dying with colonialism, “the process of decolonization . . . freed Christianity to be more at home in local situations” (Robert 2000:53). Even more significant is the strength and effrontery of African churches to embark upon what the Harvard African religious traditions scholar Jacob Olupona has described as a “reverse missionary project” by sending preachers and ministers to the lukewarmly Christian West. Given these new developments, it would seem grossly inadequate and an utter distortion of the contemporary African realities to continue to portray the continent as being peripheral to world affairs, rather than as being a major force behind them.

In fact, the mutually reinforcing strategies of localizing a faith and globalizing it at the same time are nothing new in Africa, for these were the means by which Christianity consolidated itself in the continent, and Africans, rather than foreign missionaries, were the most articulate proponents of the strategies. As world Christianity scholar Lamin Sanneh argues, correctly it seems, “Christianity, from its origins, identified itself with the need to translate out of Aramaic and Hebrew, and from that position came to exert a dual force in its historical development.” By “dual force” Sanneh means a simultaneous effort to “relativize its Judaic roots” and also to “destigmatize Gentile [and, subsequently, other recipients’] culture . . . as a natural extension of the life of the new religion” (Sanneh 1989:1). Earlier efforts to Africanize Christianity focused on the promotion of mother tongue literacy. By the attention local Christians paid “to certain cultural themes, such as hymns and sacred songs in the local language, music, the decorative arts, and the writing down of local stories, myths and folklore” (Sanneh 1983:247), the way was opened “for the local idiom to gain the ascendancy over assertions of foreign superiority” (Sanneh 1993:19).

The primacy of African agency and local initiatives in Christianity is most visibly evident in the phenomenal growth of Pentecostalism on the continent. In Africa’s major cities, Pentecostalism has eclipsed the mainstream Christianity of Catholicism, Methodism, and Presbyterianism, thereby interrogating earlier “conceptions of the nature of religious authority, of the relationship between the religious and secular spheres, and even of the possibility of coexisting peacefully with other faiths” (Jenkins 2003:1–2). Its media-savvy pastors-cum-superstars regularly fill the airwaves with their preaching and gospel music, and are creating a new publishing niche for their tracts and manuals on self-improvement. Youthful congregations fill modern air-conditioned tabernacles and chapels for all-night services. They come in search of the latest blessing and to participate in Christianized popular culture. The new Pentecostal upsurge does not constitute a homogenous movement, but is rather the sum of a number of succeeding waves, each of which draws upon and transforms that which has gone before.

While generalization can be risky, in Africa three distinct expressions of Pentecostalism are discernible. The first are holiness or righteousness churches that tend to be “highly organized and strongly denominational,” and promote a doctrine which stresses “strict personal ethics, a retreat from the ‘world’ and worldly possessions and practices, as well as the imminent second coming of Christ” (Marshall 1993:216). Although these churches are considerably suspicious of “the world,” they nevertheless seek to influence it through “personalized images rather than structural arrangements and forces,” believing that “political improvement depends on the multiplication of persons of moral integrity” (Martin 1999:40). Belonging to the second category are the so-called prosperity gospel churches, whose doctrinal peculiarities include a strong emphasis on a personal experience of faith, the centrality of the Holy Spirit, and an eschewal of sectarianism. Despite the positive disposition of these health-and-wealth churches toward the world, their preferred mode of political intervention is not to establish some kind of ideological monopoly but to “constitute an effective pressure, pressing corporate institutional interests and broad moral principles, and generally acquiring a voice in the public forum” (Martin 1999:39). Churches of the third type appear to fall somewhere in the middle in terms of their doctrinal and social base, encouraging a more or less equanimous attitude toward the world of material success.

As in the rest of the third world where Pentecostalism has flourished, it is neither the indigenous tradition per se nor a penchant for emotional spiritualism that explains the success of this movement, but rather the larger cultural and political milieu in which it arose. Mass conversion to the movement has to be understood against the backdrop of “the omnipresent reality of state violence”; the oppressive, destructive and debilitating way in which individuals are ‘inserted’ into the struggle for material survival; and “the security, hope and empowerment that new life in Christ brings” (Marshall 1993:223). What all African states share, regardless of the type of government in power, is a “generalized system of patrimonialism and an acute degree of apparent disorder, as evidenced by a high level of governmental and administrative inefficiency, a lack of institutionalization, a general disregard for the rules of the formal political and economic sectors, and a universal resort to personalized and vertical solutions to societal problems” (Chabal and Daloz 1999:xix). In such a climate characterized by extensive official violence and systematic torture, surveillance and censorship, abductions and detentions without trial, and the deadly use of police and armed forces, the church has become, in many African countries, one of the only remaining available channels for the expression of discontent and the desire for change in the continent (Sabar-Friedman 1997).

The distinction between church and state, a doctrinal cornerstone of Pentecostalism, was more of an exception than the rule among the older mission or mainline churches. The inability of these churches to maintain a moral distance from the rapacious secular state has its genesis in a peculiarly African cultural phenomenon described as “hegemonic alliance” or “the reciprocal assimilation of elites,” understood as the process by which various elite groups in the society—the administration, bureaucracy, army, intellectuals, traditional rulers, and religious authorities—constitute themselves into “a privileged zone of interpenetration and mutual reinforcement” (Bayart 1993:150–179). Rather than seeing themselves as occupying different roles with specific functions to perform in society, leading religious figures often behave as “class actors in partnership with political elites to seek to achieve mutually advantageous goals” (Haynes 1996:6). This entrenched system of co-optation not only blurs the distinction between the state and the private order, it also makes it aberrant for religious spokespersons to confront the state determinedly when it infringes (as it so often does) on the fundamental rights of its citizens. On this reading, religious authorities are, like their counterparts within the elite circle, “brokers of power in the most mundane sense” (Ellis and Haar 1998:190).

Pentecostalism is creating powerful sources of legitimacy across Africa—a tendency not overlooked by Africa’s increasingly born-again rulers.

Pentecostalism is thriving in Africa today precisely because it has instead sought to link its evangelizing mission to the project of creating “an autonomous social space” where “those who count for little or nothing in the wider world find themselves addressed as persons able to display initiative and to be of consequence” (Martin 1999:41). In its capacity for individuation, its ability to transform relations of gender and generation, and its willingness to provide infrastructure that the collapsed institutions of the state have neglected or abandoned, Pentecostalism is creating powerful sources of legitimacy across the continent of Africa—a tendency not overlooked by Africa’s increasingly born-again rulers. Conversion to this brand of Christianity, in the words of Peter Berger, “brings about a cultural transformation—new attitudes toward work and consumption, a new educational ethos, and a violent rejection of traditional machismo” (Berger 1999:8–9). Not only does the future of Christianity no longer depend on developments in the North, the survival of the state in Africa may in fact also depend on Christianity, especially Pentecostal Christianity. Amid the uncertainty and chaos that characterize operations of the secular state, the Pentecostal churches are proving themselves to be reliable sources of solace from which people seem to be deriving “meaning that transcends the restricted space of empirical existence” (Berger 1999:13).

In Nigeria, for example, while all the public federal and state universities are becoming shadows of their former glories, private universities established by Pentecostal churches have become oases of relative stability and quality education. As the secular state retreats into irrelevance and reduces the possibilities of meaningful life for millions of Africans, signs of hope are emerging from unlikely quarters. While ordinary Pentecostal members rarely prosper (even if the brand of the gospel they preach promises prosperity), they stay in the movements because they find personal security there. That is the current tale of African Pentecostal Christianity. It is the tale of a movement that has progressively moved from the periphery of Africa’s social and cultural life to a position where it now defines the soul, the very center, of African collective personality.


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Simeon O. Ilesanmi is Associate Professor and director of graduate studies in the religion department at Wake Forest University. He delivered this talk at HDS’s Center for the Study of World Religions on April 16, 2007.

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