On Africa, a Need for Nuance

Responding to Simeon Ilesanmi.

By Jacob Olupona

Simeon Ilesanmi begins, as will I, by pointing out the challenges produced by thinking of religious studies as an objective science. On the contrary, religious studies is innately subjective. The willingness of scholars to turn a blind eye to this fact has, in many cases, allowed—or rather encouraged—the blithe introduction of provincial, racist, and hierarchical attitudes into the study of so-called primal African religions. This must serve as a potent reminder that we must remain constantly vigilant, as scholars, to our own shortcomings as people. It is the easiest thing in the world to see without ever truly seeing. Learning to truly see another person—to see his or her world in the way he or she would have it be seen—is the work of a lifetime. Ilesanmi also makes a telling critique of globalization. The same process which has generated wealth, luxury, and expanded horizons for many of us has, in much of the world, simply created more tensions, conflicts, suffering, and competition for already limited resources. This surely cannot surprise anyone, for it is a truism that many must go without for a few to have so much. But, as I have already said, it is very easy not to see.

Ilesanmi raises the issue of “civil religion”—drawing, through me, on the work of the sociologist Robert Bellah. I agree with the proposition that functioning societies must possess myths, values, and symbols that relate to their sense of collective identity. It is this common sensibility, or shared mythos, which Robert Putnam argues is on the decline in the United States, resulting in a diminishment of public life.1 In Nigeria, General Yakubu Gowon, after successfully reuniting the country after civil war, actively pursued the creation of a Nigerian civil religion through projects like the Nigerian Youth Service Corps. This mandatory civil service required that young people from around the country attend regional camps, which instilled in them a sense of common national pride. I do not believe it is incidental that Nigeria experienced extended peace and prosperity during the period when the NYSC thrived. The NYSC has now been essentially defunct for a generation, and the results speak for themselves. Nigerians lack a common sense of identity as Nigerians, and violence is rampant.

While Ilesanmi recognizes the importance of the West African religious triple heritage—Islam, Christianity, and traditional religions—he nevertheless points out that Islam and Christianity have come to occupy the visible space in which key issues such as politics, economics, and moral values are contested and interrogated. Indeed, this has increasingly become a space where violence and civil disorder are acted out as these two colossi struggle for dominance. Regarding the third religious element, traditional religion, Ilesanmi is right to point out that traditional cultures often lacked a term that was perfectly equivalent to “religion.” It is probably true that religion, as a category separate from culture and society, entered the vocabulary with the advent of Islam and Christianity. Nonetheless, it is not quite correct that religion does not, or did not, occupy a special place outside of African society.

A more nuanced approach to this issue might acknowledge, instead, the fact that culture and religion are not radically distinct categories in African traditional societies, but rather exist as poles of a scale—with the various mingled regions one would expect to exist on such a scale. This is different from the Enlightenment notion of religion as other than culture—something which can be bracketed aside, making a separation of church and state theoretically possible. If recent culture wars are any indication, it may be that this Enlightenment ideal is, like many other Enlightenment ideals, in need of a reality check. Perhaps the African traditional view is more honest. To say that religion and culture exist on the same scale, however, does not mean that there is not an epistemological distinction made between them. This distinction is perhaps best characterized by the otherness of the spiritual world. For example, the Yoruba of Nigeria speak of the ancestral world as separate from the social world, although they are related—perhaps as octave notes are related, or fugues are related in a piece of Baroque music. One proverb states, “Those who continue to view the recent dead with the same eyes will be consumed by the spirit world.” Another proverb states, “If the other world was so beautiful and great, the dead would not come to the earth to dance and beg for money.” In other words, there is a line between the sacred and the secular. It is a shifting and vague line, and it is permeable, but it is a line nonetheless. It is the ambiguity of these concepts which philosophers fail to grasp. They impose “either/or” where there is only “but/and.”

The majority of Ilesanmi’s essay focuses on the role of African Christianity in the contemporary world—a hot, and frequently misrepresented, subject in today’s media. In general, news stories focus on the phenomenal and rapid growth of these traditions, seeming to insinuate a grotesque speed. Regardless, Africa now occupies a key place in the discourse on global Christianity, as Philip Jenkins and other have pointed out. If there has been, as Ilesanmi says, a “paradigm shift in global Christianity,” there is no doubt that African Pentecostal and charismatic traditions dwell in the heart of it. Indeed, African evangelicalism, filled with a spirit of reverse mission, can now be found across the globe.

Take, for example, the ministry of the Rev. Sunday Adelaja in Kiev, Ukraine.2 Adelaja, a Nigerian, initially found himself in Belarus (then part of the Soviet Union) on a scholarship to study journalism. While there, Adelaja helped to found a number of underground churches. Deported by the KGB for his religious activities, Adelaja went to Ukraine at the invitation of Jeff Davis, a traveling evangelist who was doing television ministry and needed someone familiar with the language who could represent his interests. From this beginning, Adelaja began the process of founding churches. In 1994, the first Word of Faith Bible Church was founded from a Bible study group. Adelaja now is head of the largest church in Ukraine, which has 20,000 members at its central location and hosts 20 services every Sunday in various auditoriums throughout Kiev. There are now hundreds of daughter churches of the Embassy of God—the current name of the church—throughout Ukraine, other countries of the former Soviet Union, Europe, the United States, and even Israel. Adelaja is one of the most powerful public figures in Ukraine and is credited, among other things, with aiding in the election of the mayor of Kiev. Adelaja’s story is fascinating on a number of levels. First, there is the irony of Adelaja’s ejection from the Soviet Union. Marx’s famous description of religion as the “opiate of the people” is greatly challenged by the story of Adelaja. Communist Russia, supposedly of and for the people, found the peasant agency which Adelaja stirred to be threatening. This paradox would be funnier if it did not underlie the tragic circumstances of many people who found their religious lives suppressed under the Soviet system. But this is of minor interest compared to the greater interest we must take in the fact that the most dynamic and powerful religious leader in Ukraine is Nigerian. Ukraine’s mega-church is African in origin. It is not too much to say that Adelaja’s missionary work has permanently altered the religious landscape of Eastern Europe, instilling African religious sensibilities in a region which had previously been a religious vacuum.

Another similar, but somewhat mixed, instance of African churches in Europe is the Kingsway International Christian Centre in East London. Founded in 1992 by Matthew Ashimolowo, another Nigerian, the KICC quickly rose to fame as the largest black church in the United Kingdom. The church now boasts a weekly attendance of more than 12,000 people, and holds services in a church the size of an arena.3 Ashimolowo, an extremely charismatic figure, has written dozens of books and regularly appears on television and radio. In 2005, Ashimolowo was convicted by the Charity Commission of having embezzled funds from the church, which encourages its members to tithe 10 percent of their income.4 Ashimolowo denied any wrongdoing; whether this is true or not is perhaps less interesting than the way the story was advertised in the British newspapers. “Flamboyant pastor must repay £200,000” was one headline from the London Evening Standard.5 The Charity Commission seemed relieved to have found some way to bring Ashimolowo down to size. There seems to have been a certain sense that a black minister—and an African, no less—of such unchecked power and popularity was a cause for concern.

To ask a more basic question: What is the nature of African Pentecostalism? And why this sudden explosion? Ilesanmi argues that religion has rushed in—almost, as it were, been sucked in—to the vacuum created by failing states.6 It is certainly the case that African Christianity, particularly in the form of Pentecostalism, has provided an avenue for African agency—or, at the very least, the appearance of African agency. To say, however, that Pentecostalism is to thank for gains in African democratization may, ultimately, go too far. Quite simply, not enough time has passed for us to know how these religious experiments will turn out. I agree with the position that Pentecostalism has gained prominence mainly because it has made its evangelizing message relevant to the existential conditions of the people. However, it has often done so by creating or increasing sectarian distinctions, thereby encouraging the religious equivalent of xenophobia. This has opened a renewed public space, surely, but it is often a space in which certain Christian values and symbols are privileged to the detriment of others—frequently resulting in intolerance, symbolic and actual violence, and human rights violations.

Furthermore, if religious organizations are to serve as checks for failing states, then who or what is there to check them? Sadly, the answer is often “no one.” If we wish for a compelling example of the dark side of African religion, we need look no further than the case of the self-named Rev. Dr. King—also known as Chukwuemeka Ezeuko—who was sentenced to death earlier this year for having had six female members of his congregation doused in petrol and set aflame. This “fire baptism” resulted in the death of one woman, Ann Uzor. This came amid other allegations of sexual abuse and harassment of other female members, and his church—the Christian Praying Assembly—seems to have been, quite simply, a cult. His members, who have now mostly abandoned him, thought that he was Jesus. Upon being sentenced to death, King stated, “It is an honour and indeed a privilege to die by hanging as a prophet of God because Jesus Christ was also hanged.” So it appears that, in addition to being a murderer, King also lacks a solid knowledge of the biblical narrative. Justice Kayode Oyewole, the presiding judge, made the following statement upon condemning King to death: “The variant demonstrated by the accused is a throwback to the dark ages and an assault to the gains attained by humanity in the areas of respect for human dignity, freedom and liberty.”7 I would add that one cannot overlook the irony that Ezeuko chose the name “Rev. Dr. King,” after the American civil rights leader who modeled his life on the ideals of pacifism and nonviolence.

The African spiritual space today is occupied by both sinners and saints, just as it was in the past. Perhaps the greatest difference is that African spiritual space is no longer bounded by the African continent, and African sinners and saints are as likely to be in Ukraine, the United Kingdom, or the United States. Religiously and spiritually, Africa has absorbed all of the various competing and conflicting messages of the modern world and reflected them back out, boldly, onto a new global landscape. For every Adelaja, there is also a King. More perplexing is the fact that it is not always obvious which is which—who are the beatified and who are the charlatans. Globalism has opened a space of possibility in which lunatic religion can thrive into a sort of circus, in which a politician—with no consideration for its future impact—will encourage his followers to stone the sinful if it will give him gains at the polls. The charismatic and unsavory are everywhere ready to dupe, harm, and batter the culpable religious seeker.

Until recently, African traditional religions existed under the watchful eyes of traditional rulers (chiefs, kings, lineage, and clan heads) who also doubled as patrons and custodians of tradition. These traditions held in trust the sacred knowledge and moral fabric of the people. These traditions provided a strong basis for the economic and political foundations of villages and towns. They held a legitimate space precisely because they were of and for the people, constituting a collective worldview and lifeway. For centuries, African traditional practices—such as ancestor veneration, taboos, and totems—served as the pivot of the moral universe and the root of indigenous knowledge. Now, traditional worldviews are increasingly being characterized as evil, premodern, and inimical to progress and economic development. Consequently, several of these institutions have been driven underground, transforming themselves into cults and occult practices which are contrary to the welfare of their own people. It seems that the rise of witchcraft and secret societies is partly a response to the displacement of traditional religion. As Pentecostalism and evangelicalism—aided and abetted by a dysfunctional and corrupt state—denounce the high moral authority of the king and promote forced conversion, the center is falling apart and traditional rulers are ceasing to be the custodians of tradition. They can no longer provide the sacred canopy under which robust African pluralism existed for centuries. I would argue that the Pentecostal and evangelical demand for a radical divorce of converts from traditional worldviews is doing violence to African people and societies.

But I prefer to see hope everywhere: In Africa and her diaspora, there are religious communities fed up with violence, illness, and poverty. They are taking it upon themselves to see the HIV/AIDS crisis as a problem that they must address with compassion and speed—before a tipping point is reached beyond which there will be only death and more death. There are communities that see famine and violence as the real enemies of a gospel of prosperity—and, rather than retreating into self-help mantras, they are engaging in food banks, peasant cooperatives, and neighborhood watches. These communities have recognized that peace is only possible with cooperation across barriers—that there is no good life to be gotten from anything less than hard work and engagement. We would do well to take their example.


  1. Robert D. Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (Simon & Schuster, 2000).
  2. Information about Adelaja and his ministries is drawn from “Minister Informationen, Pastor Sunday Adelaja, It is Easy Ministries,” it-iseasy.org/contact/friends/sunday.php (no longer available online), accessed September 2, 2007.
  3. These figures are from the kicc website, www.kicc.org.uk, accessed September 2, 2007.
  4. “How Ashimolowo landed in trouble,” OnlineNigeria.com, www.onlinenigeria.com/links/Ashimolowoadv.asp?blurb=638, accessed September 2, 2007.
  5. Ibid., 1.
  6. The issue of failing states becomes more complex in light of recent utterances made by the French president at the University of Dakar, Senegal. During a speech that could have been copied directly from Mircea Eliade’s Myth of Eternal Return, Nicolas Sarkozy suggested that African backwardness is the result of a notion of circular time, which generates a preoccupation with the mythical past, to the detriment of the present and future. In his fanciful pronouncements, Sarkozy failed to note the gratitude he and others should owe to this “backwardness,” which has allowed the world to take advantage of African labor and oil reserves.
  7. “Court sentences Rev. King to death by hanging,” www.gamji.com, accessed August 20, 2007.

Jacob Olupona is Professor of African Religious Traditions at Harvard Divinity School, with a joint appointment as Professor of African and African American Studies in Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

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