Africa: a need for nuance

Harvard Divinity Bulletin offers a variety of articles on the intersection of faith and life: articles, reviews, and opinion pieces on religion and contemporary life, religion and the arts, religious history, and the study of religion. Two articles in this issue discuss religious life in Africa. One, From Periphery to Center, on how pentecostalism is transforming the secular state in Africa. The other, On Africa, a Need for Nuance is a response to the first article.

Simeon O. Ilesanmi contends that as mainline churches become more and more entwined with governmental and financial power, Pentecostalism is providing space for those who do not have power.

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.

Jacob Olupona begins by agreeing with Ilesanmi but goes on to plead for nuance in looking at Africa and religion.

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.

He continues to explore the role of traditional and newer religious expressions and concludes:

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.

Read these here. Also featured are models of peacemaking as well as other articles on religion and contemporary life.

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