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Faith Incorporated

 

Tuesday, July 17, 2007.

 

By Chippla Vandu

 

In practically all of recorded human history, belief or faith in one or more deities has been the norm. And amongst the various tribes of humanity that roamed the post-Jurassic world—be it in what is today called Europe, Africa, Oceania Asia or the Americas—communities developed unique belief systems that evolved with time.

 

One common characteristic of most belief systems was the need for a shaman, a priest or a sorcerer, who had the ability to communicate either with the deities or the spirit world. This unique communication ability was not open to all, but only to the initiated. As cultural and belief systems evolved, so did perceptions about the origin of the world, humanity's place in the universe and the nature of the deities or Deity.

As often is the case, when two different cultures collide, the dominant tends to have much of its ideas taken up by the other. This could be viewed in the context of the stronger dominating the weaker. When post-renaissance European missionaries set out to take the Christian Gospel to Africans, they certainly believed that they were doing the will of a Deity.

 

They were armed with little more than a Collection of Books written over thousands of years—called the Bible. This collection contained much, from ancient Hebrew religious views about the origin of the world to the creation of human beings, and from a message of peace preached by a first century Nazarene to an apocalypse that was to befall the Roman Empire, which at that time was a persecutor of followers of the new Nazarenean sect. The missionaries were also armed with faith—a belief in the need and urgency of what they were doing.

Fast forward two hundred years later. Christianity - in its myriad of forms - has succeeded in becoming a dominant force in much of Africa south of the Sahara. It has displaced hundreds, if not thousands, of indigenous cultural practices and religions.

 

A total paradigm shift occurred in several societies. Polytheism, a common practice, gave way to monotheism. Indigenous cultural feasts gave way to the fancier Easter and Christmas. The change of individuals' names, in some quarters, reflected this new identity. The names of Biblical characters and Christian saints were hype. Two things, which Christianity brought, that probably made it attractive, were European-style education and healthcare. The rest is history. The dominant, it appears, always wins.

Not everyone was willing to put up with the strict moral codes and regulations of the Eurocentric Christian Churches when they started making waves in much of African in the 19th century. Several African societies practiced polygamy. Yet here was a new faith—good on its intentions—that not only frowned at polygamy, but also labeled it as sinful. It wasn't too long before indigenous Christian Churches began appearing.

 

Like the missionaries before them, the proprietors of these churches were armed with little more than the Collection of Books and faith. The free market, it appeared, was at work. It needn't be an Anglican or Roman Catholic place of worship, or even a Methodist or Baptist. Independent (or indigenous) churches began springing up, some of which mingled indigenous practices with mainstream Christian teachings. Some permitted and blessed polygamous marriages, viewing this as a quintessential part of African culture and identity.

A new wave of religious revival (or zealotry, depending on how one may choose to see it) was soon to spread across the continent. This revival has led to the creation of thousands of Christian denominations—predominantly of the Evangelical/Pentecostal form or what this writer chooses to call the New Wave of Christianity.

 

Once again, armed with little more than the Collection of Books and faith, never-before-trained men and women simply get up and claim to have either spoken with the Deity or with the Holy Spirit and been ordered to open a church. Several churches have started this way. The proprietors of these places of worship rely so much on their purported—though highly disputable—ability to perform miracles, to speak in unintelligible languages and to quote passages from the Collection of Books.

The Gospel of the Nazarene, though present, appears secondary in some of these places of worship. The Gospel of Prosperity and the psychological pull it has on the congregation are ever present. The church proprietors live flashy and opulent lifestyles while most of those in the congregation struggle to survive. Yet, the poor congregants are told that if they had a bit more faith they would 'succeed' just like the very proprietor who happens to be sucking out their hard-earned pennies. The rational mind is made moribund and any form of logical thinking silenced. Faith, one is told, is all that is needed. Faith alone. Just faith.

Poverty and illiteracy are, to a large extent, responsible for the success of the New Wave of Christianity that one sees in several African countries. The poor are desperate to get out of their current situation and improve their social status. Thus, they cling onto any message that seems to offer some form of hope or succor. And this is where the church proprietors come in. By adopting a fatally flawed reductionist approach, these proprietors relate every single action to a Deity, or a devil, be it bareness, poverty, inability to pass examinations, ill health, smoking addiction.

In such an environment, people are unable to help themselves because they are made to believe that greater forces dictate the course of their lives. Such a situation inevitably leads to more people remaining in poverty because rather than being given necessary tools of empowerment (e.g. an education that frees the mind), their minds are left constrained—to the advantage of those who claim to be offering spiritual direction.

 

Like the shaman, priest and sorcerer of old, the modern day proprietors (whom this writer believes are called pastors) seemingly claim to have a unique communication ability with a Deity—an ability not bestowed upon all.

 

The difference today is that, believe or not, this form of religion has become a lucrative business that yields good returns. While the proprietors drive the latest SUVs, live in huge air-conditioned mansions and dress like Hollywood movie stars, the congregants are often told that Christians receive their reward in heaven.

 

Christy Aikhorin writes from Lagos. With thanks to Chippla Vandu blogging as Chippla.

 

Picture: Courtesy of the BBC

 

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