AFRICAN PENTECOSTAL CHURCHES AND CONCEPTS OF POWER

Rev Dr Allan H Anderson

Selly Oak Colleges, Birmingham B29 6HQ, England

 

The Spirit and Power

A large number of African initiated churches have been variously described as "independent African Pentecostal churches" (Hollenweger 1972:151) "spiritual churches" (Baëta 1962), “prophet-healing churches” (Turner 1979:97) and "Spirit-type churches" (Daneel 1971:285). They constitute today the majority of so-called African independent churches (AICs). Because of the connection between these movements and pentecostal churches of western origin (Anderson 1992:21), I refer to them simply as "African pentecostal churches". This term is intentionally wide and any generalisations made do not apply to every “pentecostal” church. These churches are now a prominent part of African Christianity and yet, for various reasons, their voice is virtually unheard in ecumenical circles. They emerged in a situation where they were denied socio-economic and religious “power”, whilst mission churches dominated by Europeans often represented colonial oppression. This was especially true in South Africa, where until comparatively recently, churches were segregated, white church leaders exercised paternalistic control at every administrative level (Comaroff 1985:172) and the feeling of powerlessness by African Christians was particularly acute. African pentecostal churches that emerged in this situation became a “radical expression of cultural resistance” (:166). Although they often used western ecclesiastical forms, these only “masked an often trenchant resistance to the culture of colonial domination” (:168).

African pentecostal churches have been criticised for their emphasis on the "power" of the Holy Spirit (Anderson 1991:58). In keeping with ideas of power in African religion, some have alleged that this force or "power" is tangibly perceived and manipulable, and that some people may have more of it than others. In fact, African pentecostals do not see the Holy Spirit as an impersonal manipulable force, and the Bible furnishes abundant evidence of tangible manifestations of the Holy Spirit's power. Negative evaluations sometimes stem from an overemphasis on theological theory (as seen by westerners), and a disparaging of African experience. The "power" made available to Christian believers through the Spirit may be closer to the African concept of "vital force" (Tempels 1959:44-45) than westerners might admit. Life and human existence are inextricably tied up with power. To live is to have power; to be sick, to die, to be poor or oppressed is to have less of it. Whenever problems came to an African society, or even when there was a foreboding of trouble, it was often necessary for the afflicted to consult the specialists, the traditional diviners ­and healers. They had special power to discern the wishes of the ancestors and to act as protectors of society. Very often the unseen evil force of witches or sorcerers also needed to be counteracted with a more powerful force. Sorcerers could only succeed with their evil intent if some kind of access to the victim was gained through the latter's protective ancestors. For this reason people turned to diviners who were able to diagnose the cause of affliction, and usually prescribed some ritual or gave protective medicines and charms to overcome the evil force. ­In much of western Christ­ian­ity exported to Africa no alter­native solution was offered to the real fears and problems encountered by Africans (Maimela 1985:71). An African theology and practice concerning the Holy Spirit that is both biblical and cont­extual­ised, such as is found in African pentecostal churches, provides a dynamic Christianity that attempts to meet Africa's needs in this realm.

The Concept of Power

The African concept of power has been expressed quite clearly in South African Black Theology as being a “relational reality” having to do with “concrete relations in our socio-historical world" (Boesak 1977:41). The idea of "black power", and the Black Consciousness Movement as formulated by Steve Biko and others had its origins in theological reflection on what it really meant to a black person to be created in the image of God. This was in fact the first question that was asked in South African Black Theology. People who were weak through generations of institutionalised oppression found in the black power concept a restoration of human dignity and self-esteem, and subservient attitudes were radically changed. The raised fist with the cry "Amandla ngawethu!" (Power is ours) was once feared by white South Africans who thought that the clenched fist was pointed to "heaven" and demonstrated defiance of God's authority. It is of course actually expressive of

the determination of black people to affirm themselves as human beings in the face of white domination, and to mobilise their collective power in order to overcome it... a salute to black dignity and humanity, not a threatening fist pointed at someone else (Kritzinger 1988:44).

The yearning of people struggling for liberation in South Africa was not far removed from the traditionalists’ constant desire for power. Traditionally, "amandla" (power) meant "forcefulness, strength... ability" (Berglund 1976:247). This concept may be compared both with the dunamiV promised to those upon whom the Holy Spirit comes (Acts 1:8) and with the concept of "black power". Christians must affirm that the power of the Spirit has more than just "spiritual" significance. It also has to do with dignity, authority, and power over all types of oppression. An oppressed person daily faces injustices and affronts to personal dignity, and is a person who lacks power. In the holistic African worldview a dualistic idea that the power of the Spirit only has to do with a mystical, inner power which does not meet physical, social, political and economic needs is unacceptable. God seeks the welfare of the whole person, and so sends his Spirit to bestow a divine, liberating ability and strength which enables people to resist in the face of overwhelming odds.

Confronted by a surrounding world with often threatening phenomena and forces and all kinds of adversities, people want to be in control. This universal human need manifests itself in the desire for ability or enabling power, found in every human expression, religious, political or otherwise. Traditional Africa seemed to handle these perplexities by organising the cosmos into explainable phenomena, thereby making order out of bewilderment. There was a continual reckoning with the reality that in this world there are no chance occasions or accidents; there is reason behind every eventuality. The universe and all it contains is permeated with “power” which may be appropriated in varying degrees, and may be applied with good or evil consequences.

Although this interpretation may be vigorously debated, African traditional religion often resulted in a continual sense of helplessness and weakness, and a need for more power to cope. The religious and socio-cultural world of many Africans was devoid of power. A theological question is whether traditional African religion really had adequate solutions to their perplexing problems. People may have been caught in a vicious circle out of which there seemed no escape. The seeming preoccupation with the spirit world and the continual quest for power may point to the possibility of no lasting satisfaction or freedom from fear. This universal human compulsion is for power beyond that of spirits, diviners and sorcerers. No matter how often people tried to be protected from evil by the use of medicines and rituals aimed at placating the ancestors, it may never be known whether the action, the charm or the medicine was stronger than the power of the adversary, whoever that might be. The world was plagued with uncertainty; at least it was when things were going wrong. Justin Ukpong (1984:510), observed that “syncretism” in African Christianity was not as much a sign of a lack of Christian commitment as an expression of the fact that Christianity had not fully responded to African culturally-based religious aspirations. In seeking to be relevant to this gap in the existential world of Africa the AICs (particularly African pentecostal churches) proclaimed a message which aimed to provide a comprehensively and qualitatively higher alternative. They offered a dynamic, life-giving power securing deliverance from evil and a feeling of safety, as well as providing for existential “this-worldly” needs.

Black Pentecostals and Power

The impetus which generated the international pentecostal movement originated in a black church in Azusa Street, Los Angeles, where the pentecostal emphasis of “Spirit baptism” was propagated by William Seymour, son of African slaves. Lovett (1975:136) points out that although Azusa Street was a model of interracial harmony, it was a black church to which whites came, led by the unpretentious Seymour who had earlier endured the ignominy of sitting outside the door of white pentecostal leader Charles Parham's Bible school in Houston. The Azusa Street revival continued for three years without interruption (Hollenweger 1972:22), and became the centre to which people flocked, “received the Spirit”, and from which the message of “Pentecost” was carried all over the world, reaching fifty nations within two years (MacRobert 1988:56,81). During North America's worst racist period, people of all races and social backgrounds “achieved a new sense of dignity and community in fully integrated Pentecostal services” (Anderson 1979:122). The first North American pentecostal missionary to South Africa, John G Lake, was at Azusa Street in 1907 with Seymour and other early pentecostal leaders (Lake 1981:137). Lake revisited Azusa Street on at least one occasion to report to Seymour about the progress of his pentecostal mission in South Africa started in 1908 (Lake 1981:32).

A characteristic of the white pentecostal movement in South Africa was to emphasise personal piety whilst social sins like racism were totally ignored, and right-wing political attitudes even found shelter behind pentecostal pulpits. Robert Anderson's (:222) comment about North American Pentecostalism was also true in South Africa: “A potential challenge to the social system was transformed into a bulwark of it”. Walter Hollenweger (1974:26) points out that “Black Power cannot be seen as a contrast to the Black Pentecostal movement. Both movements are religious and revolutionary and it is difficult to draw a dividing line between the two”. Robert Anderson (1979:1979) observes that early Pentecostalism's “interracial, multi-ethnic composition... was in itself a radical criticism of prevailing race relations and a radical departure from them”. Similarly, MacRobert (1988:50) says that “the experience of the Spirit was more than personal holiness, it was also power from God to triumph over injustice and oppression in the social sphere”. So too in its South African context Pentecostalism could have been a champion of the poor and oppressed, as its initial growth was amongst dispossessed Africans and poor White Afrikaners reeling from the crushing defeat of the Anglo-Boer War (de Wet 1989:39). However, black leaders were not given freedom to emerge in the early years, as leadership was kept firmly in the hands of whites (:161), resulting inter alia in the eventual separation of the independent Zion churches from the pentecostals. Estrangement between black and white pentecostals occurred gradually, and it seems as if blacks were characteristically tolerant of the many affronts to their dignity from their fellow white pentecostals. One of the earliest recorded secessions from the white pentecostal mission took place in 1917, when Elias Mahlangu founded the Zion Apostolic Church of South Africa, but by that time there were probably many African pentecostal secessions (De Wet 1985:63). Out of Mahlangu's church Edward Lion's Zion Apostolic Faith Mission seceded in 1920 (the name showing an obvious desire to maintain continuity with the pentecostal Apostolic Faith Mission). Engenas Lekganyane's Zion Christian Church seceded from the ZAFM around 1925 - now the largest AIC in Southern Africa and one of the largest in Africa (Daneel 1971:300; Sundkler 1976:65-66). Many of these new African pentecostal churches emphasised healing more than any other ritual, through which both “the practical agency of divine force and the social relocation of the displaced” was signified (Comaroff 1985:176).

The promise of “power from on high” (Luke 24:49) means that God has granted to the black person dignity, power and liberation that is realised through the pentecostal experience. This liberation is a holistic liberation from everything that oppresses and demeans personal dignity, empowering people to take their places in equality and leadership among God's people. As Lovett (1975:140) remarks “Black pentecostalism affirms with dogmatic insistence that liberation is always the consequence of the presence of the Spirit.... No man can genuinely experience the fullness of the Spirit and remain a bona fide racist”. The God who forgives sin is also deeply concerned about powerlessness manifested in poverty, oppression and (especially) in liberation from all of people's physical afflictions. It is this message of physical liberation that makes the pentecostal churches so attractive to Africans. Even though sometimes African pentecostals have little formal theology (a factor which is now changing), an implicit theology is exhibited in their practices and in their interpretation of the working of the Holy Spirit in daily life.

The Power of the Spirit in Africa

An understanding of power concepts places us in a better position to appreciate the attempt made by the African pentecostal churches to fill the gap between these concepts with their seemingly inherent inadequacies, and the somewhat sterile western theology imported to Africa. The message that African pentecostal churches proclaimed was the power of the Spirit given to people permanently and unconditionally. Maimela (1985:71) observed that the greatest attraction of AICs lay in their “open invitation to the Africans to bring their fears and anxieties about witches, sorcerers, bad luck, poverty, illness and all kinds of misfortune to the church leadership." The Christian message should have something to say in the face of these inadequacies. The message of the receiving of the power of the Holy Spirit, a power greater than any of the powers that threaten human existence, is good news indeed! Clearly, African pentecostal churches are founded on an emphasis on the power of the Holy Spirit, an emphasis which in their own estimation distinguishes them from most other churches. The Holy Spirit is unanimously associated with power - whether physical, moral, or spiritual -the all-embracing, pervading power of God. A demonstration of God's power through his Spirit will often convince Africans that God is indeed more powerful than surrounding evil forces, and therefore is worthy of worship, faith and service. In Africa God is indeed all-powerful, and this omnipotent God manifests his presence through the Holy Spirit working graciously and actively in the church.

A criticism often justifiably levelled at pentecostals is that they have sometimes expounded a theology of success and power at the expense of a theology of the cross. There are not always instant solutions to life's vicissitudes, and spirituality is not to be measured in terms of success. People are not only convinced by the triumphs of Christianity, but also by its trials. The Holy Spirit is also a gentle dove, a Spirit of humility, patience and meekness, of love, joy and peace. Our Christian faith must not only provide power when there is a lack of it, but must also sustain us through life's tragedies and failures, and especially when there is no visible success.

 © Rev Dr Allan H Anderson

Selly Oak Colleges, Birmingham B29 6HQ, U K

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