Missionaries in Africa: God, glory and gold

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Religion has long been America’s most civil servant. Our nationalistic heritage only tolerates objectivity about the political role of religion when the events are untouchably remote in time. Hence, only now do historians, diplomats, journalists, and even ministers feel free to speak of the devilish 3-G’s of past Western colonialism: God, Glory, and Gold. And the former is an acknowledged cover for pursuit of the latter.

Our domestic sages, however, are slow to expose similar present-day relationships such as those between modern American missionaries and the new Conquistadores, the multi-national corporations.

Church groups are often the witless or unwitting valets for these giants of economic imperialism which continue the rape of human and material resources in countries “softened up” by religion and its support of the status quo.

The role of Pentecostals in Africa is one aspect of such unholy connections.

Pentecostals were initially well tolerated and even welcomed in Africa. Their interracial heritage, generosity in the midst of poverty, and environmental adaptability formed a strong base of empathy among colonial peoples. The rich Afro-American influence in Pentecostal music, style of preaching, and modes of worship found resonance in many African cultures. Their development of native ministers made them acceptable to emergent nationalist leaders, and their disinterest in secular affairs rendered them innocuous in white rulers’ eyes.

But their day is over.

Pie in the Sky. The U.S. Pentecostal movement developed around the turn of the century, in interracial storefront missions and country revival meetings. Its fervent promises — material well-being in the afterlife, and punishment of the wicked rich — at first attracted a predominance of poor people. The cathartic services feature speaking “in other tongues,” often accompanied by ecstatic utterances and dancing “in the Spirit.” Pentecostals believe they are filled with the literal Holy Ghost, but typical of peripheral ideological groups devoid of power, the movement has spawned an almost unbelievable array of denominations, sects, and cults.

Pentecostals are fundamentalism’s most rapidly growing fringe. Their per capita donations to missions far exceed that of mainline churches. And they make extraordinary use of the mass media: their multi-sensory ministry is a “natural” — never lacking in movement, visual pizzazz, and rhythmic music. But while they have retained many of their esoteric traditions, their largely unreflective political stance has shifted noticeably to the right.

After decades of disregard, disrepute, and even persecution, Pentecostals are now the curious darlings of established press, religious, commercial and foreign policy groups in America. When the World War II economic boom swept many previously poor members into the ranks of the petty bourgeoisie or comfortable if uncertain skilled trades, they became prime recruits to the expeditionary forces of the new American imperialism. They accepted hook-line-and-sinker the Cold War mythology: every insurgent force in Africa, and elsewhere, was Communist inspired, and therefore atheist-inspired. Slowly, the changing economic status and political perspectives of home churches in America clouded the originally naive and often positive work of Pentecostal missionaries.

Salvation Sellout. The new, bellicose, pro-American stance found in much Pentecostal literature, media blitzes, and ministerial practices has aroused suspicion and extreme hostility among cultural, political, and economic leaders of the new African nations and the revolutionary forces in remaining colonial or puppet countries.

The destruction of Pentecostal missions by the Patriotic Front in Zimbabwe (Rhodesia) was precipitated by the decision of white Pentecostals to segregate themselves from their fellow Black believers, thus allying themselves visibly with the forces of reaction.

Outright banishment has occurred elsewhere — the Eritrean Peoples Liberation Front Constitution specifically calls for the exclusion of Pentecostals along with other “anti-nationalist” religious groups. Because Pentecostals perpetuate the subjugated status of native people and preach otherworldliness, as opposed to grappling realistically with oppressive conditions, they are now regarded as passive if not active supporters of Western exploitation.

Rising cultural consciousness has also caused the emergence of indigenous religious groupings, such as the Nazarites in South Africa. Members regard their deceased founder as the true Biblical messiah and are slowly melding more and more Zulu customs with components of Pentecostalism. Wearing white flowering angel gowns to their revival meetings, they disrobe reveal traditional, semi-nude attire when the “Holy Ghost” descends and the “saints” sing, play instruments, and dance “in the spirit.”

Stripping off the Westernized version of holiness is a highly political statement. The peoples of Africa intend to reassert their own identity, insisting that any ultimate, universally accepted concept of personhood be one to which they’ve made a recognized and recognizable contribution. The mandate for American socialists is to expose the stampede of sympathy the American press is generating for Pentecostals rejected or banished by the African peoples. The usual missionary role as emissary for destructive American capitalism cannot be tolerated, however unintentional its effect.

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