Review of African Gifts of the Spirit, Pentecostalism & the Rise of a Zimbabwean Transitional Religious Movement - Mukai

African Gifts of the Spirit, Pentecostalism & the Rise of a Zimbabwean Transnational Religious Movement
David Maxwell
2006: (pp: 170) 228 x 152 mm
ISBN-13: 9780779220578
ISBN-10: 177922057X

Mukai – the Jesuit Journal for Zimbabwe,
July 2007

Reviewer: Oskar Wermter, SJ

Giving security to cope with upheaval

This historical and sociological study places the Zimbabwe Assemblies Of God (ZAOGA) within the worldwide Born-again movement which ‘after Catholicism … now constitutes the largest segment of world Christianity’ (10). Pentecostals are driven by two impulses: ‘The primitive represents a powerfully destructive urge to smash all human traditions in order to return to the first-century world where the Holy Spirit reigned supreme. In that realm, miraculous signs and wonders are the stuff of daily life, dreams and visions constitute normative authority, and the Bible is immune to higher criticism’. The pragmatic impulse makes them, ‘borrow from modernity’s tools, such as print and electronic media or rational bureaucracies, rather then its relativistic approach to truth’ (14).

Personal salvation through faith in Jesus Christ, baptism in the Holy Spirit, divine healing and the expectation of the imminent return of the Lord are four theological streams common to Pentecostals (18-19).

Spreading from the USA, Pentecostalism soon reached South Africa where it gave birth to the Apostolic Faith Mission (AFM), spilling over into Southern Rhodesia. Originally close to prophetic movements like the ‘Apostles’ of Johane Maranke and Johane Mazowe, it opened up to modernity. ‘The Holy Spirit was pitted against local demons and divine healing was congruent with indigenous notions of illness. … Pentecostalism spoke to those experiencing the imposition or intensification of colonial rule …. Many sought a measure of security from and conceptual control over modernity by converting to Christianity because it appeared to offer a key to the new secular order’ (56).

The new religious movement is presented as a response to the enormous social disruption which took place in the 20th century in Southern Africa. It ‘evolved into a Christian personal security movement. … Conversation liberated Pentecostals to make the best of, or at least survive, the ravages of colonial and post-colonial African economies’ (57). The new religion gave uprooted township dwellers, rebuffed and humiliated by white racism, status, self-respect and identity.

Just as Ezekiel Guti, the future leader of ZAOGA, and his band of supporters were evangelising forcefully, the black nationalist movement grew more radical, even violent. ‘Any African who remains independent and does not take part in the common cause is as bad as a sell-out as the so called moderates …. Those who are not with us are against us,’ Dumiso Dabengwa said in 1961 in Bulawayo (74).

‘For many, the experience of Baptism in the Holy Spirit dispelled doubt and fostered certitude … there was little ambiguity in the Pentecostal universe and opposition was quickly equated with blasphemy’ (70).

‘In the eyes of his people Guti was a hero. He had built an organisation over which no white man ruled.’

So nationalists and evangelizers had similar temperaments. ‘But ultimately the prayer band and the nationalist parties had distinctly different missions … the life styles of the nationalist youth, characterised by marijuana, was incompatible with born-again sobriety and bodily impurity’. However, both longed for freedom, the Pentecostal not just physical, but spiritual freedom. They put ‘a strong emphasis on African autonomy and dignity’ and believed that Africans should be free to define their faith in their own terms’ (75).

Guti’s movement sought independence from Western missionaries and resented South African racism found among them. At the same time, he differed from the cultural nationalism of the political movements in that he considered traditional ancestor cults as ‘demonic’. The ‘new religion was a religion of power encounters in which the Holy Spirit was the major player. God the father and Christ the son did not figure. The battle was cast in dualistic terms between the Holy Spirit and Satan’ (p. 106). It completely remade the lives of the converts, rescuing them from social misery and drunkenness to a new life of work, self-control and dignity.

Grown out of the experience of the egalitarianism of small bands of evangelists, the Zimbabwe Assemblies of God became known for the authoritarianism, even arrogance of its leader. ‘In eyes of his people Guti was a hero. He had built an organization over which no white man ruled. And because he continued to mask the external sources of funding, it appeared as if ZAOGA was solely the result of tenacious African self-reliance. His leadership began to take on a cultic appearance, with members praying to the "God of Ezekiel"' (116). It seemed Guti was eclipsing Christ. Like Maranke and Mazowe, ‘Guti asserted an encounter with God that was not mediated by a church or white missionaries’. He ‘was claiming a unique encounter with God to assert the ‘authenticity of his calling and the "indigenous" nature of his church’ (124).

A leadership cult surrounding Archbishop Dr Ezekiel Guti, Servant of God, arose in the 1990s. His '[k]in and ethnic group who had most to gain from his patronage actively promoted the cult’ (134). In the meantime ‘the relentless proselytism conducted by ordinary adherents remained an important factor in ZAOGA’s growth’ (138).

‘While at pains to emphasise that he was a "humble servant" of God and to deny that he was the Christ, Guti actively built his own personality cult that merged Guti’s identity with that of Christ’ (155). Some broke away and formed new movements (e.g., Mike Munyati’s Believers’ Bible church – BBC). Schism breeds Schism.

Guti’s leadership style and that of political leaders showed similarities. His form of politics ‘functioned through personal ties between religious and political elites under the pretext of reforming the political process. … Conducted by high-flying religious executives, this politics of influence happened at state banquets, presidential prayer breakfasts in international hotels and Christian conventions …. Guti was more astute when it came to practical engagement with politicians: the potential growth benefits of the church were never off his mind’ (145). Essentially, ZAOGA was ‘time-serving’, practising ‘the art of keeping oneself close to power, regardless of ideology or principle, in order to receive benefits’ (150). But when the economic collapse undermined also ZAOGA, the movement turned away from the regime.

Money was a great pre-occupation of the movement’s leaders. America's influence was obvious. ‘The aspirations of ZAOGA’s dominate elite came to be expressed in theological terms in a prosperity gospel that endorsed the acquisition of wealth and conspicuous consumption as a sign of God’s blessing. It was a doctrine that also explained poverty and misfortune in terms of lack of faith and generosity rather than the inequalities created by capitalism’ (154). And the ordinary members pray hard to be delivered from the ‘Spirit of Poverty’.

In order to prosper Christians must turn against tradition, the ancestors, spirit possession and witchcraft. But Guti is not simply a Westerniser. He upholds especially African family values. His wife Eunor plays a leading role in the movement, but she is not a feminist. The Gracious Women accept their subordinated role in the marriage and family. But Guti taught also that ‘for the African family to function properly the male had to be re-socialised and domesticated’ (156).

Pentecostalism does not change society and its structures, it aims at changing the person. ‘A positive attitude, overcoming fear, a sense of personal destiny, self-worth and self-reliance are key traits in the Pentecostal character that enable adherents to operate as individuals in a volatile labour market’ (209). Pentecostals learn how to cope with change, not to take control of it. ‘Those cut adrift in a rapid changing environment found sojourn in new intense and intimate communities of faith, protected from the runaway world by firm moral boundaries’ (215).

What the ambitious leaders are up to is often less edifying. ‘ZAOGA’s leaders aggressively seek to dominate the religious field. … Its supposed interdenominational organisations act as fronts for recruitment from other churches’ (220).

This is a very scholarly book on very complex developments, the result of many years of painstaking research. But it is a very readable book all the same which can be recommended to anyone in the pastoral field who would like to know what their boisterous Pentecostal neighbours are all about.

© The author/publisher