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Monday, March 14, 2005

The First Shall Be Last, And The Last Shall Be First

9 After this I beheld, and, lo, a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues, stood before the throne, and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands;

10 And cried with a loud voice, saying, Salvation to our God which sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb.

11 And all the angels stood round about the throne, and about the elders and the four beasts, and fell before the throne on their faces, and worshipped God,

12 Saying, Amen: Blessing, and glory, and wisdom, and thanksgiving, and honour, and power, and might, be unto our God for ever and ever. Amen.

Revelation, 7:9-12

While much of the Western secular commentariat (including me) focuses on, dissects, and endlessly discusses Islam, its generational conflicts, its radical and liberal and orthodox forms, elsewhere, ignored, Christianity stirs anew:

The counterpart of populist Islam in the slums of Latin America and much of sub-Saharan Africa is Pentecostalism. Christianity, of course, is now, in its majority, a non-Western religion (two-thirds of its adherents live outside Europe and North America), and Pentecostalism is its most dynamic missionary in cities of poverty. Indeed the historical specificity of Pentecostalism is that it is the first major world religion to have grown up almost entirely in the soil of the modern urban slum. With roots in early ecstatic Methodism and African-American spirituality, Pentecostalism ‘awoke’ when the Holy Ghost gave the gift of tongues to participants in an interracial prayer marathon in a poor neighbourhood of Los Angeles (Azusa Street) in 1906. Unified around spirit baptism, miracle healing, charismata and a premillennial belief in a coming world war of capital and labour, early American Pentecostalism—as religious historians have repeatedly noted—originated as a ‘prophetic democracy’ whose rural and urban constituencies overlapped, respectively, with those of Populism and the IWW. Indeed, like Wobbly organizers, its early missionaries to Latin America and Africa ‘lived often in extreme poverty, going out with little or no money, seldom knowing where they would spend the night, or how they would get their next meal.’ They also yielded nothing to the IWW in their vehement denunciations of the injustices of industrial capitalism and its inevitable destruction.

Symptomatically, the first Brazilian congregation, in an anarchist working-class district of São Paulo, was founded by an Italian artisan immigrant who had exchanged Malatesta for the Spirit in Chicago. In South Africa and Rhodesia, Pentecostalism established its early footholds in the mining compounds and shanty towns; where, according to Jean Comaroff, ‘it seemed to accord with indigenous notions of pragmatic spirit forces and to redress the depersonalization and powerlessness of the urban labour experience.’ Conceding a larger role to women than other Christian churches and immensely supportive of abstinence and frugality, Pentecostalism—as R. Andrew Chesnut discovered in the baixadas of Belém—has always had a particular attraction to ‘the most immiserated stratum of the impoverished classes’: abandoned wives, widows and single mothers. Since 1970, and largely because of its appeal to slum women and its reputation for being colour-blind, it has been growing into what is arguably the largest self-organized movement of urban poor people on the planet.

Although recent claims of ‘over 533 million Pentecostal/charismatics in the world in 2002’ are probably hyperbole, there may well be half that number. It is generally agreed that 10 per cent of Latin America is Pentecostal (about 40 million people) and that the movement has been the single most important cultural response to explosive and traumatic urbanization. As Pentecostalism has globalized, of course, it has differentiated into distinct currents and sociologies. But if in Liberia, Mozambique and Guatemala, American-sponsored churches have been vectors of dictatorship and repression, and if some us congregations are now gentrified into the suburban mainstream of fundamentalism, the missionary tide of Pentecostalism in the Third World remains closer to the original millenarian spirit of Azusa Street. Above all, as Chesnut found in Brazil, ‘Pentecostalism . . . remains a religion of the informal periphery’ (and in Belém, in particular, ‘the poorest of the poor’). In Peru, where Pentecostalism is growing almost exponentially in the vast barriadas of Lima, Jefrey Gamarra contends that the growth of the sects and of the informal economy ‘are a consequence of and a response to each other’. Paul Freston adds that it ‘is the first autonomous mass religion in Latin America . . . Leaders may not be democratic, but they come from the same social class’.

In contrast to populist Islam, which emphasizes civilizational continuity and the trans-class solidarity of faith, Pentecostalism, in the tradition of its African-American origins, retains a fundamentally exilic identity. Although, like Islam in the slums, it efficiently correlates itself to the survival needs of the informal working class (organizing self-help networks for poor women; offering faith healing as para-medicine; providing recovery from alcoholism and addiction; insulating children from the temptations of the street; and so on), its ultimate premise is that the urban world is corrupt, injust and unreformable. Whether, as Jean Comaroff has argued in her book on African Zionist churches (many of which are now Pentecostal), this religion of ‘the marginalized in the shantytowns of neocolonial modernity’ is actually a ‘more radical’ resistance than ‘participation in formal politics or labour unions’, remains to be seen. But, with the Left still largely missing from the slum, the eschatology of Pentecostalism admirably refuses the inhuman destiny of the Third World city that Slums warns about. It also sanctifies those who, in every structural and existential sense, truly live in exile.

Over the last several centuries Europe has sent vast phalanxes of Christian missionaries out into the world, and their triumphant success has made Christianity the largest faith on the planet. Now the descendants of those who were brought into the fold are reconfiguring the faith to better fit their lives, with potentially enormous impact on the global future: (unfortunately only subscribers can access this)

If we look beyond the liberal West, we see that another Christian revolution, quite different from the one being called for in affluent American suburbs and upscale urban parishes, is already in progress. Worldwide, Christianity is actually moving toward supernaturalism and neo-orthodoxy, and in many ways toward the ancient world view expressed in the New Testament: a vision of Jesus as the embodiment of divine power, who overcomes the evil forces that inflict calamity and sickness upon the human race. In the global South (the areas that we often think of primarily as the Third World) huge and growing Christian populations—currently 480 million in Latin America, 360 million in Africa, and 313 million in Asia, compared with 260 million in North America—now make up what the Catholic scholar Walbert Buhlmann has called the Third Church, a form of Christianity as distinct as Protestantism or Orthodoxy, and one that is likely to become dominant in the faith. The revolution taking place in Africa, Asia, and Latin America is far more sweeping in its implications than any current shifts in North American religion, whether Catholic or Protestant. There is increasing tension between what one might call a liberal Northern Reformation and the surging Southern religious revolution, which one might equate with the Counter-Reformation, the internal Catholic reforms that took place at the same time as the Reformation—although in references to the past and the present the term "Counter-Reformation" misleadingly implies a simple reaction instead of a social and spiritual explosion. No matter what the terminology, however, an enormous rift seems inevitable.

Although Northern governments are still struggling to come to terms with the notion that Islam might provide a powerful and threatening supranational ideology, few seem to realize the potential political role of ascendant Southern Christianity. The religious rift between Northern and Southern Europe in the sixteenth century suggests just how dramatic the political consequences of a North-South divide in the contemporary Christian world might be. The Reformation led to nothing less than the creation of the modern European states and the international order we recognize today. For more than a century Europe was rent by sectarian wars between Protestants and Catholics, which by the 1680s had ended in stalemate. Out of this impasse, this failure to impose a monolithic religious order across the Continent, there arose such fundamental ideas of modern society as the state's obligation to tolerate minorities and the need to justify political authority without constantly invoking God and religion. The Enlightenment—and, indeed, Western modernity—could have occurred only as a consequence of the clash, military and ideological, between Protestants and Catholics.

Today across the global South a rising religious fervor is coinciding with declining autonomy for nation-states, making useful an analogy with the medieval concept of Christendom—the Res Publica Christiana—as an overarching source of unity and a focus of loyalty transcending mere kingdoms or empires. Kingdoms might last for only a century or two before being supplanted by new states or dynasties, but rational people knew that Christendom simply endured. The laws of individual nations lasted only as long as the nations themselves; Christendom offered a higher set of standards and mores that could claim to be universal. Christendom was a primary cultural reference, and it may well re-emerge as such in the Christian South—as a new transnational order in which political, social, and personal identities are defined chiefly by religious loyalties.

This ground shift is now returning to the lands from which the flame was originally carried into the world - where the fire and the passion have become so dim:

I first encountered the Eternal Sacred Order in eastern Nigeria, near the city of Port Harcourt, where the order was founded. Every Sunday large numbers of the faithful, dressed in long white seraphic robes, trooped down a path of beaten red earth through the lush undergrowth to a large church built of cinder block, where they sang and prayed lustily, forgetting for a while the insecurities of life in a country in which the police and soldiers hired out their weapons by the night to armed robbers, and where at least one of the Four Horsemen was never far off.

Two hundred yards, then, from the church where the religion of the English upper class genteelly sighs its last, an assembly of Nigerian immigrants (all from Rivers State in eastern Nigeria) don their robes (now satin), sing, and shout hallelujah. The air in the chapel is thick with incense and rent by urgent prayer. The police in England don't hire out their weaponry to armed robbers, at least not yet, but life is still full of insecurities for these immigrants. By no means welcomed with open arms by the local population, they find the climate cold, the cost of living unexpectedly high, and the moral dangers for their children manifold and pervasive.


The congregation is on its knees, facing in all directions, and unanimously utters a heartfelt amen, with some banging of heads on the ground for added emphasis. Then one of the women in the congregation—which is two-thirds female—comes forward and prays in distinctly biblical language, King James version, for the sick of the world, especially for Sister Okwepho, who is in the hospital with abdominal pain. She asks the Lord to guide the doctors and scientists who are trying to rid the world of diseases, and from thence she moves by natural progression to the Second Coming, when there will be no more suffering or abdominal pain, when there will be no more disease or hunger, no more injustice or war, no more unemployment or poverty, but only goodness, brotherhood, and contentment. Now the congregation is standing, its hands upraised, and it begins to sway rhythmically, eyes closed, already bathed in the bliss of a world without gray hostile skies, a suspicious immigration department, or temptations for adolescents to fall into the wrong company.

Where this is headed, I can't say. But it is so far off most people's radar that I think it's worth pointing it out.

|| RPH || 10:12 PM || |