In the Name of God … the commoditization of faith
Many African Christian leaders [This is part of an extensive research essay by Zalanga from his base in the United States titled ‘Nigeria and the Political Economy of Backwardness: Contemporary Christianity in Africa and Nigeria (2)’. Click here to read the entire piece] treat liberation theology which stated in Latin America after the Second Vatican Council Reform as an anathema. Indeed, many Protestant churches treat the Catholic Church as not a true representation of Christianity. Yet, few Protestant denominations (e.g., Anabaptists) have a long tradition of teaching on social justice as part of their theological teaching as the Catholic Church has through its social teachings.
Most Protestant churches in Africa came into existence after the reformation in Europe but Protestant African Christianity is just like pre-reformation Christianity in terms of its structure and how it treats the laity – very hierarchical. Protestants at one point attacked the Catholic Church on the question of hierarchy but they are as hierarchical, if not more, compared to Catholic Church in this respect. Some leaders of Protestant churches are more difficult to reach compared to when Jesus was living and traveling across Palestine. At least we know from records that an ordinary woman was able to come close to him and touch his garment after which she received healing. Some denominational leaders have security guards. Jesus, however, rebuked his disciples when they were chasing people from coming close to him.
BInterestingly, across Africa, the Catholic Bishops have demonstrated more courage in confronting dictatorial and authoritarian governments than many other Protestant denominations who are rushing to be recognized by people in office. Forget about the “priesthood of all believers.” It is just a bait and switch gimmick for many Protestant denominations. At least even in Germany the Pietistic movement was a reaction to the attempt by Lutheranism to condone social estates in the Church — what Luther originally seemed to have fought against. Some of the promises made by Pentecostal ministers in Nigeria are more terrible than Johann Tetzel’s campaign for the sell of indulgences in Germany in the 16th century which Martin Luther reacted against. Tetzel said that as you dropped the coin of purchase, a soul in purgatory moves out of suffering. Today, many Pentecostal ministers in the U.S., Africa, and Latin America do something that is functionally equivalent and as sleazy as what Johann Tetzel did, if not more.
Moreover, the lifestyle of many Pentecostal ministers who have private jets is the functional equivalent of the life of the Renaissance Popes. Christianity among the great majority of denominations in Nigeria and Africa has become domesticated and bourgoeoisified. Its egalitarian principles have been siphoned out of it. The message of Christ has been repackaged to fit the demands of neoliberal consumer capitalism. The surprising thing is how the ministers and their followers are gullible enough to believe that such “down-sizing” of the broad and deep meaning of Christianity is correct. They have learned little or nothing from Church history and the mistakes of the past. Material wealth has become the best indicator of one’s position in Christ.
Many Pentecostal churches have unwittingly developed common cause with neoliberal capitalism and they have become the best legitimizers and sanctifiers of greed as the new secular religion of humanity under neoliberal hegemony. Yet, in medieval Christianity, greed was one of the seven deadly sins (see for example Dante’s “The Divine Comedy”). Today, the same greed is reframed as God’s material blessings. In strict Christian social ethics, we do not need more than what we reasonably need to live a decent life. But by legitimizing greed, there is no upper limit to what decent life is. This is one of the greatest distortions of Christian social ethics since the reformation. This kind of theology in African and other parts of the world put Christians on an escalator of material consumption that has no end or upper limit since literally all the riches of the world are claimed by such Christians because they are children of God. It is a very egocentric spiritual constitution of the human self.
Part of the resistance to liberation theology is that most Church leaders in Africa who were trained in the West or beholden to Western denominations do not have the courage to stand up to Western theological hegemony, and Western church authorities who believe that they are the only legitimate authorities qualified to confer legitimacy to new theological thinking rooted in the existential experience and challenges of people in the Global South. One must quickly admit that there are many Western Church leaders and theologians who recognize this problem and sympathize with the struggle of Third World Christians in this respect, but they are constrained and are a minority.
So also, in Africa, and Nigeria, we do have people who recognize this problem and given the freedom they would spearhead a movement to rectify the problem, but they are a minority and often perceived as trouble makers or heretics. One must also clarify that asserting this does not mean that African or Nigerian Christianity has nothing to learn from the Western experience. On the contrary, this will be wrong. There is much that African Christianity can learn from Church history in the West, and there is much that Western Christianity can learn from the Christianity of the Global South. What I am referring to is a new reconfiguration of relationship in the Christian world. I do not have space here to pursue the issue further.
Western domination of the non-Western world is not just economic but also ideological and theological. There is in this respect a division of labor: Westerners will produce knowledge about God or Divinity and non-Westerners will either constitute “raw material” for the theology or be “consumers” of the theology produced in the West. The Western world has the role of “manufacturing” the theology or producing the “product” and then “exporting” it. They are presumably “gifted with the capacity to think and reflect.” The role of Third World people is to consume. They presumably lack the capacity to think and reflect. They are “children” in their thinking. Interestingly, many Church leaders in Africa accept this dubious arrangement that has no biblical foundation. The point is not that there is nothing of value or that could be learned by Third World people form Western theology, but this cannot happen without historical, cultural and social contextualization. Africans like any group of people have the right and the capacity to reflect and develop their own theology and if they do so, it should not be treated as inferior because it is not Western.
Western experience or thinking is not universal. They were inspired by some of the democratizing elements of Vatican II Council. They combined Catholic Social Teaching with some relevant elements of Marxist framework of the analysis of social structure and social class, the life of Christ in the gospels and the existential experience and challenges of their lives. Latin America has one of the highest social inequalities because of the legacy of Spanish colonial rule on areas such as land distribution and race relations. Yet, orthodox Catholic theology after several hundred years has done little to challenge or delegitimize such structures of injustice and oppression in Latin America. Catholic theology condoned the situation in the past.
The reader should not rush to conclude that Marx is incompatible with Christianity because he was an atheist. Actually Marx’s philosophy of history and eschatology is a secular application of the Christian vision of humanity from creation, innocence, the fall, the struggle, and redemption at the end. Hunter gatherer society for Marx was like the state of creation and of relative innocence. Slavery marked the fall of humanity, and the consequence of that fall extends through feudalism and capitalism. But oppression under capitalism is not the end of life for humanity. There is hope. The revolution will bring social redemption. This vision of history even though secular is more Christian than the philosophy of Ancient Greece in terms of their vision of history.
What many Christians do not know is that theology in the Western world which was later introduced to Africa is the application of the conceptual categories of ancient Greek philosophy to understand God or Divinity. But there is nothing biblical about the idea that one can only understand God through the conceptual lens or categories of the ancient Greeks. Note also that ancient Greek thinking / philosophy is pagan, and not Christian. To insist on understanding Divinity or God through ancient Greek conceptual categories only is to endogenize cultural imperialism in the heart of Christianity. It also amounts to converting a historical fact into a historical necessity. It is a historical fact that Christian theology in the West was significantly built on the pagan thought of ancient Greek philosophers and the social structure of the Greeks (e.g., attitudes towards slavery and women). But to take an inferential leap from there and say this is the only way people can approach or understand God or Divinity is to convert a historical fact into a necessity. There is no basis for that.
Thomas Aquinas and Catholic theology was fundamentally shaped by the work of pagan philosopher Aristotle; while Protestant theology owes significantly to the work of Saint Augustine, who was in turn fundamentally shaped by Neo-Platonist philosophy which can be traced back to Plato, another pagan Greek philosopher.
If theology, which, is an integral part of contemporary Christianity is rooted in the pagan thought of Ancient Greeks which is used to understand God and Church doctrine that many Christians in Africa take for granted, then what grounds do Church leaders in Africa have to quickly dismiss the appropriation of insights from Marx’s ideas by Liberation Theologians, while they continue to use pagan logic of reasoning to make the case for understanding God and Christ?
If pagan thought can be used or consecrated as heralding the gospel without making Christians become pagan because they use it, why can’t Marxist framework of social analysis be consecrated and used by Liberation Theologians? The choice ultimately boils down to using ideas or conceptual categories derived from some pagan thinkers or a person who is an atheist but accepted Christian philosophy of history. Moreover, Marx’s also borrowed some ideas from Ancient Greek thinking, since he was influenced by Hegel and Hegel in turn was influenced by Plato. The issue is far more complicated than most African Christians would want to admit. Understanding this should not undermine their faith but open up greater opportunity for authentic Christian expression that is not beholden to Western cultural dictates.
I do not have the space here to explain the elements of Liberation Theology, i.e., what distinguishes it from the bourgeoisified and domesticated Christianity that is mistaken for the egalitarian and subversive message of Christ in the context of Roman imperialism in Palestine during the time of Christ. But anyone truly interested in that can contact me privately. Note also that the Western world reacted vigorously (both the Vatican and Protestants) against Liberation Theology because during the cold war era, it provided an inspiration to Leftist governments in Latin America, and presumably, for some naïve and gullible Christians, capitalism is of God, Christ died for it, while communism is for Satan.
This kind of understanding is clearly rooted in a lack of thorough grasp of modernity since capitalism, communism, and socialism are rooted in enlightenment thinking. They all believe they have discovered universal rules for running human society that are based on reason and “scientific principles” that apply irrespective of the power of DIVINITY. The only problem is they discovered different universal laws or principles. So the debate between capitalism and communism is functionally equivalent to a quarrel between two people who claim their flavor of ice cream is fundamentally unique and superior (i.e., vanilla or strawberry). In reality, both ice creams were produced using the same raw material; it was only made different by flavoring. With the current economic crisis and moral quagmire under neoliberal market fundamentalism, we know that capitalism is as well a problem as communism.
I hope that African Christians will develop the courage to think deeply and develop a theology that while rooted in their existential realities and challenges as Africans, feels free to borrow from other Christian experiences in the world. They should not be intimidated by Western dominance. They must be prepared to be deep thinkers in humility and inspired by the teachings of Christ. Religion is a fundamental realm of human consciousness and the foundation of the worldview and culture of a people. Anyone who controls that also controls a people’s worldview and their culture. Most Western Christian denominations would not want to see Africans develop their own alternative foundation of theological reasoning because the cultural implications of that is phenomenal in terms of continued Western domination, and the spiritual puppets in Africa who just assume Western Christianity in the normative standard for all Christianity.
Conclusion: In the political economy of backwardness (1), I focused on the analysis of Islam in Northern Nigeria and how compared to Malaysia, Islam in Northern Nigeria is less prepared to deal with the complexities of the modern world. I made it clear that Malaysia is not free from her own challenges but that Muslim country has fared better than Northern Nigeria. The Northern Nigerian elites are afraid of promoting and embracing desirable and egalitarian change because it would either sweep them away or diminish their privileges. Often religion is used to justify the status quo even though it could be used to promote desirable change. We cannot continue to use Scripture as defense. We have to examine the human beings and institutions that mediate our experience with the Scriptures.
In this installment of the political economy of backwardness, I have demonstrated how Christianity is characterized by the same situation in many respects as I did with Islam in Northern Nigeria. The theological discourses and approaches to Christian practices are somewhat like pre-reformation Christianity. Many elites of the churches or denominations are more interested in maintaining the status quo rather than promoting social transformation. Many of the social problems in the broader Nigerian society are reproduced in the Church which affects the capacity of many church leaders to play a prophetic role in society. They are afraid of change through empowering the laity. They are very hierarchical when even in the managerial literature the idea of “learning organization” has been introduced as a way of reducing hierarchy in organizations so that the organization can be more responsive to its clients and employees. There has been little or no such kind of creativity in many church denominations in Nigeria. Things remain the same for decades.
Given the pervasive influence of religion in the Nigerian society, the country runs the risk of stagnating forever because most of the human beings and institutions mediating the practice and experience of the religions have contaminated and vitiated whatever ideals are in the Holy Scriptures of the religions. The reader may not be happy with my observations and conclusion but instead of being angry at me, I encourage the reader to challenge himself or herself to do an investigation of the empirical validity of my observations. Look at the past history of the two religions, their expansion and their track record in “transforming” Nigerian society through their social ethics. Has there been improvement or not?
Indeed, as Nigerians are becoming more religious, they are developing greater capacity to dehumanize each other and commit atrocious acts against fellow citizens as expressed through religious violence and bureaucratic violence as manifested by acts of omission or commission. How many people in your village or town question the integrity of their sons or daughters who use money earned through corruption to build expensive houses, live extravagant lifestyle, support large number of sycophants, or buy political influence? How many times has your church or religion condemned prejudice and hate? How many times did your Church or religion make you feel that you deserve or own the whole world because of your faith, to the detriment of others? All these are in some respects idolatry in the name of religion because your religion encourages you to ignore all of diverse creation and just focus on yourself. It may serve some therapeutic purpose if you need some reinforcement, but as Rhinehold Niebuhr argues, when humans constitute themselves into the center of the universe equating their beliefs and everything about them with the Almighty God, that is IDOLATRY.
Just see yourself as a mortal being trying to understand the Divine and in doing so you will be constrained by your culture and social location. I know you will find this difficult to imagine and accept the implication. But just imagine you were born and raised in a Hindu family in the state of Kerala in India, or the house of an Orthodox Rabbi in Tel Aviv. What is likely to be your religion if you were raised in such an environment? Often people keep the faith of their parents because they are socialized to believe when they have nothing in their minds to help them decipher what is happening. Moreover when they convert to another religion, although all religions have a theology of conversion, they would find it illuminating to look at the social science literature on conversion. If they did so, they would come to realize that conversion to another religion is not a random event. There is an underlying pattern to it.
In both religions, we need great thinkers who can help us through this mess with humility, sincerity and spiritual guidance. Do not assume that I presume modernity is a panacea to our problems. Religion is a necessary part of the human experience. Even if one does not believe in the Islamic or Christian faiths, he or she will still have a source of ultimate meaning in existence and life, which is what religions try to answer. We cannot ignore modernity but we should not also just succumb to its false promises. Reason, science and rationality can play meaningful role when combined with religion in social transformation in so far as science, reason or rationality are not trying to constitute themselves into some kind of idolatry or idolatrous practice. If they are guided by religious ethics, they can serve humanity well.
But if religion will play such an important role, then religion has to prove through its institutions, leaders and believers that it has what it takes to transcend science, reason, and rationality to justify the role of providing supervisory role. This suggests that we need not only men and women of integrity, deep spiritual sensibility, calling, and humility in charge of our religious institutions. Also, we need some of the best minds in the country in this area. In many denominations, ministerial work is what people pursue as a last resort. Whether one is religious or not, if he or she is interested in the social transformation of life in Africa for the better, they cannot ignore the importance of faith and religion in people’s lives.
For religious leaders who are working hard to live out the values of their faith and have the spiritual and material welfare of the least members of their congregations at heart, they can be rest assured that their dedication is not in vain. Similarly, for those that have been marginalized, demoted or disgraced because of their courage to question their superiors, your courage is not in vain. You represent the best spirit of integrity. For those religious leaders that use religion to oppress the masses, promote malice among the people, enrich or aggrandize themselves at the expenses of the poor believers, the blood of the suffering people is on your heads because your have jettisoned your prophetic role. The people of Nigeria deserve better. In the next five weeks, I will focus on other major issues that are central to explaining Nigeria’s political economy of backwardness.
Dr Samuel Zalanga is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Bethel University in St. Paul, Minnesota; where he also teaches graduate courses in Master of Arts programs in Organizational Leadership and Gerontology. Zalanga received his B.A. And M.A. Degrees in Sociology from Bayero University, and the University of Jos, respectively, in Northern Nigeria. He completed his Ph.D.in Sociology at the University of Minnesota. Dr. Zalanga lived in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia while engaged in research for his dissertation, He has published numerous articles in scholarly periodicals, and is a frequent presenter at professional conferences. He is the Associate Editor of the African sections of the Journal of Third World Studies (JTWS) at Bethel University. He writes for Baobab – Africa People & Economy magazine as a social analyst and member of the Editorial Think Tank. Here can be reached privately firstname.lastname@example.org