Neopentecostals and witch hunts
Attitudes to witch hunting seem to be changing in African independent churches.
The old Zionists generally had a more humane attitude to people suspected of witchcraft and sorcery (see my article on Christian responses to witchcraft and sorcery) but the Neopentecostals seem to be displaying similar behaviour to that seen during the Great Witch Hunt in early modern Europe.
Pastor Joe Ita is the preacher at Liberty Gospel Church in nearby Eket. ‘We base our faith on the Bible, we are led by the holy spirit and we have a programme of exposing false religion and sorcery.’ Soft of voice and in his smart suit and tie, his church is being painted and he apologises for having to sit outside near his shiny new Audi to talk. There are nearly 60 branches of Liberty Gospel across the Niger Delta. It was started by a local woman, mother-of-two Helen Ukpabio, whose luxurious house and expensive white Humvee are much admired in the city of Calabar where she now lives. Many people in this area credit the popular evangelical DVDs she produces and stars in with helping to spread the child witch belief.
I’ve blogged about this before, but my initial impression is being confirmed by reports like these. Zionists are basically premodern. They worship wearing robes, and in their worship they beat cowhide drums. The Neopentecostals come with expensive sound systems, wearing suits and ties (the males, anyway). In Africa they seem to represent modernity, and so tend to reinforce (in my mind) the link between witch hunts and modernity.
A couple of days ago I was talking to Greg Cuthbertson, a South African historian, and Inus Daneel (a missiologist and AIC researcher) and they confirmed this impression from their own research and observations. I’ve been asked to take part in a couple of TV programmes recently, and in both of them concern was been expressed that people are leaving the traditional AICs and moving to the Neopentecostals. I’m not sure that that is correct, as I believe the Neopentecostals and Zionists (in South Africa) appeal to different constituencies, though as modernity takes root in Africa I believe the constituency of the Neopentecostals will grow, while that of the Zionists will shrink.
Greg Cuthbertson referred to a report from the Centre for Development and Enterprise, Under the radar: Pentecostalism in South Africa and its potential social and economic role, which referred to the role of the Pentecostal churches in promoting modernity.
This project has revealed a world of activity, energy, and entrepreneurship previously unknown to this otherwise well-informed South African think-tank. Flying under the radar screens of politicians, intellectuals, academics, and journalists are a large number of institutions and individuals that are actively concerned about and working on questions of values and personal behaviour. These concerns include family life, personal responsibility, unemployment, skills creation, and a range of other national concerns.
The last sentence could apply to many non-Pentecostal Christian groups as well. Greg Cuthbertson was somewhat sceptical about the report, saying that they tended to lump all kinds of things together under the general label of “Pentecostalism”, and did not understand hoe Christian denominations worked. But I believe the general link between Neopentecostalism and modernity is there.