In Africa’s new charismatic Christianity (what I previously referred to as contemporary Pentecostalism) prosperity in both its spiritual and material senses remains a major theme. This Christianity shares the supernatural worldview associated with traditional religion in which evil powers are held responsible for the problems that people face in life, including the failure to prosper materially.
This much has been clear in several earlier articles in this series including those posted by my Ghanaian colleague, Apostle Dr. Opoku Onyinah. The denomination that he leads as Chairman, the Church of Pentecost, has in response to demands for diagnosis, healing, exorcism, and deliverance established or in some cases adopted many Healing Camps in Ghana devoted to those concerns. Many other Healing Camps are also under the management of independent pastors and prophets who are not under any denominational control. Visitors to these Healing Camps (as they are popularly called across sub-Saharan Africa) come from across denominations. A significant number of their clientele come from abroad. Africans struggling with illnesses, unemployment, marital breakdowns, or needing the requisite documentation to regularize their stays abroad often come down to consult the custodians of these camps for prophetic prayers and breakthroughs. Additionally those nursing the hope of traveling abroad also visit these camps and other prophets operating as church leaders or itinerant religious functionaries specializing in “breakthrough prayers” for solutions to their problems.
What these clients and their religious helpers have in common is the belief that supernatural powers, with witchcraft as the single most suspect, are the cause of their problems. Europe has developed as a fortress against immigrants, but the desperation to travel abroad has not ceased because those wanting to go do not believe the stories of hardships that their friends and family members relay to them. “If the place is as difficult as you claim, why are you still there?” is a very popular question posed to those who try to discourage international travel of a certain kind. The hundreds, if not thousands, who risk their lives on the Mediterranean and who continue to embark on those journeys in spite of the frightening drowning statistics must be enough for the world to ask about what may be going on. We have not paid enough attention to the constant harping on the theme of material prosperity and its direct relationship with international travel in the hermeneutics of contemporary Pentecostals. Traveling abroad or living there has become an important indicator of God’s favor. You will struggle to find a senior pastor of a charismatic church in Africa today who has not either flown his wife to give birth in the USA or sent his children to study somewhere in Europe or North America.
A Suspect Hermeneutics
There is nothing wrong with having the resources to give one’s family a better life through international exposure. What is troubling is that we have developed a suspect hermeneutics that leaves church members feeling that to remain local is to be cursed. Pastors frequently refer to their international travels, often going first or business class as a sign of God’s favor upon their lives. London, Hamburg, Amsterdam, and New York frequently feature in sermons as places where God is promoting people to go and live. In many churches it has become constant practice to invite those traveling during the week to come to the “altar” for special anointed prayers for safe journey. Of course, Christians have to pray without ceasing, and that includes bringing our daily endeavors, including our travels, to God in prayer. What we must recognize here, though, is the veiled presuppositions underlying these interventions, that is, the fear of witches interfering with travel and other arrangements. International travel has been glorified beyond limits, and the material things that the “been to” often show off—gold wristwatches, fashionable shoes and clothing, and for the women new wigs and things of that nature—have a great appeal for African young men and women who are desperate to be icons of prosperity.
“You must smell of success” is a favorite line in many Diaspora discourses, and going abroad is one way to make this possible. Pastors do not shy from telling members this. I have told the story many times: at one big prayer service in Ghana a prophet claimed to see angels distributing British Airways and KLM tickets. The scramble for these imaginary tickets as people jumped to grab them was a spectacle to behold. Prayers over and anointing of passports for prospective visa applicants is a common feature in the type of situation I am trying to describe here. At one prayer service at which I was present, a pastor holding open the visa page of one who had been granted a five-year multiple entry visa to the USA moved from row to row in the church telling people “Jesus can do it for you too.” In effect we now have a whole Christology around international travel with visas as the main prayer topic in these endeavors. Those looking for these favors cannot always be blamed for wanting to travel; preachers make it look important, and, as I have noted, international travel is a sign of divine prosperity in this new hermeneutics of prosperity.
“Why do Africans pray for visas so much?” a European colleague asked me once. I explained that even at my level, with all the international travel I have done, I still go through a lot in the search for visas. “Sometimes I cannot believe the sort of documentation required,” I continued. “What do you think happens to those who do not have the sort of experience and resources I have at the various embassies?” People seek divine intervention for visas and documentation to work abroad because they literally have their backs to the wall. One lady in Accra Capital of Ghana. without formal education was supposed to pass an examination in German before she could process her papers to join her husband in Germany. She was virtually getting depressed by the situation and so was looking for a powerful prophetic intervention in her case. These hopes and aspirations are not helped by the testimonies of those who have succeeded in getting what they want and who promote particular pastors and prophets as having the requisite anointing to help them. In Ghana and Nigeria Christian television is full of these testimonies.
A Spirit of Fear and Panic Affects the Weak
Whether they live abroad and struggling or live in Africa with aspirations to travel, and whether their problems can be analyzed rationally or not, the nature of the prayers believed to help in these matters presupposes for Africans that there are evil powers that make them difficult. The fallout of these things is the witchcraft accusations leveled against children, mothers, mothers-in-law, and other relations who are believed to be using witchcraft against their own kith and kin. The desperation for breakthroughs has everything to do with the ritual killing of albinos in East Africa and other parts of the continent.
The worldview of witchcraft as the source of African existential problems has not dissipated with technology and development. The reason is simple. We live constantly in the presence of supernatural realities. They continue to be perpetuated not just by churches but stories and personal testimonies, some of which are carried by African “video films.” Low-budget, direct-to-video, independent films. Read more here. Witchcraft, occult money, and their associated evils, I dare say, are the most important topics in the African video film story lines. Story lines tell of witches visiting their relations abroad traveling on spiritual aircrafts and getting them deported. They kill their children or ruin their business plans. They visit the dreams of the prosperous and bring happy marriages to ruin through barrenness and impotence. If you live abroad and your life does not go well, you can see from the video films that it is witches who cause these things. People are fighting back and they are doing so through religious rituals, Christian prayers, or sometimes a combination of resources to achieve the ends they seek. Today not only are charismatic pastors invited to perform exorcism services but traditional priests such as Ghana’s “Kwaku Bonsam”A famous witch doctor/traditional priest/”spiritualist” who also runs a school and has a web presence. are also sought after for the same purposes.
Life in the modern Diaspora can be a difficult if not a dangerous place even without witchcraft beliefs. The current problems of Greece, for instance, will hit African immigrants very hard. What witchcraft stories have done is to heighten fear, insecurity, and anxiety, leading people to look for solutions from a multiplicity of religious resources. It raises questions regarding the sort of Christian messages that are purveyed by ministers visiting Diaspora members and the sorts of media representations that are available to these people.
There is no gainsaying the fact that supernatural evil is real—Jesus spent a considerable part of his ministry dealing with its effects on the lives of people. And the Pentecostal/charismatic movement has contributed greatly to the discourse on evil and how to deal with it in the power of the Spirit. That said, we require a dispassionate and sober reflection on God’s word on how not to promote a spirit of fear and panic based on witchcraft beliefs and unverifiable stories that seem to make the devil even more important than the Christ who died and rose in victory and into whose hands the keys of death and Hades were delivered by God!
“And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.” (Colossians 2:15)