Last week we saw something of the character of prosperity gospel in Africa as described by David Ogungbile in his chapter in Pentecostal Theology in Africa. In his view though, it is not talk of prosperity which is the problem, but how it is used. He laments its individualistic wealth focus when it could instead be appropriated to ‘focus on transformation, restoration and empowerment.’ Indeed, he points to a sub-group of Pentecostals who recognise:
the terrible effects that poverty has inflicted on the masses by the failure of the State through bad governance and economic mismanagement. They provide opportunities to train interested individuals in entrepreneurship and business ventures. They engage their members in skill development and investment possibilities. They also assist their members in securing gainful employment. They establish institutions, not only for their members, but for other willing citizens and other nationals.
We’ve encountered a couple of Pentecostal churches like this and a stack of Pentecostals like this. From what I understand, Pentecostals are more like this is urban Tanzania than in villages, which may account for our experience.
In his chapter on hemerneutics, Gallegos echoes Ogungbile’s sentiments:
Another critique could be the emphasis on personal prosperity and the comparative neglect of elaborating a holistic and African Pentecostal hermeneutic that seeks justice and solutions to the horrific social ills plaguing African society (i.e. HIV/AIDS, poverty, corruption, etc.). What is needed to face these challenges is a clear, relevant and life-giving response to the salient issues facing African societies.
Clarke suggests that the failure to do may find its roots in western thought, even though he rejects the notion that prosperity gospel is a western import:
While I agree with Kalu that the prosperity motif in African Pentecostalism is not an imitation of the North American brand, I also think that their relationship is far more nuanced than Kalu’s African indigenous position might suggest. In very much the same way that post-colonial African leaders exploited politics as a means to amass personal wealth and power under the guise of African self-determinism… many African Pentecostal preachers have embraced Western capitalist ideology for self-interest and personal gain. The challenge then becomes how to affirm the African cultural idiom of prosperity while exorcising what Magesa calls the “anti-life forces” of individual greed and exploitation.
Most devastating for me as a westerner were these comments of Clarke’s because they force me to examine myself and how the ease with which I critique prosperity gospel may lie in my own prosperity:
Jesus is victorious over the spiritual realm, particularly over evil forces that bring misfortune, sickness and death. This over-emphasis on triumphant Christianity is often pointed out by Western Christian scholars who argue that Jesus as the suffering servant is very seldom mentioned. However, African people personify what it means to be crucified through years of enslavement, colonisation and exploitation. The suffering Christ therefore is one whom they know personally and not merely through constructive theology.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.