Culture is an inter-generational repository and heritage or set of values, and an active shaping repertoire of meanings and images, embodied in values, myths and symbols that serve to unite a group of people with shared experiences and memories, and differentiate them from outsiders.
In this statement, Anthony Smith, taking an ethno-symbolic approach, presents an argument that explains the persistence of ethnonationalities. He argues that ethnonationality involves the co-existence of fluidity and resilience. It is dynamic and at the same time, a continuation of ancient ancestries and commonalities that transcends the present and thus is not reducible to its present manifestations. Smith’s ethno-symbolism is middle ground among the three approaches to nations and nationalism: modernism, neo-perennialism and postmodern constructivism. The modernist view holds that nations and nationalism are a product of modernization, resulting from an amalgamation of forces of urbanization, industrialization and secular education. They are thus the work of an elite culture, which also deliberately delineates and controls them. The neo-perennialists reject modernism, contending that some nations have existed long before the inception of the processes of modernity. Postmodern constructivists hold that nations are “ultimately a fiction engineered by elites using ‘invented traditions’ for purposes of social control” (Smith 2009, p. 11
). The strength of ethno-symbolism is in the ability to perceive value in the three schools of thought. This approach highlights the significance of ethnic groups, with their symbolic and cultural practices, as intricately linked with the formation of nations as human heritage (Smith 2009, p. 87
; Kaufman 2011, pp. 208–9
). Ethnonationalities are embodied in the myths, symbols and religio-cultural heritage (Hutchinson 2001, p. 76
(2006/1983, pp. 5–6
) asserts that the “nation” (not “state”) is an “imagined political community—and imagined as inherently limited and sovereign.” Llywelyn
(2010, p. 57
) premises her argument on that of Anderson, advancing nationality as a reality that is both fictive and objective; imagined and invented; and “the experience of feeling national identity remains partly ineffable, extending beyond the reach of human language and analysis.” Llywelyn
(2010, p. 281
) underlines that “nationality is one of those [methods] by which human beings construe meaning and purpose for their lives.” If this assertion is true, many so-called African nations are political states1
housing multi-ethno-nations, each centered on traditional leadership in line with customary law and practices as the physical manifestation of a religio-cultural national heritage. In other words, nationality is contextual in nature, that is to say, it arises and is shaped by specific historical exigencies, experiences, cultural imaginations and social contexts. It also means that models of nationality vary from ethnic group to ethnic group.
The forgoing raises a question of the relationship between religion, ethnonationalism, and state as an area of important theological and social-scientific interest for scholars of global Pentecostalism. This study examines how this relationship has unfolded within Zambian Pentecostalism. It investigates how African Pentecostal movements adopt, embody, and transform ethnonational imaginations via the particular case of Zambian Pentecostalism. In seeking to respond to these questions, the article utilizes an ontocratic political theory to analyze Zambian Pentecostal theology of nationality as a specific religious phenomenon.
2. Theory and Method: The Challenge of Ontocracy
The article is based on a wider project that sought to capture Zambian Pentecostal culture and identity that embodies its understanding of God’s mission in the context of national politics (Kaunda 2017a
). The data was gathered from 350 Pentecostal ministers, leaders, and ordinary people through a qualitative multidirectional approach that included face-to-face interviews, group discussions, surveys, emails, and blogs in Lusaka and Ndola from March 2016 to October 2017 (see Kaunda 2017a
The findings show that there are contestations within Pentecostal interpretations and engagements with nationality. On the one hand, there are some conservative Pentecostals, especially the elites who have rejected separation of the throne from the altar thereby promoting a political theology that uncritically integrates politics and religion in what Arend Theodoor Van Leeuwen
(1964, p. 165
) classifies as “ontocracy.” On the other hand, there are also voices of dissent arguing for a critical approach to politics by appreciating critical principles of a democratic society including advancing social justice and economic equality.
This article employs ontocracy theory to analyse Pentecostal theology of nationality (Bediako 1993
). It argues that the phenomenon of nationality has empirical implications because it is embedded within the faith communities’ ongoing participation in religiously informed political contexts in Africa. Ontocracy as political theory seeks to understand how religious communities use a religious frame of reference based on their particular faith tradition to interpret and legitimate political spheres as extensions of divine rule. It argues that religious traditions have well formulated notions of nationalities which are based on their beliefs and practices that are used to promote social control through specific values, norms, and ethics. The challenge is that such religious approaches do not separate between the religion and political realms but rather perceive them as an integrated system. Bediako
(2004, p. 102
) stresses that “by the close association of religious (sacred) authority and political power in the person of the traditional ruler, African traditional societies [are] ‘ontocracies’, sacralizing authority and power with the effectual integration of altar and throne” as demonstrated in the next section. Walls
(1976, p. 187
) believes that “Africa has avoided Christian ontocracies.” He wrote, “Most African states that were ontocratic before the arrival of Christianity and Western Europe influences; and, however when one assesses the impact of Christianity on African society, it can be argued that Christianity often provided a new worldview just when traditional worldviews were breaking down” (Walls 1976, p. 187
). Perhaps, this observation makes sense within mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic churches in Africa. As highlighted below, most of the Pentecostal churches seem to have not adequately navigated ontocracies, but rather have evolved new ontocracies. These ontocracies have been developed through uncritical synthesis of Western informed Christian faith and African religio-cultural national heritage.
Since nationality is an aspect of politics, scholars suggest empirical theology as a methodological approach. Jongeneel
) and Faix
) affirm that empirical research is a methodological foundation for desacralisation thinking as well. This approach focuses on how Pentecostalism interprets the phenomenon of nationality rather than on the views of specific congregations (Osmer 2008
). This means, if theology is critical reflection on religious praxis of the church and is contextual in character, and if historical and cultural context is a factor in experiencing and articulating the Christian faith, then, to understand the religious foundation of Zambian Pentecostal notions of nationality, we have to turn to the religio-cultural heritage that formed their notions of nationality. African religio-cultural heritage can reveal clues to help us understand the cultural psychology that is at work within Zambian Pentecostal theology of nationality.
3. African Concept of Nationality
I have classified the traditional notion of community as an ethnonational entity. This is in keeping with the matrilineal imagination of the Bemba-speaking people of Zambia, who regard themselves as belonging to Chitimukulu’s (The Big Tree/the title of the paramount king) kingdom (Bembaland). In contemporary Zambia, Bemba people are scattered across various provinces, but are mainly from the Northern, Muchinga and Luapula provinces. The Bemba notion of icalo
(singular—nation) relates to understandings of nationality, nation, nationhood, national identity, nationalism, ethnicity and ethnic identity. Icalo is a geopolitical-spiritual unit with fixed borders, and the name dates from antiquity (Richards 1940, p. 91
). In the local language, icalo is differentiated from umushi
(community). Icalo is comprised of ifyalo
(plural) or self-sustaining geopolitical-spiritual units, which are a replication of the icalo. Ifyalo
are decentralized governments, each governed by an infumu
(king). This form of governance could be described as an “implicit monarchy”—a kingdom in which other kings and kingdoms exist. These fractional kings and kingdoms derive their powers from both their localized ancestors and the paramount King. These diffused kings are almost an end in themselves, within their specific geopolitical-spiritual contexts. The paramount King has his own icalo, called Lubemba, in addition to being the overall King of the Bemba nation (Meebelo 1971
). Ifyalo are comprised of imishi
(communities) under the governance of mwine mushi
(a steward of the community). Ifyalo
are unionized in Chitimukulu, who sits on the original infuba
(shrine or altar) of the first ancestors who established icalo. Infuba is the ultimate spiritual power of the king. Icalo, ifyalo and imishi are all centered around the sacred relic shrines (babenye
)—hereditary relics of the past kings, their stools, spears, specific body parts (teeth, eyes, tongue, private parts, and nails) which are removed after their death and preserved at the ing’anda ya babenye
(the house of relics/altar). As the Bemba people would say, infuba elubemba lwine
(the altar is really the Bemba nation). The altar gives the Bemba people what could be classified as a national spiritual sovereignty. The nation is not neutral. It is spiritual in character and protected not so much by the natural as the spiritual realm.
Hence, the Ukusefya pa Ng’wena (celebrating on the crocodile) annual ceremony is the most sacred of Bemba ceremonies, in which Chitimukulu plays a dominant spiritual role. Not merely a celebration of the formation of the Bemba people and their nation, it is a period of renewal of the ancient covenant with the ancestors, including acts of sacrifice at kunfuba (sacred places) both within and outside the palace. These ceremonies are shrouded in secret rituals of consecration, purification and ukushilika icalo ne nfumu (fortification of the nation and the king). The prosperity and wellbeing of the nation and its people lie not in their abilities or hard work, but as it were in the mystical spheres of life. If the ancestors are not pleased, the people’s abilities and hard work might yield nothing. Ukusefya pa Ng’wena is viewed as restoring eco-relational balance, a symbolic way to advance towards the fullness of life for icalo. Thus, Ukusefya pa Ng’wena is also a ritual of repentance for the wrongs committed on the land over the previous year, and a quest to repair the breach in various segments of eco-relationality—between humanity and God (including, ancestors); humanity and environment; humanity and humanity.
The altar is significant in the Bemba worldview, with each ethnonation, each community, and each household (inhabited by a legitimately married couple) having its own altar. These altars could be regarded as diffused, because they are all subject to the ultimate altar of Chitimukulu—the ultimate source of life for the entire ethnonation. The altar is a court of law, and the seat of spiritual powers, political administration, policy formulation, and so on. It is the unionizing space of the whole community. It is at the altar where grievances between the king and the people, and among the people themselves, are all brought for the ancestors to arbitrate (Wilson 1959, p. 12
). National calamities and all forms of misfortune are brought before the altar, which is the soul of the kingdom. It is the breath and life force of the whole nation. They believe that if anything goes wrong with the altar, the whole nation suffers.
The king cannot function without the altar. The two are essentially intertwined. The king is an embodiment of the ancestors, whose presence is symbolized by the altar. The act of sitting on the ancestral stool (“seat of power”) brings the king into a mystical union with the ancestors (Geurts 2002
). It unites him/her with the ancestors in a mysterious way; such that the source of power of the ancestors is in his/her own body and personality, which he/she passes on to the people, their herds and fields, and the whole territory (Wilson 1971
; Oberg 1940
(2014, p. 38
) observes, “Kings are said to possess mystical, life-sustaining powers, with their own well-being intimately entwined with the well-being of their people, lands, and institutions.” Olupona adds, “For this reason, African kings are often the subject of extremely strict taboos that address how their person can be treated, predicated on indexical relationship between the body of the king and the body of the kingdom.” The welfare and prosperity of the body of the kingdom are intricately locked to the life-giving functioning of the body of the king. The king is a direct link to a spiritual source of life through the ancestors, and any calamities and natural disasters are mostly linked to his failure to please them. The people believe that the authority and power of the ancestors is embodied in the king, who acts as the unionization of religion and political power in his body and personality. The king is not like any other person; by his person and being, he is the kingdom in a mystical sense. As Mbiti
(1969, p. 178
) argues, rulers
… are not simply political heads: they are the mystical and religious heads, the divine symbol of their people’s health and welfare. The individual as such may not have outstanding talents or abilities, but their office is the link between human rule and spiritual government. They are therefore divine or sacral rulers, the shadow or reflection of God’s rule in the universe. People regard them as God’s earthly viceroys.
Fortes and Evans-Pritchard
(1940, p. 16
An African ruler is not to his people merely a person who can enforce his will on them. He is the axis of their political relations, the symbol of their unity and exclusiveness, and embodiment of their essential values. He is more than a secular ruler … his credentials are mystical and are derived from antiquity. Where there is no chief, the balanced segments which compose the political structure are vouched for by tradition and myth and their interrelations are guided by values expressed in mystical symbols.
Fortes and Evans-Pritchard
(1940, p. 18
) further argue, “the social system is, as it were, removed to a mystical plane, where it figures as a system of sacred values beyond criticism and revision.” While it is true that traditional authority was “removed to a mystical plane,” however, the system was not “beyond criticism and revision” as demonstrated in the next paragraph. Indeed, people could not criticize or revise the mystical powers of the ancestors, as embodied in the king. For in the person and body of king, the altar and the throne are mystically integrated. The king functioned as priest-prophet at the altar of the ancestors. He performed religious ceremonies and divination on behalf of the nation (Olupona 2014
; Gluckman 1940
). In this regard, Willoughby
(1928, p. 214
) observes that such rites “were designed as a ritual of intercession with spirits of the old chiefs, the tutelary gods of their tribes. Hence, the surviving successor of any given line of chiefs, who was born to share their divine prestige, is the only possible officiant.”
Yet, the myths that surround the origin and person of the rulers (such as taboos, superstitions, and prohibitions) suggest that Africans understand that “much danger is attributed to the exercise of power” (Mathuray 2009, p. 68
). As Mathuray
(2009, p. 68
) argues, it is “both a symbolic way of preventing abuse of power and a reflection of the humanistic bias of the religious order.” The king’s exercise of power is constrained with ancestral checks and balances within the religious moral system. In Bemba religious systems of thought, morality originates and flows from Lesa
(God, the ground of all beings and moral order) through the ancestors into the community and ecological order. “God is the initiator of the people’s way of life, its tradition” (Magesa 1997, p. 35
). The ancestors are custodians of morality, the reason for its establishment and its ultimate purpose. Thus, as Fortes and Evans-Pritchard
(1940, p. 19
) argue, the ritual functions of rulers are not merely a means to sanction political authority, but rather “serve, also, as a sanction against the abuse of political power and as a means of constraining political functionaries to perform their administrative obligations as well as their religious duties, lest the common good suffer injury.”
4. Pentecostal Ontocracies: The Material Legacies of African Religio-Political Past
How does the foregoing discussion relate to Zambian Pentecostal theology of nationality? It is important to highlight that African religions are not only religious imaginations but also worldviews. Harvey Sindima
(1989, p. 537
) defines the African worldview by stating, “The way people construe their world informs their self-understanding, relation to others, nature and God. In other words, a model of living arises out of a particular cosmological framework. The framework shapes the mind or informs knowledge and understanding.” As a way of life, the African religio-cultural worldviews lay the foundation for a collective African consciousness that continues (albeit in a modified form) to shape the understandings, interpretations and conceptions of reality. Thus, the worldview is “a construct about the makeup of life as it struggles with the questions of reality, truth, ethics and history. It is a construct that provides a point of departure, a sense of direction, a locus of destination, and a strategy of unity for human thought, life and action” (Fowler 2009, p. 8
). In contemporary African Christianity, the African religious imaginations function in the interstices between continuity and discontinuity with the notion of the spiritual and the physical reality as many scholars have observed (Maxwell 1999
; Meyer 1999
; Gifford 1998
; Gordon 2012
). We may describe the African religio-cultural worldviews as “the central control box” of cultures, as Kraft
(2005, p. 44
) argues, “a basic model of reality” that generates and determines the value systems of African people. This implies that many Africans are a product of African religio-cultures. While many have converted to new religious traditions, their worldviews remain unconverted (Mbiti 1993
). In other words, the key elements of a traditional African spirituality and worldviews are traceable in most African Christian imaginations (Dickson 1975
; Kibicho 1978
; Bediako 2004
Several other scholars have noted how African religio-cultural systems remain salient and resilient in shaping morality and politics in the modern public spaces (Kalu 2008
; Oduyoye 1993
; Dickson 1965
; Asamoah-Gyadu 2005
; Clark 2011
). It must, however, be acknowledged that the notions of African religio-cultural worldviews cannot easily be assigned to the entire Pentecostal movement. Rather, it is possible to identify general characteristics that influence and shape Pentecostal political theological perspectives (Taylor 2006
). One of the key motivations for the political engagement of Zambian Pentecostals is grounded in their theology of nationality, which appears to have an affinity with traditional African notions of nationality (as discussed above).
6. Concluding Analysis—Pentecostal Ontocratic Political Theology
The strong public presence of Pentecostalism in Zambia, with its ontocratic tendencies as mystical values that are attached to the presidential office, raises salient challenges for the promotion of democracy and democratization. The Zambian Pentecostal approach to politics makes the president very powerful, as his being and office are spiritualized through entwining the political with spiritual powers. In this way, the Pentecostal adaptation of the Africa religio-political ethical system has made the Zambian democracy and democratization process vulnerable to authoritarian annexation, as it allows political leaders to claim their credentials and legitimacy from mystical spheres rather than from the people who vote for them.
The process of making politicians spiritual brothers and sisters has resulted in politicians’ perceiving themselves as spiritual leaders who are beyond criticism and who could demand an authoritarian or a monarchical form of respect afforded to traditional leaders. One of the challenges of Pentecostal ontocracies is that they tend to demonize dissenting voices, especially those of opposition political parties. Bediako
(2005, p. 136
) argues that “the struggle for African democracy is also at least about the struggle for the legitimacy of dissent in African politics.” The theology of demonization of political dissent promotes the elimination of dissenting voices in politics—in essence, the prophetic tool that sharpens modern democratic systems. Those who resist the policies of the reign of government are perceived as enemies who must be silence or eliminated.
While in African religio-political systems of thought the fear of ancestors constrained the use of religio-political power, the Pentecostal notion of the Holy Spirit is not formulated with checks and balances which could bring a level of constraint to the use of political powers. The Pentecostals in Zambia have reinterpreted the ancestors in the frame of the Holy Spirit. This has resulted in what could be described as ancestro-pneumatology—a pneumatology that, at least at the political level, functions in much the same way as ancestors did in the traditional system. The Holy Spirit is conceived of as the source of political (God’s) power, which embodies the political leader in order to rule the nation. It is evident that the thought of fortification, struggle against evil forces and demons, is prominent in ancestro-pneumatology.
To overcome ontocracies, there is a need for desacralisation of politics without de-spiritualization, as Bediako
) insistently argues. He is not proposing a normative desacralisation theory in which religious imaginations are removed from or reduced in their influence in political realms. Rather, he advocates a process of reconfiguration of powers in which various powers that have direct effect on human communities, including supernatural powers, are relocated within the realm that promotes full accountability to humanity. Thus, Bediako’s desacralisation affirms the continuation of the African world as a spiritually animated reality but functioning with configured powers in which all the various forms of human leadership have a more direct accountability to the people they affect. For Bediako, desacralisation is based on the incarnation of Jesus, which reflects a decisive encounter between God and creation in which radical accountability resulted in justice and equality for all involved parties. Therefore, desacralisation of the political realm is critical for subverting dictatorial and absolutist claims that seem to be inherent in contemporary African politics and religious institutions (Bediako 1995, p. 2004