Debate Magazine

Deprivation & Despair: Consolations

By Cris

In the gut-wrenching tradition of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco traveled to America’s poorest places, areas that they characterize as hollowed-out “sacrifice zones,” and have written a book about it. As prelude to this excerpt , Hedges observes:

There comes a moment when the pain and despair of constantly running into a huge wall, of realizing that there is no way out of poverty, crush human beings. Those who best managed to resist and bring some order to their lives almost always turned to religion and in that faith many found the power to resist and even rebel.

On the Pine Ridge Lakota reservation in South Dakota, where our book Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt opens, and where the average male has a life expectancy of 48 years, the lowest in the western hemisphere outside of Haiti, those who endured the long night of oppression found solace in traditional sweat lodge rituals, the Lakota language and cosmology, and the powerful four-day Sun Dance which I attended, where dancers fast and make small flesh offerings.

In Camden, New Jersey, it was the power and cohesiveness of the African-American Church. In the coalfields of southern West Virginia, it was the fundamentalist and evangelical protestant churches, and in the produce fields of Florida, it was the Catholic mass.

As Hedges makes painfully clear, those who can’t hold on often fall long and hard into a swirling abyss of drugs and alcohol. All this should serve as a stark reminder to the loud-crowd that religion in all its varied guises and functions is not (and has never been) an unmitigated evil.

Hedges and Sacco’s portrait of despair and deprivation reminds me of a paper on African Pentecostalism that I wrote some years ago. In this section, I examined the explosive growth of Pentecostalism on the continent:

Against an African backdrop frequently characterized by poverty, famine, violence and disease, many scholars have explained the Pentecostal turn by relying on what Robbins (2004) calls the twin explanations of deprivation and disorganization. For Robbins, however, this explanation merely scratches the obvious surface of Pentecostalism’s larger appeal. In “The Globalization of Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity,” Robbins parses the varied and differing contexts in which Pentecostalism takes root and grows: “Appearing throughout the world in urban and rural areas, among emerging middle classes and, most spectacularly, among the poor, it has been deeply engaged by many populations that otherwise remain only peripherally or tenuously involved with other global cultural forms” (2004:118). This observation is puzzling to many, given that global Pentecostalism consistently displays “a radical similarity of practice” despite a “radical dissimilarity” of the contexts in which it appears (Lehmann 2003; 1996:8).

Deprivation explanations are, of course, important to any understanding of African Pentecostalism. For David Maxwell (1998), deprivation is the single most important factor in explaining Pentecostalism’s success in Africa.  The fact of deprivation causes him to focus on Pentecostalism’s prosperity gospel and its corollary, the “Spirit of Poverty.” Because Pentecostal doctrine spiritualizes everything that occurs on the world, explanations of poverty invariably become demonized: “Africans stay poor, not because of structural injustice, but because of a Spirit of Poverty. Misfortune is passed from generation to generation via demonic ancestral spirits” (Id. at 358). Maxwell concludes that “Spirit of Poverty teaching effectively makes sense of their economic insecurities” (Id. at 365).

Pentecostalism, however, does more than just make sense of poverty and deprivation – it provides a way of grappling with them, both literally and figuratively.  A major component of Pentecostal doctrine is the “binding” and “casting out” of demons. These spoken acts provide believers with a sense of agency and the illusion of control, regardless of actual results. This sense of agency, of course, speaks to the issue of power.  Such activity produces “a feeling of great potency amongst otherwise powerless people” (Maxwell 2005:23). If the macro-economic issue for Pentecostals is demonic, the micro-economic issue is personal.

There is no doubt that Pentecostalism engages individuals economically and exhorts them to take actions consistent with work, discipline, thrift, and accumulation. Nearly all of Birgit Meyer’s work deals with these issues. In her view, Pentecostal prosperity teaching coincides neatly with capitalist notions of virtue and ultimately with the larger project of neoliberalism.

Disorganization explanations for African Pentecostalism take on added significance within the context of deprivation and its converse, prosperity. Social anthropologists would immediately recognize the significance and importance of Pentecostal organization. Nearly all observers of African Pentecostalism take pains to emphasize the solidity and extent of its social networks and the constant support those networks provide. Once a person becomes “born again” he or she immediately becomes part of a local, national, transnational and even postnational community of redeemed believers.

Indeed, Pentecostals everywhere imagine the world dichotomously – there are those who are born again, guaranteed either the rewards of heaven or the benefits of rapture, and those who are not, guaranteed a place in hell or the agonies of being left behind. This creates a powerful sense of identity, which Ruth Marshall-Fratani contends is one of the more appealing aspects of Pentecostalism in an Africa grappling with “conflicting and often unmanageable situations of multiple identification” (1998:284). This identity, some argue, presents “a challenge to the state’s monopoly over the public sphere, and poses one of the greatest threats ever to its goal of national unity and ideologies of development” (Id. at 282).

The majority of African Pentecostals do not seem overly concerned about this issue, given that so many states have failed to deliver anything of substance.  Pentecostalism provides adherents not only with local support, but also with a global identity. It is Pentecostalism’s ability to mediate the local and global that Robbins finds so compelling. Although Pentecostalism unequivocally differentiates between life before conversion and life thereafter, it simultaneously demands a rejection of all that went before. In this sense, and almost paradoxically, it hybridizes local traditions and beliefs with its global doctrines and faith: “Pentecostalism’s most distinctive quality in comparison with other forces for cultural change [is] its tendency to preserve peoples’ beliefs concerning the reality and power of the spiritual worlds from which they have broken” (Robbins 2004:128).

Because Pentecostalism casts all events and happenings in spiritual terms, it “preserves these beliefs in the sense of accepting their cognitive claims concerning the existence of spiritual forces,” even as it rejects the normative suppositions underlying prior beliefs and practices (Id.). Pentecostalism, in other words, simply re-interprets everything preceding conversion through its peculiar spiritual lens. In this way, Pentecostalism creates a bridge with the past, with all its local flavor and variety, without jeopardizing its forward looking, globalizing projects.

If anyone would like the entire paper and bibliography for these citations, let me know and I’ll send it.

Deprivation & Despair: Consolations


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