The New Religious Movement in Africa continues to define and redefine traditional Christian practices through its various methods of prayer and worship. The new movement adheres to beliefs and practices that are not in line with orthodoxy within a particular society and time. Among these methods, spirit possession — a belief that extraterrestrials take control of the human body — leads the chart.
This new movement is taking place across Christian traditions; a significant number of Catholics have also joined the spirit bandwagon. Adherents see spirits, most often malevolent ones, everywhere as ever ready to proclaim a divine message, some form of vision, to a willing listener. Even some priests as well as religious are caught up in this spirit frenzy.
It is difficult to pinpoint the reason for these new forms of religious faith expression sweeping across the African continent. In Nigeria, for example, there is a "church" and/or a prayer ministry or a prayer house, depending on the nomenclature the pastor or priest chooses, at almost every street corner in towns and cities throughout the land. The motivation for membership varies; some persons go to these places because they are disillusioned with the mainline Christian churches, others go out of fear of the unknown, insecurity, poverty or the promise of prosperity and better social standing. These ideas did not mushroom overnight. Christian evangelization, inadvertently, played a major role in this turn of events, but we leave that discussion for another day. Suffice to say that Christian missionary evangelization in Africa appeared to have ignored the established religious traditions, and vestiges of these in Christianity becomes part of the contemporary dilemma.
We may credit the New Religious Movement with the current trend of spirit-chasing, forms of worship that are aimed at getting rid of malevolent spirits. But I agree with African scholars of religion that the seed of the movement was sown more than 300 years ago in the Kongo (The kingdom of Kongo in that era comprised a much wider territory than the present Congo) by Kimpa Vita (c1684-1706).
Kimpa Vita, baptized Beatrice, is one of the most known religious figures in modern Africa. In an earlier work — Handmaid: The Power of Names in Theology and Society — I discussed Dona Beatrice, a young woman of noble ancestry, who has been identified as a precursor of the prophetic figure of African Independent Churches. Kimpa Vita, who claimed she was possessed by the spirit of St. Anthony of Padua, formed a socioreligious group, an African movement inspired by biblical teaching. Her movement was a blend of Christianity and African religious traditions, a form of syncretism that enjoyed strong support from many peasants of her day.
The Anthonian movement she founded, however, was declared heretical. Instigated by the Italian Capuchin missionaries in the Kongo, Beatrice Kimpa Vita was condemned as a heretic and burned at the stake in 1706. Her movement was disbanded, or rather, went underground and continued to survive quietly for about two centuries.
Scholars trace the roots of African Independent Churches to the vision of Kimpa Vita. One can see that the spirit-chasing churches, which feature revitalized traditional cultural roots alongside Christian symbols in contemporary Nigeria, are not far removed from the vision of Kimpa Vita. Because of the receptivity and popularity of these forms of worship, traditional shrines in many villages have been converted to one form of "church" or prayer house, and the shrine priest, or Onye isi agbara, becomes its "prophet." The modus operandi remains the same except that the prophet now dons a white, long, flowing gown.
But the Catholic expression of the spirit bandwagon resides in prayer ministries. Dressed in his flowing white cassock, the Catholic priest engages in various forms of revivals and healing ministries mostly within the church premises. The priest is perceived as one fully in possession of spiritual powers, so adherents flock to him for prayer, healing and prophecy. I still wonder how this priest reconciles his priestly ministry of preaching the word and administering the sacraments with the spirit bandwagon that is characterized by shouts, screams and blustering music instruments sometimes for hours on end.
Catholic involvement in the spirit bandwagon in Nigeria became noticeable in the 1980s. Since then, the number of prayer ministries has grown tremendously with the increase in the number of priests. On the other hand, the increased hardship and insecurity in the country also translates into higher numbers of persons seeking solace at the prayer ministry houses. Interestingly, religious sisters also patronize prayer ministries. I have watched with dismay as the numbers of women religious who patronize these ministries grow year after year until recently, when the authorities of some communities banned their sisters from taking part in these exercises. I applaud the decision of the superiors who discouraged their members from joining the spirit bandwagon because I could not locate a vowed religious in the chaotic atmosphere of spirit chasing that tends to leave one exhausted and, in a way, empty because the Lord is not in the wind and neither is the Lord in the earthquake nor in the fire. (1 Kings 19:11-12a)
For all its glamour and glory, the fire-spitting, spirit-chasing worship has a dark side. This form of spirituality does not go deep enough to elicit faith. Neither does it strengthen faith. A popular Igbo saying is "anaghi eji anya oma ekpe Cherubim," meaning, "no one joins the African Independent Church, Cherubim and Seraphim intentionally." This expression articulates the frustration that can lead someone into such prayer houses. That is to say, a person who joins a spirit-chasing church or takes to prayer ministry is desperate for something. She is anxious either to ward off evil spirits or looming dangers — real or imaged — receive healing for a physical or spiritual ailment, become financially secure or receive visions. I must also acknowledge that some persons walk into these prayer houses genuinely seeking God in spirit and in truth.
Nevertheless, the spirit bandwagon is undermining the Christian message and hurting African Christianity as a whole. The few captivating leaders among the movement exploit the ignorance of the poor masses who flock to them in droves seeking liberation from their anxiety. I must not even go into the monetary aspect of the ministries that has produced multi-millionaires among their pastors and prophets as well as Catholic priests.
In the final analysis, however, it is only the formation of a Christian character that is grounded in the Gospel and the Christian traditions that can save Christianity in Nigeria and the African continent as a whole.
[Caroline Mbonu is a member of Congregation of the Handmaids of the Holy Child Jesus and holds a doctoral degree from the Graduate Theological Union. She is senior lecturer in the department of Religious and Cultural Studies at University of Port Harcourt, Nigeria.]