Pentecostalism and Orthodox Christianity: Review of Tibebe Eshete’s Book, The Evangelical Movement in Ethiopia By Messay Kebede

May 24th, 2011 Print Print Email Email

Published by Baylor University Press (2009), the book is a well-researched and abundantly documented account of the inception and spread of evangelical Christianity in Ethiopia. With special emphasis on Pentecostalism, the book goes beyond an eventful account of the evangelical movement; it provides a theoretical explanation for its rapid spread in a country reputed for its long-standing commitment to Orthodox Christianity. It must be said that the book is remarkably up to the challenging task of combining a descriptive account of important events with theoretical insights whose explanatory power is impressive, even for a skeptical reader.

The thorough appreciation of the book requires that the reader be fully cognizant of the various purposes of the book. Tibebe does not indulge in a laudatory discourse on the evangelical movement; nor does he present a disparaging portrait of Ethiopia’s Orthodox Church. Even if we find here and there praises and blames, the book remains a scholarly work intent on providing understanding rather than eulogy. This restraint to an objective account is all the more remarkable, given the personal dimension of the book to the author, who is himself a convert from Orthodox Christianity to evangelical faith.

The first purpose of the book is Tibebe’s intention to correct the dearth of scholarly studies on the evangelical movement in Ethiopia. Misinformation and bias explain the neglect: many Ethiopianists still consider the movement as marginal and foreign-inspired, which is typically summed up by the Amharic term of “mete haymanot.” The label of “imported religion” gave the justification for covert persecution during Haile Selassie’s reign and overt persecution after the establishment of the Derg and socialism. Through its cadres, the Derg used all means, including violence and coercion, to eradicate the movement. The tangible result of this systematic attempt to eradicate was, however, a phenomenal growth of the movement. From one percent of the population in the early 1960s, the movement grew to 6 million in 1994 (some estimates put the number at 12 million). Hence the main question of the book: what explains this remarkable expansion in a country fraught with adverse forces to the faith?

The other important purpose of the book is the removal of the bias against the evangelical faith in Ethiopia, which Tibebe wants to accomplish by forcefully displaying its native character. Without denying the role of foreign missionaries and the international support of evangelical churches, Tibebe argues that the movement has powerful native sources and has always followed one dominant motto, namely, “the Gospel for Ethiopians by Ethiopians.” His argument significantly weakens the “foreign paradigm” through the suggestion that, without the decisive impact of indigenous factors, the phenomenal growth of the movement is utterly incomprehensible.

One cannot but admire Tibebe’s attempt to show the native sources of Pentecostalism. Notably, his view that practices such as healing through prayers, exorcism, display of emotional expression, etc., are just reviving suppressed practices, allows him to speak of Pentecostalism as a renaissance of Ethiopian Christianity. To quote him, “viewed from a historical and analytical perspective, the evangelical faith as embraced by Ethiopians does not signify desertion or denial. Rather, it is an expression of the latent dimension of an already existing faith. Significantly, for those who tuned into the faith from the Orthodox background, Christianity simply took renewed emphasis and meaning” (p. 314). Some such approach definitely goes a long way in dismissing the accusation of foreign religion. Far from being desertion, Pentecostalism, Tibebe insists, is the expected, the longed-for revival of Ethiopian spirituality.

The depiction of the native sources of the movement introduces the third important purpose of the book, namely, the call for acceptance and mutual appreciation. Tibebe asks Ethiopian Evangelists to appreciate and inherit the rich tradition of Ethiopian Orthodox Church and its eminent national character and role both in defending Ethiopia against foreign invasions and in nurturing a home grown Christianity. In return, Orthodox Ethiopians should recognize the native roots of the evangelical movement in Ethiopia and engage in interface activities rather than animosity. Tibebe firmly believes that a change of this nature will be beneficial to both congregations and a significant contribution to the consolidation of democratic spirit in Ethiopia. Witness: the challenge of Pentecostalism has stimulated reformist activities within the Orthodox Church, as shown by the popularity of the revival movement known as “Amanuel Menfesawi Maheber.”

To fulfill these purposes, Tibebe adopts the appropriate method, to wit, the use of historical analysis by which he traces the major events marking the spread of the evangelical movement. The inquiry offers an ample documentation on the growth of the movement since the seventeen century. In particular, it gives a detailed account of the status of the movement during the reign of Haile Selassie and the tumultuous rule of the Derg. We learn that, even though persecutions were by no means absent, the reign of Haile Selassie was “the heyday of missionary activity in Ethiopia” (p. 75). As to the situation under the Derg, the account reveals how the use of systematic repression and brutality only strengthened the resolve of followers, which became a cause for an accelerated expansion of the movement.

To explain the resilience of the movement, Tibebe combines historical research with theoretical explanations. He thus advances the thesis that, in addition to the properly religious need, sociopolitical factors were active in making evangelism, especially in its Pentecostal form, attractive to many Ethiopians. A word of caution: one would totally misrepresent the content of the book if one loses sight of the primacy of the religious factor. Tibebe nowhere reduces the expansion of evangelism in Ethiopia to a political protest against the autocratic rule of Haile Selassie or the brutality of the Derg. Not that sociopolitical conditions were inconsequential; rather, they were only contributing factors to the principal need, which was religious.

The primacy of the religious need fully transpires when Tibebe explains why Pentecostalism seduced so many educated Ethiopians who came from firmly established Orthodox background. For him, the seduction has its roots in the failure of the Orthodox Church to reform itself in accordance with new needs arising from the exposure to Western education and the modern world. Indeed, modernity assumed for Ethiopians the form of an immense challenge to their legacy and became the cause of a deep cultural disorientation and existential anxiety. While many among the educated elite attempted to find answers in the then dominant ideology of Marxism-Leninism, others looked for a renewal of their religious faith, thereby increasingly paying attention to evangelism. In effect, those who went over to evangelism could listen to “qualified speakers on various subjects, like the relationship between science and faith, creation and evolution, or spirituality and rationalism and logic” (p. 138). These were topics that the Orthodox Church was not ready to tackle, as shown by the fact that demands from within the Church to renovate and modernize the faith—the most important being the movement known as Haymanote Abew—repeatedly fell on deaf ears.

Granted the primacy of the spiritual need, the fact remains that the tendency to look for answers to new needs outside the authority of Orthodox Christianity would not have gained momentum without the sociopolitical realities of Ethiopia under Haile Selassie and the Derg. Such is Tibebe’s sophisticated approach. It was already obvious that the success of evangelism in the southern part of the country, notably in Wollega and Wollaita, was a form of protest against the southern Neftegna Gebar system. As Tibebe puts it, “the new faith brought for the believers not only salvation, but also liberation from traditional oppressive structures, healing, and a sense of worth in a sociopolitical milieu that sustained social inequalities” (p.86). Clearly, what particularly hampered the missionary work of the Orthodox Church in the south, besides the use of inappropriate methods, was the close link of the church with the detested Ethiopian state. The lack of independence associated its teachings and missionary efforts with the oppressive structure of the imperial state or the Derg.
This same lack of independence explains why evangelism made such impressive inroads, especially Pentecostalism, in areas traditionally committed to the Orthodox Church. The evidence for this is that the expansion of evangelical movement was essentially an urban phenomenon that involved young educated Ethiopians coming from Orthodox background. To the question why many modern educated Orthodox Christians felt the need to convert to Pentecostalism, in conjunction with the primary reason of being unable to find in the traditional church the answers they needed to the challenges of modernity, one must refer to their inability to reform the faith, owing to its close tie with the Ethiopian state, and their increasing dissatisfaction over the sociopolitical realities of Ethiopia under Haile Selassie and, with greater reason, under the Derg.

While Tibebe does an excellent job in articulating major themes with relevant events and back them with sound arguments, questions pertaining to clarifications as well as to theoretical developments come to mind. Granted that one cannot but praise the attempt to remain as objective as possible, still one cannot avoid the feeling that Tibebe’s understanding of the Orthodox faith remains external in that it is viewed from an alien religious stand considered as normative or superior. He draws the explanation for the conversion of many educated Ethiopians to Pentecostalism from the disabilities of the Orthodox Church, thereby suggesting that evangelism is not only superior, but that it has also effective answers to the challenges of modernity to religious faith. One can reasonably contest the assertion if only because no religious doctrine is immune to the assaults of science, evolutionism, and the debunking of fideism. The commitment to a specific faith is more a matter of choice than doctrinal superiority.

The use of an alien normative stand, otherwise known as Eurocentrism, misses the particularity, the unique nature of the Orthodox faith. The lack of theological sophistication, the use of crude methods of conversion, the alliance with the Ethiopian state, etc., turn into defects only in the eyes of alienated Ethiopians who use Western religiosity as a prototype. To this approach, one can oppose the idea that Ethiopian religiosity should not be judged by the norms of doctrinal refinement and theological sophistication. Instead, one should bring out its cultural nature, which is such that Christianity in Ethiopia is like the air we breathe. In Ethiopia, God is everywhere; His presence is felt not only in churches and holy places, but in any personal or social manifestation. God is not so much conceptualized as felt like the immovable background of everything. Christianity in Ethiopia has never been an issue of doctrinal conversion, but a native attribute that one acquires for being member of a distinct and messianic polity, the very one flowing from the definition of Ethiopia as God’s favored nation. Accordingly, as an extension of divine election, missionary work is perceived as integration into a privileged, restricted polity, less so as a doctrinal allurement.

Doubtless, as Tibebe convincingly argues, when Ethiopians became exposed to Western education, the need for a rationalized faith transpired, which need started to paint the traditional religion in negative terms, that is, as not being as doctrinal and speculative as Western religions. Equally true that the Orthodox Church proved unable or reluctant to satisfy the doctrinal needs of the educated elite. Still, it makes little sense to put the blame on the faith, since it amounts to saying that it should be other than what it became as a result of a protracted and native historical development. The religion had a long history and resisted the powerful assaults of Islam and colonial incursions, not because of its doctrinal power or purity, but because of the powerful sentiments agitated by the sense of divine favoritism as enshrined, for instance, in the popular belief that Ethiopia is the guardian of the Arch of the Covenant.

Tibebe is absolutely right to say that the Orthodox Church failed to address the concerns of modern educated Ethiopians. Unfortunately, as he himself admits, the latter were alienated people and, as such, little able to make sound judgments or choices. A culturally disoriented generation is certainly unfit to provide norms by which Orthodox Christianity should be criticized or to select the religion by which it should be replaced, especially in light of its glorious accomplishments in preserving the independence and identity of a polity in a hostile environment and for such a long time. Since the assumption is that the religious response was healthier than the political radicalism imparted by the adoption of Marxist-Leninist ideology, Tibebe is hereby asked to provide the reasons for the beneficial effects of evangelical spiritualism.

All the more reason for asking the question is that Tibebe does not hesitate to conceptualize the attraction of Ethiopian students to Marxism-Leninism and Pentecostalism in the late 60s and early 70s as different responses to cultural disorientation and political frustration. Even though disagreements and clashes soon irrupted between the two movements—the radical students accusing Pentecostal students of being CIA agents conspiring to politically demobilize the youth by luring it into religious ecstasy—there is no doubt that both movements shared the character of being extreme. The question is then: why extremism, be it in the form of political radicalism or religious fundamentalism? Whether it was a counter-response to the spread of Marxist atheism among the students and educated elite or the expression of frustration over the socialism of the Derg, since religious fundamentalism clings to the faith by intensifying it, the dissonance between the response and the premises of modernity stands out.

To be sure, it is not clear how religious intensification can be construed as a modern response. In particular, rationality goes in the direction of accommodating faith with the scientific spirit, not in the direction of introducing into the faith beliefs and practices that clash with science. What all this means is clear enough: the attempt to rank one religion above the others in the name of modernity is a risky business since in the eyes of science all religions without distinction belong to the sphere of the irrational. Let us admit it, the development of modern ideas and the diffusion of the scientific spirit have turned religious conversions into obsolete practices.

Similarly, while the great value of the book lies in the linkage it establishes between religious conversion and sociopolitical concerns, it is not clear in what sense Pentecostalism can be classified as a protest. For the pioneers of the movement, the conversion must be explained in purely religious terms, that is, as expression of God’s revelation, and not as an outcome of impersonal forces resulting from economic or political hindrances. Tibebe rightly objects that the purely religious account cannot explain why the movement expanded at a particular time and with such a rapid pace. In thus saying that social conditions favored the expansion of evangelism, Tibebe posits the movement as a component part of social protests. Some such assumption goes against the prevailing view describing the movement as apolitical or, according to the radical students of the 60s, as frankly reactionary. People saw the movement as an incitement to withdraw from politics through an all-consuming pursuit of otherworldly goals. In other words, Tibebe has yet to convince us why this type of religious fundamentalism is not a reaction, a flight from the harsh reality of politics, just as he has to show us how it encourages modern and democratic forms of thinking.

One critical issue conspicuously absent from the book is the standing of the evangelical movement in relation to the other important and established religion, namely, Islam. Tibebe exhaustively analyzes the inroads of evangelism in the southern part of Ethiopia where primal religions mostly prevailed and in regions traditionally populated by Orthodox Christians. But he nowhere deals with the legitimate question of the status of evangelism in Muslim-dominated regions. Is evangelism making any progress in these regions as well? If yes, why? If no, why not? Being able to answer these questions certainly helps provide a more general and specified account of the progress of evangelism in Ethiopia.

Lastly, one issue that needs further clarification is Tibebe’s analysis of the attitude of Haile Selassie. He advances the view that Haile Selassie wanted to reform and modernize the Orthodox Church despite its resistance. Yet, he also maintains that he blocked reformist movements within the Church: for instance, the movement of reform initiated by Haymanot Abew failed because it was ultimately controlled by him, which control deprived it of dynamism and autonomy. Was Haile Selassie’s policy an attempt to subdue the Church or a genuine desire to modernize it? A more rigorous analysis of Haile Selassie’s attitude would be helpful to understand the impediments of the traditional religion. Moreover, Tibebe asserts that Haile Selassie was tolerant to the evangelical movement while at the same time viewing the tolerance as a component of his strategy to bolster his international image. Our understanding of the situation would acquire greater clarity if these imperial contradictions, which were real, were conceptualized in specific terms.

To conclude, Tibebe’s book is highly informative and enlightening, in addition to inviting new reflections on issues that most people either misconstrue, ignore, or find baffling. The questions that I have raised in no way diminish the value of the book; on the contrary, they are appeals for Tibebe to further expand his inquiry in the direction of finding some answers. The truth about the book is that it is a must-read for all those who want to understand the changing face of Ethiopia.

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