A Revolutionary Faith

Between two boarded-up storefronts deep in the poor barrios of central Barcelona, I turned to enter a rotted out doorway and saw 60 allies of the biggest people’s revolution of the 20th century. Jaime, a lean, dark-skinned Colombian immigrant, enthusiastically greeted me to the meeting, encouraging me to join in their cause for liberation.

Among the social movements of the last century, which one brought a hope that empowered and inspired the poor with a life-changing insight that eventually transformed entire nations and cultures? The movement remains popular, growing by the thousands each day. It is not Communism, nor the golden arches of Capitalism, nor the technology boom. The movement is Pentecostalism, a spiritual movement largely ignored by Western academics who are still hoping religion will finally go away. This bias has left too many educated people ignorant of a ballooning world-wide social phenomenon.

Jaime’s cause animated his face and voice, but he wasn’t angry with the bourgeoisie and he wasn’t celebrating the Big Mac. Jaime is a Pentecostal, and he’s ecstatic about Jesus. Across the globe, Jaime and millions of others who share his belief are celebrating what they call “spiritual liberation.”

Pentecostalism is a globalized and diverse expression of Christianity with a strong emphasis on the supernatural, miracles and healing. In the last century, it has grown to include over 500 million devoted followers in Asia, Africa, and South America. From the 800,000 weekly participants of the Yoido Full Gospel church in Seoul, to a weekend revival in Nigeria with over three million attendees, Pentecostalism is like a global Woodstock with Jesus playing on the bongos.

Strangely, the Pentecostal phenomenon is only beginning to enter the American consciousness. Many of us at Harvard believe we’re living in what Nietzsche called the “twilight of the idols,” a time when the broken crumbs of religion left over from the pre-modern era will soon be swept away. In the future, religion (and especially Christianity) becomes an irrelevant anachronism. For over 300 years, since Voltaire’s time, Western intellectuals have announced that God is dead or nearly so, and He will soon be gone for good.

Yet the cover feature of The Atlantic this month heralds Pentecostalism as “The Next Christianity.” In the article, Penn State historian Philip Jenkins argues that Pentecostalism will be remembered as the most important social movement of the 20th century. Moreover, Jenkins insists, the social and political implications of this movement will shape the coming century in unpredictable ways. Jenkins writes that the 21st century “will be regarded by future historians as a century in which religion replaced ideology as the prime animating and destructive force in human affairs.”

At the church meeting with Jaime, this lively group of impoverished immigrants sang hymns in Spanish yelling “Aleluia! Amen!” and many were swaying or crying, moved by the emotion and power of an “encounter with God.” Pentecostals pray out loud in spiritual languages they do not understand, but believe are given to them by God. This is called “speaking in tongues.” To the uninitiated, this display is perplexing. A Dutch friend of mine, Jonathan, turned to me and whispered, “Are they all mentally retarded or deranged?” But after their prayer time, it was clear to both Jonathan and me that they were thoughtful, intelligent and welcoming people. Pentecostal believers reject notions of strict tradition and earthly spiritual authority and rely on direct spiritual revelation from God, who they believe speaks daily through both leaders and laity. They look to Jesus as their friend, protector and liberator from evil forces, sickness and slavery to sexual or alcoholic addiction.

But the explosion of Pentecostalism has also had varied social and political repercussions. Recently, around 1,000 members of an independent church in Uganda died in an apparent mass suicide. A group called the Lord’s Resistance Army faces allegations of mass murder, rape and cannibalism. Moreover, Jenkins reports, countries with growing population also have growing tensions between Christians and Muslims. Regions in Nigeria, Sudan and the Philippines are brimming with conflict. In 1991, Zambia officially became a Christian nation. Liberia, Kenya and Zimbabwe have mentioned similar plans.

On the positive side, Pentecostalism seems to have a significant impact on economic development and culture. In South America, Pentecostals are known for being responsible and trustworthy hard workers, and many employers now purposefully seek to hire them. Brazilian Pentecostal women say their modest clothing and mores has brought them more respect, and husbands who convert often stop their alcoholism and physical abuse. In China, faith gives millions of Pentecostals a new hope under their repressive government. In South Africa and the United Kingdom, church leaders have created a program called Alpha that is helping to reduce both crime and divorce.

Western academics have largely ignored religion and religious movements in recent decades, still hoping that it would finally go away. We must realize that faith is part of human nature, and our failure to understand believers of all types will be at our own peril. Faith is powerful, and can either aspire to the greatest human virtue or conspire for the most tragic human evil. We are morally and pragmatically obliged to know more about various faiths to encourage its use for humane and charitable, rather than violent and nationalistic, purposes.

Richard T. Halvorson ’03, a Crimson editor, is a philosophy and government concentrator in Pforzheimer House.

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