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Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, 2011 DOI: 10.

Journal of Religion in Africa 41 (2011) 143-153 brill.nl/jra
Self, Other and God in African Christianities
Frederick Klaits
Tompson Writing Program, Duke University, Box 90025, Durham, NC 27708, USA
Te essays in this and the subsequent special issues of JRA concern how expe-
riences of selfhood and otherness shape and are shaped by forms of Christian
commitment in Africa.
How do religious practitioners perceptions of the
activities of God and other spiritual beings reframe their sense of who and
what is known as self and as other, under what circumstances, and with what
implications? Such issues have occupied an important yet ambiguous place in
analytical accounts of moral transformations brought about through Chris-
tian commitment in Africa and elsewhere. A common trope in Christian dis-
courses, namely the alienation of the converted self from a past sinful selfan
estrangement brought about through the agency of God construed as tran-
scendent Othercreates terms for complex and variable transactions among
aspects of selves marked as other, others marked with aspects of selfhood, and
yet alternative others marked as alien non-selves. At the same time, this par-
ticular narrative of Christian conversion has played a key role in shaping
anthropological understandings of the history of morality.
From shame to sin has been a familiar trope in anthropological discussions
of Christian reformation since K.E. Reads classic essay (1955) based on work
with the Gahuku-Gama of New Guinea, which argued that morality is linked
to concepts of personhood (see Heald 1999, 5). For Gahuku-Gama, Read
argues, moral obligations and judgments of others are dependent on the pres-
ence or absence of a particular social bond, rather than conceived as deriving
from or referring to something which is inherent to mans nature (1955, 278).
A Gahuku-Gama may experience shame in his stomach (1955, 271-2) as a
result of ofenses against particular kin, feeling the various parts and functions
of the human organism . . . as expressive of his personality (1955, 266). Draw-
ing on Boethius and Aquinas, Read argues that Christian teaching, by con-
trast, emphasizes the theistic idea that both soul and body are of Divine
144 F. Klaits / Journal of Religion in Africa 41 (2011) 143-153
creation. . . . Tus, the Christian believes that mans frst duty in all things is
toward the Divine Creator. . . . It is from this that [the] Christian derives his
strong sense of sin, of actions which are contrary to his true nature and there-
fore an ofence to the Divine Creator (1955, 271). Shame is an outcome of
disturbances in relationships to specifc other people, whereas sin consists of
being untrue to ones conscience and is derived from knowing Gods will.
Tis moral trajectory is said to coincide with a transition from partible to
individual personhood: shame arises from failing to reciprocate the contribu-
tions others have made to ones body, whereas awareness of sin stems from
recognising ones soul and body as Gods creation. Tus consciousness of
sin frequently entails a reframing of ancestry in that Christians commonly
attribute their sinful natures to Adam and Eve as progenitors. While relations
to other people account directly for the sense of shame, it is less clear how and
whether such relations account for the sense of sin, which is said to arise from
knowledge revealed by God about the fawed self. In a recent chapter (2007)
in a volume on the anthropology of morality in Melanesia, Dan Jorgenson
presents a narrative comparable to Reads in distinguishing between possession
by mens house spirits and possession by the Holy Spirit during Christian
revivals among Telefolmin:
Whether specifc sins were at issue or not, the Holy Spirit . . . insisted on a much more
fundamental commitment to a permanent change in ones self. Tis was not restricted
to merely correcting this or that mistake or repairing one or another relationship. One
was answerable not merely to particular individuals or mens house spirits but instead
to the Christian God who required one to account for ones life as a whole. (p. 127)
While change in ones self is the dominant theme in this narrative of Chris-
tian revival, the alterity of persons occupies an ambiguous place in both reli-
gious and analytical registers: God becomes the morally relevant other,
demanding work by the self on the self. Te transformation of shame into sin
is closely linked to the theme of rupture with the past (Engelke 2004, 2010;
Maxwell 1998; Meyer 1998, 1999; Robbins 2004). In the terms provided by
the trope of rupture, the Christian convert is no longer supposed to be preoc-
cupied with histories of relationships to ancestors and living kin, but rather
evaluate his or her life course in light of knowledge received from the Holy
Spirit of the self s sinfulness and redemption. Tus Webb Keane (2006) con-
ceptualises Christian commitment as a form of anxious transcendence of
social and material entanglements that is never entirely accomplished. In line
with this reading, Charles Piot (2010) links the Pentecostalist trope of rupture
to frustrated aspirations for global citizenship during West Africas post-cold
F. Klaits / Journal of Religion in Africa 41 (2011) 143-153 145
war moment (see also Ferguson 2006). In its assault on local religion in
northern Togo, Piot argues, Pentecostalism not only begins to shift religious
imaginaries from traditional to Christianfrom spirits to the Holy Spirit
but also fashions an interiorized subject who turns away from village authority
and relational dependency. Untethered from local gerontocracy and the state,
this new biopolitical subjecta subject and its social in perpetual crisis
seeks its own autonomous salvation (2010, 104). In this view, the rejection of
a past coded African and . . . appropriation of Euro-otherness (129) generate
a lived sense of continual crisis expressed in eschatological imaginings and
pervasive fears of the occult.
Yet might not the notion of crisis, together with the trope of rupture on
which it is premised, overdetermine depictions of the ways in which powerful
others are incorporated into the self on Christian terms? Might there be other
kinds of stories to tell, both about the historical moment and about Christian-
ity? As Achille Mbembe has pointed out, the fact that in the postcolony the
present itself is a concatenation of multiple temporalities means that Africa is
evolving in multiple and overlapping directions simultaneously (Hller 2002).
Tus rather than situating Christianity at an endpoint of moral trajectories,
our essays explore how perceptions of divine activity in the world acquire form
and meaning through concerns about the powers of human and spiritual oth-
ers to do both good and harm to the self. In so doing, our treatments of Chris-
tianity recuperate the concerns of an earlier generation of Africanist scholarship
with issues of personhood (Jackson and Karp, eds. 1990; Karp and Bird, eds.
1980). In his review essay Te Person and the Life Cycle in African Social Life
and Tought, Paul Riesman notes that African imagery commonly expresses . . .
a close association, even identifcation, between a component of the person
and forces in the world outsideperhaps a spirit or an ancestorforces which
by defnition are not really knowable (1986, 113). Te analytical trouble with
shame to sin narratives is that they move in one direction onlytoward the
interior of the individual subjectand thus run the risk of presuming that
religious imaginaries necessarily narrow the grounds of peoples ever-evolving
knowledge about selfhood and otherness.
Ruth Marshall remarks in her treatment of Pentecostal subjectivity in
Nigeria that the central work of the self on the self, which is never truly
achieved, is a permanent deciphering of the line between the self and the
world and the powers that inhabit it, and an attempt to interpret and control
these forces and their efects through various techniques (2009, 159). Mar-
shalls formulation reminds us of the open-ended ways in which religious
practitioners attention to the nature of their own personhood reshapes their
moral activity, construed in her account principally in terms of eforts to exert
146 F. Klaits / Journal of Religion in Africa 41 (2011) 143-153
control over unpredictable others. Our own essays add that God and other
spiritual powers need not be perceived only as setting up boundaries between
selves and others, but rather as providing means for experiencing and evaluat-
ing others as aspects of selves, and vice versa. Tis is true both in the contexts
of the prophetic and Apostolic movements in Mozambique and Botswana
described in the papers by Tracy Luedke, Richard Werbner, and myself in this
issue of JRA, and in the Pentecostal movements in Ghana and the Democratic
Republic of Congo depicted by Girish Daswani and Katrien Pype in the sub-
sequent issue.
What spaces for negotiation of the overlaps and disjunctures between you,
me, and them are opened or acknowledged through religious language and
praxis, and in what ways might religious discourses foreclose or limit the terms
of such negotiations? Given the legacy of mission and colonial rule in Africa,
this is an eminently political question. As Anthony Simpson demonstrates in
his work (1998, 2003) on fundamentalist students in a Catholic boarding
school in Zambia, the process of becoming chosen other for male elites-in-
the-making often involves appropriating the signs of civilisation while negat-
ing African identities. In this context, Simpson argues, the self is recognised
negatively by who one is not (1998, 226). In a common trope, Africans are
said to be naturally jealous of the success of their fellow Africans, a jealousy
often expressed in backbiting and in witchcraft attacks; and when they sufer,
they are said to desire company in their sufering. An often-heard student
remark is, We Africanswe dont love one another (1998, 219). Here jeal-
ousy occupies a position analogous to shame, one of absorption in ill will or
in the ill will of others, blocking progress in the trajectory toward convictions
of personal responsibility that spring from awareness of individual sin (see also
Engelke 2010, 188). Yet the students remarks about love indicate how Chris-
tian discourses may also focus attention on the necessity and difculty of
extending positive sentiment to other people in ways that enhance their well-
being (see Klaits 2010). Do preoccupations with jealousy and love indicate
solely a desire to become who one is not, or do they also reveal the political
capacities of Christian discourses to create new grounds of intimacy or convic-
tions of shared purpose, even across lines of acknowledged diference?
Another important aspect of revised intimacies, common especially in fun-
damentalist movements worldwide (see Harding 2000), involves eforts to
refgure the speech and actions of the self as those of biblical personages. Simp-
son quotes a student who likens himself to the Apostle Paul before the people
of Ephesus (Acts 20:25) in the course of preaching: And now also I put myself
here . . . and I will say to you that I am innocent about your blood, because if
you die in sin, it simply means that you have not put . . . what I have told you
F. Klaits / Journal of Religion in Africa 41 (2011) 143-153 147
into practice (1998, 223, emphasis in original). In such instances, the act of
framing subjects as sinners does not proceed solely through semiotic moves
identifying the individual conscience as the source of agency (cf. Keane 2007),
but depends on speakers appropriation of the voices of biblical others as their
own. Tus, as Matthew Engelke points out, asserting the necessity to make a
rupture with African culture is also a way of inscribing continuities, of align-
ing ones self in relation to an extant and imagined Christian history (2010,
179) and, I would stress, the persons who populate those histories (see also
Kirsch 2008; cf. Robbins 2007).
Because discourses about sin frequently spur refection on such ambiguities
of selfhood and otherness, the need is to rethink the moral parameters of
shame to sin narratives about Christian commitment. Meeting that need
here, our essays frame issues of moral transformation in terms of knowledge,
expressivity, and historicity, and the questions we address arise from a shared
concern with the linkages between personhood and morality. What do Chris-
tians have to know or try to know about selves-in-others, others-in-selves, and
relations between selves and others? For what reasons may such knowledge be
valued in religious terms? How is such knowledge or ignorance felt to contrib-
ute to personal well-being or ill-being? In terms of expressivity, the papers ask
on what grounds it is felt proper, necessary, wrong, or dangerous to express the
involvement of selves with others, and others with the self. How are persons
transfgured in aesthetic terms in the course of such expressions? What impact
are these expressions felt to have on well-being and ill-being? Finally, the arti-
cles address issues of historicity in view of the felt diversity that spiritual and
human others have with the self, and in the self, over time. What implications
do diferent forms of involvement have for the ways in which practitioners
envision histories of key relationships, and/or ruptures in the course of their
lives? What are the political consequences of envisioning the historicity of self
and other in such terms?
In response to these questions, our contributions argue that the provisional
qualities of selfhood and otherness acquire religious value within Christian
movements in Africa because these qualities are understood as key to forms of
well-being and vulnerability. For instance, Tracy Luedke discusses aneneri
(those who speak for another) prophets in Tete Province, Mozambique, who
are possessed by Christianised spirits with biblical names said to be sent by
God to heal the sick. Many aneneri prophets frst encountered mediums for
these spirits in Malawi, where they had taken refuge from the Mozambican
civil war (see also Igreja et al. 2008). Diagnosing spirit possession in another
person makes aneneri prophets into spiritual mothers (even if they are male),
and is a means of cultivating a following of assistants. Te more prolifc a
148 F. Klaits / Journal of Religion in Africa 41 (2011) 143-153
healer is in discovering new spirits, the more infuence and authority are cre-
ated. Tis requires both receiving a large volume of clients and discovering
spirits in many of them (Luedke 2006, 47). Luedke demonstrates (2006) that
this process of acquiring authority through spiritual clientship overlaps in
complex ways with models of healing authority promoted by churches, as well
as by healers organizations afliated with the state in Tete Province. Tis back-
ground indicates the distinctive political stakes involved in this context in
claiming others as ones own, or in asserting an alterity that is recalcitrant to
such claims. In her essay here, Luedke shows how mediums develop forms of
intimacy with their spirits, who succor them but also threaten them as stran-
gers whose natures, motivations, and agendas often remain opaque. Like the
styles of identifcation with biblical or European others described by Engelke
(2007) and Simpson (2003), this more totalizing form of embodiment points,
in Luedkes words, to the intimacy of the experiential, where participants are
negotiating . . . fne lines between you and me as distinct from traversing
reifed chasms of diference (cf. Taussig 1993). In addition, Luedkes argu-
ment signals the power of organisational forms, such as prophetic movements
and churches, to create distinctive and contested terms for the involvement of
others with selves, a theme likewise pursued in the essays on Botswana.
Richard Werbners and my own essays concern Apostolic movements in
urban Botswana, where democratic governance and comparatively high rates
of economic growth have reinforced values of orderly procedure in religious
and other matters, but have in some ways also given rise to new sources of
material and personal insecurity. In addition, urban expansion and circular
migration have spurred debates over the moral grounds of intergenerational
authority within church movements that span village and city. Werbners
approach stresses how styles of Christian reformation hinge on recasting the
aesthetic forms through which people experience and express selfhood and
otherness. He characterizes trajectories of religious movements in southern
Africa in terms of an unstable yet long-term twinning of individuality with
dividuality (a theme likewise explored by Katrien Pype and Girish Daswani in
the subsequent issue). Young male charismatic prophets in Gaborone make
themselves vulnerable to the nasty bits of witches, while simultaneously
asserting themselves powerfully during sances by attacking their clients sense
of the familiar in everyday life, undermining their accustomed sense of what
other people have felt about them.
Werbners point that Christian practices may refect the risks and dangers
of shared substance, of being composite, permeable or partible (cf. Mosko 2010)
has important antecedents in the historical literature showing how under-
F. Klaits / Journal of Religion in Africa 41 (2011) 143-153 149
standings of personal partibility have themselves given content to notions of
sin. Gillian Feeley-Harnik demonstrates (1994) how ancient Jewish under-
standings of Gods power and authority revolved around the divine ability to
provide food; eating acceptable foods with members of the holy community
was a compelling image of obedience to Gods commandments, while seeking
forbidden foods in the company of aliens brought divine punishment. Tus,
recasting the moral terms of ingestion was a central aspect of the Christian
revision of Gods covenant to incorporate both Jews and Gentiles. Likewise,
the permeability of the self was a key theme in early Christian thinking about
the souls movement toward God. Peter Brown shows that for Origen of Alex-
andria (c. 185-254) the composite nature of persons, fallen away from God
into limited and diverse bodies, was itself the existential ground to be tran-
scended by faith. Te soul had to be open to the blessed infuence of angels
who reminded it of its power to be transformed, while refusing the prompt-
ings of demons who represented powers of numbness (Brown 1988, 167).
Origen conveyed, above all, a profound sense of the fuidity of the body. . . .
Te present human body refected the needs of a single, somewhat cramped
moment in the spirits progress back to a former, limitless identity (1988,
167). As the soul grew in love toward God, the body itself would become less
thick, less coagulated, less hardened, as the numbing inertia of the spirit
thawed in the growing heat of its yearning for the Wisdom of God (1988,
168; see also Kuriyama 1999).
By contrast, Apostolics in Botswana pray to God not so much for tran-
scendence of the body as for its transfguration: from dangerous heat to the
coolness of well-being, and from the occult darkness (seff ) of exclusion to the
shadowiness (seriti ) of socially recognised dignity (Werbner 2007, 2011).
Werbners approach invites comparative attention to the connections between
aesthetic expressions of selfhood and otherness on the one hand, and percep-
tions of the sources and content of personal well-being and ill-being on the
other (see Coleman 2006). For instance, Werbner points out that Catholic
charismatic healers in New England (Csordas 1994) enact afiction and heal-
ing as intra-psychic processes carried out within discrete selves, as suferers
acquire knowledge of their own autobiographically signifcant traumatic
memories. Catholic charismatics do not serve as surrogates in mimesis to
heighten awareness by mirroring back an interior or hidden condition, unlike
young male Apostolic prophets in Gaborone who tell their clients that they do
not understand themselves. Tat is, the Apostolic prophets tell their clients
that they do not fully appreciate how other peoples hostility has prevented
them from living well, a condition the prophets cause them to perceive by
150 F. Klaits / Journal of Religion in Africa 41 (2011) 143-153
empathically enacting clients suferings with their own bodies. During these
performances, prophets enact their clients as well as their own very dividual-
ity in its frail vulnerability.
My own essay describes afnities between self-assertion and empathic
engagement in the context of the Baitshepi Church, a very diferent Apostolic
church in Gaborone, one founded by a senior woman committed to fostering
love and deeply opposed to prophetic practices that she regarded as promot-
ing jealousy. For Baitshepi members, singing hymns is a way of making their
names come before God as well as human hearers. In singing hymns, church
members give verbal expression to their vulnerability to sufering, and at the
same time assert their own capacities to induce other people to make requests
to God with them and on their behalf. Tus, hymns and prayers frame persons
in aesthetic terms that ideally cause them to be well heard and apprehended by
divine and human others, much as the cosmetic materials described by Werb-
ner like the blessed strings tied around joints are said to loosen veins blocked
by witchcraft. For Batswana, prayers to God constitute one of a range of styles
of negotiating agency through asking and responding to requests. My own
misreading of my relationship with a church colleague who I felt was hustling
me into giving him money, and who told me that he had been testing me by
the request, led me to consider how forms of asking can be ways of asserting
relative power as well as of sustaining moral consideration, much as in Marcel
Mausss treatment of the gift (1990). For Batswana under circumstances of
vulnerability, asking for things in ways that oblige others to recognise their
standing is a pressing problem. Christianity both shapes the terms of this pre-
dicament and derives its moral and aesthetic signifcance in part from it.
Vulnerability to suferinga basic theme in these essaysis key to their
treatments of the historicity of involvement between selves and others. Simply
put, practitioners do not envision conditions of vulnerability as coming to a
permanent end, whether those conditions involve the intractable demands of
possessing spirits, ongoing threats of witchcraft, or widespread death brought
about by illnesses such as HIV/AIDS. Tis explicit thematisation of ongoing
vulnerability is one of the features that distinguishes the religious discourses
described here from enactments of the sacred self among American Catholic
charismatics, for whom experiences of divine healing are supposed to provide
a permanent sense of peace in their lives: both release through resignation to
ones lot, and the sharing of a slice of heaven as the reward for devotion (Csor-
das 1994, 251). Likewise, the moral of the conversion narrative that the Bap-
tist minister Reverend Campbell related to Susan Harding consists of the
lasting peace Jesus provides believers by giving them knowledge that lifes trag-
edies serve Gods purposes: By speaking his [i.e., Campbells] obedience, his
F. Klaits / Journal of Religion in Africa 41 (2011) 143-153 151
submission to Gods will, they were reconciled, and Campbell in return received
peace in his soul, an eager willingness to give still more. Te same gifts, he
concluded, awaited me, if only I too would accept Christ (Harding 2000, 53).
Vulnerability to sufering is commonly acknowledged as an existential con-
dition within the diverse Christian movements in Africa not only because
hard lived realities make it difcult to adhere to fxed ideals of conduct that
express the desirability of rupture with the past (Engelke 2010). As impor-
tantly, people understand themselves as vulnerable beings inasmuch as they
recognise that the complex involvement of spiritual and human others in the
self cannot be defnitively orchestrated.
Yet the provisional, open-ended qual-
ities of peoples eforts to sustain what Luedke calls a workable self may
themselves be valued in religious terms as aspects of Gods activity in the
world, as is the case for the healers who work and are worked by spirits in
Botswana and Mozambique. In addition, the provisionality of the lines
between you and me has the capacity to bring forth relationships of ancestry
and descent that extend ties between selves and others over time, and in novel
directions. As both my own and Luedkes work demonstrates, relations of
spiritual parenthood and childhood involve the birthing of new social beings
and revised understandings of ancestry that do not necessarily obviate what
has come before (see Lindhardt 2010). In the course of instructing me about
the importance of remembering how ancestors live in ones blood and ones
name (see Klaits 2010, 193-4), MmaMaipelo, the bishop of the Baitshepi
Apostolic Church, insisted to me as her own spiritual child that I must never
forget my Judaism. Read Revelation 22, verse 16: It is I, Jesus, who have sent
my angel to you with this testimony for the churches. I am the root and of-
spring of David, the bright morning star. Tose are some of the fnal words
of the Bible; now put it down.
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1. Te articles in these issues are based on presentations from the panel Self, Other, and
God: Subjectivities and Intersubjectivities in Christian Praxis in Africa, held at the 108th
Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association, Philadelphia, PA, 3 Decem-
ber 2009. Te author would like to thank Simon Coleman, Girish Daswani, and Richard
Werbner for helpful comments on an earlier version of this introduction.
2. Existential conditions of vulnerability may be a particularly difcult aspect of Chris-
tian movements in Africa for Euro-American missionaries to appreciate. For instance,
Mennonite missionaries in Botswana sometimes misinterpreted Apostolic prophets coer-
cive yet empathic performances as an amoral quest for power construed as spirit or life