Why Christianity is losing to Al Shabaab, Boko Haram and other jihadists

Brutal as they are, IS, al-Shabab and like minded groups give something Christianity doesn't to alienated youth - a chance to literally make history.

THIS past week, at least 11 people died and many more were injured in a stampede in Zimbabwe as thousands packed a stadium for a service by a celebrity preacher and self-styled miracle-worker.

Police said around 15,000 people were crammed into the stadium in Kwekwe, southwest of Harare Thursday evening for an event held by Walter Magaya, a Pentecostal preacher who models himself on Nigeria’s controversial Pastor TB Joshua – and who also made headlines in September following a building collapse in his Lagos megachurch which killed 116.

When the service ended worshippers rushed to the only exit, with four dying in the crush, said Shadreck Mubaiwa, police spokesman for the area 280 kilometres from the capital. Seven others were declared dead on arrival in hospital.

Church stampedes and building collapses are not uncommon across Africa.

In May 2013, four people were killed in a stampede at one of TB Joshua’s churches in Accra, Ghana, when at the end of a service, the church began distributing free holy water, purported to cure illnesses and protect against evil forces.

Just six months later, 28 died in another stampede in Nigeria when about 100,000 worshippers gathered at a church about 300 kilometres south of Abuja to celebrate All Souls Day.

Pentecostal churches preaching prosperity are on the rise in Africa, with impoverished and desperate people travelling lost distances to attend sermons, some seeking healing from terminal diseases.

In Kenya, a few weeks ago, an investigative television news report uncovered the fake miracles, coached “testimonies” and fraud that a popular Nairobi city preacher had been perpetrating.

Curiously, although there was outrage that the pastor was swindling gullible believers, it was intriguing that the fact miracles were on offer in the first place received more muted indignation.

Obviously, it’s the raison-d’etre for the evangelical-pentecostal movement that is growing by leaps and bounds across Africa.

A big shift

But what is remarkable is just how unquestioned the idea that the church exists to “give you your miracle” now is. It’s a substantial shift from the primary thrust of the traditional, mainstream churches in Africa, which in their early years sought controversially to “civilise” Africans, but later were mostly involved in build a new way of life and institutions.

So yes, the early mission was deeply steeped in racist and condescending attitudes, with the missionaries declaring nearly everything African satanic and evil.

But what is relevant here is the missionaries did not want people to claim their miracle, they wanted them to change the way they lived. So they built the infrastructure to make the shift possible – schools to shape the children’s minds, hospitals to sell the superiority of western medicine to Africans, and seminaries to train the next generation of catechists and priests.

In many parts of rural Africa, far from the official reach of the state, the church – particularly the Catholic church with its orders of nuns and brothers – is still in charge of almost every real service needed by the people, that the government should actually be providing; from building schools, hospitals, boreholes and wells, raising abandoned children, fighting jiggers and malaria, and providing social welfare for the poor and vulnerable.

The Jihadi model

It may not be apparent at first glance, but here is precisely where the global jihadi movement bests the church. They take the contract even further – not just to change your life, but to make history.

One of the more widely-recognised ideas that has stuck in the modern-day conversation about Islam is that of the 72 virgins in paradise for those who die as martyrs. But what hasn’t quite been grasped is the shift that Islamic State (IS) militants are presenting – it’s not just about heaven, but about remaking the world, here and now.

A few months ago, IS published a map that set out a chilling five-year plan for world domination. In their map, all of the Middle East, southern Europe and a large swathe of Asia are under their control.

In the IS version of the world, which they  say they intend to achieve by 2020, all of North and West Africa is under the caliphate, as far south as Kenya and Uganda.

Africa under their control will be remade into just three “countries”, the Magreb, encompassing all of West Africa, the “land of Alkinana”, from present day Egypt, Libya and northern Sudan, and the “land of Habasha”, making up all of the Horn of Africa, Kenya, Uganda, South Sudan, the Central African Republic (CAR) and Cameroon.

It might seem like a pipe dream, but what is undisputed is the attractiveness of this idea, of restoring the lost glory of the Muslim world.

When Europe was in the Dark Ages…

As Europe was languishing in the Dark Ages, the Muslim world between the 9th and 13th centuries was in its Golden Age, making massive strides in advancing science, mathematics, technology, philosophy and culture.

But IS doesn’t just nostalgically harken for the glory days; it also presents a distinctly millennial or apocalyptic position, that we are in the last days, and this is how the world will end – with our victory.

By contrast, Christendom in general, and Western nations in particular, have adopted a very lax view of the end of history – we have already won it. The Cold War is over, capitalism has triumphed, there is nothing left to fight for, let’s just all be friends.

So perhaps this is what makes the modern-day African version of Christianity - and moderate Islam - such a hopeless alternative for the harsh lines being drawn by global jihadi movements. The miracle preachers have a very insular outlook of the gospel – that God is there just to meet my personal needs. 

It’s about getting my belly full, getting me the good job and riches, and both the preachers and the congregation are in silent agreement about this – hence the outrage when a pastor doesn’t “keep his end” of the bargain. The dispute is never about the nature of the contract itself. 

But brutal as they are, IS, al-Shabaab and like-minded groups offer a higher purpose, an alternative to the greed, selfishness and excesses of capitalism, and in the caliphate, something not just to die for, but to live for. 

The idea of redrawing the world map; of a chance to die for something bigger than country, probably have a lot more appeal to young people who have been infantilised and portrayed as people who want nothing more than the next selfie, social media update, or to scream at a pop or hip hop concert.

The failure to countenance the possibility that young middle class people would want more, is always evident in the puzzlement as to why they would abandon a prestigious university and join IS and behead a humanitarian worker who is saving lives, or join Al-Shabaab in Somalia. 

So until Christianity gives a more meaningful purpose for the 21st century - and ironically pull a page from some of the most disagreeable in Africa - we are likely to see more desperate Africans stampeding for their next “breakthrough”, while jihadists are literally remaking the African and world map.

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