CESNUR - Centro Studi sulle Nuove Religioni diretto da Massimo Introvigne

londonThe 2008 International Conference
Twenty Years and More: Research into Minority Religions, New Religious Movements and 'the New Spirituality'

An International Conference organized by INFORM and CESNUR in association with ISORECEA at the London School of Economics, 16-20th April 2008

(Old) New religious movements: Christianism and Ancestorhood in the St. Joshua Star Church

by Josué Tomasini Castro

A paper presented at the 2008 International Conference, London, UK. Preliminary version. Please do not reproduce or quote without the consent of the author.



Can we call “new” a religious system set on old presuppositions if the arranged elements within it are recognized by its millennial entails with other types of religious knowledge? Therefore, the novelty of such complexes lies in the way those elements are organized within a new relationship with the sacred. I will deal within this paper with a specific empiric reality, paying close attention on such problems – of the antiquity of novelty and the new in what existed before. The analysis will be based in data collection in Okondjatu, an Herero vilage situated in the northeast part of Namibia. Through the analysis of this specific situation I intend to demonstrate how Christianity and ‘traditional’ elements in the St. Joshua Star Church are intermingled, thus creating a new set of articulations, a new picture with some old characters.


In this paper I will invest on possible reflextions on some ethnographic accounts experimented (maybe more than collected) in a short and primary fieldwork I had in Okondjatu, a Herero village in northern Namibia, Africa, during the end of 2005 and the firt months following it. Okondjatu was a central village in a not so central region of Namibia. This means, in other words, that it had a main population of 8 hundred to 1 thousand inhabitants. Besides that it was the only village in the region having some kind of energy (at least where its bars were placed) and more than one fixed church. Here, I take the example of one of these churches: the St. Joshua Star Church.
I´ll try to be most ethnographic I can so my reading can be more interesting. These and other contextualizations are important so I can be coherent with my anthropological efforts.

* * *
It was Sunday. Just another day in Okondjatu if wasn’t for the busy religious trafic occurring during the first hours of the morning. That day I should wait a man in my tend for he said he wanted to give some informations about Okuruwo (the place where men should go to talk with his ancestors). I was waiting him since 8 am and close to 9:30 Noky came to invite me to go to his church, the St. Joshua Star Church. “The man I am waiting is almost 2 hours late”, I thought. “I will go”, I told Noky. I put my pants and we went to his house where he should dress up with his church white tunic.
When we got there, the door was closed, we should wait the music begin again to knock the door so we would not disturb the service. The temple is a small room for not more than 50 persons. Music starts, we knock at the door and a man comes out with a pail of water in the hand. He closes the door again behinds him and starts to sprinkle the water in our hands and faces. Finally we can go in. The door is opened before us. Inside, it is dark and hot – the door and the only two windows are closed. Every one is in circle in front of a large table were the Bishop and his wife have their places. There is also two wood poles in the middle of the church, one close to the table, the other some feets behind it, where people dance around during the songs. After maybe 2 hours of dancing, singing and prophesying (they alternate each other every few minutes), the Bishop gets in the church, his eyes are closed and will remain like this until the end of the service. He take over the leading of the service and after welcome me, he asks Noky to stand up to translate everything to me. It was funny, Noky there, standing, while I was still seated listening to his loudy translations.
More than one hour has passed now (more than two since we had arrived in the church) and the service is going to its end. Before that, Bishop Abiud once again turns to me (his eyes still close) saying that I should look the place where they were having the service and also the place where they live so I could put it in my reports and tell people in Brazil how they live (in fact managed to) in Okondjatu. He said again that they will pray so god can give me strength to do my work. Finaly, after saying they were very proud of having someone learning about their culture he says what will help me to introduce a some interesting think we should keep in mind until my conclusions: “This is not Herero culture, but these are Herero people”.
More than a breaktrhough sentence, this can be seen as the hallmark of africans creativity. In fact, an outsider – as, for example, the pastor of another Christian church in Okondjatu, or me myself – could also say about it that the church is also not the Christian culture, admitting certainly that those are still “Herero people”.
God to think! Lets now to some more contextualizations, this time of my thoughts when thinking on this prophetic movements in Africa as new religious movements. Some questions will be raised which the following ethnographic accounts are suppose to illuminate, poiting to some possible answers.

Prophetic movements in Africa

Scholars studying what – for lack of a better term and believing in its neutrality – has been called since the 1980s ‘new religious movements’ (NRMs) have been trying since then to workout a way of describing/interpreting this what is said to be ‘new’ (Fox, 2005). It is not just a question of defining the point in the history of a religion where it evolved to something new, corrupting what was old, but to focus on what is new in relation to the previous religious systems.
That is, there is always some past religious dogma in the base of a ‘new’ one. A good starting point, though I think it can be much of a common place. It can serve either as a opposition against which the new system will be formed or as a donor of some of its features – or both, as was the case with the Judaism in relation to Christianity (Halbwachs, 2002). The prophetic movements in Africa are also a case in question. Born in the middle of different colonial situations, they were a mix of Christianity or Islamism with specific – commonly called – ‘traditional’ beliefs (sometimes adding mystical practices and also some non-religious elements – fetishizing commodities, like in the cargo cult), all conjugated to fashion a new way to think and act in the world and the supernatural domains.
Trying to recollect the history of these “unexpected movements” (as Balandier (1976) would say) one sees its origins in a explosive moment when its leader had (usually) a dream where he found god or another entity and from them he receives a new message: the ‘new’ doctrine of the ‘new’ church. These new dogmas elaborated by a charismatic individual are thus transmitted to a new community of believers which will be known as a church, a movement, a cult or yet a sect to those more Christian biased scholars. The community, as we know, will not OBVIOUSLY and blindly follow its leader until the ends of the world. Some may probably feel they can go on by their own and create another church. This is much the case of Christianity and with St. Joshua Star Church being considered here.
Now, flowing through some anthropological streams, we should at least wonder what those inside the movements say about themselves. Following that we would, maybe not so surprisingly, hear “we are Christians” or, stronger than that, “we are the true Christians”. Isn’t it exactly what is implicit when the Bakongo say that they “are tired of sharing God with the white man” (Balandier, 1976 [1966], p. 212)? So now they must have their own church where they can really reach god. Or, yet that commonly sentence that before the whites get to Africa, “we had the land and you had the Bible. Now you have the land and we got the Bible” (Sundkler, 1948, p. 33)?
As it seems, in the middled of all this novelties, we can listen not to claims of newness, but a kind of conservationism which is intended to reach the ‘true’ value of all those past beliefs. Now, if we follow some already taken-for-granted conventions in anthropology that we should accept each case as it is (as said Leach, 1961) – that is, not calling sect what “they” call church, or saying “non-Christian” when people say they are the true Christians – we are logically bounded on saying that in fact these movements are not new, they are just the continuity of an already existent Christian complex. Unfortunately it is not so easy.
We already know, there is no continuity without change (recalling Comaroff & Comaroff, 1993; Hobsbawn & Ranger, 1971; Sahlins, 1981; Halbwachs, 2002; just to quote some), and indeed one can presume Christianity would never have persisted in Africa and elsewhere if wasn’t for its capacity (and its’ new believers criativity) to be refashioned in face of new social frames. Thus, there is still Christianity there, it has certainly change, but it persists maintaining some of its old elements (god, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, the idea of a church, the cross etc) and adding some other pre-existent configurations (the ancestors, sacrifices, mystical beliefs etc).
This will bring us a question: if there is not a new religion (assuming that what we have is just one more facet of this multi-Janus-faced-Christianity) where then is the novelty of these movements which are usually said to be NRMs? My ethnographic accounts on the St. Joshua Star Church will try to answer this, explaining, in other words, the antiquity of novelty and the new in what existed before.

The St. Joshua Star Church

Led by Bishop Abiud, this small church has its origins in a prophetic movement created by a woman in the 1970s in Botswana. In the 1990s, Abiud were a member of one of this churches in Windhoek, Namibian capital city. After having manifested the gift of prophecy when he had just 20 years old, as he told me, his leaders on the church expelled him and after a profound encounter with god and experiences of faith, healings and prophecies he decided to build a church for himself, to create a new community. It was finally constructed in Okondjatu by the end of the 1990s.
The church works with sacrifices, prophecies, systems of mystic causation (using an expression of Mary Douglas to substitute ‘magic systems’ (Douglas, 1967)), prayers, healing practices and cults surronded with cerimonies to establish contact with the invisible world. Outlining each of these events and its prescribed configurations it is possible to find features both from Christian and ‘traditional’ dogmas. More than just options in a religious repertoire, theses elements are juxtaposed. It isn’t one or the other, it is “this and that too” – taking on loan the words of Wilson Trajano (2003) when talking about a singular experience of creolization on Guinea Bissau. Thus, the intermingling of Christian and ‘traditional’ elements give this community its particular worldview, its dogma.
Before continuing, I will briefly describe each one of this donating systems so the last part of my effort can be better understood.
The ‘traditional’ dogma. What I´m calling here the ‘traditional dogma’ is what the hereros call Okuruwo (the Holy Fire), a place where a man can talk with his forefathers to pay respect or to ask for something. It is interesting to highlight that when saying ‘talk’ and not ‘pray’, and using the term ‘forefather’ and not ‘ancestor’ I´m going against analyses that think of this systems as ‘worship’ (Fortes 1987; 1983; 1940) and locating myself in the middle of those who see in it ‘eldership’ (Kopytoff 1971), assuming a relation of secular continuity between dead and living and not an extreme rupture between a man’s role in life and after it.
A herero lineage has at least one Okuruwo – each segment of a major lineage can also have one which will be connected with the main one, respecting the lineages rule of agnatic descent. A separate place (more than sacred as the Westerns translation putted it), it stands over the lineage chief’s responsability and has to be located between his house and the family kraal – where stays the livestock. There they put some shrubs in the ground and in front, surronding it, there is three small heavy branches, where the man will sit to talk with his dead father.
The chief has to visit the Okuruwo daily, in the sunshine and in the sunset, when the ‘spirit of the dead blow the embers’ brought from his house and putted under the shrubs, making a thin smoke that can be seen by everyone near, reminding them of their dead fathers, still responsible for the care of their family. The embers – which has to be always burning – are taken from the front of a pole standing vertically in the center of the chief’s house – the main house of all the compound where the chief lives with his wife – being this the contact between the visible and the invisible world, between living and dead.
When someone in the family is sick or has another problem the chief will go to his family Okuruwo to present the question to his father which should point out the motive of the specific misfortune – if the one has failed on paying respect to his elders or if he was bewitched – and also what has to be done so the problem can be solved – if the chief will have to sacrifice an animal or ritually sprinkle some water on the unfortunate (a kind of “washing”), bringing the one before the Okuruwo, appeasing the forces acting against him.
In a cosmological sense (being this more rationalization – knowledge – than faith – belief) hereros usually talk indifferently about Ndjambi and Mukuro. The former is seen as the creator of the world, the latter, also with such fecundity powers has not a clear position in this system. Both, they say, after creating everything left the world to human kind destiny, taking refuge in a distant place and there remaining without any interest or pleasure on their creatures and also without having the attention of his creatures. These two characters are commonly find in wide portions of the Bantu world and human’s attitued toward them are usually the same – see Herskovits (1924; 1962) and Dozon (1974) to some few examples.
This is the central aspects of the dogma surrounding the Okuruwo, a ‘traditional’ system that has somewhat sacred beings, but that in practice, when interacting in the world, is substantially based on the eldership logic, the organizational principle of the visible world and of its invisible regions, where the dead elders (the so-called ‘ancestors’) and the place of interaction between living and dead (translated as ‘Holy Fire’) are the main referential elements of its dogma.
The Christian dogma. It is hard to know exactly with which kind of Christianity that first woman prophet elaborated the core of its faith, but taking the history of the missionary expansion in the region where the movement started – the south of Africa – and some other features I can have some precision in saying it should have been a kind of protestant church.1
Since the first years of missionary work in the continent until today, many things has changed in what was understood as Christianity. Some features, however, still remain, they are, so to speak, the core of protestant christianity. The main one is the belief in an unique sacred being, the only god. This, creator of the world and everything there is in it, is available to humans through his son Jesus and his holy ghost, both being middlemen between god and the human kind
To his creatures, it is necessary to confess their sins, regret from the old practices and go to the (now) sacred place, the church, where the Missionary, the Pastor, the Bishop etc, prepared to preach the word of his god ‘until the limits of earth’, stands up in front of his community and through the Bible and the revelations of the holy ghost, teaches the believers the divine nature and the rules of profession and practice of their faith.

* * *
Enough for contextualizations. I should direct my efforts now to the core of this paper, making use of some features of the St. Joshua Star Church to present its newness in relation to Christianity and to the Okuruwo, highlighting some convergences of those past dogmas toward the formation of an unique crossed dogma, thus finishing my paper to show the antiquity of novelty and the new in what existed before. I chose two aspects which I see as central expressions of this church’s dogma: (1) the way followers go to god for help and (2) the way the Bishop receives from god the revelations to perform a healing or treat any other problem.
(1) Sending the massage: believers – (forefathers –); holy ghost; Jesus – god. The protestant Christianity sees in Jesus and in the holy ghost the middlebeings between god and human kind, they are the bridge every Christian has to cross, the ones who intercede for the believers to the ‘father of creation’. In the Okuruwo, the forefather is the middleman between the visible and the invisible and, the chief, mediate the relation of his community with his father – the one who ‘gives us the present’, as some people say.
In the St. Joshua Star Church the process is similar to both, but it is not identical to any. In Christianity the vertical line in which the massage must follow is believers – holy ghost; Jesus – god, in the Okuruwo it is (community –) chief – forefather. In the church in case, the process is another one, the references are crossed. This can be saw when, during the service, a man stands toward the middle of the church and says to his forefather: “Why you want to take me to you? My father, who is there in the grave. Here I am my forefather, do not take me. Jesus, say to my father in the grave that I am here. Give me your blessing in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
Clearly, there is an intense crossing of past dogmas in this discourse. Just as expressed in the words of that man, Jesus must say to his dead father – the forefather –, that he is there and, after that, give him the blessing, this coming now from god. Certainly obscure, the process appears clear in the words of the Bishop himself, when he told me that “god is the owner of everything that was created on earth. Jesus is his son and the forefathers too, both can go to god (...). The holy ghost, Jesus and the forefathers, they are all from god”.
Thus, juxtaposing those past dogmas (now altered) what we have is a ‘method’ of sending the messages to god that is configurated in the following manner: believers – (forefathers –); holy ghost; Jesus – god, and in many cases the foreathers can also be used as middlemen between the believers and the holy ghost and Jesus.
(2) Receiving the revelation: Bible – holy ghost – praying; sacrifice; ‘magic’. The second and last example of these kind of arrengements in St. Joshua Star Church can be seen when it is waited from god a answer to a pray, that is, the inverse process of the first case. As already said, the healings, prophecies and sorcery breaking are the main works of the church and it is exactly in these moments that god’s answer is more requested. I take the example of the healings to explain how this proceed.
In one of the first contact I had with Bishop Abiud, I asked him how the healing processes worked – about which he talked so much when telling me all the cures he had already accomplished with the manipulation of special medicines. His answer, in itself, exposes clearly the way things are suppose to work:
“If any one sick comes talk with me the first thing I do is to pray and open the Bible. Is the Bible that will show me what to do. Or also, after reading the Bible, I will have to wait for the holy ghost to prophesy and so we will know if it will be necessary to sacrifice some animal, take some special medicine prescribed in the prophesy itself, make some other type of job or go to the Okuruwo. Some times the holy ghost will tell us that the unfurtunate’s forefather is missing him and that the one must simply go to his father’s Okuruwo and present himself to his forefathers.”

This is the starting point of any work the church and his Bishop can perform. This means that it is the holy ghost, through the Bible or revelation, that will utter the problem (the cause of the disease) and give the final orientations, revealing what must be done so the healing may be reached. There is no clear rules about the way the medicine has to be manipulated or which animal has to be sacrificed. Abiud says that all this, who tell him is the holy ghost and the Bible.
Thus, if in Christianity the only healing source is the “power of god” manifested through his holy ghost, and in the Okuruwo the cure is given by the forefather manifested as such to his son; in the St. Joshua Star Church the source is expanded. Praying is not the only way to healings in the church’s dogma, neither is sacrificing animals or manipulating medicines (what we could call the ‘magic’ element – like the sprinkle of water in the Okuruwo). The healing references in this church are once again crossed with already old features.


I should bring again that introduced account before concluding. Now, when Abiud says “this is not herero culture, but we are hereros” what does this can mean when conjugated with the brief ethnographic analysis just presented? Some say that is not the Herero culture, that is, the Okuruwo dogmas, others say that it is also not the Christian one. Surely the St. Joshua Star Church is not exactly any of it, but at the same time it is both. Those two features described above (that of sending the message and of receiving the revelation) certainly show exactly this: that there is old elements, both from Christianity and Okuruwo. However, full of this past references, the way that elements are arranged can represent something that is not from any of those dogmas. This is its newness: the arrangement of past elements in a new dogma, the crossing of old characters in new methods of dealing with the sacred.
Besides that – of all the novelty constructed with old references – we should ask, approaching the emphasis of this session: Why all this should be taken as Christian history? I propose two kind of explications to this questions, thus finishing this paper.
When the other religious (Christian) leaders in Okondjatu talked about this church they usually called it the “clapping church”, “devil’s church”, “prophetic church” or yet “healing church”. In all this, as one could imagine, its members were never considered as Christians. And in fact, on the few evangelistic moments of the other two churches, members of the St. Joshua Star Church were the central target, even more than those practicing the Okuruwo. However, when its members talk about this they often say those evangelistic efforts are completely wrong: “we are Christians too”, they say. We can call this the anthropological explication. As I said before, we should take as central what those famous anthropological “Others” say about themselves.
Finally, many, when studying the existance of prophetic movements in Africa often regarded those as byproducts of colonialism, as elements of protest. These protests, it is said, are clearly seen in the way Westerns beliefs are incorporated to these movements. They are reshaped, serving the purposes of the “subordinate” – another common notion. This movements are totally bounded to the place where they were first fashioned, there is, they are based on the specific socio-cultural situations in which its leaders and believers are. In the south of Africa, Christianity was heavily represented by the works of mainly English Protestants and German Lutherans. So, taking up a historical explanation we can see the relations (between Christianity and ‘traditional’ dogmas) and conceive these movements – particularly the St. Joshua Star Church – as outcomes of Christian history, as its continuity and surviving.

Bibliographic References

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_______               1976. Ambiguous Africa. New York: Discus. [1966]
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1. Remembering that in 1795 the London Missionary Society was created. In 1799, was the year of the first missionary work of the Society in what is today South Africa. Finally, in 1805, in nowadays Nambia, it were established the first missionary station of what would be know as German South West Africa. (Comaroff & Comaroff, 1991)


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