Thursday, June 14, 2007

Christianity among the Urban Squatters

I was intrigued to see this article on the urban slum population in India on One of the factoids mentioned in this piece is about the rise of pentecostal Christianity in slums. This is mentioned by author Mike Davis in his book Planet of Slums. Curious about this, I did some research on Davis and read quotes from his works on several websites. Here's one from a fellow Indian (full article here).

The counterpart of populist Islam in the slums of Latin America and much of sub-Saharan Africa is Pentecostalism. Christianity, of course, is now in its majority a non-Western religion, and Pentecostalism is its most dynamic missionary in cities of poverty. Indeed, Pentecostalism is the first major world religion to have grown up almost entirely in the soil of the modem urban slum. Unified around spirit baptism, miracle healing, charismata, and a premillennial belief in a coming world war of capital and labor, early American Pentecostalism originated as a "prophetic democracy" whose rural and urban constituencies overlapped, respectively, with those of Populism and the Industrial Workers of the World. Its early missionaries yielded nothing to the I.W.W. in their vehement denunciations of the injustices of industrial capitalism and its inevitable destruction.Since 1970, largely because of its appeal to slum women and its reputation for being colorblind, Pentecostalism has been growing into what is arguably the largest self-organized movement of urban poor people on the planet. Recent claims of "over 533 million Pentecostal/charismatics in the world in 2002" are probably hyperbolic, but there may well be half that number.In contrast to populist Islam, which emphasizes civilizational continuity and the transclass solidarity of faith, Pentecostalism, in the tradition of its African-American origins, retains a fundamentally exilic identity. Although, like Islam in the slums, it efficiently correlates itself to the survival needs of the informal working class (organizing self-help networks for poor women, offering faith healing as para-medicine, providing recovery from alcoholism and addiction, insulating children from the temptations of the street), its ultimate premise is that the urban world is corrupt, unjust, and unreformable. With the left still largely missing from the slums, the eschatology of Pentecostalism admirably refuses the inhuman destiny of the Third World city that Slums warns about. It also sanctifies those who, in every structural and existential sense, truly live in exile.

One of my enduring memories from the two years I spent in Delhi from 1996 to '98 is that of a small team of men and women- all students from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and members of an Assemblies of God congregation in the city- visiting a neighbourhood slum. They taught kids to read and write and on occasion brought in speakers from the church to address whoever would listen. They had Christmas celebrations and plays organized by the kids at the slum. There was some opposiion initially but as the slum dwellers watched the group and saw their lives and sincereity they eventually warmed to them. Although I wasn't involved in the group's activities, I watched this happen on several occasions and one incident captured it well. One day as I accompanied them into the slum a small kid let us know that one of the little girls in a mud hut wouldn't come out because her mom had passed away a few days ago. One of the women went inside the hut to talk to her. Eventually she came out and put her arms around another woman-missionary and wept uncontrollably. They stood there for a long time, the girl weeping, the woman just standing there holding her. No words were exchanged.

If Pentecostalism is indeed on the rise- or any other form of evangelical Christianity for that matter- could it be more than faith healing? Could it be that Jesus' wounds still comfort and his hands still stretch out to feed and bless (through his church)? Perhaps those who are quick to point fingers at fallen idols among Christian leaders don't understand or acknowledge the lamps that still burn, but to the needy these men and women offer something noone else can- the Bread of life.

Mike Davis- I don't know if he's a Christian, I do know he leans prominently to the political Left- writes that Pentecostalism is the first modern religious movement to arise from the urban have-nots. He's probably right that in our day and age no other movement has come up similarly, but Christianity itself was one such movement 2000 years ago. After all, barring Paul and a few wealthy or influential people such as Joseph of Arimethea, Nicodemus and Philemon, the vast majority of Jesus' followers belonged to the less wealthy sections of the urban society of the time. The churches that Paul preached in were all in the cities. Paul writes to the Corinthian church:

Consider your own calling, brothers. Not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. Rather, God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise, and God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong, and God chose the lowly and despised of the world, those who count for nothing, to reduce to nothing those who are something, so that no human being might boast before God. It is due to him that you are in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, as well as righteousness, sanctification, and redemption, so that, as it is written, "Whoever boasts, should boast in the Lord." (1 Cor 1:26-31)

I'm reminded of what Malcolm Muggeridge wrote in one of his books (autobiography? Jesus rediscovered?) on Simone Weil's recollection of a scene in Portugal. A group of fisherfolk in procession with an indescribable sadness along the shore, singing to God. Hope is in Christ, and I haven't found it anywhere else.

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