Accepted paper:

Private discipline as public critique: Pentecostal asceticism in a self-proclaimed "Christian nation"


Naomi Haynes (University of Edinburgh)

Paper short abstract:

This paper analyzes the relationship between private religious practice, especially ascetic discipline, and political critique among Pentecostal Christians in urban Zambia. I argue that Pentecostal practice produces not only theological debate, but also public engagement with state authority.

Paper long abstract:

In what is probably the most important study of African Pentecostal Christianity to emerge in the last decade, Ruth Marshall has argued that this religion should be understood first and foremost as a political project. Her argument turns on the centrality of Pentecostal techniques of the self, seen primarily in disciplines like fasting. According to Marshall, these disciplines transform the non-believer into the Christian subject, and therefore, when pursued in aggregate, represent a program for public transformation. In this paper, I present a different ethnographic account of private Pentecostal discipline, one that moves beyond asceticism as a process of subject-formation to interpret practices such as fasting as part of a critical theological debate. My argument draws on ethnographic material collected among Pentecostals in Zambia. For these believers, ascetic practices are structured by a set of ideas about who God is and how he acts in the world, ideas that are regularly reconfigured as new circumstances call them into question. While these are theological questions, they are fundamentally political as well, and this is especially true in Zambia, the only African country to make a constitutional declaration that it is a "Christian nation." In Zambia, Christian theology is political, and Pentecostal practice engages state authority in a particularly public manner. Insofar as this is the case, Pentecostal practice can also be seen as a site of political engagement and critique, an observation that brings us back to Marshall's argument, but that differs from it in important respects.

panel P36
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