Religion and identity politics in Jamaica
A humanities review of Pathways International Kingdom Restoration Ministries in Paradise, St James
The first few days in January is the usual time of the year when most of us take stock of our personal lives and set new goals for a more successful year.
If most of us were to carry out a serious forensic evaluation of our pledges over the last five years, we might be shocked to see that for most of us, not much has significantly changed in our lives. This is partially because we as humans have become creatures of culture and have adapted quite comfortably more or less in our cultural environment and will not change much of our behaviour unless we are forced to change.
This reality is most evident at the beginning of every academic semester when students, primarily incoming ones, take one of the core foundation courses, Caribbean Civilization, in the Faculty of Humanities and Education, at the University of the West Indies, Mona.
The students are usually asked in one of our first lectures to explain the critical factors in a civilized society. Most often, these students, like their parents and most of us as adults, equate Western culture and its concept of modernity with civilisation. By the end of that first lecture or by the end of the course, several of our students have awakened to the realisation that they have been plugged into the Western world’s matrix. They have subconsciously aligned their identity with the Western world’s representation of culture, and they are agents of the identity politics of the Western world.
Some of these students continue the process of both deconstructing their Western ideas and philosophies and rebuilding their world view to become more open to ideas and concepts of the non-Western world. It is now clear to many of our students the important role of identity construction and reconstruction and the importance of engaging in the humanities.
Such students whose academic concentrations are not in the humanities do choose electives courses in the humanities to understand further Caribbean history, culture, literature, language, philosophy, education, and mode of communication.
INTERPRETING HISTORICAL AND CONTEMPORARY EVENTS
It is clear to many of our students the kind of revisionist methodologies we as scholars in the humanities use in our analysis of the various kinds of data.
The 2021 case surrounding the Pathways International Kingdom Restoration Ministries in Paradise, St James, after three members were allegedly killed in a ritual, is a good example of the kind of analysis we use in interpreting both historical and contemporary events.
If the allegations are true that human sacrifices were being offered at the Pathways International Kingdom Restoration Ministries in Paradise, Montego Bay, St James, then I am not surprised. Unlike other persons I heard on radio discussing the atrocities and questioning how we got to this stage in post-modern Jamaica, the signs had become evident.
Given our history of colonialism and enslavement in Jamaica, African Jamaicans have historically created a hybrid form of Christianity to counter missionary theology and discourse. However, with the increase of North American fundamentalist religious culture streaming incessantly in our local media since the early 20th century, and with many of our African Jamaicans finding patronage with North American evangelical preachers, our hybrid variations of Christianity became individualistic and messianic.
HYBRID FORM OF CHRISTIANITY
The starting point of any such analysis must begin with what historians’ term the Great Revival of the 1860s. If there was ever a time the European white missionaries believed the African Jamaican population was finally being converted, it was during the Great Revival.
During that time, the European missionaries cited miraculous stories of conversions, documenting the conversion of Africans to traditional Christianity. However, with time, the missionaries realised that they had misread the Great Revival, given their zeal to see the Africans Christianised.
The African Jamaicans, in their hybrid forms of religious manifestations, created a plethora of religions in the 19th century such as Revival Zion (60), Pocomania (61), the Isaiah Movement, Convince, Kumina, and Bedwardism. These movements were theologically African and most critical of white traditional Christianity.
A hybrid form of Christianity was even evident in some of the Christian churches such as the Native Baptist churches. Some of the rituals associated with the Morant Bay War of 1865 provided a clear example of the ways in which Africans, who were in leadership in the Christian church, mixed traditional Christianity with African rituals.
It is now common knowledge by historians that Paul Bogle concocted rum with gun powder and gave this to his special followers as part of an oath-taking ceremony.
Dr Clinton Hutton, in a 2015 Jamaica Gleaner article, documents the eyewitness testimony of a policeman, James Foster, who was sent to arrest Bogle in Stony Gut. He detailed the following:
Seven men go into Paul Bogle’s room. They all had cutlasses. Paul Bogle spoke to the men in a language I did not understand. The men all took the oath. They kissed a large book, the Bible. Paul Bogle gave each of them a dram of rum and gun powder, which they drank. I saw the rum and powder mixed myself in a large bottle. (Hutton, 2015, Jamaica Gleaner)
According to Hutton, prior to the 1760s, the Bible was not included as part of the oath-taking ceremony as Christianity was not yet introduced to the enslaved. The Bible may have been added later by Bogle as Christianity would now have been in circulation for approximately 80 years.
Despite Bogle’s use of African rituals, it is clear that Bogle’s version of Christianity was one in which he, as leader, defended the rights of the oppressed, poor, black members of society against the power and might of the colonial authorities. For his continuous action in standing up as a Christian leader to the colonial state, he was martyred and is now one of our national heroes.
THE GREAT REVIVALIST ALEXANDER BEDWARD
The same can be said of Alexander Bedward, the greatest Revivalist leader Jamaica knew from the 1890s to the 1930s. Bedward built a powerful religious movement (the Jamaica Native Baptist Free Church), which boasted of having over 30,000 members, both locally and internationally.
The Bedwardites were all over Jamaica in almost every parish and were a thorn in the side of the colonial authorities since their massive numbers signified a strong socio-political organisation. The masses of poor people loved Bedward and adored him as their anti-colonial champion.
The colonial government sent policemen, both in plain clothes and in uniform, to every weekly public meeting of the Bedwardites. Bedward, however, was unapologetic in informing his audience that a time was coming when the black wall would crush the white wall. For this he was tried for sedition but freed and became more of a threat to the colonial establishment. He had to be humbled and brought low.
This opportunity came to the colonial state when the Bedwardites decided to march from August Town to downtown Kingston, with palm branches singing “Onward Christian Soldiers going off to war”. Bedward was arrested, freed, rearrested, and sent to the lunatic asylum known as the Bellevue Mental Hospital.
Despite Bedward’s popularity among the masses, he, as leader, was willing to pay the price for his affront on the colonial state. He willingly became the martyr on behalf of the masses.
The demise of Bedward led to a major religious swing in the island with the rise of Pentecostalism and other such Charismatic movements. These black preachers no longer identify with Bogle and Bedward and have become agents of the North American conservative religious right.
These Pentecostals and Charismatics, for example, although they benefitted numerically from the declining Bedwardite movement, have sought patronage with North American evangelical preachers. Bedward’s black theology of liberation on behalf of the black masses was replaced by North American individualism and a prosperity gospel.
Some of these rich black preachers feast on the diminishing resources of the poor black masses. The black working class have now become the sacrifice.
Dave Gosse is the director of the Institute of Caribbean Studies, UWI, Mona, and the author of ‘Abolition and Plantation Management in Jamaica, 1807-1838’ and a forthcoming book in April 2021, ‘Alexander Bedward – the Prophet of August Town, Race, Religion and Colonialism’.