Confession and Cosmopolitanism

Frederick Klaits Reviews Jason Bruner

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Jason Bruner, Living Salvation in the East African Revival in Uganda, University of Rochester Press, 2017, 191 pp., $24.95.

What happens when people’s cultural and social horizons undergo dramatic shifts? For those who have experienced colonial rule, this has been a common experience. Mission encounters, wage labor, and urbanization exposed people to a wide range of novel activities and ideas, and compelled them to envision new ways of organizing social life. Under such circumstances, religion has often played a key role in shaping how people imagine what the world is and could become.

A fascinating instance of this process occurred throughout the East African region surrounding Lake Victoria in the 1930s, when large numbers of people began making ostentatious confessions of their sins. Revivalists, most of whom were African converts to the Anglican church, defied expectations and propriety by publicly revealing what had been hidden. Not only at revivals but in marketplaces, buses, and roadways, they would confess to stealing from mission hospitals and schools, drinking alcohol, having multiple sexual partners, and using “charms” around their houses as protections from witchcraft. For these believers, there could be no salvation without confession, and they had no compunctions about denouncing church authorities, powerful chiefs, or family members who would not confess. In limpid prose, historian Jason Bruner recounts in Living Salvation in the East African Revival in Uganda how confession “became a way of life, a new way of understanding oneself and of living in relationship to others.”

The East African Revival, conventionally dated to the late colonial period of the mid-1930s through the 1950s, occurred at a time and place when some of the basic premises of social life had been opened to question. Bruner shows that revivalists, known as Balokole (saved ones, in the Luganda language), “wanted a transformation of society itself.” Bruner’s book is very much in conversation with Derek Peterson’s Ethnic Patriotism and the East African Revival, which frames the revival as part of a broader set of popular efforts to envision social life on a large scale in novel ways. Revivalists, Peterson demonstrates, were in oppositional dialogue with east African “patriots” who were intent on codifying the traditions of particular ethnic groups (such as the Gikuyu, Haya, Baganda, Luo, and Toro) so as to shore up male authority over women. At a time when “men were thrown together in military barracks, in urban slums, in labor lines, and in wire-ringed detention camps,” Peterson writes, they were “obliged to compete with other men for moral authority, and in this competitive world they elaborated patriotic theory…., a philosophy that configured political community as a hierarchically organized family.”

For these ethnic patriots, city-dwelling independent women who engaged in prostitution represented the quintessential threat to the social decorum that underpinned patriarchal authority. As patriots elaborated in their writings, decorum consisted of abiding by certain standards of etiquette focused largely (though not entirely) on feminine concealment. Peterson describes how in southern Uganda, Kiga wives were supposed to listen quietly while their husbands spoke, refrain from contradicting them, and never speak their husbands’ or father-in-laws’ names in public. Elite women in Rwanda were supposed to live and travel behind hedges and screens. Prosperous Luo men maintained their reputations by holding back their words, measuring their speech, and eating with discipline, unlike greedy men who were said to scrape at the bottom of their pots with their fingers. The Luo term denoting that action, bodho, also meant to mispronounce a word and, in noun form, prostitute or adulteress.

Revivalists flouted such standards of decorum in their ecstatic services and obstreperous confessions, as well as in their mobility. Alongside labor migrants, Balokole traveled throughout the region on preaching tours, famously by bicycle. Peterson relates that when Mariya Kamondo, the aunt of the Rwandan king, became saved, she emerged into public view from behind the hedges that encircled her compound, confessed to having mistreated her tenants, and “made a show of walking in revivalists’ company as they set off on their homeward journey.” Rather than ethnic traditions, revivalists promoted a universalist ideal: everyone could live peaceably by ensuring that none of their sinful deeds were kept secret.

The story Bruner tells, based on extensive archival research and interviews with now-elderly revivalists, intersects in many ways with Peterson’s narrative. However, Bruner argues that it was primarily “those who did not convert” who perceived the revival movement to be mainly “about division and dissent.” What Bruner presents instead, or in addition, is a story of how “the revival was a new kind of unifying community.” This community was based on what Bruner calls an “ascetic cosmopolitanism” that countered both ethnic patriotism and the sinful aspects of urban life, in particular drinking and prostitution. Most of the leaders of the revival were comparatively young teachers, nurses, and pastors who had some experience with professional employment in the colonial economy, and most of the sins they identified were what Bruner calls “sins of cosmopolitanism.” These included illicit sexual relationships while working in towns, dishonesty with cash, and thefts from mission stations and schools.

In confessing these sins and traveling on preaching tours, revivalists embarked on a life of “walking in the light.” Bruner details how conversion affected revivalists’ bodies by provoking ecstatic “signs” of freedom from sin, by leading them to flout traditional food taboos, and by enabling them to live to old age free of alcohol and tobacco. He describes how revivalists recast domestic life in terms of companionate marriage, so that Balokole spouses called each another “friends” and refrained from beating their children. Balokole encouraged Hima converts who had practiced semi-nomadic pastoralism to construct permanent homes with walled rooms, an architectural style that indicated that men would no longer offer their wives to visiting male relatives. “The home was constructed around the avoidance of adultery.” In all this, Bruner points out, “Balokole were removing ethnic particularity from their bodies and domestic spaces” while rejecting the “cosmopolitan excess” of non-converted city dwellers.

Given the stress Bruner places on cosmopolitanism, it was surprising to this reader that he does not engage with current debates about the concept. In his book Cosmopolitanism, Kwame Anthony Appiah makes a case that “ethics in a world of strangers” ought to consist not simply of tolerance of ethnic diversity, but of openness to dialogue with those who do not share one’s views. It is clear from both Bruner’s and Peterson’s accounts that many circumstances in the late colonial period in east Africa compelled large numbers of people to come to terms with a “world of strangers” on a scale that their forebears had not envisioned. As Appiah would lead us to expect, those circumstances prompted all concerned to rethink – in multiple ways, and with multiple outcomes – how (not) to engage with strangers on ethical terms. In this sense, Balokole were confronting questions of what it might mean to be properly cosmopolitan. Yet their “ascetic cosmopolitanism” was premised on drawing sharp distinctions between their daily activities and those of the unconverted, who would not necessarily have regarded their own habits of beer drinking, observing food taboos, deferring to traditional authorities, or taking lovers as blameworthy. In Appiah’s terms, Balokole might therefore be considered “counter-cosmopolitans.” Counter-cosmopolitans are those whose universalist ideals lead them to advocate not respectful dialogue but uniformity, in some instances at the cost of violence.

What has been the legacy of the East African Revival over the long run, and in what sense might it be understood to have furthered “cosmopolitanism” in any guise in the context of postcolonial transformations? These questions fall outside the scope of Bruner’s study, but clearly, the revival had a long-lasting impact on the Anglican church and subsequent Pentecostal movements in the region (see Kevin Ward and Emma Wild-Wood’s edited volume The East African Revival: History and Legacies). For his part, Peterson traces the impulses behind anti-homosexuality legislation in contemporary Uganda, promulgated with the support of United States-based evangelical groups, to the efforts of ethnic patriots and revivalists alike to codify standards of sexual conduct during the colonial period (as discussed in Rachel C. Schneider’s Marginalia review of Adriaan van Klinken and Ezra Chitando’s edited volumes on religion and homosexuality in Africa). Again, counter-cosmopolitanism seems an apt characterization.

This said, Bruner’s book provides an excellent, clearly written introduction for anyone interested in the history of Christian missions and revivalism to a religious movement that deserves to be more widely known. Rather than looking for ways to demonstrate cultural continuities between Christian revival and non-Christian religious movements, Bruner aligns himself with anthropologist Joel Robbins in taking converts seriously when they say that they have made a break with the past. However, understood in conjunction with Peterson’s treatment of ethnic patriotism, Living Salvation shows how popular efforts either to trace continuities or to insist on discontinuities may each derive from novel needs to come to terms with an expanded set of social horizons.

Frederick Klaits is an Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at SUNY-Buffalo. His research, carried out in Botswana and the urban United States, focuses on Christian commitment and problems of care.

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