Magazine article The Christian Century

South African 'Zionists'

Magazine article The Christian Century

South African 'Zionists'

Article excerpt

Every summer I relish spending lazy evenings watching minor-league baseball, which in my neck of Penn's Woods means following the State College Spikes.

Going to Spikes games for leisure does not mean that I escape my professional interests, however--as I learned when I first noticed the name of a talented young player, Gift Ngoepe. Taken together, those names point not only to a South African origin but also to roots in one of that country's many African-initiated churches (or AICs). Gift's mother was praying in a building of the Zion Christian Church (ZCC) when she received a visitation from a woman prophet who assured her that her pregnancy would have a good outcome and that her son would prosper--hence the name Gift.

That story raises a number of questions about some current trends in Christianity. The ZCC itself--always pronounced zed, cee, cee--matters enormously for anyone interested in the world's rising churches. This emerging denomination is a classic example of an independent church founded and led wholly by African people, and since its foundation in 1924 it has been firmly intertwined with African culture and tradition. With perhaps 8 million members, it is a powerful group within South Africa, which is the most influential state on that continent.

ZCC members are easily spotted, with their distinctive silver star badges backed by a green and black ribbon. Every Easter, more than a million ZCC pilgrims gather for several days of celebrations at the church's chief shrine in Zion City Moria. When southern Africans talk about "Zionists," they are usually referring to these churches, not to anything connected to the state of Israel.

But as with many African-initiated churches, some critics question how authentic their Christian views are. Just how, one may ask, did the ZCC acquire its strongly supernatural beliefs, its faith in prophecies, visions and healings, not to mention its dietary customs, which include an avoidance of pork products? ZCC members respect the power of ancestors, and some practice polygamy.

Certainly we can find biblical roots for many of these ideas. But is it not more likely that they represent a kind of syncretism, an accommodation of Christianity to primal African faiths, even to shamanism or magic? Modern African Christianity, according to this view, seems disturbingly primitive.

Yet understanding the ZCC's history places the church in a wholly different context, one that is still altogether African but also remarkably global and even American in character. …

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