Jason Bruner, Living Salvation in the East African Revival in Uganda.
Bruner offers a thoughtful account of the experiences of a group of Christians in Uganda who claimed the identity of balokole. This group emerged in the 1920s within the Anglican Church in Uganda and the Great Lakes region and saw themselves as different, shaped by experiences of public confession and inner conversion. The name balokole refers to their choice 'to walk in the light' as a community.
In the introduction, Bruner sets out his approach and sources, explaining his decision to focus on a sometimes elusive subject in colonial Africa--the lived experiences of 'ordinary' Christians. Many existing sources favour elites, and the literature on religious revivalism and the Anglican Church of Uganda is often a story of missionaries, priests and leaders, a story of ethnic and national politics and state formation. Through oral history, Bruner also wants to explore the development of a distinct identity within a mainline church. Bruner suggests that we have too easily elided notions of agency with dissent, and too often overlooked the work that goes into pursuing a distinct identity within a mainline church. He aims to show the creative ways in which Christians pursued their faith within what often looked like a fairly uninspired historical mission church.
Chapter 1 documents the history of the balokole. There is an argument concerning the retreat of the missionary Anglican Church into a largely bureaucratic world --'lives regulated by timetables and programmes'--opening up space for those concerned with a more spiritual Christianity. In an echo of recent work on contemporary 'born again' movements, 'witchcraft' was often held up as a force holding people back and an attachment that needed to be broken (a theme developed further in Chapter 2). But there was also a political edge. Although Bruner wants to emphasize the ways in which balokole reconciled their distinct identity with their membership of the Church of Uganda, he cannot entirely escape the way the movement challenged political institutions and authorities.
Chapter 3 looks at the way 'living in the light' meant taking up new bodily experiences, including the often physical experience of conversion as well as the codes of dress, diet and personal conduct that defined the balokole lifestyle. Here, he is able to make an interesting set of arguments about gender. Many balokole women were able to do things in communities that were patriarchal and hierarchical. Chapter 4 discusses the role migration and work played in the lives of balokole, illustrating the close relationship between migration and male identity (men, more than women, moved around and were more obviously implicated in the colonial economy).
Chapters 5 and 6 remind us of the tension between the personal pietistic aspects of the movement and its more confrontational aspects. Chapter 5 focuses on the ways in which domestic lives were reconfigured around balokole identities. There is a contrasting analogy between the tidy new homes that balokole made for themselves and the 'dirty' homes they spoke of coming from. Chapter 6 looks at the confrontations that developed in educational institutions, as school authorities sought to discipline balokole students, while balokole students sought to reorient life in accordance with their understanding of salvation. A concluding chapter, ending with a section titled 'Unity', weaves together the themes of the book, presenting how others saw the balokole movement and how the balokole saw themselves.
Reading between the lines in Living Salvation, we get a sense of how much of that 'living' was tied to everyday practices that helped people feel that they were on their way to somewhere positive, somewhere ahead. It strikes me that central to popular experiences of Christianity in Uganda is a sense that to be a spiritual person is to be a 'developed' person. Balokole were interested in teachings on hygiene and personal dress and sought to mark themselves out by embracing the new. For example, we find revivalists using 'pesticides before taking tea'. It would have been interesting for Bruner to more fully theorize the relationship between Christianity and development, particularly given his interest in the prosaic, everyday ways people chose to 'walk in the light'.
It is perhaps inevitable that his oral sources favour a somewhat positive view of the movement; a view that is also bolstered by Bruner's concern with separating out notions of agency from dissent. We get accounts from those who have clearly valued and cherished their identities as balokole but less of those who struggled with their faith, or who fell by the wayside. It would have been interesting to learn about those moments when boundaries blurred or when religious convictions came up against more practical concerns. What did ordinary balokole do about land conflicts, where negotiations had to be made with institutions and relationships that fell outside the movement? What happened to balokole when they died (a different way of thinking about balokole bodies)?
Bruner's writing is engaging and Living Salvation offers an important addition to the literature on the East African Revival. We begin to get a sense not only of the broad contours of the movement, but also of the ways in which 'being balokole" found expression in everyday ways.
University of East Anglia
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||May 1, 2019|
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