It is a very common saying among the residents that Jamaica has more churches per square mile than any other country in the world. Does the Guinness Book of World Records have an entry to that effect? Whether this is so, one thing is certain: religion plays a major role in the affairs of Jamaicans.
Indeed as is the case with many other Caribbean territories, the island inherited a rich culture of religious sensitivity mostly from the African slaves who worked the sugar plantations from the mid-1500s to the early 19th Century. Hence it could prove helpful to bear in mind whenever we attempt to talk about the people of this region, that African religions have a strong emphasis on ancestral spiritual connectedness and expression, and have been intrinsically entwined in varying degrees, in a few of the other faiths practiced on the island.
“Sectors of the Jamaican church have certainly bought into the televangelist’s new pervasive doctrine of prosperity and the “miracle for money” theology.Furthermore, when Christopher Columbus set sail from Spain in the late 1400s he did so under a mandate from the monarchs to educate and Christianize any inhabitants he might find in the new world. Roman Catholicism therefore, arrived in Jamaica with the first Spanish settlers even though the subjugation and forceful ‘use’ of the natives for hard labour best describe those early days. The Protestant influence accompanied the British explorers and plantation owners to the island in the mid-17th Century, and most of the individuals who fought hard and sacrificed greatly to end the slave trade and ultimately the institution of slavery were ministers of this faith. Moreover, the many contributions of these missionaries to the social development of the nation especially in education and politics, even after emancipation, are evident to this day. Only one of Jamaica’s seven national heroes, Nanny of the maroons was not know to have a church affiliation.
In addition, Jamaica’s motto “Out of Many, One People”, also hints at the nation’s varied forms of religious persuasions and practices. During the years when sugar was king, indentured servants who came to Jamaica from China, India, Portugal and other countries brought not only their hopes of a better life, but their religions as well. These incubated within certain communities, melded with the religion of the freed slaves and eventually emerged in hybrid forms.
Even in this post-modern era, new forms of religion seem to be hatched every other day as the Christian scriptures are sometimes interpreted to give authority to all kinds of personal convictions and aspirations. It is quite fascinating and even borders on hilarity at times, to hear comments on the popular local television program, Religious Hard Talk, hosted by one of the country’s most visible religious thinkers. The unearthing of these diverse and often unexpected religious views lurking in the society has caused many a raised eye-brow, dropped jaw, and expression of astonishment.
Certainly, Jamaicans on a whole are not religious in the manner of the atheist, deist, or pantheist. There is rather, a strong belief in the existence of the Judeo-Christian God; a personal being that created the universe, and continues to maintain an active hand in its daily affairs. Our “thanks and praises” are directed to the God believed to be independent of any work he has fashioned, and whose laws and precepts we must live by if we wish to fulfill the purpose for which we were born.
It is generally believed by the majority of Jamaicans, that the God of the Holy Bible has all authority to define and dictate the acceptable behavior for all humanity. The attitude of intolerance and hostility of many citizens, for example, towards those whose sexual orientation is unconventional, bears witness to this deeply embedded religious mindset.
However with escalating violence, a developing social environment where the gun and machete are the preferred tools for resolving conflicts, and endemic corruption in the public and private sectors, all indicators point to a downward spiral in the traditional standards of morality and attitudinal values. Such reality begs the question of the role religion actually plays in this country. How can it be that a land dotted with so many houses of morality and worship is overtaken by so much debauchery and wanton violence?
“The church is big business for many, and the recent controversy in evangelical circles over its involvement in unregulated investment schemes only serves to enhance this belief.” From all indications, religion functions primarily as a means to an end. The God we believe in is to be our Saviour. He is to console us in times of suffering and hardships, provide for our material wants, keep us from sickness and disease, and protect us from hurricanes threatening our shores. He is also responsible for quelling the rising tide of savagery and hostility, and for keeping these away from our dwelling. Even the gunman stalking the streets may have a bible in his pocket, since it is sometimes regarded as a talisman, a protective charm to ward off death. There seems to be no acknowledgement of the nation’s culpability with regard to the moral decline; the problem is deemed instead to be spiritual, and therefore can only be repaired by spiritual means.
Noted even among professed clerics, religion is employed by some as a cloak of covetousness; as a means of achieving success as defined by Western society. In this regard, sectors of the Jamaican church have certainly bought into the televangelist’s new pervasive doctrine of prosperity and the “miracle for money” theology. Essentially, God is relegated to the position of genie and butler, His role to fetch whatever we need and carry our burdens.
The popularity of prescribed prayers recited with the sole objective of material increase bespeaks a preoccupation with creature comforts in abundance, a theology far removed from the simple message of the one they claim to follow.
Verily, the church is big business for many, and the recent controversy in evangelical circles over its involvement in unregulated investment schemes only serves to enhance this belief. Similarly, the emergence of some “religious” artists performing at local stage shows and dancehall cultural events has ignited discussions about the clarity and purity of their message, sometimes frustrating the hopes of those who desperately seek what they believe to be true and undefiled religion, uncontaminated by worldly values.
Of course there are those for whom religion is a foolproof route, a ticket to bypass Hell and head straight for Heaven. It does not matter to these high travelers who they pass on the way. All conversation, if they pause long enough to have one, is centered on their own righteousness in an effort to accentuate the wretchedness of the many on the ‘broad’ path to perdtion. Unlike the Good Samaritan in the New Testament story, they are too busy to stop or too afraid to care.
Not to be ignored is the use of religion by politicians as a platform to achieve their own populist ends. Knowing only too well the fear, awe and sensitivity of the electorate, no campaign rhetoric is effective without generous helpings of religious terminology and precepts, conveniently and unashamedly brought into play, only to be discarded when the need for these props has abated. This has encouraged the masses to endow their leaders with messianic qualities, putting their faith in a “Joshua”, or voting for “deliverance” from an oppressive government. Campaign meetings take the form of a revival service and the religious masses fall hook, line and sinker for these seductive lines.
All things considered, religious values will continue to affect a myriad of the decisions made by each administration, as without this validation, the attention of many in the electorate would be lost. The national prayer breakfasts will continue, as those who lead or hope to lead had better pander to the expectations of their constituents. For many disinterested observers, this reality has served to breed or heighten cynicism, creating an increasing brood of skeptics and naysayers.
Elton E. Terry, is a Christian minister in Jamaica.