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Ambitious obligations : Pentecostalism, social life, and political economy on the Zambian Copperbelt


The most striking characteristics of Pentecostal Christianity on the Zambian Copperbelt are the proliferation of small churches and the near-constant circulation of their members among them. These are the phenomena that this dissertation seeks to explore and explain. Doing so has required me to place Pentecostal practice within the broader social and political economic context of urban Zambia. Social life on the Copperbelt is organized around two parallel relational orientations that I call ambition and obligation, which are in turn structured by a hierarchy of economic success. Shocks to the Copperbelt economy, including the global financial crisis of 2008-2009, make it harder for people to maintain this traditional social model because market insecurity causes the hierarchy of success to become unbalanced. Whereas relational hierarchy on the Copperbelt more generally depends on the market, Pentecostal adherence produces a hierarchy of charisma that is insulated from economic concerns. This religion therefore presents the possibility that culturally important relational forms might find a more secure basis than that which is available outside the church. It is the potential of Pentecostalism to produce hierarchy, ambition, and obligation that makes this form of Christianity so compelling for people in urban Zambia. However, while the social possibilities of Pentecostalism are central to the religious participation of individual believers, it is not always easy for them to keep their relationships separate from economic concerns. The influence of the prosperity gospel, the importance of making gifts to church leaders, and the financial needs of pastors all bring material issues into religious life. When believers perceive that Pentecostal hierarchy has been compromised by these issues they will often leave one church for another that they feel better exemplifies the relational ideals of their religion. Alternately, they may form a new congregation. The social promise of Pentecostalism therefore allows us to understand not only what makes this form of Christianity so compelling, but also why its adherents move so frequently from church to church

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