David Thurfjell / Religion

A Romani Revival

In the wake of discrimination, marginalisation, and growing anti-ziganist sentiments of recent decades, Pentecostalism has become one of the major factors behind Romani social development across Europe.

Faith and Revivalism

What is going on with Roma, Gypsies and travellers in Europe? Recent decades bear witness to increasing hostility against Romani people across the continent. The Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights, Thomas Hammarberg, has even stated that today’s rhetoric against the Roma ‘is very similar to the one used by Nazis and fascists before the mass killings started in the thirties and forties.’ Romani people are also among the most socially deprived groups that we have in Europe today. Many live in extreme poverty, the health situation is very worrying and social problems of all sorts are prevalent and sometimes even increasing. Strange as it may seem, this is often also the case in the developed welfare states of western and northern Europe.

The situation is puzzling, because at the same time as the social problems of Roma have increased, majority societies have made efforts to integrate Roma into society in a hitherto unseen way.

Now, in the midst of this paradoxical process, a religious revival is taking place. Pentecostalism and other variants of charismatic Christianity is spreading like wild fire amongst Romani communities in all corners of Europe. At a closer look it becomes evident that the Pentecostal movement is actually intimately connected to the Romani rights activism that has risen as a response to social problems and discrimination.

During the last couple of years, I have followed one of Europe’s many Romani communities, the Kaale Roma who live in Finland and Sweden and I have sought to find an answer to the perplexing paradoxes that seem to imbue their situation in today’s society. Why, I have asked, is it that the efforts of social inclusion from the majority society coincide with increased social problems among the members of this group? In Sweden, for example, Roma have been granted status as an official minority, museum exhibitions about their culture have opened, the archbishop has publicly apologised for the church’s discrimination in the past, there have been a number of official reports about their discrimination, court cases in support of their rights, and the Romani language has been made an official minority language of the country. Yet, at the same time as all these positive changes take place, drug abuse and inner conflicts haunt this Romani community like never before.

My endeavours to find an answer to this riddle lead me to the Pentecostal movement and my analysis of it and how it relates to the wider situation is presented in my book Faith and revivalism in a Nordic Romani Community, where I argue that the Pentecostal revival can be understood as a response to the societal pressure from the majority societies.

Now, to understand their situation and the social mechanisms that constantly reposition Romani peoples on the margins, I think it is necessary to understand that the oppression under which they suffer is not only found within such measurable fields as employment, education and health. Oppression and discrimination within these spheres we can easily understand, they are also the ones that are focussed in all governmental reports on the situation and discrimination of Roma. These reports, however, fail to see the deeper structural patterns that uphold and even worsen marginalisation despite increased efforts to the opposite.

There is, I believe, a subtle discursive oppression which is difficult to grasp, but which I think is pivotal for our understanding of the Romani situation. Discursive oppression in this case, then, happens when the non-Romani majority societies define an ideal way of life that is profoundly different from the way Romani people have traditionally lived, and, when they attempt to make Romani people embrace this ideal with them. If the efforts to reshape Romani culture is made by means of violent coercion it is obviously oppressive. But even well meaning charity is problematic insofar as it too upholds the hegemonial status of the majority views. That is, the ideals of the majority is thought of – not as one of many alternative ways of living – but as the way to live.

Now, for many Romani people, living under such a hegemony means that one, in order to be listened to, must adjust to the ideals of the majority. Romani people must speak of themselves and their problems in the way the majority does, and they must admit that the solutions are to be found in the ways of the majority. When it comes to the Roma in Europe, the societies demand that they succeed on the arenas defined by the majority. For instance, in order to be counted as more than a social problem you need to prove yourself in school and on the job market. Literacy, health, education and employment are the signs of success that count regardless of whether you share the majority’s high thoughts of these things or not.

For many individual Roma this of course becomes problematic. They are asked to measure themselves on the scales set up by the majority. When they do so, however, the result is that they seem to be complete failures. For when it comes to health, education and employment, most Roma are not very successful. This means that accepting the majority’s view of these as the only achievements worth striving for means a heavy blow to one’s self respect and pride.

The results of the majority’s pressure, then, is a situation where many Roma have to choose between (1) being listened to by the majority while perceiving themselves as failures, or, (2) remain unseen and marginalized but with an upheld sense of exclusivity and pride. This is the predicament that many Roma are experiencing. It is this that make many of them hesitate about engaging wholeheartedly in the well intended educational and social programmes that non-Roma arrange for them. To struggle hard for success in the system of the non-Roma would be to accept that it, so to speak, is only the non-Romani scale that counts.

The situation is a deadlock. Roma, especially young people, are caught between a rock and a hard place – accept marginalisation but keep a feeling of pride, or yield to society’s demands and its scales of measurement to get some success along these scales, but also lose some self respect.

This is where Pentecostalism comes in. The Romani Pentecostal movement offers a way out from this difficult predicament. There is no way the Roma can resist the discursive pressure of the hegemonial majority societies in which they live. They cannot articulate a critique that challenges the categories and presuppositions of the non-Roma’s understanding of them.

So, instead of this, what they have to do is to find a way to yield to the non-Romani discursive pressure without losing self-respect. Pentecostalism is a religion dominated by non-Roma, and Romani people’s turn to it, is, in a way, an expression of an acceptance of the non-Romani pressure to assimilate. At the same time, it is an assimilation to a form of non-Romani culture that in itself is counter cultural. The gaje Pentecostals are not part of the mainstream society, they are outsiders to and critics of much that goes on in the majority culture, yet they are – by virtue of their ethnicity – closer to the main stream than the Roma have traditionally been. When Roma rearticulate their identity as Romani Pentecostal, they take a significant step closer to the majority while still maintaining their counter cultural position, albeit in a different way than before. ■

Faith and RevivalismDavid Thurfjell is Associate Professor in the Study of Religions at Södertörn University, Stockholm and the author of Faith and Revivalism in a Nordic Romani Community: Pentecostalism Amongst the Kaale Roma of Sweden and Finland, which is out now.
Image courtesy of Joakim Eskildsen.
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