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“The colonized countries of Africa gained independence only to fall into crisis and instability. Sometimes churches are the only viable, if inadequate, social institutions left to shoulder the burden of society. Yet the nation-state as the successor of the colonial state has stood in the way of the development aspirations of Africans. Katongole confronts this issue in a direct way. His reflections call on the churches to commit to action to change the situation and give people hope in a future that has looked increasingly bleak. The demands of the moment require the sacrifice of the churches on behalf of Africa's long-suffering peoples. This book is a valuable installment in that cause.”
— Lamin Sanneh
Indeed our ways of dying are our ways of living. Or should I say our ways of living are our ways of dying?
Zakes Mda, Ways of Dying
Of Churches and Coffins in Africa: A Christian Continent in Distress
Christian social reflection in Africa must begin with a rather disturbing observation: churches and coffins are perhaps the two most prevalent images associated with Africa today. That Africa is an overwhelmingly Christian continent requires no elaborate argument. If in 1900 just 25 percent of the Catholic population lived in the southern hemisphere, today that figure stands at 66 percent, or two-thirds of the world's 1.1 billion Catholics, and by mid-century that figure is projected to be 74 percent, with Africa — sub-Saharan Africa in particular — contributing the lion's share of that percentage. During the twentieth century, the Catholic population in sub-Saharan Africa exploded from 1.9 million to 130 million, an astonishing growth rate of 6708 percent. A similar shift is underway in other Christian affiliations. Moreover, the youthful energy and dynamism with which African Christians embrace and practice the faith has also increased, which is apparent not only in the lively prayer and worship services, but in the public display of Christian symbols, names, and images in marketplaces, banks, and hair salons. So, as the Christian center of gravity shifts to Africa, the lively expression of the faith here is giving rise to a growing confidence that Africa is a Christian continent.
But if Christianity is on the rise in Africa, so too are the realities of civil wars and social unrest. A new outbreak of fighting in eastern Congo, in a civil war that has lasted over ten years, has left more than 3.8 million people dead and many more homeless. This year marks the sixteenth anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda, which left close to a million people dead; the insurgency of Kony's Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), which has killed over 200,000 people in northern Uganda and abducted over 26,000 children, has now spread into the Sudan and northeastern Congo; the 2007 elections in Kenya erupted in violence; the collapse of Zimbabwe; the implosion of Liberia in the 1980s; the civil war in Sierra Leone; and many other examples confirm the same patterns of violence and economic failure in Africa. Out of 13 million deaths around the world between 1994 and 2003 attributed to armed conflicts, the United Nations estimates that more than 9 million occurred in sub-Saharan Africa. On the United Nations' list of the world's fifteen most impoverished nations, nine are in Africa. In 2008, over 1.5 million Africans died of HIV/AIDS, and 22 million are infected. The poverty and poor health conditions in which the majority of Africans live make the situation worse.
No one has captured the ubiquitous reality of death in Africa better than the South African novelist Zakes Mda in his 1995 novel, Ways of Dying. As the title suggests, the novel is about death as embodied in the lives of a professional mourner (Toloki), a nurse whose duty is to narrate the last moments of a person's life and way of dying, and the coffin maker, Nefolovhodwe, who has recently become rich thanks to his new popular product, the collapsible coffin. The novel opens on Christmas with the funeral of Noria's son, a young boy killed by a rebel gang purportedly fighting for the liberation of the community. "There are many ways of dying," the nurse shouts. "This little brother was our own child, and his death is more painful because it is of our own creation. It is not the first time that we bury little children. We bury them every day. But they are killed by the enemy ... those we are fighting against. This little brother was killed by those who are fighting to free us."
The way Mda tells the story, the people who reside in this squatter camp are so used to the reality of violence and death that the only thing surprising about the death of this young boy was the manner of his death. For the residents in this squatter camp, the issue is no longer whether to live or die, but how to die. As Toloki tells Noria, "Death lives with us every day. Indeed our ways of dying are our ways of living. Or should I say our ways of living are our ways of dying?"
Toloki's observation, "Our ways of dying are our ways of living," is more than a figure of speech for many in Africa. If churches and coffins represent two dominant cultural realities in Africa, they also represent the predicament of a continent suspended between hope and despair. They capture the hope and pain, the beauty and tragedy, the dreams and frustrations of a continent that is at once overwhelmingly Christian and at the same time politically, economically, and socially distressed. It is misleading to suggest that Christianity (the churches) represents all that is hopeful about Africa, and the social, political, and economic systems represent all that is tragic (coffins) about the continent. The picture is far more complex. The fact that Mda's novel opens with a funeral on Christmas Day points to a far deeper complexity between Christianity and the social systems in Africa. At the same time, however, putting the matter this way points to the complex relationship between the world of churches and the world of coffins. Probing this relationship constitutes the first order of business for Christian social ethics in Africa.
During the late 1990s some African theologians moved in this direction, among them, the Kenyan Jesse Mugambi. In From Liberation to Reconstruction, his description of the plight of the African could just as well have been written today. Africa, Mugambi noted, "is faced with a food deficit; it is the most hungry continent in the world. It is faced with debt crises ... it is the most indebted continent; it has the highest level of illiteracy in the world, and half of the world's refugees are Africans." Mugambi then raised questions about the fact that Africa is an overwhelmingly Christian continent. How can such a contradiction be explained, Mugambi wondered. Is this religiosity authentic and genuine, or is it superstition arising from despair? How could it be that people who continue to call upon God most reverently are the ones God seems to neglect most vehemently? Could it be that "the Gospel has reached many people in Africa as very bad news"?
Mugambi's probing questions promised a fresh start for Christian theological and social reflection in Africa. Unfortunately, this line of questioning was neither sustained nor pursued, even by Mugambi himself. Instead, after raising these questions, Mugambi himself moved too quickly into the default mode of offering suggestions of what the church should do to assist in reconstruction. The church, Mugambi suggested, should be the catalyst of the process of reconstruction and play a key role in preparing the people for this immense task and in rehabilitating those marginalized in the process. In moving too quickly to the solutions of what the church's role should be, Mugambi capitulated to the temptation of "prescriptive haste" into which many others have fallen. Although there seems to be no more urgent task than offering ways in which Christianity can contribute to a new future in Africa, this approach becomes a temptation when, in the rush to come up with relevant recommendations, insufficient attention is paid to what is actually going on, particularly regarding the underlying stories that reproduce the realities of corruption, civil war, violence, and poverty throughout Africa's social history.
Moreover, this approach assumes that Christianity possesses a sort of ahistorical innocence in the social history of Africa; it assumes that Christianity stands outside the fray of social-political processes and is able to provide recommendations to a field outside herself. In this way, the recommendations do not engage the politics in Africa, which inform not only social patterns and individual lives but Christianity itself. For given Toloki's observation, even the most cherished beliefs and observances like Christmas and Easter have become "ways of dying." In fact, once this observation is acknowledged, then it becomes clear that Christianity's challenge is not simply to offer good recommendations, but to rethink its own role in a social history where churches and coffins are not mutually exclusive, but form each other's reality. This is the reality that Christian social ethics so often overlooks in its haste to prescribe solutions.
What Can the Church Do? The Social Relevance of Christianity
As the conversation about Christian social ethics in Africa has predictably followed the pattern of prescriptive haste, its recommendations tend to fall within three broad, although not mutually exclusive, paradigms: (1) spiritual formation (the spiritual), (2) social-material intervention (the pastoral), and (3) advocacy and mediation (the political).
(1) Deeper Evangelization: The Spiritual Paradigm
This approach, most often associated with evangelical Christians, tends to view Christianity's social impact in terms of spiritual influence and motivation. Christians who belong to this paradigm see a spiritual crisis at the heart of Africa's woes, and they view the primary goal of Christian mission to be the formation of a spiritual identity. When one accepts Christ, one becomes a new person and is "born again"; the rebirth is first and foremost a spiritual rebirth, which happens in the inner world of one's religious consciousness.
What this widespread view means is that the good news Christianity proclaims is not primarily about social, political, and material life, but rather the inner spiritual life of the individual. Nevertheless, the inner spiritual transformation of the individual does have far-reaching social consequences, as one's new spiritual identity as a Christian must bear fruit through the way one concretely lives in the world, relates to others, and interacts within the social sphere.
The late Ghanaian theologian Kwame Bediako, for example, suggested that the reception of the gospel in Africa has "imbued local cultures with eternal significance and endowed African languages with a transcendent range." This effect can have significant consequences for politics in Africa where, according to Bediako, a key problem is the tendency to sacralize power and authority. The tendency, which so often translates into the dictatorial tendency of African leaders, Bediako argues, has its roots in African traditional politics, or more specifically in the religious world of ancestors that underpins political life. When one becomes a Christian, however, one accepts Jesus as the supreme ancestor and the Savior who desacralizes all earthly powers and politics, thereby checking their inherent tendency to absolutize themselves. Accordingly, "the recognition that power truly belongs to God, which is rooted in the Christian theology of power as non-dominating, liberates politicians and rulers to be humans among fellow-humans, and ennobles politics." Thus the realization that all power belongs to God curbs the tendency towards dictatorship and abuse of power so prevalent in African politics. What is significant to note is that such a benefit is not an isolated skill that the Christian can pursue as part of "good governance"; it is a benefit that "flows over" from a new relationship with God, the result of having accepted Christ as "our supreme ancestor." This is the fruit of one's having come to a new spiritual identity in Christ.
For Bediako then, and others who stand within this spiritual paradigm, the response to Africa's woes lies in a call for deeper evangelization and discipleship — in drawing people to Christ and grounding them more deeply in a new spiritual identity. The new spiritual identity not only affects the way the new Christian understands issues like power, leadership, and service; it also provides inspiration and the motivation to work toward a more peaceful social order — an order that more closely reflects God's Kingdom here on earth. That is why, within this paradigm, an immediate way to influence politics and effect positive change in society is to ensure that Christians are elected into public office, and that once elected, it is hoped, they will use their influence to enact positive social policies and programs to create an equitable, just, and democratic country. According to this paradigm, this is how Christianity, which is at its heart a spiritual message, is able to impact material, social, and political processes.
A similar assumption operates in the dominant theological trend of enculturation. The main preoccupation of this trend has been to seek ways for the Christian message to find deep roots and genuine expression in African culture, with the hope that the fruits of a truly enculturated Christianity will impact the African Christian who has been, and still is, prey to injustice, disease, and other social ills. More specifically, the hope is that a genuine African Christianity should inspire the commitment of African Christians to work for a peaceful social order. Here too the assumption is that the spiritual qualities and habits have far-reaching social implications. In this way, Christianity works more or less like a time capsule with "the latent capacity of cultural changes held in religious storage to emerge over time when circumstances are propitious."
(2) Development and Relief: A Pastoral Paradigm
If words like "Christian identity," "influence," "motivation," and "implications" are at the heart of the spiritual paradigm, concepts like "intervention," "relief," and "development" characterize the responses of the pastoral paradigm. This approach is quite consistent with, although not limited to, the longstanding social involvement of the Catholic church and mainline Protestant churches. Within this paradigm, the church's social involvement is often portrayed as a kind of intervention — a response to the worsening social situations of suffering and instability in Africa that either directly result from government policies or are the cumulative effect of government neglect. A deep and practical humanitarian concern underpins this paradigm. Faced with a perceived social crisis in Africa, the church responds by providing relief and assistance, a response that is illustrated by the post-synodal exhortation Ecclesia in Africa.
Coinciding with the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, the synodal meeting in Rome expressed great concern about this tragic event and about worsening conditions in Africa. The synodal bishops were convinced that the church could make a difference through pastoral and social agencies: "For many Synod Fathers contemporary Africa can be compared to the man who went down from Jerusalem to Jericho ... Africa is a Continent where countless human beings ... are lying, as it were, on the edge of the road, sick, injured, disabled, marginalized and abandoned. They are in dire need of Good Samaritans who will come to their aid. For my part, I express the hope that the Church will continue patiently and tirelessly its work as a Good Samaritan."
Even though Ecclesia in Africa does not spell out exactly what being a Good Samaritan entails, such a self-understanding is consistent with the church's historical role in the provision of education, healthcare, and social services. If a humanitarian concern inspires the church's work in these social services, it is sustained, as the story of the Good Samaritan shows, by a theological conviction that the gospel is and must be a liberating social force that can help Africans "rediscover their humanity" and "regain a sense of dignity." "Integral human development," the pope notes, "is at the very heart of evangelization. Between evangelization and human advancement — development and liberation — there are in fact profound links. These include links of an anthropological order, because the man who is to be evangelized is not an abstract being but is subject to social and economic questions."
Excerpted from THE SACRIFICE OF AFRICA by Emmanuel Katongole Copyright © 2011 by Emmanuel Katongole. Excerpted by permission of William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Introduction: On Being Saved from King Leopold's Ghost 1
I Sacrificing Africa
1 Saving Africa: The Reticence of Christianity 29
2 Reimagining Social Ethics in Africa: From Skills to Stories 51
3 Performing Africa: Stories, Politics, and the Social Imagination of Africa 64
II Daring to Invent the Future
4 Daring to Invent the Future: The Madness of Thomas Sankara 87
5 "A Different World Right Here": Jean-Marc Éla and Reimagining the Church in Africa 102
6 Things Fall Apart: Christianity, Power, Violence, and Marginality 125
III The Sacrifice of Africa
7 Fighting Tribalism "in a Small Way": Bishop Paride Taban and the Kuron Peace Village 135
8 The Sacrifice of Africa: Angelina Atyam and the Politics of Forgiveness 148
9 Gathering the Fragments of a New Future: Maggy Barankitse and Maison Shalom 166