Sunday, July 26, 2009

"Africa Towards Hope and Dignity"

This was the theme of the keynote of Rev. Dr. André Karamaga, General Secretary of the All African Council of Churches on June 25. Karamaga, an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church of Rwanda, suggested that this theme could fruitfully be explored by taking account of the possibilities represented by the churches of the continent. Indeed, the development of Christianity in post-colonial African shows interesting (and sometimes fraught) relations with movements of democratization.

But who are the churches of Africa? Karamaga identified six distinct "types" of churches on the continent. The oldest churches, the Ethiopian and Coptic orthodox, represent continuity with the very beginnings of Christianity, and extend across the north. Africa is so closely identified with missionary activity that it's helpful to remember that by the fourth century 20 percent of all Christians in the world were African. [I need not remind my faithful readers that the greatest theologian in the history of the church was a fourth century African bishop... and a catholic]. The stereotypical African Christianity comes onto the scene in the 19th century in the churches established by converted slaves who, on emancipation, returned to Africa and shared their faith in the Gambia, Sierra Leone, and of course Liberia. This is a form of Christianity with great indebtedness to African American slave religion. A third type of African Christianity is that brought by European settlers during the 19th and 20th centuries. [When I studied under John de Gruchy and Charles Villa-Vicencio, the term used was "settler Christianity", and its ideal was to transplant the church hymns and worship styles, architecture, doctrine and so forth that had been grown in Europe onto African soil. However, as Barbara Kingsolver's Poisonwood Bible demonstrates, nothing remains purely European on African soil, and so distinctively African Anglicanisms, Presbyterianisms, and even Catholicisms flourish throughout the continent.]

The fourth type of church, like the third, has the activity of Europeans at its origins. The missionary churches, however, were geared toward translating rather than transplanting the Gospel. I can't talk about how generally true this is on the continent, but in South Africa the third and fourth types (e.g. settler and mission Presbyterians) merged into unified denominations during the 20th century. The African Initiated Churches (AICs) differ from the mission churches in their refusal of European forms of Christianity. While it wouldn't be fair to say that this fifth type represents innovation where the others don't. However, it's clear that the AICs represent a form of Christianity that demonstrates a far greater continuity with African than it does with European cosmology, spirituality, and cultural life. Prior to the advent of the sixth type, the AICs were by far the fastest growing churches in southern Africa. But they're being supplanted now by the Pentecostals.

It's become a truism to say that Christianity is growing explosively throughout Africa, especially the last two types. But what Karamaga wanted to draw attention to was the cooperative and collaborative relations among churches, and the way ecumenism is analogous to the African (political) Union. Indeed, the AACC was formed in Kampala in 1963, a month before the Organization of African Unity (OAU), and represented the tremendous optimism of the day. Sadly, the energies of the movement were wasted early in identity issues vis-a-vis Europeans. "Africans could be creative and innovative Christians (just like Europeans)" and "Africa is not new to the Judeo-Christian traditions" were two not uncommon refrains. The development of an African theology didn't require breaking radically with African religiosity and culture (the ancestors of African Christians were also monotheists). Even as archaeologists were identifying the origin of human life as being African, it seemed like African Christians were struggling to understand how "the first could now be last."

And yet, he continued, there's no question that Africa's post-colonial history was something of a miracle. From the first meeting of the Pan African Congress in England in 1945 to the last African state to gain independence from the control of Europeans (South Africa in 1994) was a mere 50 years. The churches had been independent much longer. That's only looking at one dimension of the African situation, of course. When the AACC met in Maputo in 2008, it could celebrate the centre of gravity of Christianity moving to Africa. But while the church was preaching "fullness of life," it was only seeing "fullness of misery."

For Karamaga, the credibility of the Christian message is at stake in all this. The Christian gospel is a proclamation of peace--wholeness--in a broken and violent world. That there has been much proclamation but little peace is a theological problem. Specifically, he named four challenges to peace in Africa: (1) the ongoing problem of ethnicity, especially the way blood ties are more primary than common Christian identity; (2) the ongoing conflict between Christianity and Islam, especially the way fighting in the name of God invariably reduces God to an idol; (3) disputes over access to land and economic justice; and (4) disease, particularly HIV/Aids. Karamaga suggested that the key to addressing the last three lay in attending to the first: that African solidarity required a repudiation of the national churches inherited from European missionaries. Links to the wider ecumenical community through the World Council of Churches helps in this. The challenge is to move from many churches to one body of Christ bearing witness in the struggle for life.

A couple of critical questions followed the presentation. The first concerned Karamaga's failure to speak to the question of how churches can aid governments in transition, a crucial problem in contemporary Africa as the transfer of power rarely proceeds without incident or violence. His reply pointed first to the "physician, heal thyself" problem, that is, that churches experience the same problems. But churches have also played important roles not only in democratization movements (Malawi and South Africa are well-known examples) but in reminding newly elected governments of their commitments (in Africa, it's not a problem to get people to sign agreements; it's a problem to ensure they keep them).

The second question concerned gender, and here Karamaga's answer was more terse. "I am a convert" to the awareness of gender struggles, he said. Speaking from the perspective of his own church, half of the Synod of the Presbyterian Church of Rwanda are women. While there is a long way to go on the continent with regard to women's rights, the programs of the AACC offer an encouraging beginning.

Overall I was impressed by Karamaga, and thought that the link between African ecumenism and intra-African collaboration worth thinking further about. But I was especially honoured to be sitting in a room listening as African brothers and sisters shared, sometimes with pain, the hopes and struggles of this continent that so desparately--in spite of its over-evangelisation--the good news.

1 comment:

Sarah said...

enjoyed this perspective. i just finished Chinua Achebe's book, Things Fall Apart, which touched on the aggressive evangelisation by Europeans in Nigeria. i agree with your comment "that African solidarity require[s] a repudiation of the national churches inherited from European missionaries." i'm no expert, of course, but the ecumenical movement holds promise in a seemingly hopeless situation.