by David P. Rawson
A study of church and society in Africa most easily focuses on the influence of the institutional church on the emerging societies of that continent. But while there is a social and political aspect to most church actions, so there is a religious dimension in the development of new African socio-political institutions.
A study of church and society in Africa most easily focuses on the influence of the institutional church on the emerging societies of that continent. But while there is a social and political aspect to most church actions, so there is a religious dimension in the development of new African socio-political institutions. Christians concerned with the role of the church in Africa must be cognizant of the socio-political implications of church actions. They must also be prepared to confront the competing pseudoreligious demands of state institutions. Social institutions concerned with the establishment and maintenance of the nation tend to abrogate functions usually attributed to religious institutions. The state becomes the final judge of what is ethically good. The state claims a kind of temporal permanence, whose validity and eternality is upheld by all good citizens. In societies where so many ties of family and tribe have been broken, the state represents to many Africans the ultimate point of self-identification. They find in its existence redemption from the chaos and meaninglessness of contemporary life.
It would not be hard to demonstrate that these pseudoreligious dimensions of the state’s claims upon its subjects are not peculiar to African society. They constitute the hidden foundation of the so-called secular state. Religious overtones ire noticeably present in the ideological commitments of the Western nations. The attribution of transcendent intimacy to one’s society or political group may well be a universal political phenomenon derived from the universal religious inclinations of man himself. In Africa the heritages of the past and the present contingencies of nation-building have added new twists to this common phenomenon. This article seeks to survey some of the African manifestations of this problem and to suggest their implications for Christians who must swear intimacy to God and loyalty to the nation-state. It will consider the religions sanction given to traditional authorities, the religious dimensions of African nationalism, and the concept of evil as related to cross-cultural relations.
"It must be understood," Seydou Kouyate once noted in a colloquium on socialism, "that this socialist option is not at all contrary to religious faith . . . the socialist path we have adopted is based on . . . a socialism recognizing spirituality as an integral part of man."1 The inference of the statement was that Africans are not willing to be governed by political systems that ignore the religious aspects of life. Thus, secular Western democratic capitalism and Eastern Communism are both deficient. Neither will suffice to replace the traditional African political systems that postulated the identity of religious and political functions in public offices.
Simplest of the African political forms are those of the extended family or simple clan grouping. Some social groups like the Nuer of Sudan have such little regulation of authority that they have been classified by some experts as non-political groups. Whether or not the groups are true political entities is not really the point. The point is that even at this simplest level of organization the family leader, who in this case was the political leader, is also the religious leader of the group. It is the head of the family who most often frequents the ancestral shrine behind the family dwelling, tends the ancestral tree where the genius of the family dwells, or presides over family reunions with their rituals honoring the ancestral spirits. It is on the basis of his connection with these spirits through hereditary position and ritualistic practice that the family head has his authority. Because of connection with the wisdom of the ancients, the family head can pass judgment in family quarrels.
His religious duties give him the right to augur the future and direct family policy accordingly. As head of the family, he upholdsthenecessity of conformity to the code of ancestral custom. Even in areas where a form of monotheism prevails, it is an awe of edicts of the ever-present ancestral spirits rather than any respect for divine law that preserves social order and induces conformity to established norms. Most pagan African societies, whatever their level of complexity, are organized around this basic family unit; they are thus permeated with a respect for authority.
In more complex African societies, the identity of religious and political roles becomes institutionalized. Among the large clans or Bantu tribes of central Africa, the head of the clan often leads in religious rituals. The rituals of the cult of Ryangombe are, for example, dramatic enactments in which various roles are assigned to persons because of their position in society. The central position, of Ryangombe, who directs the ceremonies and acts as an itermediary between God and the cult members, is usually played by the clan leader. His prestige as the political authority is reinforced by his special position in the hierarchy of religious deities.2
In the mythologies of many African societies, former political leaders or heroes end up with prominent positions in the national pantheon. In Burundi, for example, the national spirit Kiranga seems to have been the leader of the Bantu tribes. Myths speak of Kiranga negotiating with Batutsi kings before their entry into the country. Yet he is today worshipped as a spirit. Powerful political leaders were considered to be specially endued with the spirit of God. A great political leader was, in fact, a great spirit and could make equal claim to authority, both temporal and spiritual.
Up Africa’s central mountain ridge from Zimbabwe to Ethiopia and across the savannah belt to the Western coast was found a great cultural group categorized by Oliver and Fage as the Sudanic kingdoms. Although the nature of the kingdoms greatly varied, they had in common two main factors. The royal line could trace its cultural and often genetic heritage to Auxumite (Ethiopian) origins, and the seat of authority was found in the person of a king and a queen mother. The queen mother was linked by mythology to a previous existence in heaven. Her son was said to be the original creation of God. Sometimes the conception of the king was said to take place when God on a particular night took on himself the disguise of his supposed father. The king then became a son of God and on his enthronement the representation of God on earth. The kingdom was usually symbolized in some material object, a stool or drum that, like the Queen Mother and King, was worshipped. Although belief in immortality is not common among Africans, the kin’s spirits were said to return to heavenly bliss. Here the apotheosis had been completed. The political leader is not just a leader in religious worship, a representative of the ancestors, or tribal leader enjoying symbolic identification with cultic spirits. The source of political leadership and authority was God himself. Affirmations of loyalty to the king were quite literally acts of worship. To violate royal decrees was to violate the command of God. One’s political sympathies were one’s religion. There could be no distinction between loyalty to the king, commitment to one’s social group, and obedience to God.
It is evident that the bonds of the social units in traditional Africa, whether they be families or complex kingdoms, were strengthened by their element of religious appeal. The degree of claim to transcendent powers by the political authority seems to have increased proportionately with the complexity of the political relationships. Yet the immediacy of the religious belief was no doubt just as strong in the family unit. The effect for contemporary Africa has been the same. Derived from the traditional beliefs has been a belief in the intimacy of the social unit, a tendency to subsume individualintereststo group interests, and a tendency to submit without doubts to legitimate authority as though that authority had other than finite origins. Africans of whatever social origin have been a religious people and their sense of the religious carries over into the socio-political arena.
There are practical implications here. The tendency of democratic systems to evolve into one-party states, the receptivity of African societies to b e taken over by military leaders, the lack of an articulate permanent opposition in African politics may in part be explained by the religious aura ascribed to positions of political authority. Western missionaries as foreigners are quick to perceive the weaknesses of governments in their adopted countries. They find hard to understand the exaggerated claims of leaders who in their opinion have prostituted their recent endowment of free democratic government. They may be troubled by their fellow Christian’s willingness to be governed by arbitrary authoritarian forces. They may, in fact, find it necessary to counsel against common designations of divine attributes to temporal rulers, as in the case of former President Nkrumah of Ghana. But they should be cautioned against glib criticism. The African Christian is probably committed to the overriding importance of social cohesion. He may have in fact reasserted the Pauline formula of submission to the existing powers. He will certainly, as the inheritor of a long politico-religious tradition, place more emphasis on the unassailable symbolic role of political leadership than will his Christian brother from a secularized, individualized, and increasingly anarchic West.
In few African societies have the traditional authorities survived the transition from colonial status to independence. Supported and used by the colonial powers, they were discredited and replaced by a new African intelligentsia. The new leaders received from the past the traditional tendency to submit to the intimacy of political authority. But the societies they built were usually composites of several traditional societies. The tribal bonds would only vitiate against the successful establishment of larger loyalties. New societies had to be built to fit the new territorial dimensions. A new nationalism had to replace old ties.
African nationalism, unlike its European counterpart, had no organic basis. There were no ties of blood, language, or common culture to build on. It had to be created out of a common belief system. Negatively, the beliefs demanded a termination of colonialism in all its forms. Positively, they demanded independence of the national unit. Now that colonialism has generally been ended, and national independence gained, African nationalism has entered a new stage. With the unifying factor of a common enemy, the colonialist power gone, a new basis for unifying loyalties had to be found. The effort has to be made to build new nations on the remnants of old societies.
In both its old or new forms, African nationalism is strongly ideological. To suggest that African nationalism is without organic origins is not to suggest that it is a bogus creation, but is to point out its ideological rather than material basis. The lack of empirical bases for the belief system only increases the necessity of affirming the beliefs with greater intensity. African nationalism is ideological in the sense that it provides a frame of reference by which all other ideas must be judged. It is impossible to convince a committed African nationalist that there was anything good about colonialism. He cannot admit that Westerners can act with altruistic intentions. His nationalist credo holds the contrary. It has taken time for African states to recognize the intentions of communist states. They were originally judged ipso facto good because they had been anticolonialist. Freedom and self-determination for all peoples everywhere is an automatic good in the dogma ofnationalism. Thus,any means used to achieve "freedom" is good. The independence, integrity, and continuity of the new nation is the sumum bonum. All means are judged by their success in attaining this end.
It is immediately evident that the ideological basis of African nationalism presents the African Christian with a prefabricated ethical system, a system whose claims are absolute, but whose roots are finite and temporal. In a sense, the ideology of nationalism has been transformed into a gnosiology, a supposed insight (gnosis) into the divine order of things. The nationalist, thinking he has grasped the way things really are, cannot consider any other interpretation. This point of view is especially hard for missionaries to appreciate. Having seen or heard of the breakdown in law, order, social and economic achievement after independence, he is easily tempted to cite the superiority of the good old days when colonial masters kept things straight. Even if he has accepted the intrinsic virtue of independence, the direction of African nationalism would seem to vitiate against the achievement of those virtues for which a people ought to be free: free enterprise, personal incentive, protection of minority rights, free and open discussion of all issues, critical scepticism of government programs. The Western missionary no doubt believes in these virtues with the same kind of dogmatic faith that the African holds toward his social beliefs. Though they are not intrinsically part of his Christian faith, the missionary may hold them as dear. He should not then be surprised when his Christian African brother holds contrary social views with the same degree of religious zeal. It is the duty of both missionary and African Christians to assert the eternality of God and the temporality of all human institutions. They must no doubt insist on the absoluteness of divine standards and the finiteness of human ideals. It would, however, facilitate Christian brotherhood and effective Christian witness if each group applied these critical standards to their own society rather than to societies whose ethos they do not really appreciate.
One of the things that snakes criticism of African nationalism difficult is that as an ideology it not only sets up a universal frame of reference but also is characteristically a "program for action." That is, African nationalism asserts no commitment to any form of society past or present. Rather, it presents a set of goals for the future. Africans are definitely not satisfied with the present. The disequilibrium in their domes
tic and external politics does not permit any complacency. Their loyalty is then to the hope of the future. Since their goals are not yet institutionalized, they are ideal. Since they are ideal, they override questions of practicality and prudence, even challenging other ideal orders. In Africa, the words "modernization" and "industrialization" are not merely technical terms. They represent the opportunity to redeem lost time and catch up with the world, to escape the poverty of the present. They are in effect symbols of national self-transcendence and social redemption. There is no doubt that the Enlightenment vision of building here on earth with human effort the kingdom of God (more precisely the divine kingdom of men) has to a certain degree infused the political aspirations of the African people. There is a strong element of Utopianism in the doctrines of pan-Africanism or in the evocations of Negritude. Utopian schemes raise up in man possibilities that his nature does not allow. It raises the specter of a Garden of Eden or Tower of Babel where man tries to become as God. When man firmly commits himself to things beyond his reach, confusion of tongues or reigns of terror usually result.
Who dares question progress? Since the bond that holds together the new African states, their nationalism, is based entirely on belief, Africa musthave something tobelieve in. Surely a look toward the future is better than a morbid fixation on the injustices of the past. This has already been too often the case, as African propagandists used the slogan "imperialists" to castigate every opponent and "anti-imperialists" to justify every action. Nor should one argue on pragmatic grounds against the heady ideals of the new state. Grandiose schemes have a practical function in that they provide a sense of unity or a desire for a better life. The measuring stick of the Western critic has usually been an economic one. What will this program do for the economy? How effective in generating new products will it be? The African measuring stick has all the while been social and humanistic. What will this measure do for the people, for their sense of pride, for their commitment to the nation and its national goals? The Christian raises, of course, the question, "What will this do for the kingdom of God? Is there any reason to encourage Christian participation in it?" The answer is that any design for social mobilization will probably have little direct relation to divine purposes. But the importance of a peaceful, stable social order as an arena for the propagation of the gospel is important for the furtherance of the Kingdom. Peace, as Augustine pointed out, is something all Christians can support.
The Christian must then realize the importance of social order and appreciate the complex strands that make up its fabric. Christians must be judicious in their appraisal of contemporary society. They must not, however, ignore their duty to witness to the glory of God and the limitations of human endeavor. As African states articulate their ideologies in terms of their plans for the future, Christians should be reminding them that the kingdom of God cannot be built here on this earth; redemption and escape come only through Christ; proximate goals that take into consideration both human needs and human limitations are in the long run the most ideal.
There is in the nature of human beings a tendency to designate as good what one’s group does and as bad what one’s group does not do. Good and evil, ethical criteria applicable to individual action, are changed into social norms. This socialization of ethical judgment curtails individual responsibility and relieves the necessity of individual moral action. This phenomenon is common in this country, where Americanism is intrinsically good and anti-alienism is often accepted as social virtue. In Africa the predisposition to advance the cause of social rather than individual good, to deify the position of social authority, and to posit the absolute values of the social unit in the form of nationalist ideology, has compounded this human tendency.
Many traditional African societies reflect a distinct distrust of foreigners. In some societies elaborate precautions were made to keep strangers on the periphery of societal life. The legendary Bambara, West African gold traders, were never seen by outsiders. A foreign trader would deposit his goods, come back in a few days and find his goods gone and gold in its place. The typical human habit of establishing special codes for conduct for one’s own group was often raised to an institutional norm. Among the people of Rwanda, the prevailing code of conduct applied most strictly within the primary group or clan. A Batutsi of a particular clan could trust his brother from the same clan absolutely. As one progressed outward toward other clans and lower castes, the code began to break down. A Batutsi could, for example, cheat a low-class Bahutu on a cattle contract. The Bahutu, who would never steal from his fellow clansman, could appropriate some goods of his Batutsi master if he could get away with it. The formula for foreigners was that they were never to be trusted. Being alien to the society and its moral code, they did not come under its edicts. Nor were theRwandese in any waybound by the tribal code in their dealings with foreign elements.
This phenomenon has long troubled missionaries who often accused the indigenous people of being totally unprincipled. It has been commonly claimed that Africans would lie to a missionary, even if telling the truth would have been a more prudent policy. The fact is that within their particular group most Africans, like the Rwandese, were scrupulously moral people. The missionary was excluded from the social group. As a foreigner he could not be trusted and hence must be confused by a pattern of lying. Failure to perceive the African fashion of adhering to socially-established norms, rather than to any universal ethic applicable to all individuals, has caused much misunderstanding. Missionaries are constantly wondering why good household servants will steal without sign of guilt until they are caught, and then be full of remorse. The traditional social code held that to steal from a foreigner was not bad, but to be humiliated by being caught was.
The customary exclusion of foreigners from the moral code of a society raised questions about the moral character of the alien. Strange habits were equated with evil acts. During national ceremonies, like a coronation, strangers were often prohibited from entering the tribal area. In times of national crises, strangers were immediately sought out as causes of the trouble. A result of socializing moral norms is that individuals within the group cannot be held responsible for evil acts or bad decisions. One must then hunt for a scapegoat, usually a foreigner, who will in effect bear away the blame for social evil and the guilt of the society with it. Scapegoatism has not disappeared from the African scene. Counter-revolutionaries, communists, reactionaries, capitalists, imperialists, colonialists, and most commonly the Americans have been variously blamed for the succession of difficulties that have disturbed the African nations. Part of the reasons American are often blamed is that they are more foreign to African states than people from the major European powers.
These are not theoretical considerations. This writer had a long talk with an African Christian who teas deeply disturbed by the difference between what he was being told every day over his national radio about the Americans and what he saw daily in the lives of the American missionaries. He wanted to know if Americans were really responsible for his country’s political crises as the radio had said. He was not satisfied with my attempts to explain American good intentions. I should rather have explained the nature of personal responsibility for evil acts and their consequences, the difficulties of establishing absolute judgment in a world run by finite men, and the ultimacy of God’s judgment on all men and nations. He should have been shown that finding a scapegoat does not answer the problem o£ guilt. Some sound preaching on the nature of sin and of human responsibility should prove a healthy antidote for the existing African tendency to classify evil as the socially foreign, and to blame aliens for their own troubles.
The difficulty is that missionaries are not immune to these human tendencies. In Africa they are aliens in a foreign land, white people among a sea of blacks, without any firm ties to any part of the socio-political order, now that the European colonial administrations are gone. It is no wonder that they often feel isolated and alienated. The demands of psychic survival force them to withdraw into their own little group. They are easily tempted to view their own group as the embodiment of good, and those outside the group as evil. Most particularly, the missionaries are tempted to see evil in the very make-up of the national governments that often represent a different culture, a different political philosophy, a different view of the socially good, and a different race. Action taken by the national government that counteracts the interest of the mission is immediately branded as a work of the devil. Missionaries who feel themselves surrounded by the forces of evil should ask themselves if they are not also making evil a social category attributable to different alien forms of social behavior.
Given the traditional xenophobia of the African people and the cultural, economic, social, and often spiritual separation of the missionaries from the Africans, it is a miracle of grace that mission work has succeeded in Africa. In spite of these human barriers, the Word of God has prospered and accomplished His intended purpose. As Africans have gained control of their own churches, as the role of the missionary has subsided from that of leader to that of helper, relations between the groups have improved. The transition has brought some difficulties, missionaries who left because they no longer fit in, or Africans who made inordinate demands for position and power. Problems will still remain as the African church charts an increasingly independent course. Special problems will undoubtedly rise if African churches, in their approach to the claims of their social institutions, follow paths that are markedly different from the Western tradition of church-state relations. Given the difference of African political culture, this is a most likely possibility. As African Christians and their missionary counselors face the problem of the new African societies, and the claims of the new African states, it is to be hoped that they will be guided by a biblical orientation toward a social perspective that would assert, inter alia, the sovereignty of God, the sinfulness of man, the finiteness of human institutions and human belief systems, and above all, necessity of "love for the brethren."
1. "Dakar Colloquium: Search for a Definition," Africa Report, Vol. 8, No. 5, p. 16. ( Mr. Kouyate was the Minister for Development of Mali.)
2. The cult of Ryangombe finds wide distribution in a variety of forms in East and Central Africa. It combines elements of ancestral worship with exclusivist rituals of a personality cult. Ryangombe, its mythical leader, is a deified man who stands as an intermediary between God and the members of the cult. Since Ryangombe was, according to legend, a great hunter and tribal leader, his position in the cultic ritual goes to the most important tribal leader present.
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