by David P. Rawson
How to establish the proper relation between church and society has been a dilemma that has for centuries troubled the Western world. Now a new dimension has been added to that problem. In Africa new states have sprung up, having a bright facade of Western constitutional government.
How to establish the proper relation between church and society has been a dilemma that has for centuries troubled the Western world. Now a new dimension has been added to that problem. In Africa new states have sprung up, having a bright facade of Western constitutional government. Playing important roles in the new government are religious institutions transplanted to African soil from western culture. Yet underneath the modern facade with its western religious forms is a deep reservoir of indigenous culture with its own religious tradition. As the facade becomes tarnished by administrative rupture and coup d’etats, as the indigenous tradition breaks forth in tribal warfare and revival of pagan practices, the Christians of Africa are seeking their proper role in efforts to stabilize the political communities they call their own.
The dimensions of the problem are multitudinous. It is my purpose in this article to survey briefly but one aspect, the confrontations that occur between religious institutions as a result of their effort to influence values and policies of the societies of which they are a part.
An opening to the problem of church-societal relations is gained when one realizes that the church as a religious institution is also a racial institution with prescribed social functions. Parsons ascribes to religious institutions the task of pattern maintenance, i.e., "upholding the basic ordering principles of the system with reference to both the value of such patterns and the commitment of system units to them."1 As organizations created for the attainment of certain values, religious institutions habitually seek to make their values part of the general value system accepted by their society. The problem is that no African society has one single type of religious institution maintaining a unique set of values for that society.
If one wonders why Protestant missions have not been able to assert more influence on the societies they serve, one must consider the opposition they face. One must note the other religious institutions that are also seeking to influence society, understand their approach to society, and appreciate the points at which Protestant objectives counter or coincide with those held by these institutions. What are the other religious institutions that the Protestant church must face in Africa? Essentially they are the institutions of the Muslim faith, of paganism, and of the Roman Catholic branch of Christianity. But what are the social orientations of these institutions? What problems should a Protestant Christian expect as he confronts them, and how should he address these problems? These are the questions I propose to consider.
When working in areas where the Muslim faith is a dominant influence, Christians should realize that they are confronting a group whose faith has an established tradition of the proper connections between religion and state. These traditions are based on the following principles.
1. Paganism destroys proper social behavior and undermines society. It is to be opposed by political force, a holy war if necessary.
2. Christians and Jews as People of the Book, ones who obey the teaching of recognized prophets, are to be accepted in society.
3. The basis of the good society is founded on belied in and obedience to the commands of Allah.
4. The laws of society, incorporated in the Sharia, have, then, as the basis of their obligation the fact that they are in the will of God.
According to the logic of the Muslim position, Christian evangelizing efforts pose a more serious threat. Evangelization represents typical Christian exclusiveness, an unwillingness to recognize the value of other faiths, and common Christian arrogance, a violation of the courtesy of toleration extended under Muslim rule. In a state whose leadership is Muslim or whose Muslim constituency has a strong voice, Christians canexpect opposition if they obey Christ’s commission to evangelize all nations. They can expect frustration of any effort to directly affect state policies, or to indirectly influence society through institutionalized social programs. Conflict seems to be inevitable if Christians and Muslims follow the essential thrust of their theological positions in seeking to influence society.
While Muslim areas in Africa have often proved resistant to the Gospel and hostile to Christian methods of evangelization, Christian mission work has been most successful among the "pagan" peoples of Africa.2 The successes in Eastern Nigeria, the revivals in Rwanda and Uganda, the development of Christian leadership in cambia are among the many witnesses to this fact. At first the heartening response was attributed to the depravity of paganism and the enlightenment afforded by the missionary endeavor. Catholic and Protestant churches hoped openly for the creation of great Christian states guided by Christian leaders ruling over a converted populace. But areas like the Eastern Congo that had previously experienced great strides forward have in recent years returned to modes of thought and behavior that are not much different from their pagan past. Has the gospel been of no effect? Missionaries have come to realize that often the process of Christianizationn was connected to the process of acculturalization; that is, the acceptance of new ways of life dictated by a new political order brought in by the colonial governments. Becoming a Christian was the only way to get on in the new colonial society. The mission was for many but an avenue for personal advancement or a guarantor of personal security.
When independence came, the social benefits of being Christian were abrogated. Patterns of living changed. Diviners and sorcerers often imprisoned under colonial administration for practicing their profession once again set up trade. To some, African independence meant both freedom from traditional moral restrictions and the church’s moral code supported by the prestige of the missionary as scholar, church leader, and white man, and enforced according to his personal judgment.
A neopaganism has returned to Africa, and as with the cleansed demoniac, its power is seven times greater.
What should the church’s approach be toward this revival? What should its attitude be toward pagan fertility cults like the Feast of Umuganuro in Burundi which was revived in Burundi and elevated to the level of a national festival?3 How should the church respond when political leaders like ex-President Nkrumah of Ghana claim titles that in former pagan lore suggested divinity? Must the church revise its previously strict moral standards in order to permit its members the flexibility necessary to penetrate society and win positions of influence in these new nations? How does the church react when the state claims the final loyalty of its people? When a country claims, as did the monarchical Burundi, the national slogan of God, King and Country, does this signify the subservience of king and country to Jehovah God, or, does this slogan revive the pagan identity of Imam-God with king and country?
A Christian appraisal of indigenous African society must recognize that the animistic traditions of the past have not been eliminated by fifty-odd years of colonial rule or a half-century of Christianization. The Christian will have to contend with a stubborn residue of the population that purposively remains pagan. He must also recognize intermixed with pagan traditions many elements of a truly national culture. These could, if properly redefined, provide a proper base for social cohesion and positive political action.
The old problem of which customs to accept and which to challenge is not easily solved. One can only suggest certain guidelines. Early Christians went to martyrdom because they refused to worship theEmperor, because they refused to accept any institutions, rituals, or persons as eternal or divine. Christian insistence on the finiteness of all men and all human institutions could prove a valuable corrective to the charismatic tendency of contemporary African nationalism.
Evaluation of local custom must, however, come from within that culture. No amount of seniority in missionary service qualifies a missionary, a product of a materialistic secular Western culture, to establish the cultural norms of an African society. African Christians with their deep perception of God’s presence with them and in the world are much better equipped to evaluate their own customs. One must trust the Spirit of God to guide them in establishing an operational basis for Christian action in a pagan society. The church, its internal forms and its external approaches to society, cannot be quickly created from without. The lesson of the last fifty years of frustrated effort is that it must grow up from within.
Some of the most problematic situations in church-state affairs revolve around the respective political attitudes and practices of Catholic and Protestant churches. This as undoubtedly because these churches have been the bearers of Western civilization and are the repository of those attitudes that are supposed to undexgird the modern political structures bequeathed to the emerging African nations. They form the spiritual and intellectual connection with the Western world and, for that matter, the world at large. But as feuding brothers, their relations have in the past been acrimonious. Important distinctions need to be made concerning the types of Protestant-Catholic relations extant in Africa.
A more traditional situation exists in countries like Portuguese Angola, where the Catholic church is in the majority and has the support of the administrative power. Here the evangelizing zeal of the Protestants is a threat to the grass-roots power of the Catholic church. The training in Protestant schools encourages free intellectual inquiry. Spiritual nurture emphasizes the freedom of the individual, and this freedom gains expression in democratic church practices. Africans with such a background have become revolutionary leaders, or the core of opposition movements. The Protestant missionary, often American, with a view prejudiced toward democratic government and social change, presents a challenge to the conservative, authoritarian Catholic hierarchy. It is obvious that under such conditions conflict between Protestant and Catholic is inevitable. The Protestant church by its very existence constitutes a challenge to the status quo. Whether or not it desires it, the Protestant church becomes a revolutionary social force.
A different type of relationship exists where the Catholic church has lost both its power base in society and its rationale for opposing Protestant movements.4 Such is the case in the Congo where under the Concordat of 1906 the Catholic church was charged with the task of civilizing tie colony. It was not until 1948 that non-Belgian Protestant churches enjoyed equal access to government subsidies for educational, health, and social services. Even then the colonial administrative hierarchy and the indigenous authorities were disposed toward the Catholic cause. But an anticlerical movement in Belgium bringing in a Socialist government deprived the church of its colonial support, while national movements in the Congo destroyed much of its influence with indigenous authorities. Then Vatican II created an ecumenical spirit, a demand for recognition of the Protestant church as part of the body of Christ. The official attitude of the Catholic church changed; Protestant missionaries were amazed by the friendliness of formerly distant clerics.
In the social unrest subsequent to the coming of independence, Protestants and Catholics alike found their church organizationsdecimated, their properties destroyed, and their missionaries martyred. Out of the common fiery trial and the change in the church’s official position came a new spirit of reconciliation. Protestants could look forward to toleration and even cooperation with Catholic clergy. First-hand observation indicates, however, that the Protestants have not yet taken advantage of the opportunities this new spirit affords to gain entry into positions of influence in societies that have been largely Catholicized.
If the Protestants are wary, it is not without reason. While the official attitude is cordial, the new attitude seems mainly confined to the hierarchy and, one should admit, is usually found among the European clerics. Complaints of discrimination against Protestants in securing jobs, in gaining entry to institutions of higher learning, or in receiving social services are still common. Years of denunciation have left the laity on both sides suspicious of each other. In Burundi, a group of Catholic and Protestant legislators debated whether they could open their meeting with prayer, since they were not sure they worshipped the same God.
In sum, in spite of the change in attitude, Protestants will still have to contend with a Catholic majority and with a governmental structure that reflects that major view. Protestant missions, particularly if they are American, may still be suspected of introducing alien political values, including the universal catch-all, "Yankee imperialism."
But the social influence of the Protestant church may be out of proportion to its numbers. In countries having a Catholic majority, a disproportionate number of Protestants have already entered positions of political leadership. What makes these leaders trusted and respected? One could speculate about the Protestant ethic and its adaptability to the desires of an African state seeking modernization. One could consider the cultural influences of American or British missionaries, who may have prepared these leaders for their role in the modern world. But one should not forget the power of God to change lives and through His Holy Spirit make them effective instruments for service here on this earth.
In areas where it is still a minority but where Catholic attitude is tolerant or friendly, the Protestant church can look forward to playing a positive role in the society of which it is a part. Conflict at the grass-roots level may continue, but cooperation with Catholic hierarchy is an option increasingly open to Protestant churchmen if they desire it.
There are certain areas in Africa where Catholic and Protestant churches have both had sizable success in gaining adherents and neither has a decided numerical advantage or a special tie with the existing political structure. Such a situation is particularly open to the competitive political instincts of the religious organizations. In Uganda, the national parties were built around the efforts of Catholic and Protestant leaders to secure power and influence on the national scene. This struggle reflected the ambition to make one faith or the other the dominant religious influence in the country.
The stakes are high and, in purely secular terms, worth fighting for. In the new African states, the dominant political party has virtual control of the country. This means control over legislation, control over the government ministries, their policies and finances, control over church schools, hospitals, and social services. It means the ability to fill prestigious appointments abroad and at home in the government service. It means the opportunity through construction of the national ideology to establish the national ethic and influence the direction of national morality.
Should the churches seek access to this political power and the opportunities it affords? Should Christian organizations engage in competition for national dominance? The answer for the Catholic church found in itsview of the role of the church in society is obviously yes. But what about the Protestants?
The answer there has apparently been yes, on the purely pragmatic grounds that, "If we don’t take over, the Catholics will."
The problem is that the Protestant church has no established and settled view of the proper role of the church in the state. The radical American Protestant position of separation
does not fit the practical necessities of the African situation, where the Protestant churches have for years been mixed up in governmental affairs by receiving subsidies, by acting as advisors to colonial governments, and later by aiding in the transition to independence. The African tradition itself posits the union of religious and political functions, whether it be a clan leader directing ancestor worship or a king presiding over a national fertility rite.
The alternatives open to the church are three: conflict, accommodation, or withdrawal. In areas like the Portuguese territories, withdrawal and accommodation are impossible. The situation puts Protestant endeavors in conflict with Catholic aims. In areas like the Congo, conflict is possible but accommodation now more likely. The alternative of Protestant withdrawal to innocuous isolation is quite open. In areas where Catholic and Protestant power are about equal, accommodation and withdrawal are both unlikely since the stakes are so high. Continuing conflict particularly among the lay leaders is to be expected.
This raises the final question. Conflict between Muslim, pagan, and Christian is to be expected. But is competition between Catholic and Protestant a healthy thing? Should it be eschewed in favor of a policy of unity and cooperation on the social front? It seems that competition in the form of opposition to whatever the other side does is neither healthy nor Christian. The church in this manner gives up its freedom of action and binds itself to negate the efforts of its rival. Nor is the attitude of "do it bigger and better than the other side" constructive. If there is opposition and competition, it ought to be based on an honest admission of differences in principle. Effective social action must rely on consistently reasoned theological imperatives. If existing differences in Protestant and Catholic theology are clearly confronted, they will no doubt point to some different paths in efforts to influence society.
Accommodation, then, on the blind assumption that all unity is good, is likewise neither healthy nor Christian. What can the church say to society unless it has the courage to stand by its convictions? It is this writer’s opinion that the Christian institutions need to resist the tendency so common in Africa to curtail debate, sidestep issues, and seek artificial unity in order to "get the job done." Perhaps the church in the political and social manifestations of her existence will be in Africa a needed symbol of the varieties of human experience, the finiteness of man, and the diversity of human thought.
Diversity, disunity, or even conflict between religious institutions should not keep the church from her task, which is not only to proclaim that, "The kingdom of heaven is come nigh," but also to heal the sick, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the imprisoned and care for strangers (Luke 10:9; Matthew 25:35-46). Ancient African societies have been disrupted. Neither Communist nor Western materialism fits the religious bias of the African temperament. If within the new states of Africa new societies are to be built, the church must, with a realistic appraisal of the difficulties inherent in its effort, seek to be both a spiritually redeeming and socially constructive influence.
1. Talcott Parsons, "The Political Aspect of Social Structure and Process", in Varieties of Political Theory, David Easton, ed. (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1966), p. 105. This function of religious institutions as seen by Easton gives them connections ( interchanges ) within his system of social action with the economic, political and legal functions of society.
2. Paganism–A common term with commonly implied meaning is difficult to define precisely. As used here, it is that view of life which asserts the primacy of this world and the intimacy of human institutions. Its deities are natural spirits confined to this world and often localized in particular natural objects. The essential purpose of pagan ritual is to bribe the spirit order into serving as the agent and supporter of human desires. As such, African paganism is easily coupled with ideas of Western materialism and humanism. Its revival in Africa is not simply the revival of crude religious practices, but of the arrogance of man and his rejection of the transcendent God.
3. The Feast of Umugnnuro is an elaborate festival held in December of each year to bless the planting of crops especially sorghum (umuganuro). In the traditional Burundi society it was a fertility rite guaranteeing the fruitfulness of cattle, crops, and people. The festival involved worship of the national spirit Kiranga, sacrifices to, the ancestors, and sexual union between the king and Mukakayrenda, female companion to the royal drum. Because of its pagan practices it was forbidden under the Belgian colonial administration but was revived before the termination of the Trusteeship as a festival of national unity and productivity. The feast has apparently been dropped by the new republican regime.
4. In addition to the case of the Congo given below, this situation applies to both Rwanda, Burundi, and most of the non-Muslim states of former French Africa such as Togo, Dahomey, Central African Republic, Gabon and the Ivory Coast. The Catholic constituency in Nigeria is larger than the Protestant but in this large and now chaotic state, both are eclipsed by the number of Muslim adherents. In other former British territories, Protestants outnumber Catholics although in many like Kenya, only by a small margin. In Uganda and Tanzania, Catholics are in the majority but face a very large Protestant body. They serve as examples of the third category of Catholic-Protestant situations.
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