by Tite Tienou
In the face of rapid growth, Africa’s churches face an identity crisis.
Christianity is alive and well in Africa, at least in so-called Black Africa or sub-Saharan Africa. One even detects a note of triumphalism on the part of some who write on the present and the future of Christianity in Africa. They prognosticate a largely Christian Africa by next century.1 If African Christianity is doing so well, why would anyone inquire about its fate?
JUSTIFICATION OF INQUIRY
African Christianity is currently experiencing the same identity crisis that is sweeping across the continent. While recognizing that the world’s peoples seem to have embarked on a new quest for their identities (as is evidenced by the rise of ethnic nationalism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union), in Africa the problem of identity is particularly acute. Edem Kodjo has observed that, of all the continents of our planet, Africa is the one "which is on the quest for its identity and which inquires about its future" in a pathetic way.2 The question of identity for Africans is often posed in terms of an alternative between Westernization and authentic Africanness. Christianity usually comes under vitriolic for having promoted the cultural and religious alienation of Africans. Christians, especially in countries evangelized in the wake of European penetration, are repeatedly challenged to choose between Westernization or a revival of African cultures, as if were the only possible options. Too many people simply assume that, as Ali A. Mazrui puts it in The Africans, "the most important cultural conflict occurring in Africa is between Western civilization and indigenous forces,"3 Mazrai’s axiom must be scrutinized on its merits by all interested in Africa. For African Christians it demands a response.
STATEMENT OF THESIS
I submit that the most appropriate response to the question whether African Christianity’s choice is between Westernization and indigenous authenticity should be twofold. First, we question the validity of Mazrui’s axiomatic statement. Second, as it will be argued, African Christianity is doomed in the long term as it allows itself to be imprisoned either in Westernization or in indigenous cultures and religions. Both of these roads lead to irrelevance. The first will make Christianity irrelevant through foreign-ness, and the latter will cause it to become superfluous and thus irrelevant. Consequently, the road to success for African Christianity lies in its ability to provide a thoroughgoing critique of both Westernization and authenticity, while developing creative solutions to the continent’s staggering, multifaceted problems.
I propose that we first look at the lingering effects of a missiological tradition which equated Europe and the West with Christianity and civilization and "missionized" peoples (especially Africans) with the lack of both. This will then lead us to an evaluation of the claim that in Africa the "ancestral is authentic."4
IDEAS DIE HARD
I realize that one must be careful not to identify the modem missionary movement too closely with European colonialism and the Western expansionist spirit.5 It serves no purpose, however, when discussing the relationship between Christianity and African cultures and religions to paint missionaries en bloc as the defenders of African cultural particularisms. In reality, missionary opinions regarding aspects of African cultures varied from "toleration, translation, assimilation, christianization, acculturation and incorporation."6
The ethnocentrism and cultural arrogance of Western missionaries is not the most important link between them and other Europeans and Westerners, particularly the colonialists among them. Rather, I wish to point to the direct epistemological foundation of both missions and colonialism as evidenced in the literature,7 to show why Westernization and Christianity are often viewed as two sides of the same coin.
When one looks for an epistemological linkage between missions and colonialism, one should examine the literature on mission theory and strategy. Here one finds that colonial doctrine and Christian rationale for mission both involve "a sense of mission, of spreading a nation’s vision of society and culture to an alien, subjected people."8 Indeed it is undeniable that much missiological strategy, as evidenced in the literature was (and is?) based on the "obvious" differences between Christian Westerners and "barbarous pagans." Recall, for instance, William Carey’s description of the unevangelized peoples of his day:
… .four hundred and twenty millions…are still in pagan darkness,..they have no written language, consequently no Bible, and are led by the most childish customs and traditions….They are in general poor, barbarous, naked pagans, as destitute of civilization as they are true religion.9
Even if Carey did believe that "They appear to be as capable of knowledge as we are,"10 he accepted the prevailing notions of his day. No surprise here and I do not mean to denigrate the great Carey. Something else is at stake. It is this: Carey and other 18th- and 19th-century visionaries of missions set the tone for recruiting missionaries on the basis of pity for poor savages living in situations of material, moral, and spiritual decay."11 As hard as it may seem to believe, the foregoing ideas are still being propagated by some missiologists today, especially in regard to Africa.
The late J. Herbert Kane, one of the gurus of U.S. evangelical missiology, was a clear example that the evaluative terms of the 18th and 19th centuries linger on. In the fourth edition of his Understanding Christian Missions (1986), a book widely used by evangelicals, he sees Africans moving away from animism, "which has nothing to offer to the educated person" (p.214). Moreover, in the seven factors which, according to him, explain the growth of Christianity in Africa, we note the following:
- "Colonialism…was a blessing in disguise in Africa." The prestige of the colonial officials "rubbed off on the missionaries for they too belonged to the white race."
- Missionaries in Africa had more power than they would have had in their own countries because of the African "tribal" social structure which required blind obedience to "chiefs."
- Since Africa has no religious systems, missionaries encountered no resistance. "Africa," in his words, "is the heartland of animism and the people there knew nothing else until the coming of Islam and Christianity." Animism, he says, cannot stand up to the insights of Western learning.
- "The missionary was held in high esteem" because "he was regarded as belonging to a superior race"; "he was a tin god."12
One can be forgiven if, after reading Kane, one concludes that for him Christianity and the white man’s civilization were identical. I know that Kane was not an expert on Africa. Yet, the fact that his publishers let his assertions about the continent stand for twelve printings is evidence enough that ideas do indeed die hard. If this is what the "enlightened" gurus teach about Africa, one shivers at the thought of what might be in the minds of the "ordinary" people.
Whether we like it or not, the similarity between the Carey-Kane missiological tradition and the mythology of colonialism is disturbing. In both cases, one begins with the assumption that the world is divided in camps, generally two: Europe-West depicted as white, civilized, rational, and Christian; the rest of the world (particularly Africa) viewed as nonwhite, primitive, irrational, and pagan. This binary division of the world does not disappear when non-Europeans and non-Westerners become missionizers. They do, of course, abandon the racial and/or color distinctions; but they still tend to associate redemption of the non-Christian world with its "improvement" or advancement. A case in point is the history of the African-Americans’ involvement in missions to Africa.
These evaluative concepts, taken as facts, serve as the foundation for what may be called the bulldozer ethos of both Western missions and colonialism. Like a bulldozer, missions tend to level other traditions, so that the construction workers may erect buildings in "international style" on the new sites.
Historically, of course, and long before the rise of European imperialism, Christian missionizing had sought to convert "pagans" from idol worship to that of the only true and living God(cf. 1 Thess. 1:9). The legitimacy of desiring conversion is not questioned here. Rather, the matter under scrutiny is the means by which this conversion was achieved. Many participants in the modern missionary movement seem to have accepted Ninian Smart’s depiction of the religious world of the so-called small-scale peoples as a jungle where the many trees represent various gods and spirits. With this assumption in their minds, they promote Christianity in such a way that "the jungle is leveled, so that One Tree can be planted, that Tree which represents the One God."13 When the leveling is done by people who are convinced that Western ways and Christianity are identical, it has a net result of portraying the Christian God as a Euro-American tribal deity. This is how Eugene Hillman highlights the Euro-American captivity of Christianity: In Africa it is presented in a "dazzling garb of foreign wealth and power… [making it appear] as a superior tribal religion."14 It should be no surprise, then, that Africans, novelists, playwrights, politicians, academicians, and even churchmen saw missions as a form of Western imperialism.15
Curiously enough, even as Africa was going through a period of major political changes in the early 1960s, some mission theoreticians were openly advocating Westernization as a prerequisite for authentic Christianity. L. Elders, for example, argued that Christianity cannot subsist in a fully developed form unless it is rooted in a civilization which has "the same essential characteristics as Western Christian civilization."16 Fortunately, such opinions are now clearly in the minority. Nevertheless, they are part of the history of missions in Africa, and their widespread acceptance in the not-too-distant past reminds us that resistance to Westernization will always call us, African Christians, to ask: Which way should we go? Should we propagate Westernization (of which we are accused), or should we join the "freedom fighters" in their cultural and religious resistance to Westernization ?
As European colonialism continued to extend its grip on the continent, Africans began noticing glaring contradictions in its program. For example, they perceived that the goal of Westernization could only lead to alienation. For, as the Bambara proverb says, "Even if a log remains in a river for one hundred years, it will not become a crocodile." The French colonial philosophy of assimilation, intended to make the Africans into "French people with a black skin," only succeeded in creating resentment in those who internalized much of French culture.17 Similarly, the British policy also created a conflict between cultures.18 In a sense, cultural and religious resistance to Westernization, in Africa, is based on the double realization that complete Westernization is impossible and that structural changes (that is, changes at the level of material culture) need not entail the rejection of the souls of our cultures. But, how can we recover our cultural identity?
SIMPLE SOLUTION PROPOSED
The solution proposed by Ali Mazrai, and others, is simple and winsome. First, let us realize that "the ancestors of Africa are angry" and they have "pronounced the curse of cultural sabotage."19 Second, let us reject the foreign organ called Westernization and believe that the "ancestral is authentic."20 These are the arguments behind the attempts to revive African traditional cultures and religions. They have had a measure of success because, as some claim, "since independence in many areas there has been a great resurgence and renaissance in African Traditional Religion."21
We should be careful not to misunderstand Mazrui and those who reject Westernization. They are not calling for a return to pre-colonial African cultures. Rather, they advocate the development of modernity without Westernization. As Mazrui puts it, the two imperatives for Africa’s redemption are "looking inward towards Africa’s ancestors…[and] looking outwards towards the wider world."22 Elsewhere Mazrui makes the case for what may be called the Yoruba model of the triple cultural heritage, where the indigenous culture absorbs the foreign ones: "Yoruba culture has absorbed both Westernization and Islam-and still insisted on the supremacy of the indigenous."23 Such then is the meaning of the axiom: The ancestral is authentic. It is a call for cultural (and religious) synthesis grounded in Africa’s past. How acceptable is this to African Christians?
Let it be said in passing that African Christians are generally not opposed to reconciling themselves with their cultural traditions. They are not the Trojan horses of Westernization. Many of them seek to preserve their cultures. The real question is: What exactly does the Yoruba model of the triple heritage mean? Is it possible to keep one’s indigenous culture triumphant and, say, be fully Christian?
Mazrui’s call for a synthesis between the three major cultural forces present in the continent (Islam, Western Christianity, and indigenous culture) is not entirely new. Mazrui’s "triple heritage" or "trinity of cultures" is actually a revival of Kwame Nkrumah’s ideas contained in his book Consciencism. Mazrui seems to have departed only slightly from Nkrumah, who argued that materialism was the basis from which African traditional society would "digest the Western and the Islamic and the Euro-Christian elements." Mazrui, for his part, argues against both materialism and Westernization and views indigenous culture with its religious ethos as the best remedy to these corrosive ingredients.
Before we get to dealing with the Christians’ response to Mazrui’s triple heritage, we do well to pause and ask: Is the ancestral the authentic? I agree with L. Keita, who has taken issue with the view that only cultural traits which are considered "traditional within African society are regarded as authentically African."26 In that sense the ancestral cannot be accepted as the authentic, except that it provides the general vantage point for our present outlook on life. Even ordinary Africans realize that one’s ability to change will enhance one’s future. For, as a proverb has it, "if the rhythm of the drum changes, the dancer must change his dance steps as well." That is the reason why "the idea of a triple cultural heritage as it relates to contemporary Africa is a trivial one since there is no modern society of any importance whose sociological structure is not the result of the fusion of technical and cultural inputs from alien sources."27 Armed with such rebuttals, we are now ready to address ourselves to the opening question: Which way for African Christianity: Westernization or indigenous authenticity?
In the discussion so far, I have shown that we should resist such attempts to oversimplify. This being the case, African Christianity must choose neither Westernization nor indigenous authenticity. Africans, like other people, must realize that the era for slogans is past and the Christians among them must realize that "the first freedom is the right to be different."28 In particular, I am calling African Christians, especially the Protestants among them, to live by the Reformation ideals of allegiance to God alone as he has revealed himself through Jesus Christ and Scripture. We cannot accept any historical manifestation of the Christian faith as normative. We recognize no center of the Christian faith except Christ himself. We should therefore continue to resist Westernization which disguises itself as Christianity.
When African Christians exert their right to be different, they should also have the courage to stand firmly for the fact that their allegiance to "God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ" also means the rejection of some aspects of indigenous cultures. Such rejection does not necessarily make them un-African, any more than those Africans who live by the triple heritage would be more or less African. Rather, choosing to become a Christian necessarily involves distancing oneself somewhat from one’s traditional and/ or former culture and religion. Otherwise, why bother to change at all?
Discussion of the relationship between Westernization, modernity, Christianity, and indigenous authenticity will no doubt continue in Africa. This is so because our continent has experienced modernity and Christianity as part of the package called "colonial situation," whereby a minority of occupants has managed to change the minds of the majority and made them doubt their humanity. African Christians can help by refusing to be trapped in the sterile debate which argues for either Westernization or indigenous authenticity. How? By focusing the discussion on Africa’s problems. You see the debate on modernity in Africa is often viewed as an examination of Africa’s present and Europe’s present and its past.29 What is needed is an examination of Africa’s present in light of its past (both near and distant) with a view to the future. Here African Christians can become part of a vigorous movement for the continent’s moral, material, and spiritual redemption. In the end, we should refrain from giving too much credit to Westerners and too little to Africans in the transformation of Africa.
Whereas advocates of indigenous authenticity argue for Africa’s transformation without abandoning her an castors and gods, Christians work for Africa’s transformation on the basis of commitment to God, maker of all things and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. African Christians should go about their business confident "mission churches [are] much less alien" to Africa than people suppose.30
1. The name of David Barrett has become linked to the predicton that Africa will become generally Christian by the year 2000. It is instructive to note that, as far back as 1956, Rowland Oliver, calling attention to the geometical progression of Christianity in sub-Saharan Africa since 1912, conjectured: "If things were to go at the same rate, there would be no pagans left in Africa after the year 1992." (How Christian is Africa? London: The Highway Press, 1956), p. 8).
2. Edem Kodjo, …et demain l’Afrique (Paris: Editions Stock, 1985), p. 89. A sample of the recent literature shows that Edem Kodjo is not alone is his assessment of the African predicament. See, for example, Kwame Bediako "Biblical Christologies in the Context of African Traditional Religions" in Sharing Jesus in the Two-Thirds World, V. Samuel and C. Sugden, eds., Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983, pp. 87-88; Mubabinge Bilolo "African Religion: Face to Face with the Challenge of Christianity and Techo-Science" Interculture, Vol. XVI, No. 1, Cah. 78 (Janvier-Mars 1983): 16-31; Robert J. Cummings "Africa Between the Ages" African Studies Review, Vol. 29, No. 3 (Sept. 1986): 1-25; Ali A. Mazrui The Africans. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1986, pp. 11, 12, 21 and 295; Constantine M. Mwikamba "A Search for an African Identity: African Ecclesial Review, Vol. 31, No. 2 (April, 1988): 91-107, and Emeka Onwurah "Remaking of African Traditional Religions under the Influence of Modernity" Journal of Dharma, Vol. 12 (April-June 1987): 180-191.
3. Ali A. Mazrui, The Africans (Boston, Mass.: Little Brown & Co., 1986), p. 21.
4. Ibid., p. 295.
5. I agree with Lamin Sanneh’s assessment that the missionaries’ emphasis on translating Scripture into vernacular languages "undercuts the alleged connection often drawn between missions and colonialism" and that "missionaries in the field have helped to promote indigenous self-awareness as a counterforce to Western cultural importation" in "Christian Missions and the Western Guilt Complex" The Christian Century, Vol. 104, No. 11 (April 18, 1987) pp. 331, 332. See also his "Pluralism and Christian Commitment" Theology Today, Vol. XLV, No. 1 (April 1988): 21-33. While we should heed Sanneh’s corrective to the one-sided vilification of missions, we must not completely whitewash the Western missionary enterprise. That would be irresponsible since there is too much evidence to the contrary. Also, Rene Maunier in his Sociologie Coloniale, T.I., p. 85 argues that the main effect of colonization is to provide the colonized people with a sense of identity and unity, which, in turn, will be used against the colonial masters. So, even here Sanneh’s position does not completely erase a link between missions and colonialism. Colonialism produces a counterforce against itself.
6. Steven Kaplan, "The Africanization of Missionary Christianity: History and Typology," Journal of Religion in Africa, Vol. XVI, Fasc. 3 (October), p. 167.
7. We should not forget that some of the apologists for European colonial intervention argued for an important role which religious missions can fulfill in securing Europe’s dominance in the subjugated lands. See for example Paul Leroy-Beaulieu, De la colonisation chez les peuples, T.II, 5 ed. Paris: Guillaumin et. cie, 1902, pp. 654, 656. The conscious witness of such apologists is incontrovertible.
8. T.O. Beidelman, Colonial Evangelism: A Socio-Cultural Study of an East African Mission at the Grassroots (Bloomington, Ind.: University of Indiana Press, 1982), p. 4.
9. William Carey, An Enquiry Into the Obligation of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathen (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1891), pp. 62, 63.
10. Ibid., p. 63.
11. See Robert H. Milligan The Fetish Folk of West Africa. New York: Fleming H. Revell, Co., 1912. The author views the degradation of the African, often referred to as the savage in his text, as a fact. He maintains that civilization is the secular side of Christianity (pp., 5, 7 and 264-285.)
12. J. Herbert Kane, Understanding Christian Missions (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1986), pp. 219-221.
13. Ninian Smart, Worldviews (New York: Charles Schribner’s Sons, 1983), p. 57.
14. Eugene Hillman, "Missionary Approaches to African Culture Today," African Ecclesial Review, December 1980, p. 347.
15. The disruptive nature of European colonialism and missions has long been a favorite of African novelists and others. One thinks of the writings of Nigerian Chinua Achebe, Cameroonian Mongo Beti and Guinean Camara Laye in earlier times. More recently, the Ivorian J. M. Adiaffi has taken up the theme in his La carte d’identite (1980). See especially p. 33 where the French Commandant de Cercle, Kakatika, declares that France, in her generosity has bestowed everything on the Africans, things they were lacking: culture, art, science, technology, medicine, religion and language. Note the similarity with religious language when Kakatika says that France has guided the African on their black path with her white light (p. 33). V.Y. Mudimbe, from Zaire, has done the most throroughgoing theoretical critique of missions colonialism and the social siences from an African perspective in books such as L’autre face du Royaume (1974), L’odeur de ‘ere (1982) and The Invention of Africa (1988). On the effects of colonialism on Africans, consult the work of Nigerian Chinweizu, The West and the Rest of Us (1987) and Decolonizing the African Mind (1987).
16. L. Elders, "Christianisme et Cultures," Nouvelle Reveu de Science Missionarie, 1962 (18), pp. 5, 6.
17. Leopold S. Seugher, Ce que Je Crois! (Paris: Editions Grasset et Fasquelle, 1988), pp. 22, 23, 137.
18. James Brooke, "Tribalism vs. Modernism: At Death, a Showdown," The New York Times, Feb. 25, 1987, p. A4.
19. Mazrui, The Africans, p. 11.
20. Ibid, pp. 211, 295.
21. Emeka Onwurah, "Remaking of African Traditional Relgions Under the Influence of Modernity," Journal of Dharma, 1987, Vol. 12, April-June, p. 190.
22. Mazrui, The Africans, p. 295.
23. Ibid., p. 14.
24. Kwame Nkrumah, Consciencism (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1970), pp. 78-106.
25. Ibid., p. 14.
26. L. Keita, "Africa’s Triple Heritage: Unique or Universal?" Presence Africaine, 1987, No. 143 (3p. Trimestre), p. 92.
28. Joseph Ki-Zerbo, "L’ere des slogans est revolve!" Interview with Siradiou Diallo. Jeune Afrique, 1989, No. 1484 (14 Juin).
29. A. Ngindu Mushete, "L’Eglise d’Afrique a l’epreuve de la modernite," Spiritus, 1989, T.XXX, No. 114 (Fevrier).
30. Terence Ranger, "Religion, Development and African Christian Identity," New Zeitschrift fur Missionswissenschaft, 1986, Vol. 42/2.
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