What Africa Can Teach the North

What Africa Can Teach the North November 1, 2018

This essay was first published in Credenda/Agenda.

On the evening of April 6, 1994, a missile destroyed the airplane of Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana as it descended into the Kigali airport. Within hours of the assassination, Hutus armed with sticks, clubs, machetes, along with the odd grenade and gun, fanned out over the country and began killing Tutsis and any Hutus who tried to protect them.

By early July, when Kigali fell into the hands of the predominantly Tutsi Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), somewhere between 500,000 and 2 million Rwandans had been killed, and hundreds of thousands had fled. Within a week after the RPF took control of the capital, Hutus began fled from Rwanda into to Congolese refugee camps that eventually gave shelter to 1.7 million Hutus.

A million murdered in a hundred days: It’s believed that more people were slaughtered more rapidly in the Rwandan genocide than at any other time in human history.

Forty thousand bodies flowed down the Kagera River into Uganda’s Lake Victoria. Hutu boys and men who had grown up playing soccer with their Tutsi neighbors turned on them. Women carrying babies on their backs slaughtered their neighbors and killed infants in maternity hospitals. Men ripped pregnant women open, and killed any male fetuses.   Hutu men raped Tutsi girls and women, some as little more than toddlers, deliberately infecting some 400,000 with HIV. Small children were dug from beneath piles of rotting corpses, too young to remember their names or their parents.

It had happened before. Shortly after the fall of the last Tutsi king of Rwanda in 1959, Hutus rampaged, driving hundreds of thousands of Tutsis from their land. In 1959, missionaries and priests defended the Tutsis. Not in 1994. Tutsis were enticed into churches, then slaughtered. In Nyamata, 10,000 people were killed while hiding in the Catholic church. Catholic Archbishop Vincent Nsengiyumva joined Anglican Archbishop Augustin Nshamihigo in supporting the genocide. With two other bishops, Nshamihigo toured Kenya, Canada, England and the U. S. to assure the world that no slaughters were taking place. A former Anglican Archbishop read imprecatory Psalms directed against the Tutsis over the radio, and another bishop prayed that God would throw fire from heaven against the Tutsi “cockroaches.”

“I was a deacon,” Fulgence, a white-sandaled Catholic Hutu told the French journalist Jean Hatzfeld, “the one who made arrangements for Christian gatherings on the hill of Kibungo. In the priest’s absence, it was I who conducted ordinary services.”

As soon as he heard news of the assassination, Fulgence joined his friends in a killing spree. His first kill was an “old mama,” but that one did not quite count: “she was already lying almost dead on the ground, so I did not feel death at the end of my arm.” His first true kill came the next day, “the day of the massacre at the church, so, a very special day.”

One Tutsi victim asked his attackers for time to pray before they killed him. “We killed God first,” was the response.

What is known as the “Great Lakes” region of East Africa – comprising Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania, Congo, Uganda – is 90% Christian.


Valentino Achak Deng was tending the fire watching his mother cook when the muraheleen surrounded his village of Marial Bai. They began shooting and setting fire to houses. Valentino crossed the village and eventually found shelter in the church, where he watched as villagers were herded to the soccer field or shot. The Arabs tied up boys, girls and women, tethered them to their horses, and rode away, leaving behind a few stragglers among the ruins.

Valentino ran, not knowing whether his parents and relatives had survived the attack.

What is known as the Second Sudanese Civil War began in 1983, when President Gaafar Muhammed an-Nimeiry stated that he planned to turn Sudan into an Islamic state, imposing sharia on the predominantly Christian South. In the South, John Garang organized the Sudan Peoples Liberation Army (SPLA) to resist the Khartoum government. Through the middle 1980s, North and South existed in a suspicious state of truce, but when the National Islamic Front (NIF) established itself as the Government of Sudan (GOS) in a 1989 military coup, it quickly reorganized the government to promote the never-rescinded plan to impose sharia on the south. By the early 1990s, Sudan had become the cozy base of operations for Osama bin Laden. Meanwhile, with the support of northern tribesman known as the murahaleen, GOS soldiers attacked villages throughout predominantly Christian Southern Sudan, destroying homes, plundering goods and cattle, slaughtering men, and taking women, children, and boys into slavery.

Over the course of the war, nearly 2 million Sudanese were killed, and another 4 million driven into refugee camps. Most famously, the marauders from Khartoum displaced about 27,000 orphans, mostly boys. Many were like Valentino, running and walking and hiding in the jungle as they made their way toward a refugee camp in Ethiopia where, Valentino told novelist Dave Eggers, they hoped for “oranges on white tablecloths.” Driven from Ethiopia, many of the boys walked back across Sudan to a refugee camp in Kakuma, Kenya.

Since 2003, the Darfur region of Western Sudan has been the site of ethnic warfare between the Janjaweed, a militia drawing mostly from the camel herding Arab nomads known as the Baggara, and a coalition of rebel groups drawn from a variety of tribes. Estimates of casualties have been controversial, ranging from the Sudanese governments low-ball 9000 to the Coalition for International Justice estimate of 400,000 had been killed in that conflict. Numbers are hard to calculate because the dead are dropped down wells, thrown into mass graves, or burned. Over two million people have been displaced by the war.

Valentino was among the fortunate ones. He emigrated from Sudan to Atlanta, where, years later, he learned that his mother had survived.


News from Africa is usually bad, stunningly numbingly bad. When it’s not about genocide, starvation, war, savagery, rape as a weapon of political control, or other large-scale disasters, its about pettier disasters. Riots followed Kenyas elections; at this writing, Robert Mugabe doesn’t look like he’s planning to give up power in Zimbabwe; Christians and Muslims are fighting along Middle Belt that cuts Nigeria into the arid Islamic north and the Christian jungle to the south Dozens of enterprising Nigerians are arrested for internet scams (who doesn’t know about these?).

But the news is not always bad. At over 21% GDP growth, Angola has the fastest-growing economy in the world, and two other African countries – Equatorial Guinea and Sao Tome and Principe – made the top twelve list of fast-growing economies in the Economist’s annual survey. In its Winter 2008 issue of The Wilson Quarterly, Stanford University journalism professor G. Pascal Zachary reported on a new generation of entrepreneurial African farmers who are beginning to export to Europe, Asia, and the United States.

Zachary reminds us that “the vast majority of sub-Saharan Africans neither live in war zones nor struggle with an active disease or famine. Extreme poverty is relatively rare in rural Africa, and there is a growing entrepreneurial spirit among farmers that defies usual image of Africans as passive victims.” Africa is witnessing “an agrarian revolution,” led by the “sort of canny and independent tillers of the land Thomas Jefferson envisioned as the foundation for American democracy.”

But the really good news from Africa is about Africa’s embrace of the good news.


American Christians bemoan the decline of Christianity in the modern age. We think that Christianity is primarily a Western European phenomenon. Both opinions are parochial in the extreme. The early church was a Middle Eastern rather than a European creation, and Christianity retreated into the fortress of Western Europe only with because of aggressive onslaught of Islam. At the beginning of the sixteenth century, Christianity was a European phenomenon, but the story of modern Christianity has been a story of steady expansion. The slur that Christianity is a White Man’s Religion was true in 1550, but it ceased to be true long ago, and it now bears no resemblance to reality. Northern Christians haven’t heard, and both conservatives and liberals continue to believe the slur is basically correct.

Nowhere has the church’s growth been more impressive than in Africa. At the beginning of the twentieth century, J. R, Mott told an Edinburgh ecumenical conference that Africa was falling to Islam. Lamin Sanneh notes that in 1900, Muslims outnumbered Christians 4 to 1. Since de-colonialization in the early 1960s, however, African Christianity has grown spectacularly. By 1962, there were 60 million Christians, as compared to 145 million Muslims. During the 1980s, an estimated 16,500 Africans were converting to Christianity each day.

Philip Jenkins picks up the story:

“According to the respected World Christian Encyclopedia, some 2 billion Christians are alive today, about one-third of the planetary total. The largest single bloc, some 560 million people, is still found in Europe. Latin America, though, is already close behind with 480 million, Africa has 360 million, and 313 million Asians profess Christianity. North America claims about 260 million believers. If we extrapolate these figures to the year 2025, and assume no great gains or losses through conversion, then there would be around 2.6 billion Christians, of whom 633 million would live in Africa, 640 million in Latin America, and 460 million in Asia. Europe, with 555 million, would have slipped to third place by 2050, only about one-fifth of the worlds 3 billion Christians will be non-Hispanic Whites. Soon the phrase ‘a White Christian’ may sound like a curious oxymoron, as mildly surprising as ‘a Swedish Buddhist.'”

African Christianity has a reputation for being wildly syncretistic, and the reputation is not unwarranted. The fact that much of the numbing violence in recent African history has occurred in predominantly Christian areas gives pause. How deep can faith be if African Christians are killing each other? One is tempted to respond with a tu quoque: The North has seen more than its share of Christians killing Christians. Can anyone say Dresden?

Besides, the charge that African theology is a mix of animism and Christianity is often the result of ignorance and prejudice. There are plenty of signs of maturity in African theology, and these signs suggest that African Christianity is not only learning, but has become a teacher for the rest of the church. Africa is teaching Western Christians how to do Christian theology without the confining restrictions of the Enlightenment.   Lamin Sanneh has it right: “World Christianity is not one thing, but a variety of indigenous responses through more or less effective local idioms,” but these various responses largely share one thing: They work outside the “European Enlightenment frame.” As the gospel is “embraced by societies that have not been shaped by the Enlightenment,” the North can “gain an insight into the culture that shaped the origins of the NT church.”`

The good news is not just that Africa is accepting good news. It’s not just that Africa is becoming Christian. It’s the kind of Christian it’s becoming.


Enlightenment Christianity grows in part from scientific discoveries that challenged the medieval view of the universe, a view believed, for all intents and purposes, to be based on the Bible. Dante’s elaborate cosmology was the biblical cosmology, and Copernicus and Galileo seemed not only to be challenging tradition but revelation itself. Historians got into the fray. One of the controversial books of the 17th century was Isaac de la Peyrere’s Pre-Adamites (1655). Peyrere argued that Adam was not the first man but the first Israelite. What in the Bible is only a strip of white space between Genesis 1 and 2 became an alternative history of indeterminate length. The Bible’s authority in history, like its authority in cosmology, was under assault.

One response to these developments, of course, was thoroughgoing suspicion of the Bible and its claims: but another solution was the dualistic option. Dualists didn’t reject the claims of the Bible, but used the concepts of “limited scope” and “accommodation” to neutralize Scripture. This was Galileo’s solution. The Bible, he suggested in a famous letter to the Duchess Christina of Tuscany (1615), was not mistaken about scientific facts. It couldn’t be mistaken because it made no scientific assertions in the first place. Scripture has to do with salvation, spirituality, and ethics, but scientists must look to God’s other book – nature – to learn about the world. (Part of the trick here – and it is a trick – is Galileo’s assumption that Scripture requires interpretation, and thus is uncertain, while nature is transparent to the scientific gaze.) What look like scientific assertions are merely signs of God’s benevolence, as he accommodates Himself to the unscientific mind of primitive men. God knew, of course, that the sun didn’t stand still for Joshua, but instead of confusing ancient Israelites, He babbled in their infantile language.

This was the theme of Benedict Spinoza’s Theologico-Political Treatise (1670), one of the earliest works in biblical criticism. Spinoza challenged traditional claims about authorship, and claimed that the Bible was pocked with historical, scientific, factual, and philosophical errors. No matter, though: The Bible was still valuable since it taught true religion – that is, obedience – perspicaciously and consistently. Philosophy and theology are wholly separate areas of study, and the Bible is useful for the latter but hopeless on the former. Spinoza’s treatise, as his title suggests, was not only one of the earliest works in biblical criticism, but also a political treatise, one of the earliest defenses of the modern liberal, religiously neutral state. That Spinoza combined in the same volume: no accident. For Spinoza and most early modern liberals, the liberal state was primarily a state in which various interpretations of the Bible are tolerated.

Spinoza shows that the dualism that entered into biblical interpretation with Galileo had flowered in a more thorough-going dualism, a dualism of the Bible versus everything else. Modern Christianity accommodates itself to this dualism, happy to have a cubicle where it can parse verbs and check vowel points and carry out its quaint little course of study without having to worry overmuch about what’s going on in the other cubicles.

Africans don’t believe a word of it. Africa has never had an Enlightenment. There is no African Hume, with his rejection of miracles; no African Strauss, with his “mythological” interpretation of the gospels; no African Descartes or Spinoza or Kant or Galileo or Newton.

Many African Christians have suffered intensely for the faith. Most live in conditions Americans would tolerate for about seven minutes. They have much to teach us about the cross, about contentment and joy in deprivation, about sacrifice and firmness in the face of pressure.African Christians can also teach us theology. African theologians are still often trained in the North, but they are blessedly free from Northern pathologies. African theology has the makings of an antidote.


Kenyan theologian John Mbiti remembers tearing a page of his father’s Bible as the greatest crime of his life, a crime so sinister that he never was able to bring himself to confess it. Such is the reverence that Africans have for the Bible. Philip Jenkins introduces his discussion of the Bible in Southern hemisphere Christianity with Harry Emerson Fosdick’s question, “Shall the fundamentalists win?” The answer is, They are winning, massively.

African biblicisim has arisen because of the revolutionary impact of vernacular Bible translations. Mbiti says,

“When the translation is first published, especially that of the New Testament and more so of the whole Bible, the church in that particular language area experiences its own Pentecost. The church is born afresh, it receives the Pentecostal tongues of fire. As in Acts 2, the local Christians now for the first time “hear each of us in his own language. . . we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God” (Acts 2:6-11). The Spirit of God unlocks ears and people to the Word of God, speaking to them in its most persuasive form. Local Christians cannot remain the same after that.”

David Barrett concludes that the single most important factor dividing the African Independent Churches (AIC) from missionary-founded churches is a vernacular translation. As soon as the Bible becomes available in a native tongue, readers check the teaching and practice of the missionary churches against the Scriptural standard. Many find missionary churches wanting, and set out to found churches that match the Bible more closely.

Gambian theologian Lamin Sanneh grew up in an orthodox Muslim family, a family of Islamic scholars. As a boy, he was intrigued by the Qur’an’s references to Jesus, but had no access to a Bible. Eventually, he decided that Jesus was central to Gods program of salvation, and converted to Christianity. As a former Muslim, he knows how revolutionary it is for sacred books to be translated into new languages, and he sees African translations as an epochal event in the history of Christian theology. He finds analogies between the “indigenous theological domestication” taking place in Africa and the “Hellenization of theology in the early church,” concluding that “It is difficult to overestimate the implications of this indigenous change for the future shape of the religion.”

Africans read the Bible in a way that is free of the rationalisms of modern method. They are not content to read the Bible as a source of doctrine, or an account of ancient history, or even as a practical manual that tells them what to do. For African believers, the Bible is a book to inhabit, a narrative to participate in. They recognize that they are part of the story the Bible tells.

Given their cultural context, Africans gravitate toward books that are decidedly secondary in Northern Christianity. African pastors preach nearly as much from the Old Testament as from the New, reversing centuries of parochial Enlightened embarrassment about the primitiveness of the Old Testament. Northern readers glaze over when the Chronicler gives us chapter after chapter of genealogies, but nothing makes more sense to Africans than genealogies of great leaders. Africans reach for John or Romans to introduce the Christian faith, but they are exuberantly fond of Hebrews and James. Their world is a world of priests, sacrifice, purity and impurity, and Hebrews’s declaration that Jesus marks the end of sacrifice is stirring news. James is popular because it imitates the style of the wisdom literature of the Old Testament, which strongly resembles traditional African proverbial wisdom. Jewish, “legalistic” Matthew is the most beloved of the gospels, and Proverbs and Ecclesiastes are popular books in African Christianity.

Africans are not the least embarrassed by the world picture of the Bible – a world of angels and demons, of miracles and exorcisms, of virgin births and life after death, of heaven and hell. It’s their world. Africans know what idols are because they’ve seen them. They see and hear things in the text that are lost to jaded post-Christian readers in the North.

For many Northern churches, Africa can teach the North the sheer value of Scripture. As one African Anglican bishop complained to his ECUSA counterpart, “If you don’t believe the scripture, why did you bring it us in the first place?”


For Africans, Jesus is a liberator, a deliverer who delivers His people from real fears and dangers. Jesus is preeminently Christus Victor, not only the victor on the cross and in His resurrection, but throughout His life. Jesus’ life, and not merely His death, is part of African soteriology, part of their atonement theology. The gospels are not Passion narratives with long introductions, but record the triumph of Jesus, culminating in His death and resurrection.

Africans have no use for the pansy Jesus of modern liberalism. They want a savior with the testosterone to fight for them. No pale Galileans need apply. They sing about Jesus as “the grinding stone/on which we sharpen our cutlasses, before we perform manly deeds.” African hymns and poems describe Jesus as “Man among men,” the “lion of the grasslands,” the “Fearless One,” the “chief of all strong men” and “king of the valiant.” Jesus tears the entrails of Satan, pulls the teeth of vipers. Commenting on Christological poems by Afua Kuma, Kwame Bediako of Ghana says the “honorific titles are such as were and are traditionally ascribed to the human sacral ruler. By giving ancestral and royal titles to Jesus, these prayers and praises indicate how deeply Madam Afua Kuma has apprehended the all-pervasive Lordship of Jesus, in the ancestral realm of spirit power, and in the realm of the living community under reigning kings.” For Africans, Jesus’ work is a manly work.

African poems about Jesus are reminiscent of Heiland, the medieval Saxon retelling of the gospels with Jesus as a Germanic warrior. Africans give Jesus royal and honorific titles, much as the early Christians confessed Jesus using the imperial title kurios.

Life in the North is softened by technological redeemers. Threatened with a difficult childbirth, we turn to epidurals and C-sections. Depressed, we take pills. When there’s a break-in, we can dial 911.

Africans have few technical protections, and in the daily threats of life they turn to Jesus. Jesus saves the poor, makes the maize grow in the fields, protects the laboring mother, tears down the barriers that divide men and makes them brothers. For Africans, the salvation Jesus brings is thoroughly “this-worldly,” the healthful kingdom of Jesus breaking into the kingdoms of malevolent powers and dangers. The dualisms of Western Christianity simply do not address the threats that Africans want to be delivered from; dualistic modern Christianity cannot answer African questions. African theology is instinctively, fundamentally anti-dualistic.

Salvation is comprehensive, practical, and has a “world-affirming” force. According to the Annang churches of southeast Nigeria, the God of the mission churches was “remote.” According to the theology of the missionaries, “Man is confronted with evils, and yet He is not interested in their destiny, He does not help. He is only interested in their souls and not in their general and total welfare, bodily and spiritual.” Africans would recognize the truth of Nietzsche’s complaint that modern Christianity is anemic, opposed to life rather than an affirmation of life. They want a Christ who gives life, abundantly.

African conceptions of faith bear out this broad understanding of Jesus’ saving work. “I have faith,” Mbiti says, means “I can bear a child” and “I am healed” and “the troublesome spirits have bene driven out or warded off” or “I am protected against magic, witchcraft, sorcery” and “I entrust myself to Jesus Christ.” Faith is courage in the face of murderous persecutors. Faith is never simply assent to doctrine, but a living active stance toward all of life.

A Zulu song summarizes African faith in Scripture and in Jesus: “Satan has no power/ we will clobber him with a verse.”

African Christianity is fundamentally a form of Christian humanism. Gwa Chikala M. Mulago notes that in dualistic Western theology, the exaltation of man “entail[s] the rejection of God.” For Africans, there is no competition. The exaltation of God is simultaneously the fulfillment of human aspirations. Conversion, Sanneh argues, does not leave behind our humanity, but is a “re-focusing of the mental life and its cultural/social underpinning and of our feelings, affections, and instincts, in the light of what God has done in Jesus.

Institutionally, too, African theology resists the dualisms of the modern North. African theologians sometimes lament that there is no African theological tradition. There is, to be sure, not much if we’re looking for school theology. Focusing on that misses the real action – the “grassroots” theology expressed in songs, worship, sermons, personal evangelism, etc. Theology is authentic when it is “a task, not of scholars alone, but of a community who share in a common context” and when the task is “bringing the Gospel into contact with the questions and issues of their context.”


Because of its hostility to dualism, African theology reminds the North that “theology of culture” is not a specialty of culturally-interested theologians. Rather, all theology is theology of culture.

In part, this arises from traditional African conceptions of religion. The name of God, Sanneh insists, “is basic to the structure of traditional societies”: “It forms and regulates agricultural rituals, territorial cults, agrarian festivals, the solar calendar, fertility ceremonies, mortuary observance, anniversary customs, units of generational measurement, naming rules, ethics, rank and status, gender relations, filial obligation, gift making, sacrificial offering, and so on.”

Mbiti’s vision of the impact of the gospel on culture justifies Philip Jenkins’s description of Southern Hemisphere Christianity as “the next Christendom.” For Mbiti, Christianity is “a total way of life, a world view, a religious ideology (if one may phrase it that way), an existence and a commitment – by individuals, peoples, cultures and nations. It involves reflection and practice; institutions and attitudes; and the creation and adoption of traditions. It means an eventual domestication of the gospel, in its wider sense, within the total milieu of a people. The gospel grows into the people and they grow into it.”

While the statistical growth of African Christianity will inevitably tail off, Mbiti hopes for continuing growth “in the levels of culture, social institutions, theology, liturgy, artistic expressions and ecclesiastical structure.” The end result is “a Christianity arising out of and rooted in African life, a Christianity that frames the normal way of life for the majority of the population in the southern two thirds of Africa.” Already (in 1986), Mbiti was seeing the development of a “folk religion,” in which African traditions transformed and completed by the gospel becomes the culture of African peoples.

Though Mbiti is critical of “Christendom,” he and most other African theologians advocate a vision of the African future that sees Christianity permeating social, cultural, and political life. As Bediako says, churches “will have to continue learning to worship God and his Christ, witness to the Gospel, survive in joy, and strive for peace and justice and democratic freedom for all. Christian evangelisation and nurture, and hence the Church, are essential elements in the process whereby a societys outlook, value-systems, thought-patterns and social and political arrangements become permeated with the mind of Jesus.” Bediako crisply summarizes what was surely the vision the founders of Northern Christendom: “the Church must manifest the victory of the Cross in the concrete realities of her existence in society.”

One of the central themes of African academic theology has been to give a theological account of traditional African religions. No consensus has emerged, but many Africans regard their traditional religions as a form of preparation for the gospel, much as the church fathers saw Greek culture as a praeparatio evangelii. Africans insist that God did not arrive in Africa when Europeans arrived, and believe that the God of traditional African religion is the God of the Bible, present under a veil throughout Africa’s history. For Bediako, the story of the Bible is literally Africa’s story – the story of God’s creation, of a fall and God’s withdrawal, and eventually of God’s return.


Traditional Catholic theology distinguishes between the ecclesia docens and the ecclesia discens, the “teaching church” of the clergy and the “learning church” of the laity. Since Europe discovered the mission fields of Africa, the North has been the ecclesia docens. That is bound to change, and it is changing now. Northern Christians must accept the humbler role of the ecclesia discens to learn from former students.

Africa has taught the church before. Western theology is, in fact, an African export, as is much of Eastern Christianity. What would Christianity be without Hippo and Carthage, and, on the other end of the continent, Alexandria? What would Christianity be without Cyprian and Tertullian, without Augustine and Origen? Not much.

Which is what twenty-first century Northern theology will be if it doesn’t take the antidote to Enlightenment now being concocted in Africa (and Asia and Latin America).

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