The internet is an alarming place, lately.
My friend changed his Facebook cover photo to a lovely painting he’d found, a sort of icon of Our Lady with dark skin, dressed in traditional South African clothing. Her elaborate headdress was made to look a bit like she was clothed with the sun and crowned with twelve stars; there was a set of cow horns on the headdress arranged to look like a crescent moon. I thought it was striking; it reminded me of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
Some people didn’t like it.
One woman, who said she couldn’t possibly be a bigot because she was Mexican, was downright terrified of it. She was adamant that it looked demonic. Horns, she said, were a sign of the devil. She knew this because in Matthew, Jesus sends the goats to hell and not the sheep– never mind that not all goats have horns, and that every sheep at the time of Christ was an ancient breed that had four horns each.
I tried to explain that those were not the horns of a goat. They were obviously cow horns. I said that in rural, sub-Saharan Africa, cows were wealth; cows meant prosperity, health and financial security; they also had mythical significance in many parts of Africa. There were tribes where it was perfectly normal for a woman to dress as a cow on her wedding day, where celebratory dances were done at parties with the dancer’s arms open like the horns of a cow; where a blessing was given by spitting milk. Cow horns on a crown were not familiar to Westerners, but that didn’t make them demonic, just different.
This woman did not like things that were different.
She didn’t like Africa very much, either.
She kept on making reference to “converting the tribes of Africa.” She said we should take various dark-skinned European Madonna statues onto the continent “to convert the tribes.” Six or seven times she said that all horns were “pagen [sic]” that traditional zulu clothing was “pagen;” she also claimed that Africans didn’t believe in the devil the way Westerners did but had to be taught. La Virgen could appropriate Aztec fashions and make them Christian if she wanted, but South African hats with horns on them were always of the devil. As far as I could gather, this poor woman honestly thought that Africa is populated entirely by ignorant, unbaptized extras from a Tarzan movie, skulking behind jungle plants with their spears.
I tried to tell her that there are already Catholics in Africa, but she didn’t seem to understand.
The rest of you understand that… right?
Just in case, I’d better explain.
There are twice as many Catholics in Africa as in the United States. About fifteen per cent of the world’s Catholics live in Africa, whereas 7.3% live in the continent of North America. And while the number of churchgoing Catholics in the United States seems to be shrinking at an alarming rate, the African Catholic Church is growing by leaps and bounds– it’s predicted to top 230 million people by 2025. It’s a good guess that, before too long, the average Catholic is going to be an African and will identify to a Madonna in a South African headdress more than to Michelangelo’s Pieta. About 40% of all Africans belong to some denomination of Christianity– that’s statistically smaller than the 70% of people in the United States who profess to be Christians. But then again, only about 39% of Americans attend church on a weekly basis. So, as far as practicing Christianity, Africa might just about match us in statistics and far outranks us in sheer numbers.
Christianity is not a new import to Africa, either. It’s been there so long that it’s considered one of the indigenous African religions. Philip baptized an Ethiopian in the book of Acts, long before any Christians ended up in Italy. The Copts of Egypt trace their faith right back to Mark the Evangelist; they speak a form of actual ancient Egyptian at their liturgies. The Ethiopian Orthodox church was founded in the fourth century. The origins of both Eastern and Western church thought and monasticism are largely African: Origen, Tertullian, Alexander, Athanasius, Augustine, Cyril of Alexandria. We owe our faith in large part to Africa.
And their liturgies are beautiful:
Do “the tribes of Africa” need to be converted? Of course, and so do the modern cities, the villages and the farms of Africa. So do the lapsed Catholics and the materialists in the United States and Europe. So do the people of Mexico, Central and South America, including the ones who are sure they can’t possibly be bigots. So do I. We all do. If you have a heart to go into Africa and win souls for Christ, then do it. Go to a church in Africa and ask to help them with the wonderful Christian work they’re already doing. But don’t ever think you ought to convert them to being something other than African.
There isn’t anything non-Christian about being African. African Christians don’t need to be converted to European-ism or American-ism; they don’t need to be taught that cows or hats are demonic. They certainly don’t need set aside their traditional clothing and put on clothes that don’t frighten Western ladies in comment boxes. African Christians are not inferior to any other kind of Christian.
In fact, if we were honest and as humble as we should be, I think we would beg them to evangelize us.
(image via Pixabay)