The Church is Africa has a vital role in bringing Gospel values to bear in society – but it must not be dictated to by special interest groups in the West.
Most patriotic citizens assume that their nation is best, but cultural superiority has been a particular feature of the British, who through their Empire sought to give as much of the world as possible the benefit of their ‘enlightened rule’ and ‘unmatched culture’. Of course a history of colonialism isn’t complete without a discussion of the place of Christianity. There is no doubt that the cause of Christ has been tarnished by its association with imperialism’s dark side: slavery, racism and arrogant dominance of other cultures. ‘Post-colonial guilt’ majors on this, together with embarrassment about patriotism. But on the other hand there is a strong argument that Gospel faith tempered the worst excesses of Empire, since Christianity with its ‘love your neighbour’ ethic led to ‘fair play’ and equality before the law being established in cultures across the world. How much worse might the slave trade have been without the church? Would it have been abolished? Livingstone was motivated in his mission work not to justify brutal colonialism but to soften it. He saw that Western commerce, driven by greed, would sweep across Africa anyway, so better to accompany the British flag with the Bible than without.
Missionaries of course made many mistakes and they were people of their time. But today their work is held in huge respect by the leaders of Africa, who praise the dedication and sacrifice of those who brought churches, schools and hospitals and laid the foundations for the self-development of people who had previously been exploited along with their resources. African countries today continue to have massive problems, but that they are not places of unmitigated bad news is in large part due to work of the missionaries and the local indigenous church leaders who enculturated and spread the Gospel and planted the church in the language and idioms of the communities. In the clash of cultures between Africa and the West, Africa has not been damaged beyond repair (as with some Amazonian or Aboriginal cultures) but has proved resilient and adaptable, keeping strong aspects of its own cultures, and through education and trade now competing in the world with their former colonial masters.
The Gospel holds up a mirror to culture – it affirms but also judges, refines and purifies. This is especially true in certain key areas, for example tempering the instinct to solve problems through violence, instilling a sense of value for all human beings, especially the most vulnerable, and bringing order to sexual impulses. The narrative of the Old Testament shows this: God making his will known in relationship with his obedient people, whether Noah, Abraham or Moses and Israel is contrasted with the sin of the surrounding peoples. Conversely, as the people of God turn away from his Word, society returns to its primal state with dangerous characteristics: sexual immorality, reduction in care for the vulnerable, violence, and occult religion. So those who would like African countries to get rid of biblical Christianity on the grounds that it might make the continent safer for gay people, should be careful what they wish for. All evidence points to the probability that the removal of Gospel ‘salt and light’ would lead to a much less safe place for minorities.
Africa is different from Western affluent liberal democracies. The tempering effect of indigenous Christianity has only been present for a couple of centuries – ten times less than in Europe. Violence lurks just beneath the surface – life is lived on the edge and hunger is never far away. It is not just one particular minority group which is at risk: murder, rape and child abuse are more prevalent generally than in the West, as is war and disease. But there are also deep wells of generosity and genuine community self-help as people cannot wait for services and benefits which we take for granted in a more organized state. Above all there is prayer, faith and hope.
As Africans seek to leave behind the “heart of darkness” and journey together towards a better life, they are not wanting to slavishly copy Western ‘civilisation”, but build discerningly on the good aspects of their indigenous culture. So when they look at the West and see old people neglected in ‘care’ homes, or the rush to gay marriage and euthanasia, they say “we don’t want that here”. What are they saying? Not that they want to go back to premodern ways – rather they see in these new ideas evidence not of progress but regression in the West.
There is also real resistance in the new Africa to any suggestion of being dominated. There is an assertion of independence – “we’ll do things our way” – and this also needs to be tempered by the Gospel. So its vitally important that the church receives full support from Christians in the West as it seeks to lead its own people in discipleship of Christ, and also to influence government and people as the Holy Spirit leads – at times through speaking out, at other times through quiet diplomacy. It would be disastrous if the church in Africa lost its influence, either by becoming too uncritical and affirming of the unchristian aspects of the culture, or if it was seen as a stooge of the West and emerging neo-colonialist attitudes.
An article in last week’s Church Times by Revd Jesse Zink, an American Episcopal Priest working and studying in Cambridge, shows how best to find out about, and support, the church’s work in Africa. Zink has a liberal view of homosexual practice, and he relates his experience of discussing the subject with ordinary Nigerian clergy on a visit to that country. The clergy are described as gracious and reflective, not the unthinking homophobes caricatured by Western liberal journalists. Willing to concede sins in their own culture, but gently suggesting blind spots in American Christianity:
Paul…spoke again: “In every culture, there is something to be converted by the Gospel. In Nigeria, it is our lying, cheating and pervasive corruption…what is it that needs to be converted in America?” It was an honest question…and I realized it was not one to which I had ever given serious thought.
If people in the West want to help those with same-sex attraction in African countries, they would do well to take a leaf out of Rev Zink’s book. Take the trouble to spend time in Africa, understand the culture, get to know the people and the particular challenges they face. Worship with the Christians and listen to their perspectives with humility about the failings in our culture. Pray with them in their witness and their demonstration of the love of Christ, and trust in the Holy Spirit working through them to continue God’s work in their church and nation.
The Rev Andrew Symes is Executive Secretary, Anglican Mainstream UK