Africa’s Churches Weigh Past and Future
“WE HAVE had people professing to be Christians—holding the Bible in one hand and a gun in the other. These are the people who have been responsible for the human suffering this continent has experienced since the days of the slave trade.”
This statement was made by Zambian president Dr. K. D. Kaunda in the opening address of the All-Africa Conference of Churches, held in Lusaka, Zambia, in the late spring of this year.
WHAT THE PAST REVEALS
History shows the background against which this expression was made. In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, so-called Christian nations of Europe began a scramble for territory in Africa, eventually resulting in their slicing up almost the entire continent into colonies.
By 1920 every square mile of the African continent—with the exception of the independent states of Ethiopia, Liberia and South Africa—was under colonial rule or dominance or was claimed by one or the other of the European colonial powers.
The pattern for opening up the African continent to colonization was similar to the earlier pattern in the western hemisphere. Religious missionaries often served as pioneers for the political state that followed.
Pointing this up is a review in the New York Times (August 15, 1974) of a recent book on the life of missionary and African explorer David Livingstone. It shows that Livingstone urged the establishing of white communities in Africa to ‘spread Christianity’ and to open up the country for trade. He lectured English merchants “on the opportunities for profit in Africa.” Though Livingstone opposed slavery, the book review sums up the result of this missionary’s nineteenth-century explorations, saying: “Instead of opening Africa for Christianity, he paved the way, at first, for the slavers who followed him into previously undiscovered territories. Also, ‘the introduction of God’s word was to presage the destruction of God’s creatures.’ After the Bible, came the gun.”
Colonization brought many serious problems, some of them having enduring effects for the peoples of Africa. As the 1974 Encyclopædia Britannica states:
“Christians of the West had often exploited the developing nations, looted their resources, enslaved or demeaned their populations. . . .” “Boundary lines between colonies were often drawn arbitrarily, with little or no attention to ethnic unity, regional economic ties, tribal migratory patterns, or even natural boundaries.” “[This] had long-lasting effects harmful to [African] unity and an even more inhibiting effect on African economic development.”
Although, particularly since the end of World War II, the European colonies have largely disappeared and there are now over forty independent states in Africa, many Africans retain a sense of distrust of the religions that helped to open the way for such colonization efforts and domination.
CONFERENCE STRESSES INDEPENDENCE
All of this may explain why there is such a large number of independent denominations within the All-Africa Conference of Churches. The total number of churches represented at the Lusaka meeting was 103, including major Protestant bodies, the Greek Orthodox and Coptic churches, and numerous other, smaller religions.
Religious independence was, in fact, encouraged at this Conference assembly, the first one organized entirely by African church leaders with no outside direction. Many speakers urged that an authentic African religion, one that could not be viewed as a “foreign importation” or a “white man’s religion,” was needed. A Nigerian member, Mr. Kofi Appiah-Kubi, said:
“If churches in Africa are to grow and develop as African churches and not as mere extensions of foreign churches, as many are today, then they must be allowed to take root in the soil of Africa where they are planted.”
In the same vein, a recent bulletin of the Conference states that “the people of Africa, particularly the people of the church, must break off the shackles of cultural domination, reach into the depths of mother Africa and awaken her creative genius. When this is done, Africa will be ready to assert herself to the world and contribute something new and different towards the salvation of humanity.”
Showing the extent to which some feel this Africanization process should go, one churchman in Zambia has suggested that in place of the bread and wine customarily used at the “Lord’s Evening Meal,” the use of nshima, a locally made maize-meal porridge, and munkoyo, a locally brewed beverage made from a root, should be substituted. Noteworthy, too, was the resolve by the Conference to urge its member churches to undertake a serious study of Islam, of African traditional religions and other ideologies, in their development of distinctive African worship.
What about financial dependence on foreign sources? The finance committee told the assembly that the Conference would have to look to outside sources for 80 percent of its 1975 budget. But there was also a call to break free from such dependence on foreign benefactors. An assembly statement declared that “the contribution of the African church cannot be adequately made in our world if the church is not liberated and truly national. To achieve this liberation, the church will have to bring a halt to the financial and manpower resources—the receiving of money and personnel—from its foreign relationships. Only then can the church firmly assert itself in its mission to Africa.”
The Zambia Daily Mail reported Cannon Burgess Carr of Liberia, the secretary-general of the Conference, as putting matters even more bluntly, saying: “Churches in Africa can do without the services of missionaries and expatriate church workers.”
‘UNEQUIVOCAL SUPPORT TO THE LIBERATION MOVEMENTS’
A major conference topic was the issue of ‘African liberation,’ including the support of revolutionary armies. These operate in parts of Africa that are under the rule of governments formed principally of whites (who usually are a minority group in the country). Secretary-General Carr, according to the Daily Mail, said that ‘the church must give its unequivocal support to the liberation movements because they had helped it to re-discover a new and radical appreciation of the cross.’ In the past four years the Conference has donated $125,000 to such liberation movements. The assembly made a formal statement, saying:
“We affirm our solidarity with the liberation movement in the oppressed countries and call upon Christians both within and outside our continent to end all political, economic, military and any other support or structure of oppression in these countries.”
The Roman Catholic Church, which has millions of members in Africa, is not a member of the All-Africa Conference of Churches. It came in for criticism as not being in harmony with the liberation movements espoused by the Conference. Interestingly, the National Council of Lay Apostolates (a Catholic organization) responded to this charge by publishing a statement to the effect that most of the liberation movements were financed by Catholics and that the Conference should understand that on such matters as social justice and national independence there was total agreement between the Catholic Church and the churches that are members of the Conference.—Times of Zambia, May 16, 1974.
SEARCH FOR UNITY
Church union and cooperation also received serious attention at the assembly. Although agreed on the need for a distinctively African church and on their support of liberation movements, the delegates gave little indication of any definite step toward actual religious unification among the more than 100 members of the Conference.
Dr. Phillip Potter, secretary-general of the World Council of Churches, addressed the Lusaka assembly, and the Times of Zambia reports him as saying that ‘much of Africa’s history has been bedeviled by tribalism and tribal wars—even up to today. Many allowed themselves to continue the unjust colonial system by pursuit of self-gain and power at the expense of the vast majority of the people.’ He added that ‘some churches were continuing the divisions brought to Africa,’ and that ‘it was common to hear a churchman saying to another of a different denomination: “You worship God in your way, but we worship in this way.”’
FINDING THE WAY TO TRUE FREEDOM AND UNITY
The Conference reflected concern over conditions that have developed especially since the nineteenth century. Actually, Christianity reached Africa long before the nineteenth century. Back in the first century, the Bible book of Acts shows, an Ethiopian official, evidently an educated and intelligent man, accepted Christianity while on his way back to Africa from Jerusalem. (Acts 8:26-38) There is nothing to show that this early introduction of genuine Christianity to Africa was used by the Christians of that time as a springboard for commercial or political exploitation.
Does the past history of Africa really call for the future development of a distinctive brand of Christianity, a special continental variety? Is true Christianity to be held responsible for the grave wrongs committed during the past one hundred years? Or are those wrongs really the by-product of a departure from genuine Christianity by organizations merely claiming to represent Christ? The theme of the Lusaka assembly of the All-Africa Conference of Churches was: “Living No Longer for Ourselves . . . but for Christ.” What, then, were Christ’s own example and teachings by which his true disciples should live?
Christ Jesus said that ‘his kingdom was no part of this world,’ and he nowhere authorized his disciples to serve as forerunners for the world’s political systems or their style of “civilization.” (John 18:36; 15:19) They were, instead, to point to God’s kingdom through Christ Jesus as the means by which all lovers of righteousness, of whatever family, tribe, nation or continent, “will be set free from enslavement to corruption and have the glorious freedom of the children of God.”—Rom. 8:21; Rev. 7:9, 10; 14:6.
Those true disciples thus pointed to a marvelous liberation, one that will not only free persons from human oppression and exploitation, but also free them from the enslavement to imperfection, sickness and death itself. (Rev. 21:4) In announcing and advocating God’s Messianic government of liberation, Christ’s true disciples would use, not carnal, but spiritual weapons, weapons that never harm the innocent nor ever bring brutal suffering and grief. (2 Cor. 10:4, 5; Eph. 6:10-17) As ‘fine soldiers of Christ Jesus’ they would not try to mix Christianity with commercialism, even as the inspired apostle Paul counseled his coworker and fellow missionary Timothy.—2 Tim. 2:3, 4.
Are there persons today in Africa and throughout the rest of this planet who live by these principles of true Christianity and who dwell in unity, with no barriers of tribalism, racism, nationalism or sectarianism?
Thousands of Africans of all tribes and of all parts of the continent today are associating with Jehovah’s Christian witnesses for the very reason that they see them putting these principles to work in their lives. By so doing they are not embracing the “foreign importation” of a “white man’s religion,” but are embracing the worship of the Creator of heaven and earth, Jehovah God, the One who makes no distinctions and “is not partial, but in every nation the man that fears him and works righteousness is acceptable to him.”—Acts 10:34, 35.