April 11, 2005


Africa, Islam and the next pope (Spengler, 4/12/05, Asia Times)

Christianity calls out individuals from the mortal nations and offers them immortality in a new people. To be Christian means to abandon one's gentile, that is, tribal, character and become part of another nation, a new Israel.

The Catholic Church cannot readily call individuals out of African tribes into a new Israel; an alternative is to recreate the tribal myth by making Jesus a common ancestor of all tribes. Father Donald Goergen of the Catholic University of East Africa observes:

The traditions venerating ancestors in Africa are strong and widespread, even if not universal. More attention has been given to ancestor as a way of "Africanizing" Jesus than to almost any other metaphor. The concept as applied to Jesus, however, needs to be qualified. Jesus is not just one of our ancestors, but ancestor par excellence, a unique ancestor ... An ancestor, who was once living a natural life among the people, now enjoys a quasi-supernatural or supersensible mediatorial status. He is an intermediary between God and the ancestor's people ... Among the strengths of the image is that Christ as a common ancestor can help us to overcome a destructive ethnocentrism. We are one family in Christ, one tribe, one community.

Alternative representations of Jesus are as "healer", that is, "witch doctor", reports Father Goergen, adding, "Among Christians, and in the West, some may find 'witch doctor' too strong given negative associations with the word 'witch'."

What distinguishes this form of evangelism from the historic mission of the Church in Europe and the New World is the different concept of peoplehood. Rather than call the convert out from his ethnicity, Jesus as a proto-ancestor accommodates himself to the tribal character of the individual. In this case, Catholicism becomes a facade for the dominant tribal identity. In Rwanda, where half the population was Catholic, the Catholic Church offered no resistance to the murderous Hutu hordes during the 1994 genocide, and that individual Catholic clergy participated in the massacres.

Christianity absorbed a thousand years of pagan invaders on this premise. Europeans never could get this quite right; nothing less drastic than immigration to America could persuade Christians to turn away from their inner pagan. That explains why American Christianity flourishes and European Christianity lies at death's door, and also why Americans continue to reproduce while Europeans refuse to breed.

Which is, of course, why it would be a terrible mistake to retain African tribalism, lest it go the way of Europe. 1500 years of Christianity followed by a descent into the post-Christian abyss may have been good enough for some, but by organizing their politics around Christian principles, as America has, Third World nations could craft something enduring and lovely.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 11, 2005 8:43 AM

Oddly enough, I'm in agreement with you on this. But the transformation of Jesus into a tribal ancestor is just the most recent in a long line of brilliant adaptations Christianity and Catholcism have performed tospread the Gospel. Many a Christian saint started as minor Roman/Greek gods. The Jesuits who almost converted China even went so far as to declare Confuscius to be a saint.

Posted by: daniel duffy at April 11, 2005 9:07 AM

He was a saint, so long as you use him to base China on Creation.

Posted by: oj at April 11, 2005 9:11 AM

I don't agree with you on this. I've read recently Fletcher's "From Barbarism to Christianity" which is about the conversion of Europe. He describes it as happening gradually over generations. That is, the first missionaries persuaded tribes to accept Christ and church-going but would not insist that they give up all pagan practices. The next generation of preachers would induce them to give up more pagan practices, the next generation more, etc.

No human being can change their entire belief system, their entire culture. Africans can't become American-style Christians in a generation, if ever. In fact, they will become Africn Christians which does not mean that they will be less authenticly Christians than Americans. But first, Christianity has to make rational and emotional sense to them and root itself deeply into African culture and then the transformation by the Gospels will take place as African Christians reflect deeply themselves on the word of Christ. Fr. Goergen is probably going in the right direction.

Posted by: L. Rogers at April 11, 2005 10:18 AM


Yes, note "retain". Trick them into the Church any way that works, then ditch their traditional beliefs.

Posted by: oj at April 11, 2005 10:50 AM


Your caution against distorting the Gospel and tricking people into the Church by any means necessary is a very important one.

But, my point is important too. No matter how the Gospel is preached to Africans or in fact anyone, listeners will hear it through their own cultural filter. So do you! Preachers must bear that in mind and find ways to make the Gospel understandable within an African context.

The transformation of societies to greater conformity with the Gospel message is a long process. We could hardly say that it is complete in the U.S., even if we have overcome European tribalism.

Posted by: L. Rogers at April 11, 2005 11:23 AM


Yes, the key though is to make the political structure conform to Christianity, as ours does.

Posted by: oj at April 11, 2005 11:32 AM


I agree.

Posted by: L. Rogers at April 11, 2005 11:40 AM

OJ, your point at the end is on the mark. Retaining a tribal mindset would be a terrible mistake. It will be interesting to see how the faith spreads. I imagine that in addition to the evangelists and missionaries preaching and ministering to the messes, there will need to be a few St. Boniface types (from amongst the African Christian community), who will need to go and chop down a few sacred oak trees and knock over some statues of idols.

Posted by: Dave W. at April 11, 2005 2:27 PM

The roots will not ... indeed, can not ... die. Grafting is the best you can hope for. Some lovely trees have been thus propagated.

- Chauncey Gardner

Posted by: ghostcat at April 11, 2005 2:42 PM