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Opinions of Wednesday, 22 August 2018

Columnist: R. G. Coleman

Christianity: An African traditional religion

It has become customary in modern times to discuss the history of African Christianity focusing only on the period dating back to the colonial days. Jomo Kenyatta, in his book, Facing Mount Kenya, suggested that the European missionaries used Christianity to swindle the African, when he painted the humorous picture of the Bible-holding missionaries teaching the Africans who had the land to pray with their eyes closed yet when the prayer was over the situation had been reversed - the missionaries had the land and the Africans possessed the Bible.

But this post-colonial habit of limiting discussions of the history of African Christianity to the period beginning from the colonial days needs to be corrected since it has made it difficult for many to view Christianity apart from colonialism.

A number of Africans have been calling for the overthrow of Christianity in Africa since it is one of the colonial influences we inherited. I am not referring to those calling for the jettisoning of westernized expressions of Christianity (like the liturgies used in churches, sermons in English, and western forms of dressing etc).

I am referring to those calling for the complete burial of biblical Christianity (with its gospel, morals and spirituality) in these parts. Some claim that Christianity is foreign to African culture and impedes African originality and development. It is only African ways and traditions that can guarantee progress in our part of the world, so the thinking goes.

But what is truly African? Is it just our language and colourful cloths? Does it include the way we subjugate women? Does it include our marginalization of the mentally and physically disabled? Does it include our beliefs that getting formal education is the Whiteman’s way of enslaving us? What is African? Is it un-African to search for truth in religion? Is it un-African to want to leave old ways and seek better progressive ways of living? And more importantly: Is Christianity not a part of African heritage?

Reuben Kigame, the Kenyan Christian musician and apologist, has rightly suggested that considering the fact that Christianity existed in Africa for a good eighteen centuries before the arrival of the colonialists, the discourse on African Christianity needs urgent reconstruction.

Indeed, present at Apostle Peter’s Pentecost sermon (which converted 3000 people) were among others people from Egypt and Cyrene (present day Libya). Later, an Ethiopian eunuch was converted and baptized into the Christian faith on his way back to his country by Philip.

Further, around the fourth century, Egypt had become a stronghold of Christianity. Indeed, the conflict that eventually led to the development of the Nicene Creed was one that took place between Athanasius and Arius who were both Christian leaders in Egypt.

It is still interesting to note that perhaps the greatest influence on western theological reflections has been from the works of the African theologian, St. Augustine. Besides, a case can even be made that there was an African influence on Martin Luther’s inspiration to work towards the protestant reformation that hit Europe in the sixteenth century.

What is my basis for saying this? According to David D. Daniels III, Professor of World Christianity at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, Martin Luther made fifteen references to the then-contemporary empire of Christian Ethiopia. In 1534 while recalling his dialogue with Michael the Deacon, an Ethiopian cleric, Luther wrote: “We have also learned from him, that the rite which we observe in the use of administration of the Lord’s Supper and the Mass, agrees with the Eastern Church.”

It is noteworthy that when the Europeans came with Christianity they were not bringing something wholly foreign to African soil. According to Thomas C. Oden, an American theologian, Africa took the lead in exploring and understanding significant Christian theological ideas before Europe (and a thousand years later, North America) recognized the decisive nature of such ideas. He contends in his book How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind that the influence of African teachers on early Christianity has yet to be satisfactorily studied not only in the west but even in Africa itself.

To the credit of the Europeans though, they were more evangelistic in their Christianity than the Ethiopians had been which may explain why the Orthodox Ethiopian church did not spread through the rest of Africa the way the gospel did under the European missionaries.

We need to be clear that while Christianity did not originate in Africa (the same way it did not originate in Europe), Christianity is part of African heritage going back eighteen centuries before the colonial days and when we talk about African traditional religions, we should not make it seem like Christianity did not exist in Africa before the European colonialists arrived on our shores.