This week, a good friend sent me this article from The London Times: “As an atheist, I truly believe Africa needs God: Missionaries, not aid money, are the solution to Africa’s biggest problem – the crushing passivity of the people’s mindset” by Matthew Parris. It’s from 2008 so I’ve linked to the Word doc I was sent as I couldn’t access it online.
I found the article interesting. And it got me to thinking about my usual musings: what are we to be teaching at ACC as an African-Christian college.
I agree with the author’s final conclusion — except that he and I would disagree about what that really looks like.
The final sentence is an accurately imaginative, pithy statement to sum up the conclusion. It encourages the work going on at ACC. And I think it is true: Africa does need God. And I strongly believe that we’re part of that important work.
Yet, instead of describing Christianity, the author describes (to use his own final words) “a continent at the mercy of a malign fusion of” Western philosophy, individualism, missionaries’ cultures, and a little Bible.
At the heart of the article, the author advocates an individualistic initiative as the solution for Africa (because the problem is passivity). And then connects his individualistic ideal into a twisted definition of Christianity as an individualistic, personal relationship with God rather than the communal, community-first (!) message of the Bible.
Biblical Christianity is not the same as Hoover’s rugged individualism.
Christianity is not equivalent to Emerson’s self-reliance.
Will some individualism, self-reliance, competitiveness, or initiative do good in Africa? Absolutely! Especially in today’s global world. (And the lack of initiative is something I complain about daily here!) Initiative, self-sufficiency, doing quality work, providing customer-service, developing and using your own abilities (and so on) are all things we teach and advocate on campus (and I think we should continue to teach).
But I need to remind myself that these qualities are not the things that Christ — nor the rest of the Bible — calls us to be (or to teach). Instead, Jesus says, “If you want to be my disciple: deny yourself, take up your cross, and walk along with me.” And the one who wants to be the greatest must be a servant. The Bible says we are all equal and created for community — not to watch out for number one.
In this sense, I think I have much to learn from Africa and its “collective” mindset. And I believe if our Christianity replaces such thinking, then we’ll continue to do more harm than good.
But, I can’t blame the author of mixing “Christianity” with the Western individualism, etc. As a non-Christian, that’s what he sees when he tries to describe the difference of Christianity in Africa (and other places?). Maybe because for too long we’ve read the Bible with Western eyes and aren’t quite sure how to distinguish what is from the Bible and what is from our cultural leanings.
It is something I continue to think, pray, study, and discuss every day.
At ACC we’re teaching these concepts while also trying to develop disciples of Jesus. Likely, we’re communicating these Western ideals as “Christian values” or qualities. That’s not good. These qualities aren’t wrong or harmful. But to make them be what it means to follow Jesus would be a warped theology.
Yet still, Africa needs God. As Parris wrote,
“Removing Christian evangelism from the African equation may leave the continent at the mercy of a malign fusion of Nike, the witch doctor, the mobile phone, and the machete.”
My prayer is that we can be part of Africa’s transformation through creating disciples of Jesus who are innovators of good in the world and in communities by serving others.
This goes back to my recent speech “Why ACC Exists”. And, then as I was about to post this, this came across my Twitter feed: “What Jesus thinks of (some) Pastors and Church Leaders” on the Jesus Creed blog by Scot McKnight. It, too, hits the same theme of using Philippians 2 as a reversal of status among Jesus-followers: servants, not lords.
What do you think?