Does Christianity Belong in Africa?

Lupita is a sister from another mother. Literally, we are from the same country. The 2018 Black Panther movie reminded me of why I love Africa. My wife recently told me that I think about Africa, write about Africa and talk about Africa all the time. We live in a wonderful continent. I love Africa to the point that I have a fresh manuscript for a new book about Africa. And my affection for the continent demands unashamed repetition. For some wrongly claim that people with faith convictions cannot love Africa.

I used to work as an Engineer before taking a different turn. On one of the days that I remained in the office, I began a conversation with a lady. This thirty-something-year old Kenyan lady narrated her past. Her story began with getting pregnant before she was married. Her Christian parents then pressurized her to get married. She then told me of her father’s “mid-life crisis”. Despite being a church elder, he began pursuing girls her same age or even younger. Now the mother of two, she said that “leaving my husband” is top of her bucket list. (No, the husband hadn’t done anything “wrong”). I know, a maze of intertwining twists.

Understandingly, her final conclusion upon later sharing my story and faith journey was: “Christianity is a white man’s religion. We are better off with our African tradition.” Therefore, in other words, the Christianity she had experienced had not transformed anyone’s life.

Isn’t Christianity a White and Western Import?

This lady carries similar convictions held by many African intellectuals such as Jomo Kenyatta and Chinua Achebe. It was Kenyatta, the founding Kenyan president, and anthropologist, who said something to the effect that the ‘mzungu’ came with the Bible and when we opened our eyes, our land was gone. With all the land that the first family is said to have amassed, one wonders whether the land issue was merely rhetoric. Similarly, Achebe makes a clear demarcation of African tradition and Christian faith in his prolific books. Is it not possible for the two to co-exist? What about venerable Africans down the ages who had strong faith persuasions? Here are only four responses to the misconception that “Christianity is a white man’s religion”:

1. African people and places in the Bible

The Bible mentions African places and people on many occasions. The four-river system in the Garden of Eden passed through Cush, Havillah and Asshur (Genesis 2:10-14). These would be near modern-day Sudan, Ethiopia, and Eritrea. Some of the African people mentioned include Abraham’s wives: Hagar and Keturah of Hamitic (African) origins. Zipporah, Moses’s wife was of Ethiopian descent. These are examples of the African presence in the Bible. Who can forget Simon the Cyrene, (modern day Libya), who helped carry Christ’s cross?

The black presence of Africa in the Bible is too multifarious to ignore. Long held to be the cradle of civilisation, Ethiopia has been mentioned severally in the Scriptures in addition to Egypt (Genesis 10:6-20Numbers 12:1Psalm 68:3187:4Nahum 3:9Acts 8:27). Several scholars have explored this, especially Dr. H. C. Felder, who was promoted to glory in October 2019.

Christian presence, although very broad in its definition, precedes the 20th-century missionary enterprise

2. Africa inspired the intellectual history of the West

Much of the Western intellectual tradition was fertilised in Africa. Thomas Oden was a Methodist theologian whose work referenced largely the early Church fathers. There has been perhaps no singular book that has theologically influenced my perspective of Africa more than his book: How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind. It was, to say the least, a wake-up call from the overly-western lenses that I have for too long embraced when looking at life. His thesis is that African places, people, and ideas influenced the development of the Christian faith.

Much of the Western intellectual tradition was fertilised in Africa

Furthermore, some Afrocentric scholars claim that in the philosophical and scientific contributions of the West, African influence is tangible. For instance, in the writings of some Greek philosophers as well as contemporary mundanity we enjoy such as coffee, modern art, and jazz, according to this Guardian op-ed. (See this Introduction to African Civilizations).

3. Many church fathers were African

Many Church fathers were African in their heritage. Oden continues to make the claim that many of the Church fathers such as Athanasius, Clement of Alexandria and Augustine were of African descent. In seminary, one reads their writings and life as if they belonged in the West. Although many of them were in Roman-occupied Africa, we can claim them as one of us. This should empower Africans to make their contribution to the world in line with God’s calling. One of the best databases on this history of Africans are The Center for Early African Christianity and the Dictionary of African Christian Biography. To these we can add a recent article posted at TGC Africa, from the African Study Bible.

4. African churches are among the oldest churches

Some of the oldest churches are located in Ethiopia and Libya. The problem of having many Christian denominations was non-existent before 1054 AD. This was the year when the Western Church (Roman Catholic and the later Protestant Reformation in the 1500s) and the Eastern Church (Orthodox) split. Scholars have continued to assess this historical discord. Some of the oldest Orthodox churches can be found in Ethiopia and Libya, stretching as far back as the 6th century. This magazine on Early African Christianity by the Christian History Institute is a remarkable read.

Conclusion

In short, the claim that Christianity is a white man’s religion is not founded on sound evidence. Christian presence, although very broad in its definition, precedes the 20th-century missionary enterprise. This by no way demeans the positive elements of mission Christianity that we have inherited. I have made this case through a book that is coming soon called We Travelled Africa. It is set in Kenya and narrated by a young African millennial, telling the stories of three African generations and the centrality of their faith convictions in navigating their socio-cultural and political contexts.

The tapestry of Scripture is an invitation to all tongues, cultures, and nations to worship Christ the King

The tapestry of Scripture is an invitation to all tongues, cultures, and nations to worship Christ the King. The harmonies and the mosaic in the New Jerusalem will be a diversity of persons, called, redeemed and sealed by God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. May we embrace this multi-ethnic and multi-cultural Kingdom. May we declare the excellencies of our ultimate citizenship to all who would look to the Anointed King.

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