African Theology as a Theology of Liberation

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  • 7/27/2019 African Theology as a Theology of Liberation




    In this paper it is my intention to explicate how African Theologyis a theology of liberation and how it takes its point of departure fromthe existential situation of the African peoples. To do this, I shall endeavour to show what African Theology is, its origin, its point of departure and its criteria of adequacy. I shall also discuss relationship orkinship between African Theology and other theologies of liberation,especially Black theology in the United States and Southern Africa.

    What is African Theology?

    African Theology is born out of the African experience, Africanvision of the world and metaphysics, and takes seriously the cultures ofthe peoples of Africa. The ultimate purpose of this theology is to makeGospel and Christianity incarnate in the life and thought of Africa,hence African Theology is christian theology, moulded and expressedthrough African thought-forms and milieu. This is the recognitionthat theology must articulate and reflect on the concrete situations in

    which religious experience is perpetuated. It is the recognition of thepeople.

    The situation in Africa today is that of confusion. The majority ofAfrican peoples have entered a period of independent nationhood onlysince 1960. They are, therefore, struggling to make sense of this newera. In most of these countries, christians have been in the fore-frontin the fighting for independence, at times, through violent struggle. It isclear, then, that their chief concerns are liberation and emancipation.Against foreign domination, Africans are searching for personality andauthenticity. They want to determine their own destiny. Most of thecountries in Africa are poor. Many people live under inhuman conditions. Because of this, ethnicism, nepotism, corruption, racism, exploitation are among the many evils that beset the society. What is the relevance of theology in such situations? It is against this background thatAfrican Theology has emerged as a theology of liberation making anattempt to address itself to this concrete and existential situation.

    Rev. Zablon Nthamburi is a Methodist Minister from Kenya. His present address :

  • 7/27/2019 African Theology as a Theology of Liberation


    With other third world liberation theologies, particularly LatinAmerica liberation theology, African theology uses the exploited condition of the third world as a point of departure, and seriously entersthe search for 'Logos' in the myths that surround the world of the

    poor, the oppressed, the underprivileged in their historical situation. Insuch a context, theology ceases to be a theory or a set of rules. Itbecomes a source of liberating power that addresses itself to the oppressed in their state of despair. Theology in this sense is a critical reflectionon the conditions that have been imposed upon the oppressed by theoppressor: in our case, the western imperialistic systems that exploitand maim the poor. As Gutierrezrightlyobserves, "Theology as criticalreflection fulfils a liberating function for man." The struggle of thedeveloping nations of Africa to escape the economic, political, social,cultural and technological exploitation of the great powers are seen asan attempt by the oppressed to build a new, just and humane society,a brotherhood among men.

    This kind of theology takes praxis as its point of departure.Gutierrez makes this point clear when he says:-

    "It is for all these reasons that the theology of liberation offers us a

    new way to do theology. Theology as critical reflection on historical praxis is a liberating theology, a theology of the liberatingtransformation of the history of mankind... which openly confesses Christ.... It is a theology which is open in the struggleagainst the plunder of the vast majority of people, in liberatinglove, and in the building of a new, just, and fraternal society tothe gift of the Kingdom of God" (2).

    African Theology, furthermore, seeks liberation from the domination and imperialism of western .theology. For a long time westerntheology has been imposed on the Africans whose situation-in-life is sodifferent from that of the western person. Although African theology,like western theology, is based on the biblical faith, the former speaksto the African soul in the way that the latter cannot. African Theologyis expressed in categories of thought which arise out of the philosophyof African peoples. Not only is there a sociological difference betweenthe two, there also exists cultural and philosophical differences as well.

    By ignoring the African existential reality and impudently claiminguniversalisai, western theology, as presently applied in Africa, becomes

  • 7/27/2019 African Theology as a Theology of Liberation


    "The Greek-Roman thought-forms and modes of expression ofwestern theology are the "swaddling clothes" that we need to tearopen in order to get to Christ. We are smothered to death bywestern theologies which to us are human fabrications, changing

    fashon daily.... So if we find that we cannot use the tools ofwestern theology, we have consciously to seek others" (3).

    What African theology attempts to do is not to reject thetheological heritage which has accumulated in western Christianity, butseeks for freedom to search for new meanings which are relevant to ournew concerns. African theology must be freed from the inhibitionshanded down from past generations. For "the African theologian who

    has experienced the agonies of havinga

    burning appetite but nothing toeat will surely theologize differently on the theme of food from theAmerican theologian who knows the discomforts of having a plate fulof steak but no appetite" (4). We would not be far from the truth toclaim that the development of theological reflection in the west hadsomething to do with the colonial expansion of the west. Since valuesand concepts are assumed or re-interpreted to ft in with the ideologyof the powerful class, this gives them an added power of dominationThis is certainly, a fair assessment of the Southern Africa situation

    where the Dutch Reformed Church theologically justifies and condonesapartheid as legitimate and as God-ordained.

    In short, we can claim that Theology cannot be faithful to the Wordof God in Jesus Christ unless it participates in the existential context ofthe community in which it is born, seeking its norm in the acts of Godin history. Speaking on this context Jose Miguez Bonino asserts that:-

    "In the Western tradition to which I belong, theology begetstheology, theology engenders theology. It is a process aimed atdetermining, explicating and possibly vindicating the correctdoctrine, on the basis ofa study of the scriptures and the Traditionand sometimes with the use of philosophical categories. We gothrough this process in order to derive from it correct christianaction in all realms of the life of the christian community. Now ifwe see theology in this way, and if we follow this procedure, a factthat should make us pause is that in the Scriptures we find very few

    instances, if any, ofsuch a process of theologizing.... If I may put itin a simplistic way, the Bible is the collection ofsuch visitations of

  • 7/27/2019 African Theology as a Theology of Liberation


    What is here stated precisely is that theology must be contextua-lized in order to have meaning. This contextualization takes the concrete locaTsituation seriously. In this sense, then, African Theology isrooted in a concrete, particular situation. It does this because it rea

    lises that, "Theology is the community's continued attempt to definein every generation its reason for being in the world" (6).

    Rosemary Ruether discovers the impotence of Western Christianityas imported to other countries when she notes that the integration ofChristianity with imperial ideology and society made non-Europeanpeoples identify Christianity with Greco-Roman and European imperialism (7). For her, this is the basic apostacy ofthis type of Christianitywhich she calls "Constantinianism" and which she interprets as the"suppression of the messianic symbols of the Gospel to baptize theempire. Because of this, the "third world" countries accurately perceived the true character of this Christianity as a wolf in sheep's

    clothing and as the ideology of European colonialism" (8). (Italicsmine). African theology must protest against the prevalent ideologi-zation of faith by the western theology. By obstinately persisting inreflecting on the African cultures and histories from the vantage pointof their own history and culture (or from western Christendom) they

    lose its intrinsic meaning. This is explicitly stated by professor JohnMbiti when he describes African Christianity as "developed in thecontext ofa false cultural inferiority" (9).

    The liberating of theology in the African context presupposes theliberation of the Gospel from cultural and historical impotence whichin effect means the liberation pf the church from its captivity. Africantheology maintains that theology can have no real impact on the livesof people unless, in faithfulness to God, through Jesus Christ, it isliberated from all that has manipulated and dominated it through theages. Gustavo Gutierrez says that the church's activity should be"addressed effectively and primarily to those who are oppressed in thenations and not as is presently the case to the beneficiaries of asystem designed for their own benefit. Or still better, the oppressedthemselves should be the agents of their own pastoral activity. Themarginated and the dispossessed still do not have their own voice in thechurch ofhim who came to the world especially for them" (10).

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