Christianity is Not a Western Religion

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AFRICA INTERNATIONAL UNIVERSITY

CHRISTIANITY IS NOT A WESTERN RELIGION

BY

BERNARD KARIUKI KIMANI STUDENT NUMBER 07026

A PAPER PRESENTED TO DR.STEVE MORAD

IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT FOR THE REQUIREMENTS OF THE COURSE: HS 505 AFRICAN CHURCH HISTORYNAIROBI, KENYA June 29th , 2009.

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Introduction. This paper is going to be built around challenge of Christianity as a foreign religion. The issue contested here is the authenticity of Christian faith for Africans. In a sense, we are wrestling with the claim that Christianity is too white and foreign and that it is a religious expression of colonialism. This research essay is going to respond to this challenge in a scholarly manner. As such, the aim will be to respond by looking for facts and evidence that Christianity was not an import of the west to Africa or an imposition in the African Christian thought neither was it a camouflage of Western imperialists. Thesis Traditional Christianity in its historic manifestation has been predominantly western and has demonstrated aggressive, superior, colonial and imperialistic attitudes. The tendency to uphold colonial powers as part of Gods plan has been evident in the missionary agenda. As a matter of fact, it is hard to differentiate the two. This has led to the condemnation of local religion and religious systems in preference for the Christian foreign religion1. Ngugi wa Thiongo referred to the missionaries as the colonial spiritual police2 while amplifying on the great connection between colonial imperialism and the missionary enterprise. However, as much as one should not be blind to the mistakes done in the early days of the spread of Christianity in Africa, we must come to terms with both historical facts and other instances that show that Christianity is indeed an African religion. The thesis of this paper is that Christianity is not and never was a western religion, neither was it imposed on Africans by the westerners. Africans chose to believe the gospel. Whether the missionaries brought the

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Campbell-Jack Campbell and Gavin J. McGrath, New Dictionary of Christian Apologetics (Leicester: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 46.2

J.N.K. Mugambi. Critiques of Christianity in African Literature (Nairobi: East African Educational Publishers, 1992), 34.

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gospel in their cultural wrappings is another issue altogether which should not be equated with trying to establish the authenticity of Christianity as either African or western. Arguments that support the thesis The following ideas help to clarify that Christianity is not a foreign religion or an import of the west which was imposed on Africans: First, Africans chose to believe the gospel. Although becoming a Christian meant imitating the ways of living of the missionary, the missionary himself did not expose his culture completely to the African catechumens and catechists3.When he would speak with fellow European missionaries, he would adopt their culture but when mixed with Africans he would adapt the methods to fit the ways primitive Africans could understand4. In that sense, we cannot say that westerners imposed their culture on Africans. Again, it would be too far fetched for Ngugi wa Thiongo to claim that Christianity brought only confusion to the African community5. That would be too simplistic and not looking at the issue from all vantage points. This is especially so because coupled with the ills performed by the missionaries, the education system, which Wa Thiongo is representative of, even today, grew out of the missionary endeavors not to mention the infrastructural developments. The bone of contention here is not the modality of bringing the Christian message which is perhaps the reason why Christianity is referred as being too whiteas to whether actually anyone was forced to accept it or they merely chose to follow it. Even though there were few missionaries who chose not to represent God and instead chose Christianity as a vehicle for European inculturationwhich is indeed

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Ibid. 101. Ibid. Ibid., 102

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regrettable we should not be blind to the scores of others who risked their lives and made a lasting contribution to the African society. Second, there was indigenous reception of the Gospel. Africans had an indigenous reception of the gospel which they also transmitted to their fellow Africans whole heartedly. There was overwhelming response to the message of Christ from the freed slave colonies of Freetown, Sierra Leone and Monrovia, Liberia. A good example was the effort of Anglicans first African Bishop, Samuel Ajayi Crowther, a Nigerian who was instrumental to the spread of the Gospel in the South and Niger-Delta areas of Nigeria. We can say the same thing of Afonso of Congo and Desmond Tutu of South Africa. In fact, it has been claimed that for every missionary in Africa, there were ten African catechists and village evangelists providing local leadership and evangelizing fellow Africans 6. Again, As Mbiti alludes, Christianity is indigenous to Africa because it is a response to the gospel not an imitation of the conduct of the missionaries.7As such, Christianity is neither a visitor nor a tourist in Africa8. Third, Christianity is distinct from Colonialism. Ngugi wa Thiongo gave the story of Dr. Irvin, a Presbyterian who worked in Meru, eastern Kenya who wrote a small book called How to behave. The book was a manual to show how civilized and Christianized Africans should behave in all circumstances to show that they had become civilized and Christians9. This could in a sense say that Africans were brainwashed into western Christianity. If we follow this argument, Christianity and Colonization would be synonymous which would be a myopic rendering of the mission

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Mark Shaw, (Ed). Popular Objections, Powerful Answers (Nairobi: NEGST, 2008), 92. J.S. Mbiti in Mugambi, Critiques of Christianity in African Literature, 67 Ibid. Ibid., 102.

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enterprise of that era. Again, Christianity was shaped in Africa by clear minded church fathers like Tertullian, Origen, Anthony and Cyprian in North Africa. Anthony (d. 356) was the father of monasticism and Christian religious piety. Tertullian was a trained lawyer whose skill especially distinguished [him] in Rome. He was described as possessing a sharp and violent talent. Cyprian, on his part, was first a pagan rhetorician who had trusted the gods to protect him from black magic before he became a Christian and put his trust in the power of the Lord Jesus Christ. These were the African church fathers that Africanized the faith from the very beginning. It is difficult to submit to the claim that all these bold and brave believers were brainwashed by colonialists.10 However, the dilemma of defending the Christian faith without being associated with sins of colonialism has been a delicate task. Most apologists have had to maintain the delicate balance between being Christians and not being a part of the Christian colonial power11. Though the means by which Christianity came to us seemed colonial, we cannot underestimate the strength of clear minded missionaries whose agenda was simply and only Gospel propagation12. Fourth, Christianity did not originate from the West. Early legends have it thatEthiopian Christianity dates back to the biblical contacts of the queen of Sheba (queen of the South) who visited Solomon. The constitution of the late emperor Haile Selassie holds Ethiopian kinship and priesthood to be the legitimate continuation of the Solomonic dynasty and Aaronic priesthood. The queen was identified as Makeda of Aksum who conceived a son by Solomon, called Menelik I. Menelik was brought to Jerusalem to be educated, after which Solomon sent him back to Ethiopia13. Westerners received Christianity just like Africans

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Shaw, Popular Objections, Powerful Answers, 92 Campbell and McGrath, New Dictionary of Christian Apologetics, 46 Shaw, Popular Objections, Powerful Answers, 97. Ibid. 91.

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did. Modern Western Christianity evolved from African "seeds. Historically, the claim that Christianity is a foreign religion is then challenged. Thomas Oden14 leads the attack on this premise. In his book, How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind, he gives seven ways Africa could be considered the seedbed of western Christianity namely: 1) The western idea of the University was conceived in Alexandria. 2) Christian Exegesis (biblical interpretation) first matured in Africa. 3) African biblical interpreters powerfully shaped most of the important Christian doctrines. 4) Africa was the region that first set the pattern and method for seeking wider ecumenical consent on contested points of scripture. 5) The African desert gave birth to worldwide monasticism. Monasticism started in the deserts of Egypt and eventually moved to Asia and Ireland. Africa also had the influence of St. John Cassian, St. Augustine, and St. Pachomius. 6) Christian Neo-Platonism emerged from Africa. 7) Rhetorical and Dialectical Skills were sharpened in Africa for the Europes benefit. If we follow Odens argument, then it would be untenable to say that Christianity is a western import for Africans. Thus, instead of viewing the Christianity introduced to Africa by European and American missionaries as something foreign to African consciousness, it is more accurate to appreciate that Western missionaries had been bringing home a (decadent) offspring in desperate need of renewal. If we compare the premises of African intellectuals like Ngugi wa Thiongo, we bemoan their misguided condemnations of Christianity, because their minds, trained in the basic tenets of modern Western secular thought, cannot see that Christianity is the religion of their ancestors14

Thomas C. Oden. How Africa Shaped