Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Why Christianity is not 24/7

Interesting thought-piece pasted below, taken from here. The title of the blog post (a replication of the article's heading) is a little misleading, as you'll see. It does raise an interesting issue about whether African evangelical Christianity is 'closer' to earlier forms of pre-modern Christian worship (I suspect it probably is):

Cardinal Polycarp Pengo, the archbishop of Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania, last week addressed the plenary assembly of the presidents of the bishops' conferences of Europe held in Hungary. As president of the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar (SECAM), he spoke about a familiar theme: the explosion of Christianity in Africa in the face of steep decline in Europe.

"In contrast to the situation in Europe, in many parts of Africa, particularly in cities and big towns, on Sundays and feast days the churches are full of worshippers. In many cases, four or five masses are celebrated in churches every Sunday. And practically all those masses are full to the brim," he reported.

Reception of the sacraments is very satisfactory and vocations to the priesthood and religious life are so many that seminaries and formation houses are always full. Many aspiring candidates are asked to wait or to abandon their desire altogether.

Cardinal Pengo wasn't gloating. It is fact. But he also pointed out the dark side of the massive growth: "the phenomenon common in many African societies of Christianity on Sunday morning and the practice of witchcraft and sorcery during the rest of the week."

Excuse me, Your Eminence. Let's get that bit about witchcraft right. There are witches in Africa, of course. But it is not correct to suggest that witchcraft is an accepted way of life among our peoples. Nor is every expression of traditional African spirituality to be dismissed as witchcraft. That was missionary fiction. The witch in Africa is the personification of evil. He or she is the antithesis of good, and is rejected by the community in life and in death.

But the point about 'Christianity on Sunday morning' is valid. Africa may have the big numbers, but the quality of Christian life on a daily basis is wanting. The genocide happened in Christian Rwanda; in Kenya, a majority Christian nation, we butchered and displaced our neighbours over political differences in January.

Some of post-colonial Africa's greedy and callous despots and their henchmen who murdered or tortured dissidents, plotted genocide of 'enemy' tribes, looted their nations, starved entire communities of national resources and entrenched negative ethnicity, were Christian.

Today, the pews are filled every Sunday with corrupt politicians and state officials; employers who pay their workers peanuts; policemen who execute or rape suspects and hire out their guns to thugs; magistrates who set murderers free for a bribe; teachers who give grades in exchange for sex; executives who reserve jobs for their tribesmen; investors who grab public land, pollute the environment and cheat on taxes; medical staff who chat on their mobile phones as patients writhe in pain unattended; journalists who seek cash for stories; butchers who tamper with the scales to con customers; greedy matatu (taxi) crew who raise fares on a whim; spouses who won't forgive.

Why is this? Mainly because Christianity is no magic that turns the convert into a perfect human being upon baptism. We still have our human limitations with us, which is why we are always in need of the mercy of God. But there is more.

Sunday Christianity

First, we received Western Christianity as a Sunday event unrelated to daily life, and we have tended to keep it that way. This is in complete contrast with the traditional African spirituality which we were told to discard as paganism. The African is immersed in the spiritual world 24/7, even in her sleep (through dreams).

When Prof Fr Michael Kirwen, director of the Maryknoll Institute of African Studies in Nairobi, arrived in Kenya as a missionary some 40 years ago, he says he could not convince converts that it was a sin to miss Sunday mass. They told him they did not have to go to church on a particular day to meet God; they were in His-Her presence all the time!

It is Western Christianity that objectified God, recreated Him-Her as an intellectual idea, and put up a boundary between the spiritual and the material, the sacred and the profane. Is this dichotomy evident in Jesus' teaching? No.

Secondly, Pope Benedict XVI has recently said that Christianity is not another moral or ideological system, but a transformative encounter with a person, Jesus Christ. Well, Papa, often in Africa we experience Christianity as an encounter not with Jesus but with a bureaucracy.

Western Christianity is obsessively institutional. Its religious officials are a powerful class of 'spiritual middlemen' whose job seems to be to dole out access to the Divine. They keep pushing God further upward and the ordinary Christians further downward. The result, as one African archbishop put it, is that "God has been represented to Africa as distant and inaccessible to ordinary Christians, as if indifferent to them."

The rise and popularity of evangelical/Pentecostal Christianity in Africa, which emphasizes personal experience of the Divine in every sphere of life, is in part due to its closeness to the traditional African spirituality of God-with-us 24/7.

[Mr. Makori is the Editor of CISA]


Anonymous,  2:08 am  

Spot on!! Christianity here is superficial. All the guys in my office pray before every single meeting, then go on to behave in a deceitful manner, and lie. These meetings are of course rounded off with a prayer. So much for being religious.

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