The western Christian missionary enterprise and African responses

Africans who have accepted the Christian faith take the Bible very seriously, but find contradictions between what most missionaries have proclaimed and how they have lived amid their African converts. Their negative and condescending attitude toward African heritage has compromised the noble intention of converting Africa to their respective brands of Christianity. Competition and rivalry between and among themselves have not helped their cause. One of the consequences of this negative missionary attitude was the formation of thousands of African Independent Churches. David B. Barrett, in his book Schism and Renewal in Africa, observed that by 1968 there were more than 15,000 such churches, concentrated in those colonies where European settlement was most established and colonial rule most viciously applied, especially in Congo, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.22 Leaders of those independent churches were condemned as criminals and imprisoned. Others were persecuted in various ways, even though in Europe and North America freedom of religious belief and expression was deemed a basic right. This dark history of the Christian missionary enterprise in Africa remains part of the legacy of African Christianity. In 2001, Allan Anderson published The African Reformation: African Initiated Christianity in the Twentieth Century (Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press), expanding the notion of African church independency to include Pentecostal and charismatic churches that were not breakaways from the missionary enterprise.23

African churches themselves are not perfect. No churches are. No human institutions can be perfect. Human imperfection demands that church leadership be undertaken with profound humility. Attitudes akin to arrogance and complacency are incompatible with church leadership, African or otherwise. Jesus condemned such attitudes, even among his disciples. Pomposity has become normative in some manifestations of church leadership, which both Jesus and St. Paul condemned. Ritual is important, but excessive ritual can obstruct religious discernment.

African religiosity is a very complex phenomenon, perhaps much more complex than the religiosity in any other continent. In his book Concepts of God in Africa (Second Edition, Nairobi: Acton, 2012), Professor John S. Mbiti documents the depth and complexity of African conceptualizations of God. This complexity nullifies any insinuation that literacy is a necessary condition for theological and philosophical depth.24 Likewise, the late Professor Ali Mazrui’s book, The Africans: A Triple Heritage (London: BBC, 1986), illustrates the confluence of European Christianity and Arabian Islam with the African religious heritage, especially in Eastern, Southern, and Western Africa.2

In 1995,1 published From Liberation to Reconstruction: African Christian Theology after the Cold War (Nairobi: EAEP).26 My book, Christian Theology and Social Reconstruction (Nairobi: Acton, 2003), was intended to clarify some of the concerns that had been brought to my attention from readers, both in Africa and elsewhere. One of the clarifications pertained to the relationship between liberation and reconstruction.2. In real life, these two processes are not conducted in tandem. Thus they are not a matter of either/or. Rather some aspects of culture will require liberation while others will function at the next level, reconstruction. This clarification will be more helpful if it is appreciated that people who consider themselves “liberal” in some aspects of their social consciousness are at the same time very conservative in others. Was Jesus a “liberal” or a “conservative?” In some respects, he seemed “liberal” to his critics. But in other respects, he was shockingly “conservative.” But he was radical in his social ministry, to the extent that ordinary people recognized him as a Rabbi who proclaimed new teaching with authority, “not like the scribes” (Mk 1:21—28; Matt. 7:21—29).

Radical iconoclasm is impossible to sustain because those who are most radical about some concerns also tend at the same time to be extremely conservative in others. Both of my books on this theme of social reconstruction emphasized that historical configurations after the Cold War provided African scholars with a window of opportunity to take stock of the indoctrination and conditioning they had internalized, followed by critical crafting of new paradigms in the interest of Africans and their posterity. As for Christianity, the implication of this insight is that African Christian theologians must question the presuppositions packaged for their schooling, and a duty to re-package their Christian faith by the cultural heritage of Africa and Africans. Professor Paul Gifford, in a review of my works, questioned the validity of this principle, as follows:

Mugambi, for example, has dismissed inculturation, seeing it as a Catholic ploy to divert attention from the need to promote a theology of liberation. Yet, for our purposes, it is legitimate to consider him here, because for Mugambi culture is pivotal; culture must always be the touchstone, criterion, fulcrum. It seems to be a conclusive argument against something if it can be labeled “alien to the African cultural and religious heritage.” “African Christianity, in particular and African culture in general, will be reconstituted from characteristically African frames of reference.”28

Indeed, African Christianity is “African” only to the extent that it resonates with African cultural self-understanding. This insight requires no debate: Italian Christianity is “Italian” to the extent that it resonates with Italian cultural heritage. Greek Christianity is “Greek” to the extent that it resonates with Greek cultural heritage. Russian Christianity is “Russian” to the extent that it resonates with Russian cultural heritage. Scottish Christianity is “Scottish” to the extent that it resonates with Scottish cultural heritage. Irish Christianity is “Irish” to the extent that it resonates with Irish cultural heritage. German Christianity is “German” to the extent that it resonates with German cultural heritage. English Christianity is “English” to the extent that it resonates with English cultural heritage. Swiss Christianity is “Swiss” to the extent that it resonates with Swiss cultural heritage. And so on. And so on! Africa cannot be an exception to this principle.

The struggles for political and economic liberation in tropical Africa took place both within and outside the missionary-led churches and schools. Ironically, some of the best pupils and students of missionary schooling became the most eloquent critics of the missionary enterprise. Those critics did not reject Christianity as such. Rather, they criticized and sometimes rejected missionary presentations of it. The Bible became the litmus test for the validity of missionary teaching and practice. Since the Bible was presented (and translated into African languages) as the Word of God, African converts would regard any missionary teaching that seemed contradictory to biblical teachings as un-Christian. Independent churches were formed as alternatives to missionary-led Christianity. At the same time, within the missionary-led churches fellowships evolved (some covert and others overt), where Africans could express themselves freely and comfortably, without experiencing missionary condescension. The East African Revival Movement is a lasting and vibrant example of such fellowships.

My book From Liberation to Reconstruction: African Christian Theology after the Cold War (1995) explores the dynamics of African Christianity until 1990, the year that marked the end of the Cold War, the end of official apartheid, and the independence of Namibia. Before 1990, the struggles of the oppressed in Southern Africa seemed endless. Campaigns for liberation through the OAU and the All Africa Conference of Churches (AACC) were designed to continue indefinitely. In February 1990, Nelson Mandela was released from life imprisonment on Robben Island, South Africa, after 27 years. His release facilitated negotiations that resulted in the abandonment of official apartheid and the establishment of democracy based on universal suffrage. Inauguration of the new South Africa in April 1994 marked a new historical signpost for Africa and Africans; at this point, South Africa joined the OAU.

The Theology of Re-Construction as articulated in my writings of that period was an attempt to make theological sense of the events and processes that Africa was undergoing. At that time, it seemed as if peace was on the horizon; as if the rehabilitation of South Africa within the “international community” would ensure peace for the whole continent. In From Liberation to Reconstruction, I hinted at this optimism. Professor Tinyiko S. Maluleke, in his review of this book, cautioned perceptively against too much celebration and emphasized that the end of the Cold War was a challenge for African scholars to “drink from our wells.”29 He was alluding to a quotation from my book:

Africa plunged into the new world order not as a stable continent, but as a region receding into ethnic fragmentation and economic disintegration ... Today Africa finds itself in the ideological wilderness, having flirted with the ideologies of other peoples for the first three decades of the post-colonial era.

(Mugambi 1995:207/°

Maluleke’s caution is worth citing here because it remains valid, current, and futuristic. He challenges African scholars to guard vigilantly against complacency, and search inquisitively for alternatives that best meet our needs for this and future generations, without limiting the search to religion. While religion is important, it is not sufficient to spark effective change, as Maluleke emphasizes:

To my mind, enough has been done already to lay a firm foundation upon which African theologies can build well into the twenty-first century. This, however, does not mean that our task is to merely distill the best out of generations of Black and African theological scholarship. The 21“ century challenges us to push the boundaries of Black and African theologies by isolating the crucial issues, mapping out the challenges, and identifying past and current traps.51

Since most schools had been established as part of the Christian mission, the leaders of liberation movements were alumni of those schools.Their most direct experience of unfair treatment was in the schools they attended and in the writings that missionaries and other ethnographers published.The African elite in the third millennium is much more exposed than its predecessors during the colonial period were. The internet has become much more accessible than any physical library. There is, therefore, no excuse for pleading ignorance or lack of exposure.

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