Using Africa in our rhetoric

“Help the starving children in Africa” has become a cliche fundraising phrase. It seems to get tossed around by charities even when their goals are only distantly related to doing just that. In the same way, conservatives and liberals, Christians and secularists have tried to leverage the 3rd world in their rhetoric – to tell a certain kind of story.

Over the past half-century or so, whenever global South Christianity has gained attention in North America or Europe, it has been through the form of what might be termed two dreams, two competing visions, each trying to deploy that new religious movement for its own purposes. For the Left, attracted by visions of liberation, the rise of the South suggests that Northern Christians must commit themselves to social and political activism at home, to ensuring economic justice and combating racism, to promoting cultural diversity. Conservatives, in contrast, emphasize the moral and sexual conservatism of the emerging [3rd world] churches, and seek to enlist them as natural allies. From their point of view, growing churches are those that stand farthest from Western liberal orthodoxies, and we should learn from their success. A liberation Dream confronts a Conservative Dream. For both sides, though, the new South is useful, politically and rhetorically.

Both expectations, liberal and conservative, are wrong, or at least, fail to see the whole picture. Each in its different way expects the Southern churches to reproduce Western obsessions and approaches, rather than evolving their own distinctive solutions to their own particular problems. One difficulty is deciding just what that vast and multifaceted entity described as the Third World, or the Two-Thirds World, actually does want or believe. The South is massively diverse, and conservatism and liberalism are defined quite differently from the customary usages of North American or European churches. Conservative theological or moral stances often accompany quite progressive or radical economic views. As Southern churches grow and mature, they will increasingly define their own interests in ways that have little to do with the preferences and parties of Americans and Europeans.

-Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom, p.16

This all rings true, having observed exactly what Jenkins is talking about, from both side, very often. In reality though, these African’s and other third world Christians have their own ideas about how to do things.

There is a considerable group of Episcopal congregations in the United States who have broken off from their newly elected gay and feminist bishops and have instead subjected themselves to black African bishops in Rwanda and Nigeria. The AMIA is one such group that I would enjoy the opportunity to work with at some point. In this way, they we found a conservative ally. What’s funny though is the reversal of what we imagined our new African relationship to be like. It’s not us adding them to our crew. It’s them adding us to THEIR crew. We have to be the humble, teachable ones.