With the World Cup in South Africa, it is appropriate to
take note of African religion–for not only are Africans sports-mad, but they
are the most religious people in the world.
In 1912, geographer George Kimball quipped, “The darkest
thing about Africa has been our ignorance of it.” For most Americans, not much has changed since Kimball’s
observation. Africa remains an
enigma–a vast space of a shamed colonial past, unstable governments and
violence, poverty and AIDS.
When it comes to religion, Africa fares no better. In the 19th century,
western Christians depicted Africa as a land of paganism, illicit sexuality,
and witchcraft. At the outset of
the 21st century, many westerners depict Africa as a continent full
of religious zealots (both Christian and Muslim) who are trying to control
other people’s sexuality, and who are kill their children because they are
A groundbreaking Pew Forum survey corrects these
stereotypes, revealing complex religious diversity in Africa where new Christian
and Muslim majorities mix their faith with traditional tribal spiritual
practices. Pew also clarifies an
important misinterpretation of African religion. Since the publication of Philip Jenkins’ book, The Next Christendom, some western church
leaders have argued that African Christianity is essentially theologically
conservative–thus, they have used the Jenkins thesis to politically manipulate
European and North American denominations–mostly to hold progressive churches
hostage over issues related to LGBT persons in their midst.
Pew’s survey offers a subtle corrective to the Jenkins thesis by
Many Christians and Muslims in sub-Saharan
Africa experience their respective faiths in a very intense, immediate,
personal way. For example, three-in-ten or more of the people in many countries
say they have experienced a divine healing, witnessed the devil being driven
out of a person or received a direct revelation from God.
While many American
Christians may hear this as “conservative,” Pew points toward something different. The survey shows that African religion
is experiential–not necessarily
conservative. In the west,
conservative theology is an intellectual movement, it moves from the head. Conservatives start with how one interprets
the Bible and then applies that interpretation to various issues. In Africa, by way of contrast, the
dominant approach is from the heart and how one senses God’s presence in life
and the world around you. In other
words, the western rubric of “liberal” and “conservative” have little or
nothing to do with African religion–that is, until western missionaries import
their church fights into Africa.
That is exactly
what is happening. Africa is
becoming Stage Two of the American political/religious culture wars, a theater
for religious imperialists to accomplish overseas what cannot be accomplished
at home–like denying women ordination to ministry and putting LGBT people back
in closets. For the last two
decades, right-wing Christians have been tromping all over Africa trying to
appropriate native African experiential faith for their western theological
agenda–making Africa a wedge issue–and African Christians spiritual pawns–in their
seemingly endless quest to grasp theological power.
however, keep rising above the imperialist crusade. One such leader is Desmond Tutu, whose powerful vision of a
loving God commands authority across the globe. This week, another such church leader spoke voice in
Washington, DC. Bishop Christopher
Senyonjo, retired Anglican Bishop of West Buganda in Uganda, offered his
thoughts on the anti-homosexuality bill now making its way through the Ugandan
About a decade ago,
Bishop Senyonjo (who is a married straight man) began supporting human rights
for LGBT people in his home country.
For his trouble, he was denounced, threatened with death, excommunicated,
and deposed from his church. To a
packed house at the Center for American Progress, he spoke of one thing: God’s love for all persons. He said that American “missionaries of
hate” who go to Africa and stir up anger at homosexuals are “doing more harm
than good, for when things go wrong in Africa, it effects the whole
world.” Bishop Senyonjo also
claimed that the Holy Spirit is behind the movement toward loving all people,
and that the truth of God’s inclusive love will–one day–be fully revealed in
both church and society.
The audience was
mostly young, and Bishop Senyonjo captivated them. After his talk, they thronged to ask him questions. One young woman said to her friend, “It
is so refreshing to hear a church leader speak clearly of God’s love. They mostly talk about politics and
Therein is the
genius of African religion: It is
about the heart, not the head; it is about experience, not political control; for
it is about love–love of others, love of land, love of creation. Love is the experiential center of
Desmond Tutu’s theology.
Love is the narrative thread of much great African literature, as Isak
Dinesen explored or as African writer Alan Paton said, “But the one thing that
has power completely is love, because when a man loves, he seeks no power, and
therefore he has power.”
One woman asked
Bishop Senyonjo, “What in African culture might help defeat this anti-gay
crusade?” He replied, “What helps
us in Africa is that we are an extended family. We are connected.
We strive to embrace as many people as possible as friends and draw them
into our family. That is what we
need to understand about homosexuals.
They, too, are our family.
And we love our family.”
When you watch the soccer matches, know that behind all the hype is the living, beat heart of Africa–the most religious continent in the world, a place where God is challenging all God’s children toward living together as extended family. Let’s root for them to get to that goal!