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Progressive Revival

Some African churches have taken a frightening literal
turn: accusing children of
witchcraft and torturing or killing them to purify their souls. 

Over the weekend, the Associated Press reported that more
than 15,000 Nigerian children have been accused of being witches
in the last
decade, with around 1,000 of those children murdered because of the
accusation.  These were not random
acts of violence.  Instead, family
members and pastors often executed their children claiming to literally follow
the biblical injunction, “You shall not allow a witch to live” (Exodus
22:18).   In addition,
thousands of children have suffered torture at the hands of “exorcists” who
charged their impoverished parents vast sums to cleanse their children of
witchery.

In Eket, Nigeria, local police try to stop the worst
abuses.  But they confess, “We
cannot afford to make enemies of all the churches around here” and say that the
“vast majority” are involved in the practice.

Since the 2002 publication of historian Philip Jenkins’ fine
book, The Next Christendom, it has
become popular in some Christian circles to romanticize African Christianity as
more orthodox, spiritually vital, and morally pure than western
Christianity.   Although
Jenkins did not specifically say so (and it is a bit misreading to so claim),
his readers have often depicted western Christianity as a tired and corrupt
tradition awaiting the energy, insight, and vibrancy of a new Reformation
springing from Africa that would remake the Jesus-faith for the future.   Indeed, some critics of western
Christianity–as in the case of the Episcopal Church in the U.S.–embraced this
analysis so completely that they have forged ties with various African churches
in order to destroy the western forms of their denominations in favor of a new,
“more orthodox,” Africanized version. 

The combination of Jenkins’ argument and its politicization
by North American conservatives has sapped the confidence of some western
denominations–thinking that their historical day was somehow over in favor of
Christianity in other parts of the world.

But stories like this witchcraft story prove otherwise.  African Christianity is as vast and
diverse as American Christianity. 
Some of its most vibrant forms are its most progressive types–like the
theologies that fostered justice in South Africa or sponsored the Truth and
Reconciliation movements.  And, as
the Associated Press points out, some of its most regressive forms are its most
literal–like small town pastors who kill children they think to be
witches. 

And it also shows that western Christianity–especially its
liberal and progressive versions–has something important to say in today’s world.  A few hundred years ago, western
Christians killed witches, too.  In
places like Massachusetts.  And
they also interpreted the Bible literally–“You shall not allow a witch to
live.”

Our ancestors figured out that was a stupid interpretation
and they embarked on a long theological quest to figure out what the Bible does
and does not teach, how to understand it dictums, to explore its context, to
discover the meaning behind the literal words.  This quest–the move from pre-critical Bible reading to a
critical approach to the Bible–framed much of Christian history during the
modern period. 

Contemporary Christians often take this quest for
granted–because it was so successful. 
Very few North Americans actually read the Bible literally.  Yes, there are those who believe in a
six-day creation, think wives should submit to husbands, or burn books in God’s
name.  But can you remember a time
when a person was excommunicated for eating pork or failing to cover her head
in church?  Have you ever seen
someone bring his slaves to church? Have you witnessed a Christian being
chastised for “touching the skin of a dead pig” (that’s in Leviticus–think
football) or walk around maimed because he cut off his hand due to sin?  Even the most conservative Christians
read selectively, metaphorically, and contextually–and they do so because the
liberal, critical approach to Bible reading has been so thoroughly accepted in
the west.

Critical reading is not the source of decline; it is the
source of great spiritual vibrancy.  And literal reading is not a source of spiritual wisdom or moral purity; it is the source of serious distortions of faith.  Approaching the Bible with a critical eye restores scripture to its
primary place as a collection of wisdom documents–the record of human experience
that maps our understanding of God. 
It isn’t a rulebook or a phone book or a history book or a science text
or a political science handbook. 
The Bible must be understood in its context, as a series of different
literary genres, as an inspired collection of ancient tales about life, God,
and faith.  In this way, it
possesses great insight into the human condition, about how to love, and about
wise living. 

Western Christianity is a great tradition.  We’ve done things wrong–that goes
without saying.  But we also are
full of life, insight, and wisdom from historical experience.  We’ve been around for a long
while.  We’ve learned a thing or
two.  Like it isn’t a good idea to read
the Bible literally.  That killing
and torture are wrong.  Always
wrong.  Especially in the name of
God.  Most especially when it
involves the innocent and oppressed. 

Once upon a time, western Christians tried to inflict our
views on Africans.  That, too, was
a bad idea and came from a misreading of the Bible.  But maybe if we shared what we’ve learned about God, Jesus, scripture,
and the Christian faith with humility and respect, we might actually be able to
help our African brothers and sisters avoid some of our stupidest
mistakes.  

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