Jesus of Africa: Voices of Contemporary African Christology
Professor Mekonnen reviews Diane Stinton's book, Jesus of Africa for the Denver Journal
Stinton, B. Diane. Jesus of Africa: Voices of Contemporary African Christology. Orbis Books, Maryknoll, New York; 2004. Ix-303 including index. $25.00, Paper back. ISBN1-57075-537-X
“Christ has been presented as the answer to the questions a white man would ask, the solution to the needs that Western man would feel, the Saviour of the world of the European world-view, the object of the adoration and prayer of historic Christendom. But if Christ were to appear as the answer to the questions that Africans are asking, what would he look like? (The Primal Vision, Christian Presence amid African Religion, 1963, p.16).”
Diane B. Stinton’s book, Jesus of Africa, reminds me of the Christological question above posed by J.V. Taylor. As Canadian and a woman, Diane has written a good insight on an African’s Christology. By doing so, she validates that Christ is a universal savior who can be studied without being limited by national boundaries or gender.
Asserting the importance of her research, Stinton stated that “at the heart of Christian faith is the person of Jesus Christ. Consequently, the very core of Christian theology is Christology (Pg.3).” While Diane admits the critical need to articulate the reality and significance of Jesus Christ in African Christianity, she also demonstrates the centrality of Christ in the African Christian’s theology, worship and praxis. I agree with Stinton that “in the ongoing development of Christian theology African accounts of Christology warrant careful consideration in view of Africa’s prominent place in Christian history at the turn of the millennium” (Pg. 3). In light of this fact, Stinton’s book is a timely contribution to the health of global Christianity because it is good for cross-pollination of Christological views and strategic ministry alliance.
Western Christology was developed within the cultural influence of the Industrial revolution, Enlightenment, and modernity. This Christology has attempted to give meaning to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ in the lives of Western believers. Through theology, preaching, and hymns, Christ has been understood and worshiped in the West. For the last two centuries, the impact of Christology in the West has been seen in many positive and a few negative ways. Without other alternatives available, the African church and its scholars have been eating the Western Christology with Christians in the West. I wonder if the West is ready to eat African Christology with African Christians.
As Stinton describes, the seed of the gospel is planted in totally different but fertile soil in Africa than in the West. African traditional religion, the place of ancestors, “the living dead” (as Mbiti calls them), collective mentality, kinship and marriage, the challenge of sickness and death, poverty, slavery, and colonialism are the cultural context in which Jesus reveals himself to Africans. This is why it is a different soil than the West. Contrary to what many Western theologians and mission experts thought, the primeval African religion and the socioeconomic context is a fertile soil for the gospel.
In her book, Stinton gives us the portrait of Jesus Christ in an African cultural context. However, as if Christianity began to take root in Africa in the nineteenth century, Stinton’s historical and theological context research starts from the 1950s. According to her account, “the All African Conference of Churches (AACC), constituted in Kampala in 1963 in hope of achieving selfhood for the African church and inspiring African theology, held an assembly in Abijan in 1969” (Pg.69). Even though the concern for African Christology was desired in the form of indigenous liturgies and African expression of doctrine, Christology was not protuberant in the early stages of African theology in the twentieth century.
“On the sociopolitical scene, African theology as an intellectual discipline arose during the 1950s, when the struggle against colonialism led to several newly independent states” (Pg. 7). Christ began to appear as the answer to the question of Africans in their context. He was no longer a messiah of the “pie in the sky” or a stranger who forced himself into Africans’ lives. But as one who genuinely loved them, Africans wanted Christ to intervene in their present subjugation, exploitation, and dehumanizing circumstances under the colonial power.
The cultural revolution that swept the continent in the sixties along with the political winds of change were other factors for the development of African Christology. “To counter the disdain with local cultures had generally been held during colonial times. Africans made intensive efforts to reaffirm their identity and integrity in many spheres of life, including names, dress, music, dance forms, architecture, and indigenous expression affecting church life and practice” (Pg. 7). In order to be truly Christian, Africans had to have biblical or Western names, dress in Western style, be tuned in to Western music, and churches even had to be built in Western architectural style. The transplanted gospel in Africa produced the Christ of the West who was not embedded in the selfhood of Africans.
The missionaries thought inculcating European values in the minds of Africans under the political shadow of the colonial powers was a good seedbed for Christian faith. The concurrence of colonialism and Western mission in Africa distorted the biblical image of Christ as “a lamb slain for the sin of the world” (Rev. 5:9-13), “the good shepherd who gives his life for the sheep” (John 10:14-15), “the wonderful counselor” (Isa.9:6), “the prince of peace” (Isa. 9:6), “a brother” (Matt. 12:49), etc. In the light of their experience, Africans thought that “Christ entered the African scene as a forceful, impatient and unfriendly tyrant. He was presented as invalidating the history and institutions of a people in order to impose his rule upon them” (pg. 10). It is no wonder then Nigerians were thinking of Christ for a long time as “merely a stranger,” “an illegal alien,” “a refugee, a dissident or a fugitive who in desperation has come to Africa for sanctuary,” or as “the most visible and publicized symbol of foreign domination ever” (Pg. 10). If “African Christianity is a mile wide and an inch deep,” one has to look to the root cause of the problem than the current appearance.
As African intellectuals unmercifully began to critique Christianity and missionary domination of the African church, Christology was being developed by Africans in the form of apologetic theology. Priority was given to revitalize local cultures and to indigenizing mission churches within the wider context of African reformation in literature, philosophy, and history. African theologians like John Mbiti, Beyang Kato, Kwame Bediako, etc., argued that “Jesus Christ is not stranger to [Africans’] heritage. Jesus is the Universal Savior and thus the Savior of the Africans. Through faith in Christ African believers now share in all promises made to the patriarchs and Israel, and the good news becomes ‘our story’ (Pg.11).” Through vernacular Scripture, contextualized theology, relevant biblical teaching and preaching, and through indigenized worship, Christ has found home in Africa now. Those who truly know the God of the Bible, both Westerns and Africans, have always been “…in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in [Africans]” (Gal. 4:19).
Most African theologians argue that since Christ is formed in the lives of Africans in diverse places, at different times, and in assorted human situations within the continent, we ought to look at a plurality of Christologies in Africa. The constant dialogue between the biblical text and different contexts in Africa leads to different understandings and interpretations of Christ in the continent. “A widespread methodological presupposition is that genuine Christological reflection cannot be separated from Africa’s socio-political, religio-cultural and economic contexts—this is the real and concrete everyday experience within which we Christologize” (Pg. 16). By intentionally deviating “from the approaches of the dominant theologies of the West, a theology that arises from and is accountable to African people” (Pg.16) is developed. This theology does not view Christ as an abstract construct hanging in the air. Christology and Christopraxis are intertwined in order for Christian faith to give meaning to Africans in their various contexts. For the gospel to preserve its vitality and wholeness, theology needs the reflection of the people committed to Christian practice in a particular cultural context. Orthodoxy should not be divorced from orthopraxis because it demonstrates the Christ who was “powerful in word and deed before God and all the people” (Luke 24:19).
According to Stinton’s findings, Christ among Africans is viewed as “life-giver”, “mediator”, “loved one”, and “leader” (Pgs. 250-266). This book is not a comprehensive study of African Christology. However, it is an excellent complimentary work to the previous studies of this topic and a good launching pad for further research on African Christology. The Jesus of Africa is the Jesus of the poor and the rejected. By destroying various walls of partitions in Africa he can be a reconciler. In a continent that is prone to chaos, war and bloodshed, he can be a prince of peace. I hope to see further studies on African Christology from Africans’ perspective. As an outsider, Stinton has set a noble path.
Alemayehu Mekonnen, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Missions