Orbis Books Edition (Maryknoll, NY USA):
Reconciliation, Justice and Peace--the Second Africa Synod
Agbonkhianmeghe E. Orobator, Editor
Published by Orbis Books 2011, 259 pages
Price: $40.00 (USD)
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Acton Publishers Edition (Nairobi, Kenya):
Reconciliation, Justice and Peace--the Second Africa Synod
Agbonkhianmeghe E. Orobator (ed.)
Published by Acton Publishers 2011, 259 pages
Price: 900 Kenya Shillings or $10.00 (USD)
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Reviewed by Harold Miller
Something Old --Something New
This compendium comprises a series of ‘unofficial’ essays, variously commenting on the ‘title’ and related issues emerging from the Second Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for Africa convened in Rome in October, 2009. Within this diverse discourse writers probe the nature of the encounter between African Religion and the Christian Gospel as promoted by the Roman Catholic Church in Africa. The probe is sharpened by comparisons between past, present and future encounters.
Africa’s oldest churches in Egypt [est. ca 67 A. D.] and in Ethiopia [est. ca 331 A. D.] were in many ways contiguous with contemporary social and historic dynamics. To this day they represent core essences of their respective societies. They are, as it were, “something old”—tried and tested by millennia.
Centuries later, on 14 June, 1452, when Pope Nicholas V authorized Alfonso V of Portugal to “reduce any pagans and any other unbelievers” to perpetual slavery and, later in another bull, to exercise dominion over discovered lands during the Age of Discovery, the Catholic Church was laying claim to a harsh mandate and projecting an equally harsh Christian Gospel. Such was the Portuguese foray along Africa’s respective east-west coasts and subsequently in India, far to the East.
In 1910, five centuries later, representatives of Protestant mission agencies met in Edinburgh, Scotland for a meeting that led, subsequently, to the formation of the World Council of Churches. It had been convened at the conclusion of more than one hundred years of western Christian missionary activity in many parts of the world, but excluding Africa. In assessing the potential growth points of the church in the world, participants opined that the Christian Gospel was unlikely to be readily accepted in Africa because of its strongly held indigenous religious beliefs. In utter defiance of that negative prognosis, by mid-century nearly half of the population of the African continent had become Christians.
In his homily during the opening of the Second Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for Africa on 4 October, 2009 -- many years after the first not-so-pacific European Catholic encounters with Africa and a full century after Protestants had deemed an African response to the Gospel unlikely -- Pope Benedict XVI declared: “The absolute Lordship of God is one of the salient and unifying features of the African culture. This sense of God makes Africa the repository of an inestimable treasure for the whole world, an enormous spiritual lung for a humanity that appears to be in a crisis of faith and hope.” With that affirmation, the Pope was introducing the Synod’s remarkably bold title: “The Church in Africa in Service to Reconciliation, Justice and Peace: ‘You are the salt of the earth…you are the light of the world.’”
Whence this positive acknowledgement of Africa’s spiritual prowess and whence the expectation that engagement between African spirituality and the Christian Gospel would bespeak reconciliation or justice or peace? Some portion of the answer lies in the interrogation of African Religion over the past several decades by African Catholic theologians.
African Religion, according to Laurenti Magesa, a Tanzanian theologian who has probed deeply, comprises the sum total of African beliefs, creeds, behavioral codes and rituals. In sum, it expresses the principles of life. “Life,” according to Nigerian theologian Agbonkhianmeghe Orobator’s understanding of African Religion, “constitutes the principle against which the value of individual actions, behavior and choices are evaluated by the measure in which they enhance or diminish the ‘power’ or ‘force’ of life.” Select missionary pioneers such as Daniel Comboni of Sudan had encouraged not radical discontinuity but dialogue with the African understanding of life. For the future, Magesa calls for a “genuine conversation between Christianity and African Religion, to discover and uncover as much as possible God’s presence in each.”
These extraordinarily positive affirmations regarding the Christian-African Religion encounter, articulated severally in respective essays, are placed cheek-by-jowl in this volume with essays that consider the demanding everyday socio-economic circumstances prevailing in Africa. Specifically, issues related to AIDS, poverty, governance, the role of women, resource extraction, and ecology, amongst others, are examined in light of the Synod’s title. Small Christian Communities (SCCs) as front-line dialogue practitioners are probed in some detail.
At its best, Church poses profound spiritual and moral challenges in all places at all times. But Church in a penitent mode has acknowledged wrongful approaches to proclamation, revisiting dark aspects of its own history, a process according to the pope of the “purification of memory,” of remembering the past so as to heal the present and change the future. Moving into the post Synod period, Church is being challenged to a balancing act: holding faith and justice mutually accountable, locating the discourse and praxis of spiritualization vs. politicization within appropriate parameters and linking the family-of-God identity with its mission of reconciliation-justice-peace.
According to Galus Pilinius Secundus, a Roman author, naturalist and philosopher of the 1st century, popularly known as Pliny the Elder, "Ex Afrika semper aliquid novum" ("Out of Africa there is always something new”). The pope’s characterization of African spirituality represents something new out of Africa. Will this “newness” in Africa become more pronounced, more convincing when Church embraces African Religion as contiguous with the Christian Gospel? Essays in this volume allude to but do not fully embrace this possibility.
Harold Miller is a retired Mennonite ecumenical worker living in Nairobi, Kenya.