December 29, 2008

Conversion as a Bridge to Development?

Here's the title and byline from Matthew Parris's current piece in the Times Online:
As an atheist, I truly believe Africa needs God
Missionaries, not aid money, are the solution to Africa's biggest problem - the crushing passivity of the people's mindset.
Aside: It's probably no fault of Parris, as titles and summaries are usually the provence of editors, but there is plenty to quibble with in those first thirty words or so before we even get to the article itself, something of an inauspicious beginning. Not the least of which is to bemoan yet another occurrence of run of the mill adult behavior somehow being deemed worthy of laudatory attention ("Cat says, 'Dogs not that bad, really!'"). The ability to see both sides of an issue and muster up the intellectual imagination necessary to conceive of how someone approaching said issue might arrive at a different conclusion, given their own unique starting point, was at some point in the past not a feat of staggering genius but a minor point of good manners. Alas, that and the hills requiring us to walk up them both ways in the snow appear to be no more and so matters of intellectual civility are reduced to little more than a writers conceit. Bah, bring me my lap blanket!

However, even though I appear to be on the other side of the spectrum when it comes to the matter of religious faith, I'm not sure that we are interpreting the cause and effect of religious involvement, in this case a decidedly Christian faith, in a similar fashion. Since I'm just re-entering the digital world after a bit of a holiday fast here are a couple of random, disjointed, very inside-baseball thoughts drawn from my own time working with faith based groups on the African continent:

1. Africa has "had God" for quite a while now. Depending on your reading of history the African church has been around since the first century, Mark the evangelist is traditionally thought to have founded the Coptic Church in Alexandria between 40-50 AD. So, either God's not doing that great a job or there is more going on across Africa than a dearth of missionaries (a point I'm sure Parris wouldn't argue). I'm actually a fan of the reading of history which gives the Christian faith a place of importance in the cultivation, development and spread of the best of our modern society (and admittedly a not infrequent tool used to decimate some of the worst) but it did so amidst the seedbed of more than a few other important factors, many of which Africa lacks. Faith, Africa has in spades.

Aside: If you're curious about the historical importance of Christian thought that has taken place on the African continent, Thomas Oden released a good book at the beginning of this year entitled How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind.

2. I can't help but hear my neo-colonialism bells ringing when I read Parris's article - no accusation there, just my own reading. Admittedly, they are occasionally tuned a little too finely but when Parris recounts returning to his boyhood home after being away for 45 years and comes away impressed by the Africans who have thrown off the bondages of traditionalism, be they religious or communal, and embraced the well spoken niceties of western European conventions it is hard for me to hear him saying anything other than, "I like the Africans who are more like me and less like their uncles."

3. Parris attributes this escape from the "crushing passivity" of the African mindset to Christian conversion. Undoubtedly, there's some merit to that claim as exposure to the Christian faith has traditionally meant exposure to Europeans and Americans (Aside: this is increasingly not the case however, as the majority of Christian "evangelism" taking place on the African continent is now African to African.) and this exposure has brought along with it not only a new found faith but a variety of invaluable social capital that might push them ahead of their more traditional neighbors. The same thing happens to individuals in developing countries who find work with NGO's. Their English gets better, even if passively so they are more aware of both the hurdles and opportunities for bettering themselves and again, by association if nothing else, they are better equipped to avoid the former and embrace the latter. In a developing context where a weeks delay in the rainfall can be the difference between famine and plenty, how much more meaningful could a relationship with a wealthy, accommodating Westerner be in terms of incremental change?

4. Missionaries frequent the lobbies of expensive hotels quite a bit. Which is not to say that they do not live lives of spartan sacrifice in relation to what they may have left behind in their native lands and in service to their calling; but it is simply to acknowledge that they too attend conferences and discuss strategy, take the occasional vacation, entertain a donor here and there, and are no more ignorant of the exchange rate than their NGO counterparts.

5. I don't think "tribal value systems" should be beyond critique either but neither do I think that the Christian gospel is inherently destructive to traditional cultures. There is no denying that in the hands of the over zealous it has often been so, as they introduced not only the gospel message but their own culturally conditioned interpretation of the gospel as being both singular and normative, but at its heart the gospel is a message of redemption and reconciliation for both individuals and cultures.

Aside: One valid critique of Christianity in Africa by Christian African academics is that its failure to move beyond superficial transformation in many African cultures is a result of its failure to adapt itself to what Parris bemoans as the "rural-traditional mindset" (or rather re-adapt, since it is hard to read the biblical narrative as anything other than speaking to and out of a "rural-traditional mindset"). They claim that an individualistic, community eschewing faith (which it pains me to say has been the most prevalently espoused Western interpretation) is not what Africa needs, but a faith that redeems the strength of community and enables the community to move beyond the corrupt, monopolies of individuals who have learned to manipulate the strengths of community against itself.

6. A final quibble:
Christianity, post-Reformation and post-Luther, with its teaching of a direct, personal, two-way link between the individual and God, unmediated by the collective, and unsubordinate to any other human being, smashes straight through the philosphical/spiritual framework I've just described. It offers something to hold on to to those anxious to cast off a crushing tribal groupthink. That is why and how it liberates.
Since Parris is a self-professed atheist he can be excused for the over simplification, but that isn't Christianity, it's not the gospel, or at least it's not all of it. As I mentioned above, the heart of the gospel is redemption and reconciliation but it's not simply a restoration of the link between God and humanity - it is certainly that, but it is also the reconciliation of humanity to others, to creation and to itself. Christianity does not call us out of the tribe, out of community, but it calls us into "true" community. The faith described by Parris above will certainly position Africa to be a continent of independent, self-interested, potential consumer-capitalists but I don't think it will make them overly Christian or developed.

The bulk of Parris's article is interesting if problematic in places - though if taken to its logical conclusion I fear it would be bad for both religion and development on the African continent. I tend to agree with the overall gist of his premise - that there is something both good and necessary, both affecting and effective, inherent in the faith based work that takes place across the developing world, and the African continent in particular. As I've said before, (here, here and here for starters) I think that religion can (and must) be one of the key bridges to continued development success when operating in cultures as intrinsically religious as those found throughout much of Africa. To ignore religion is to do more than fail to acknowledge the elephant in the room it is to fail to arrive at the house all together. More could be said but this has gone on far too long already, apologies.

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