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Diana Butler Bass

Diana Butler Bass

Posted: June 11, 2010 05:28 PM

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 kill their children on the grounds that they are witches.

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 saying:

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 and 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.

Africans leaders, 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 parliament.

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 affects 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 power."

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 to live together as extended family. Let's root for them to get to that goal!

 
 
 

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