Social and Political Ecumenism from Africa

In the light of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation and the great progress of dialogue between the Catholic Church the the Lutheran Church, we wanted to share a perspective from our mission in Sierra Leone, West Africa. Fr. Luis Birabaluge, Xaverian Missionary in Sierra Leone shares with us this reflection from an African perspective.

The ecumenical movement has made great progress in the sphere of theology and has managed to solve some traditional conflicts on Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, on Christian Ministries and the Doctrine of Justification, as shown by “the joint declaration of Justification” signed in Augsburg in 1999, between the Lutheran world federation and the Catholic Church. Unfortunately, these doctrinal developments for all faiths are often ignored in pastoral practices of Christian African Churches.

While we are celebrating the five hundred anniversary of the Reformation movement and the Counter-Reformation (1517-2017), it’s always a pity noticing that some Disciples of Christ in Africa continue acting as if steps towards unity in the faith has never gone further. On the side of Catholics and Protestants as well, there seem to be a sort of “theological indigence and biblical underdevelopment” – to use the words of a Congolese theologian, KaMana – which encloses them into a doctrinal rigidity proper to the epoch of religions’ war at the 16th and 17th centuries.

Because many divisions among our churches are no longer fundamentally doctrinal, it’s therefore pertinent to see how the confession in the one Lord, one faith and one baptism (Eph 4:5) gathers Christians together to a common commitment to build up more human societies. For this is a great lack in our African countries, both socially disoriented and “overchristianized”. Since the deterioration of social life in Africa lives alongside Christian spiritual development, which does not have equal in the world, thus, the question of the social implications of Christian faith arises.

I would like to point out three services as forms of social and political ecumenism that I consider needed in our African societies. The thesis supported here is that these services would be a strong Christian life witness in African societies. It will be a matter of alternatively: serving the cause of God; the cause of the Church and the cause of human beings. But before that, a remark seems important. In fact, regarding issues related to poverty, injustice and the challenges which overwhelm the African continent, there is a risk that the churches become agencies of humanitarian help. The latter is basically good. But it blurs the first role of churches: to be witnesses of the history of the encounter between God and humanity, an encounter sealed in the life, the death and the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Serving the cause of God

In the societies where we are living, God is on the lips of everybody. Biblical passages exalting the wonders of God are everywhere: shops, vehicles, clothes… God seems to be an easily sold product according to one’s ability to do a good marketing. For sure, divine omnipresence in Africa recalls the religious sense of African people. But owing to omnipresence, “God ends up hiding God.”

As Christians, we confess that in Jesus Christ, God has come to dwell among us (Jn 1:14). The God of Christians is the One revealed in Jesus Christ (Jn 14: 9). The Son of God is the gate (Jn 10: 7) leading to his Father. If one does not recognize the face of the Son, he cannot recognize the face of the Father.  This affects the entire relationship.

In Christianity spread in our societies, Christ is often viewed as almighty, healer, caster of demons, miracles doer…True, the Gospel enables us to conceive Jesus in this way. But the same Gospel introduces him to us as very human: who ate with sinners (Lk 15: 1), was friends with outsiders  (Jn 11: 11), disputed, argued and confronted civil and religious authorities of his time (Jn 6: 52); and washed the feet of his disciples (Jn 13: 1-18). Furthermore, the Son of Almighty God experienced the atrocity of death on the cross (Lk 24:20). And all this is in view of our salvation. This is to highlight the importance of Jesus’ humanity in the process of encountering with the God of Christians and his project of love for us.

To ignore the humanity of Jesus Christ in the process of discovering God amounts to making Christianity a religion of mystery. Such Christianity offers salvation which comes from above, the work of the eternal and almighty God, excluding any human collaboration. Such Christianity dehumanizes because it does not hold anyone accountable. It is therefore the problematic of our collaboration in the work of salvation and the building of God’s kingdom in human history which is at stake. Against a Christianity advertising wonders and miracles and a “cheap grace”; it is good to seek a  Christian’s free consent and human collaboration for the salvation of the world, following the example of Old Testament prophets, the Blessed Virgin Mary (Lk 1:38) and disciples’ vocation stories and mission (Mk 1:16-19; Lk 5: 4-11; 9:1- 6, 23-26).

The God known in Jesus is the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. To serve God’s cause in our societies in dire need of miracles and wonders requires giving up the popular conception of the role of the Holy Spirit. From the perspective of the Gospel, the Holy Spirit cannot be reduced to the power of spiritual healing and the gift of miracles. The Holy Spirit is given to the disciples in order to guide them towards the whole truth (Jn 14: 26; 16:13…). He is the one enabling Christians to call God, Abba, Father of all (Rm 8:15). He is the strength which makes people to speak the language of unity in diversity, a community lifestyle worthy of Christ’s disciples (Ac 2:1-13).

As Christians, we confess the Holy Spirit as Lord who gives life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, who has spoken through the prophets (Creed of Nicaea-Constantinople). The Life given by the Holy Spirit is received as gift and lived as mission, following the example of the first disciples. For the disciples, it is a matter of making use of gifts received from the spirit of the Lord, for the benefit of all (1Co 12: 7). Since then, signs of the presence of the Holy Spirit in our societies are people who promote life, live for the others and speak the language of love and unity such as Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Bishop Christoph Munzihirwa, Pope Francis… Therefore, to be a credible, African ecumenical movement, we need to form people of this caliber. in order to testify that living in Spirit frees is from death, sin of selfishness, tribalism… (Rm 8: 2).

Serving the cause of the Church

It is within an Africa divided between ethnic groups, rich and poor that Christians are expected to show how they are capable of living in unity and communion. How to form places and spaces where divisions are overcome through a common listening to the word of God, and the new life made possible by Baptism, is the matter of serving the cause of the Church as one body whose head is Christ (Col 1:18). In fact, due to the fact they live in divided societies, Christians are losing sight of the idea of unity and communion as essential hallmarks of the community of Christ’s disciples. To Christians from diverse origins, Saint Paul didn’t refrain from proclaiming that belonging to Christ’s death and resurrection seals their unity and relativizes their political, racial and cultural identities (Eph 2:13-19).

To the community of Corinth split in wealthy and poor, and at the same time, sharers of the one body of Christ, the apostle reminds that the Eucharistic body and the body of the community are intrinsically related.  The socio-economical divisions within the community calls into question of whether they are actually a Eucharistic community (1 Co 11:17-34). St. Paul’s words are very clear and sharp. Is not the Eucharist, the Last Supper, emptied of its inner meaning when criteria based on ethnic groups still weigh heavily on the acceptance or the refusal of bishops, presidents of Christian assemblies. Is the gulf between the rich and poor accepted as a matter of fact in our Christian communities?

This question is worth asking in this time we are witnessing a sort of “Eucharistic consumerism” in churches of Africa. Therefore, to work for the cause of the Church is to make the Church become what she has always been: the community where divisions are overcome, because her members were reconciled by the death and resurrection of her Lord. Before being a matter of unity of all the churches around one pastor, the Pope, as some Catholics think, it is rather to think of communion intra-communally. That is unity of life, sharing of joys and pains (Gaudium et Spes, n°1), between all communities of baptized which assemble to listen to the word of God and put it into practice through a life of mutual service.

Effective unity between Churches is still far away. With the advent of neo-Pentecostal churches which are growing in the continent, one can even consider that the dream of unity is just getting further and further away. Nevertheless, Christians cannot forget that it is through their lifestyle that people will know they are Christ’s disciples (Jn 15:12).  The goal of a social ecumenism is unity and communion between members of each community. For it is a way of witnessing to Christ (Jn 17: 21).

Serving the cause of human beings

Serving the cause of human beings is part of the core of Christian identity, precisely because Christians are disciples of Jesus Christ who became man “for” the salvation of humanity. In view of an ecumenism attentive to the social implications of Christian faith, this service does not primarily mean to build more schools, hospitals or any other social structures. These structures are already abundant in the churches of Africa. What endures is the fact that Christian identity seems to be obscured by assimilation to the surrounding customs. Actually, one may find it hard to distinguish Christian witness from social state services where favoritism, corruption, and the desire to make profit are practices commonly admitted. Therefore, making Christian social structures venues of exemplary service that reflect equity and justice would already be a precious gift for our societies in dire need of virtuous models.

But the primary service coming at the fore front here is what the African bishops’ second synod calls: “a pastoral of intelligence and of reason” which fosters a habit of rational dialogue and of critical analysis within the society and in the Church. Such a pastoral approach because, as the Synod fathers indicated: Relying on traditional religions and witchcraft is now undergoing a kind of rebound. Fears are back and they pave the way for benumbing subjection. Concerns regarding health, well-being, children, protection against evil spirits, prompt people from time to time to resort to some practices of African traditional religions that are contrary to the Christian teaching.

We can therefore understand the success of gurus and traders of miracles that abound in the African continent. E. Messi Metogo also points out that at this time, for many African people there seem to be a shortfall on reason and a longing of miracles and wonders which pave the way for magical practice and distorted use of prayer and of the sacraments. He adds that the proliferation of sects and the rising of popular credulity stream from religious ignorance.

In the perspective outlined above, serving the cause of human beings means serving the best that they possess in themselves, namely, faith and reason. These are two wings that enable the spirit to rise towards the contemplation of the truth (Pope John Paul II, Fides et Ratio, n° 1).This desire is not that of a more “intellectual” African Christianity. It is rather the advent of a Christianity which helps Africans to be responsible of their own destiny. It’s to work out a Christianity that helps Africans to understand that being saved does not simply mean to go to heaven. Christian salvation reaches humanity by the saving power of God through the death and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Surely, believers will enjoy salvation fully in heaven. But in the present time, salvation is brought to light in human history by Christians through their living out of the Gospel, in social, economical and political commitments.


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