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Vulnerable mission 4: theology in Africa

We’ve been talking about two global tensions, language and resources. Now, let’s look at one of Jim Harries’ case studies of how Western money and Western language conspire to prevent African realities from being addressed.

Western Kenyan people are renowned for their love for funerals and their fear of the sick and dying. Sick people can be almost deserted and abandoned as a result of this fear. Once the sick have died then friends and relatives crowd along to the funeral. Why is this? A Kenyan church leader was asked this question in my presence in 2009. ‘Because people fear being haunted,’ he explained. ‘If someone is very sick and suffering and perhaps at risk of dying, they may well be harboring bitterness or anger. The most likely people to become the targets of such feelings are not those who stay away, whom the sick person may not recall to memory at all. Rather, the most likely targets of such feelings are those who are nearby, yet fail to fully satisfy the wishes of the sick. It is therefore easy to reason pragmatically speaking that it is better to stay away from the seriously sick than to try and help them and then to be haunted.’ (page 86-87)

You’ve probably heard that African communities are concerned about spirits and the spiritual realm, but this isn’t just about forces ‘above’. The ‘physical’ and ‘spiritual’ realms are embedded in one another. As Harries tells it, Kenyan people often believe that the ‘heart’ of a person extends beyond their observable actions, so that the realm of ‘spirits’ and ‘gods’ includes forces emanating from people themselves. This fuels the kind of fear in the example above, fear that leads to sick people being abandoned. It is impossible to understand this problem un-theologically.

One possible solution is Western development: educating people about medical causes of illness, providing greater healthcare, and so on. However, because development tends to be ‘secular’, religion is often ignored, and there’s little acknowledgement of the spiritual realm that is central to Africans’ lives. Development acts as if there’s a theological vacuum, yet the underlying theological reality persists.

But the problem is worse than this. Because development provides external, non-African solutions to local African problems, development has the effect of slowing down African self-care. Because of this, development can be seen as perpetuating existing evils. While development can ‘compensate’ for destructive practices, it does not address the root causes — and this encourages bad practices to continue being fuelled by bad theology. Harries’ angle is stark and disturbing: development ‘subsidizes the practice of African religions’.

This example from Kenya is very much a theological problem, and it demands a theological response. Evil spirits must be starved, not placated!

Few would deny that ‘It is better to teach a man to fish than to give him a fish.’ Too few have realized that it is the gods/spirits/powers of Africa who are cutting open the fishing net and allowing the fish to escape, and that it is the almighty God who can intervene and enable African people to fish for themselves. (page 91)

And the theological response must ultimately be a local one, not an imported one. Western theology does not deal with the spirits, not these spirits at least. Western theology faces the same problem as development: it is only able to compensate for the surface-level effects of deeper causes. African theological problems must be unravelled from the inside. African theology is needed.

But Harries wants to take the questions further. If, as Harries indicates, it is a fallacy to search for equivalences across languages, then theology in anything other than an African language will face an uphill struggle to craft a fitting response, and even to accurately describe the problem. Western theological education means working in English, and this can only ever be an indirect way of addressing African theological problems. Harries is scathing:

The more European languages spread in today’s globalized world and the more they are used in Africa, the greater the likelihood of lies, deception, and misleading untruth (or half truth). (page 84)

What about African theologians who do write in English? I don’t believe that Harries is trying to tear down all English-language theology in Africa. (Stay tuned, because Tamie will be canvassing a couple of these important voices in the next few weeks.) But Harries wants to ask a very particular question: what is the most apt and direct way of addressing African realities? The answer may be, and sometimes must be, a non-English one. We need to be prepared to accept that reality, and to work within it. However — and I’ll return to this next time — it seems to me that Africa has become a more complex place.

This series explores the book Theory to Practice in Vulnerable Mission by Jim Harries. Vulnerable mission is a way of talking about working within the language and resources of another people.

Categories: Written by Arthur

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Arthur Davis

Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at

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