What is the Christian life about?
Is it about success, and victory? The emphasis of the Tanzanian church on prosperity often comes from a conviction that God wants wholeness for his people, and brings healing to them by the power of the Holy Spirit, and the blood of Jesus.
Or is it about service, and suffering? It’s commonplace in the Aussie evangelical church to preach that persecution should be an expectation of the Christian, and that the Christian life brings suffering with it, because we serve a crucified Messiah. (Whether we practice this is another issue.)
I suspect the answer is paradoxical: victory in suffering, success as service, or something like that. But depending on who you talk to, and what parts of the Bible they’re reading, the Christian life can be about very different things.
I read a fascinating unpublished PhD thesis from the year 2000 recently, by a Tanzanian woman who studied in Adelaide, the late Anastasia Boniface-Malle. From her context in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Tanzania, she argued that one reason Tanzanian Christians have such a strong theology of victory is because they do not read the lament Psalms. This affects their view of God. He is too distant to lament to, and must be protected from complaint, so people are left with little recourse other than to turn to witchcraft, ancestors or mediums, or to imbue preachers with Godlike authority.
But here’s the kicker: Tanzanian religions prior to western missionary influence had strong traditions of lament. These frightened the early missionaries, who condemned them as signs of desperation and hopelessness inappropriate to Christians. Not only were African traditions of lament rejected, western embarrassment around lament generally meant they had nothing to put in its place, Christian or not. The Christian life was to be one of thanksgiving, and positivity, which was seen to be at odds with grief. Lament was given no place in Christianity in Africa, and people came to react strongly against it.
I questioned one of our colleagues about the lament Psalms. He agreed that thanksgiving is the appropriate attitude for the Christian, especially when before God. The lament Psalms have not been part of his church experience (in the African Inland Church), and he was very uncomfortable with the idea of bringing these kinds of emotions to God. When I suggested there may be overlap between African traditional religions, and the Bible’s laments, he said he could not comment: having been raised in the church, he was unfamiliar with these traditions, and there was little in his church experience that had given him familiarity with lament in the Bible. When pressed, he saw the issue with ignoring or overlooking (these) parts of the Bible in theory, but still suggested that we read the tone of anything that could be seen to be ‘complaining’ as instead wondering at the situation.
Boniface-Malle’s thesis examines the lament Psalms and bring them into dialogue with African lament traditions in order to enhance and illuminate reading of the Psalms of Lament. Whether the damage of the past can be undone remains to be seen, but what an important and possibly controversial work this thesis is! I don’t know what impact her recommendations have had on the ELCT but I wish it was published somewhere.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.