Reading Anastasia Boniface-Malle’s thesis about the absence of lament in Tanzanian Christianity exposed for me another plank in the theological foundations of prosperity theology, that is, the idea that God wants you to be happy and healthy, and that for the Christian this kind of victory is within your reach.
A key western critique of African talk of prosperity and victory is that it offers little to the many on the continent whose lives are far from victorious or prosperous. There is a theological hole to do with suffering, and the prosperity gospel has little to offer here. At worst it ends up blaming the poor for their lack of prosperity, as if it is their unfaithfulness or stupidity that has brought their suffering. In light of Boniface-Malle’s work, I wonder whether we need to ask about the origins of this imbalance. If a lack of lament was not characteristic of Tanzanian cultures prior to the arrival of western missionaries, but was present in the missionary culture, could the present day theology of victory have its roots in that received gospel? And if this is the case, is it not fair to say that the seeds of the prosperity gospel were sown by our own people?
It’s commonplace to cast the prosperity gospel as a recent import to Africa, beamed in by cable TV from American televangelists. But what if it’s not a new innovation, but instead the most recent example in a long line of imbalanced western theologies, with their neglect of lament, which allow victory to loom large? Think of your own church experience: how often does your church read lament Psalms, or sing songs of lament? For all our Aussie evangelical talk of suffering and persecution, we are pretty uncomfortable with strong negative emotions. When someone is sick, we express our care in activity more so than sympathy. The idea that this was characteristic of and imported by the early missionaries rings true for me. If lament is excluded, it’s not hard to see how victory becomes the driver of theology.
Even having identified such an imbalance in Tanzanian theology, westerners must resist the tendency to fix it. Instead, we must cultivate the following spiritual disciplines.
Firstly humility must temper our critique of African theologies. African theology is not incoherent, and we must not treat it as such. Each part of it is there for a reason, and even if there are deficiencies, these may be because of the failings of our own theology, or that of our forebears, more so than a superficiality on the part of Africans.
Secondly our methodology is in need of change. Teaching western theology while failing to see the value in African resources may be what got us into this problem in the first place. The solution cannot simply be for even more western input. Our theology is just as determined by our culture as anyone else’s, and we must build our awareness of that. Let us pull back from teaching as though our theology is ‘right’ or is what African needs.
Thirdly, let us also repent before our Creator God for missing his fingerprints, for in the case of lament, the western church could greatly have benefited from African traditions, and still stands to, if we have eyes to see.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.