A notable absence in my recent discussions of Tanzanian theology has been the atonement. I asked questions about this way back in 2013 but it has not featured much since then.
Atonement in terms of forgiveness of sin is preached in Tanzania in two contexts. First, we have observed it in evangelistic rallies or door-to-door evangelism. The mechanism for becoming ‘born again’ or ‘saved’ (kuokoka) is forgiveness of sins. The second way we’ve seen it is related, in terms of re-commitment after grave sin (which may have resulted in shunning from the church).
However, it is not forgiveness of sins which animates the Christian life. Instead, you hear a lot about the uniqueness of Christ, his enabling and power, hope, and perseverance.
These are also linked to the atonement. Here are three ways in which I’ve noticed it.
The first is of Jesus as Perseverer. His endurance under extreme suffering is an example to us all. He is the one who obeyed unswervingly. The forces of darkness threw everything at Him, and He did not succumb to them. He overcame them, never despairing (-kata tamaa) or losing hope, despite the most extreme circumstances. Clearly, He was stronger than them.
What does this perseverance actually achieve though? This is where the second theme comes in.
Jesus is Mediator. Jesus’ perseverance makes him a worthy advocate before the Father. His death is ‘for you’ in the sense that His faithful suffering qualifies Him to come before the Father, and the Father is pleased with Him. If you are joined with Christ, and He is acceptable to the Father because of His obedient suffering, you have an advocate who will not be denied or turned away.
Is it therefore only Christ’s suffering that qualifies Him? Does his death in particular have efficacy? The blood of Christ – ‘damu ya Yesu’ – is definitely a strong theme, present in many song lyrics, both in cherished hymns translated from English originals, as well as Swahili mapambio and songs. It’s a source of power to be invoked in your life, similar to ‘jina la Yesu’ (the name of Jesus) — although I’m not sure about the extent to which it overlaps with that or is distinct from it. It often comes up in the context of asking for protection in life e.g. on the roads. It’s also the thing that washes you clean (Damu yako itatakasa, ‘Your blood will cleanse’), a purifying force that I suspect is connected to the idea of freeing you from impurities or evil that holds you captive (Damu yako Bwana wa Nguvu inaweza yote, ‘Your blood, Lord of Power, is able for all things’).
Check out this song:
Kijito cha utakaso ni damu ya Yesu (The cleansing river is the Blood of Jesus)
Bwana anao uwezo kunipa wokovu (The Lord has the authority to grant me salvation)
Viumbe vipya naona, Damu ina nguvu (I see new creations, the Blood is powerful)
Imeharibu uovu, uliyo dhulumu (It has destroyed the evil that harms)
In each of these lines, notice that Jesus is One who acts on our behalf or whose power can be accessed, but He is rarely a substitute. In my tradition, Christ’s substitution is prominent. When Jesus asks, ‘My God my God why have you forsaken me?’, He is forsaken that we might not be. For Tanzanians, this moment is perhaps more a sign of how great Christ’s suffering was, than an effective change in His status. In this sense, Christ is less often the one who was cursed in our place so we might not be cursed, and more the one who persevered through suffering so that curses can be overcome.
Categories: Grassroots theology Tanzania Written by Tamie
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.
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