A Second Betrayal -  Rev. Samson N. Gitau

A Second Betrayal

An article from the Living Church

The leadership of The Episcopal Church seems intrigued as to why the Global South Anglican leadership has failed to buy into Western revisionism. The Episcopalians seem equally intrigued as to why the “poor” Global South church leaders, faced with multiple problems like HIV/AIDS, malaria and education, to name a few, refuse to take foreign aid, or even worse, why they have returned aid already received prior to the events of the infamous 2003 General Convention.

The apparent intrigue is coupled with the failure of the Global South leaders to embrace the popular Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) warmly embraced by Episcopal Church leadership. In short, why is the Episcopal social gospel falling on the rocky side of the Global South leadership soil?

To understand the Global South’s reaction and rejection of the no doubt attractive social gospel propagated by The Episcopal Church, one has to go back to the planting of the church in the Global South, especially in Africa. By the turn of the 20th century, Christianity was hardly known in most of Africa. However, that does not mean that Africans were not religious. In fact, in the words of a well-known African writer, before the missionaries came, “Africans were notoriously religious.” Every aspect of African life was permeated with religion. The only area that the Africans remained uninformed was the person of Jesus Christ and his role of redemption.

The colonization of Africa also featured the entry of missionaries evangelizing the new-found world. Africans warmly embraced Christianity. The new faith filled the missing gap in their rich religious life. Converts abandoned their primitive ways and embraced the Western way of life with its religion. But as African Christians looked closely at the lives of their missionary converters, they noticed something much unexpected. The missionaries were inconsistent in what they preached and what they did. The missionaries did not love one another. They were literally fighting for converts and consequently dividing the communal-oriented African societies.

Even though the missionaries preached love for one another, they did not practice what they preached. As the saying goes, the missionaries “preached water, but drank wine.” This was figuratively as well as literally true. The missionaries also were reluctant to include the indigenous converts in the church leadership. In Kenya, for instance, the first Anglican assistant bishops were consecrated in 1955, more than half a century after Christianity had reached inland.

The problem of the missionary fights was so acute in some areas, especially in Kenya, that the colonial administrators had to step in and separate the fighting missionaries. Ramifications from these fights and ensuing separation continue to be felt in Kenya today. There are areas that are predominantly Roman Catholic, or Anglican, or Presbyterian, or Methodist.

The African fears regarding the contradictory behavior of the white missionaries were finally confirmed when the indigenous people read the newly translated scriptures for themselves. This was the turning point in African Christianity. The word of God was no longer the private possession of the white missionaries. It was God’s gift to the Africans.

The African Christians took ownership of the word of God seriously. They allowed themselves and their cultures to be informed, instructed and transformed by the scriptures.

Converts to Christianity abandoned such popular practices as polygamy, female genital mutilation, consultations with medicine men, and libations to ancestral spirits, among others. But the apparent contradiction by the missionaries between what they preached and what they practiced had consequences. African Christians felt betrayed. The missionaries’ reluctance to obey the word of God they preached, and their reluctance to include indigenous converts in church leadership led to the formation and proliferation of the so-called independent African churches. These churches broke away from the mainline churches. The locally founded churches coined new names that gave them their African identity such as “the African Brotherhood Church.”

So for the Global South, the saying is true, “once bitten, twice shy.” It must therefore not be a surprise to see the strong reactions from Global South Christians to Western revisionism. There is no doubt the church in the Global South can benefit from Western church aid. But issuance and receipt of such aid must be preceded by lives transformed by the gospel of Jesus Christ. In the absence of this transformation, such aid amounts to the social gospel of salvation by works.

This is what most of the Global South leadership is opposed to. For them, the Bible is either the true and liberating word of God or it is not. For Christians in the Global South, it is déjà vu. It is betrayal all over again. The fact is that once the word of God has been shown, the show-er no longer has control over it. As the prophet Isaiah puts it:

“For as rain and snow come down from heaven, and return not thither, but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth, it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purposed, and prosper in the thing for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:10-11).

History informs this issue. The Jewish religious leaders tried in vain to control and contain converts to Christianity. They couldn’t do it. Neither will the Western world. The tide has changed. The Global South has become the focus of Christianity just as it found focus with the gentiles in the Pauline era. Consecrations of bishops by Global South provinces and the planting of new Anglican congregations in America is just the beginning of things to come.

The Rev. Samson N. Gitau is the Episcopal chaplain at the University of Memphis, Memphis, Tenn.

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