Recently, I was able to put down my thoughts about what the Good News (a U.S. advocacy group within The UMC) meeting in Nairobi means and reminds me of.
In 2008 while I lived in Dallas, I had the opportunity to see firsthand the General Conference and how delegates navigate through its businesses. Since I was not a delegate, I pretty much went to see what each group was doing: Good News breakfast, Reconciling Ministries Network, and the African Central Conferences delegation.
I was surprised to witness gift donations taking place. For instance, Good News donated cell phones to many delegates from African conferences. Some of the people did not understand why they were given cell phones. Through some leaders among delegations, those from Liberia, DRC, and Angola were the among the coordinators of this machine. Similar events took place in Tampa, and worse happened in Portland during the 2016 General Conference, where a WhatsApp group was created, and Good News would tell delegates how they would vote on each issue, including the Palestinian Christians petition.
The interesting thing is, each time before Annual Conference session in several African Annual Conferences, Good News would send someone to speak and tell people how they should vote. These things happen without any discussion on the things brought forward. In addition, this week, leaders from various African countries were invited to attend an event in Nairobi, Kenya. This event was called Africa Initiative UMC: Prayer and Leadership Summit. While the title suggests something initiated by Africans, it is something organized and sponsored by a U.S.-based caucus group. The intent: let’s tell them how to vote during the special General Conference 2019.
One then asks, while U.S. groups come to tell some African delegates and leaders what they need to support, when do our leaders ask U.S. groups to make priority the issues African church contexts are facing? When would Good News come to listen the challenges facing Zimbabwe with oppressions or the DRC with political instability and how the church can be an agent of peace and stability? Or why isn’t African migration, both internal within the continent and beyond, not included in an African summit? Or how about climate change, the consequences of which affect much of the African population? Good News is a U.S. group using African UMC leaders to manipulate many of our laity and clergy, because they fear if they question things our leaders allow, they may get in trouble.
We need to remember that the African church started growing even during colonialism because our own African Christian leaders began to question European imperialism. Like Kimbungu in the DRC, Harris in Western Africa, and many others. The collusion between western missionaries and the colonialists hindered the proclamation of a holistic gospel among our ancestors.
The fact that European Christians during colonialism overlooked some aspects of the gospel and favor only spirituality caused serious damage for generations. Not only does overlooking some dimensions of the human experience pose serious problems to the Christian community, but such an act does affect the way Christianity is perceived by many around the world. For instance, many people in the continent of Africa and some parts of Asia over many decades have thought of Christianity as a western tool to conquer the world through militarism and colonialism. While this assumption does not present the whole reality that took place several decades ago, it has left observers to wonder why Christians who were moved by love, compassion and zeal to see the whole world avoid “hell” would close their eyes when their countrymen and women slaughtered children, women, and the most vulnerable where colonialists occupied.
It is important to note that there are also stories of western missionaries who stood against colonialism, slave trade, racial discrimination and apartheid, but the media has not popularized these stories. Some of these persons did preach against slavery, colonization, or apartheid to the point of sacrificing their own lives. These brave and compassionate Christians did so for the love of the people they were called to serve and be in ministry with. A good example is that of the Anglican priest Fr. Trevor Huddleston, a British missionary to South Africa, who continually opposed and challenged the brutal treatment of majority black South Africans until he was kicked out of the country.
However, the sad story of Christianity is that the majority of missionaries did not seem concerned that their governments brutally mistreated, tortured, and eventually killed the local people without the missionaries condemning such acts of violence. In fact, in some places Christians misused the Bible to justify the mistreatment of others based on their skin color or ethnic background. The reason why many Christians did not stand up against such violence is that they did not view the gospel as a means to address injustice and oppression. The gospel for them was simply a spiritual tool that had to address the people’s spiritual life. In my view, this is similar to the technique the Good News U.S. group is using to manipulate many African delegates. The African contexts have their own social concerns that the church needs to address, and this should be the focus of African leaders getting together, not some U.S. groups with the intent of using financial resources to manipulate others. African leaders who engage in international gatherings should use that platform to raise questions about the western foreign policies that are inhumane, like sanctions imposed upon different countries that affect millions of innocent people.
It seems to me some are using The United Methodist Connection to reintroduce colonialism, whereby religion this time goes ahead of militarism. We have seen this in Uganda, for instance, where the Uganda Parliament had a group of U.S. evangelicals tell Ugandan MPs how they should craft the laws of their land. It is humiliating to see our leaders, for purely self-interests, make it a priority to do what a religious group from another country wishes them to do. These events in The UMC and among other African countries should concern all of us Africans.
Jehu Hanciles has written about how western mission organizations over the years, especially during the colonial period, have had similar intent: that of dominating local peoples. There are reports of European mission organizations advocating for the increased of the presence of European government authorities and troops. One example is the Wesleyan Methodist Missions superintendent who is remembered most for his statement with regard to the idea that God was wedded to the British military. He notes, “I should consider myself worse than despicable if I failed to declare my firm conviction that the British Army and Navy are today used by God for the accomplishment of his purposes” (Porter 1977).
Similarly, the Mozambican experience is one sad example of this marriage between the Christian church and the colonialists. Here the Portuguese missionaries made it an obligation for the local people to learn Portuguese language, important Portuguese events and history, and Portuguese culture. When one examines the conquista system used by the Portuguese, one realizes that the Christian Church and state (colonialists) were tied together with the conquista ideology (John Wesley Kurewa 1997). What this means is that they were civilizing the Mozambicans, whom they thought did not have any culture and tradition and referred to as an “inferior race” (Bengt Sundkler & Christopher Steed 2000). African people were considered uncivilized and backward. So, evangelism meant both civilizing the people and introducing them to a new religion.
I am afraid that religion is again used to take away the power of our people. What is happening in The UMC, particularly with the Good News U.S. group, mirrors many ways in our history how our people’s power was taken away because of religious zeal.
We are to learn from the brave and courageous African Christian leaders who preached a prophetic message that challenged the colonial powers. It was this awakening by African Christians that began the rapid growth of Christianity throughout the continent. The message preached by African prophets in independent churches considered the social and political realities. The African people regarded their fellow preachers as prophets and liberators. They viewed the preachers as persons who came to announce the gospel in its fullness by addressing issues in their context and questioning their sufferings in light of the gospel. Their preaching emphasized hope through God’s intervention and liberation from the oppression of which they were the victims. This was the time for Africans to respond to Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” as Recinos puts it in his book entitled Who Comes in the Name of The Lord? Their response was based on the current cultural, social, economic, and political situations that they were experiencing (Recinos 1997).
I think today, our sisters and brothers from the mother continent should answer the question for themselves, considering our own socio-economic, political, and religious realities. We can do this without anyone coming to tell us what to do. African delegates: use the power of vote you have to address issues of the people back home, to challenge international systems that impoverish our people, and to do mission in our own contexts without being the scapegoat for U.S. groups fighting. Draft your own petitions to bring forward that speak for African contexts and the ways our people suffer the consequences of western governments and how The UMC should make us a priority.
Photo credit: Great Plains UMC
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