Tradition or Christ?

These days, African traditionalism is developing some renaissance in African public life. From the role of traditional practices in communal ceremonies such as births, weddings and burials, Christians are confused as to where to draw the line. As Christians in Africa, we will be called to hold to the Supremacy of Christ above cultural practices that lessen and distort the work of Christ.

The Need for Discernment

The ability to draw a line is what the bible calls discernment. It is the spiritual gift to judge between right and wrong. The challenging reality is the loudening calls by African traditionalists speak to our deep need as Africans to anchor our sense of identity somewhere. Taken to an extreme, some Christians unknowingly engage in cultural practices in the name of tradition, ending up spiritually tying themselves to other covenants.

What is emerging in my observation, is a need to draw the lines on where we stand. This has been the long-standing practice of Christians of good conscience, children of God committed to the high value of the Word of God and the supremacy of Jesus Christ.

A friend of mine sent me a video that reminded me of the growing resurgence of traditionalists. The video was in the Kikuyu dialect, and it is a recorded speech of a Kikuyu elder in summary saying that we should silence Jesus Christ from our homes, churches and gatherings, because Christianity has been the cause of physical, mental and spiritual oppression for the country.

Kikuyu elders performing a traditional ceremony

My reactions after watching the video were twofold. 1) It is so sad how people are easily gullible, especially when they don’t discern what is said through the evidence of history or the claims of biblical Christianity; 2) The video revealed to me what is happening in our society, especially among our Gikuyu people, in regards to how the lines are being drawn. It is evident that in the coming days, people will have to be clear on where they stand. It is this last point which I see as the ongoing opportunity to preach the gospel clearly and defend it against falsehoods and traditions of various kinds.

The Claims of Traditionalists

The gentleman’s comments in the video could be reduced to various key points or assumptions that are usually raised by traditionalists against the gospel:

  1. It is the white man who brought “the foreign” religion of Christianity to Africa
  2. Because some used Christianity to oppress others, we should do away with Christianity
  3. The traditions of men (in this case, Gikuyu culture) is the way to find liberation.

I will give brief responses to these:

1) It is the white man who brought “the foreign” religion of Christianity to Africa

A simple study of the history of Christianity in Africa would silence such an ignorant claim. African people and places have played a critical role in the Bible and in Christian History. In the Bible, Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan play a prominent role in the redemptive story of Jesus Christ, which is the central narrative of the Bible. People like Queen of Sheba, Mark the Evangelist, Simon of Cyrene and many others, have played important roles in the Bible. In Christian history, the formidable theologians of the Church such as Origen, Tertullian, Augustine and Athanasius lived or were born in Africa. Saints such as Felicity and Perpetua, were also African. Christianity took shape in Africa before it was “transported” to other parts of the world, and African theologians have helped the global church in its theological maturity. Christianity has been rooted in African soil in history.

2) Because some used Christianity to oppress others, we should do away with Christianity

This assumption fails on two counts. First, it commits a fallacy of false cause. It confuses political oppression as arising from missionaries and not also considering the role of political colonizers, who had a separate agenda of colonialism. It is true that some colonisers engaged in cultural supremacy and did not consider the good side of African culture. Yet, it is important to distinguish between the 1900s mordern missionary enterprise, which was primarily an enterprise of spiritual evangelization; and the colonial enterprise, which was pmarily about political take-over. Zablon Nthamburi, exploring the complex history of mission, colonialism and Christianity in Kenya, says:

we ought to distinguish between the motives of merchants and traders and those of missionaries and philanthropists

Zablon Nthamburi, The Beginning and Development of Christianity in Kenya: A Survey, Dictionary of African Christian Biography.

Secondly, we should be able to pick the meat from the bones. Here is what I mean – one does not totally reject something merely because of the bad parts, but maturity and wisdom calls for being able to handle the bad in light of the majority good. Two examples – just because we know of doctors who are posers and have performed faulty surgeries, doesn’t mean we will never go to the hospital again! A second example is how we relate with our spouses. They (and we 🙂 ) are not perfect, but we choose to love them even with their imperfections. Thus, just because some used Christianity to oppress others does not mean we should reject it. Tied to this, we could add – what is central to Christianity is not perfect people (Christians) but a perfect saviour (Jesus Christ). Yes, his followers must be a people who are growing in Christlikeness. Yet, it is him to whom we must look at primarily, even as we look to his followers who are growing in perfection. We must be able to call Christians to consider their unjustices, without attributing these injustices to Jesus Christ. The two are separate issues.

3) The traditions of men (in this case, Gikuyu culture) is the way to find liberation

The recent push to go back to our roots, I think, is a question of identity. Where will the African (Gikuyu) man or woman find their ultimate sense of identity? This mzee and others suggest that we are to find our ultimate sense of identity in being Africans, or being Luo, or being Oromo, or being Shona or other African ethnic identity. But the message of the gospel has to do with finidng our identity in the redemptive work of Christ. The primary question that Christianity answers is how can we be reconciled to God? The answer it provides is that of a perfect saviour dying on behalf of imperfect people, thereby experiencing the consequences of sin (death and God’s wrath) so that we do not have to.

This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time.

1 Tim 2:3-5

It is through placing our faith in Jesus Christ that we are reconciled to a perfect God. Our ultimate identity therefore does not lie in traditions, which can never save anyone (1 Pet 1:18) – Peter actually refers to them as “futile ways” (ESV) that have no power to save. The Jewish traditions, important as they are to the New Testament understanding of what it means to be a Christian, were only shadows of the real substance we have in Christ (Col 2:17, Heb 9:13-14, Heb 10:1, 10:14). We can only find living hope through Jesus Christ, the sent one of God. Our primary identity as Africans, comes from a relationship with the Living and True God. As the westminster confession of faith says:

There is only one living, and true God, who is infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions; immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty, most wise, most holy, most free, most absolute; working all things according to the counsel of his own immutable and most righteous will, for his own glory; most loving, gracious, merciful, long-suffering, abundant in goodness and truth, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; the rewarder of those who diligently seek him; and in addition, most just and terrible in his judgments, hating all sin, and who will by no means clear the guilty.

Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 2.1

A Concluding Word

Lastly, I find the call to go back to traditions faulty on several counts. First, traditionalists pick and choose what practices we should return to, especially the practices they deem beneficial. What about the retrogressive taboo practices such as killing twins or albinos, or Female Genital Mutiliation or dabbling in witchraft. Second, if all African (Kenyan) ethnicities were to go back to their traditional gods, how many cultural practices then should be practiced in a particular church that is made up of people from different ethnicities? What would be the doctrine of God among this church, if different ethnicities have different doctrines of God? How would these Christians be united?

I think such claims from traditionalists should be repudiated as historically ignorant, retrogressive and biblically unaware. It is helpful for critiques of Christianity to first understand what Christianity teaches before they stand to refute it. If we are talking biblical Christianity, I think Africans stand a better chance of unity through faith in Jesus – for there is “neither Greek nor Jew”, Maasai or Luhya, Shona or Tigray in Christ (Gal 3:28-29) – It is only through Christ that different ethnicities can find unity, and it is only the worship of Christ that is truly multicultural and inclusive of every tribe, toungue and nation. However, these benefits of Christianity only come to those who turn away from their sin and look to Jesus Christ. That is the only way to finding true and lasting identity as Africans.

Yes, there is a place for naming practices that honor our cultural location, upholding of African values such as communality and respect of elders, and a holistic understanding that has been bequeathed through our African way of life. But these go hand in hand with biblical faith. Where African traditional cultural practices collide with biblical concepts such as sin, salvation, God, covenants, rituals or sacrifices, the answer to the question is simple.

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