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African Theology as a Theology of Liberation

African Theology as a Theology of Liberation

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This article discusses the methodological specifics of African theology. The author argues that, far from a cultural-fetishistic enterprise, African theology is by its core methodological identity is a theology of liberation.
This article discusses the methodological specifics of African theology. The author argues that, far from a cultural-fetishistic enterprise, African theology is by its core methodological identity is a theology of liberation.

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ZABLON NTHAMBURl

AFRICAN THEOLOGY AS A THEOLOGY OF LIBERATION In this paper it is my intention to explicate how African Theology is a theology of liberation and how it takes its point of departure from the existential situation of the African peoples. To do this, I shall endeavour to show what African Theology is, its origin, its point of departure and its criteria of adequacy. I shall also discuss relationship or kinship between African Theology and other theologies of liberation, especially Black theology in the United States and Southern Africa. What is African Theology? African Theology is born out of the African experience, African vision of the world and metaphysics, and takes seriously the cultures of the peoples of Africa. The ultimate purpose of this theology is to make Gospel and Christianity incarnate in the life and thought of Africa, hence African Theology is christian theology, moulded and expressed through African thought-forms and milieu. This is the recognition that theology must articulate and reflect on the concrete situations in which religious experience is perpetuated. It is the recognition of the people. The situation in Africa today is that of confusion. The majority of African peoples have entered a period of independent nationhood only since 1960. They are, therefore, struggling to make sense of this new era. In most of these countries, christians have been in the fore-front in the fighting for independence, at times, through violent struggle. It is clear, then, that their chief concerns are liberation and emancipation. Against foreign domination, Africans are searching for personality and authenticity. They want to determine their own destiny. Most of the countries in Africa are poor. Many people live under inhuman conditions. Because of this, ethnicism, nepotism, corruption, racism, exploitation are among the many evils that beset the society. What is the relevance of theology in such situations? It is against this background that African Theology has emerged as a theology of liberation making an attempt to address itself to this concrete and existential situation.
Rev. Zablon Nthamburi is a Methodist Minister from Kenya. His present address : P.O. Box 47635, Nairobi.

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. Not only is there a sociological difference between the two. and fraternal society — to the gift of the Kingdom of God" (2). In such a context. a theology of the liberating transformation of the history of mankind. just. social. is based on the biblical faith... Caught in such a dilemma. By ignoring the African existential reality and impudently claiming universalisai. the former speaks to the African soul in the way that the latter cannot. like western theology. For a long time western theology has been imposed on the Africans whose situation-in-life is so different from that of the western person. particularly Latin America liberation theology. Theology in this sense is a critical reflection on the conditions that have been imposed upon the oppressed by the oppressor: in our case. African Theology. Although African theology. It is a theology which is open — in the struggle against the plunder of the vast majority of people. western theology. furthermore. which openly confesses Christ. "Theology as critical reflection fulfils a liberating function for man. This kind of theology takes praxis as its point of departure. African Theology is expressed in categories of thought which arise out of the philosophy of African peoples. seeks liberation from the domination and imperialism of western . becomes not only irrelevant but anachronistic at best. a brotherhood among men." The struggle of the developing nations of Africa to escape the economic. just and humane society. political. Setiloane exclaims :233 ..theology. and in the building of a new.With other third world liberation theologies. in liberating love. the underprivileged in their historical situation. theology ceases to be a theory or a set of rules. Dr. As Gutierrezrightlyobserves. as presently applied in Africa. African theology uses the exploited condition of the third world as a point of departure. African scholars have expressed a desire to get behind the speculative character of western theology because of its inevitable dependence (rightly so for the west) on western culture and civilization. Gutierrez makes this point clear when he says:"It is for all these reasons that the theology of liberation offers us a new way to do theology.. It becomes a source of liberating power that addresses itself to the oppressed in their state of despair. the oppressed. the western imperialistic systems that exploit and maim the poor. and seriously enters the search for 'Logos' in the myths that surround the world of the poor. cultural and technological exploitation of the great powers are seen as an attempt by the oppressed to build a new. Theology as critical reflection on historical praxis is a liberating theology. there also exists cultural and philosophical differences as well.

Speaking on this context Jose Miguez Bonino asserts that:"In the Western tradition to which I belong. We go through this process in order to derive from it correct christian action in all realms of the life of the christian community. of such a process of theologizing. Since values and concepts are assumed or re-interpreted to fît in with the ideology of the powerful class.. theology engenders theology. the Bible is the collection of such visitations of God to his people in different conditions. Such a collection is the theological norm that we have. What African theology attempts to do is not to reject the theological heritage which has accumulated in western Christianity. we can claim that Theology cannot be faithful to the Word of God in Jesus Christ unless it participates in the existential context of the community in which it is born."The Greek-Roman thought-forms and modes of expression of western theology are the "swaddling clothes" that we need to tear open in order to get to Christ. Now if we see theology in this way. but seeks for freedom to search for new meanings which are relevant to our new concerns. this gives them an added power of domination. We are smothered to death by western theologies which to us are human fabrications. a fair assessment of the Southern Africa situation where the Dutch Reformed Church theologically justifies and condones apartheid as legitimate and as God-ordained.. If I may put it in a simplistic way. explicating and possibly vindicating the correct doctrine.. and if we follow this procedure. We would not be far from the truth to claim that the development of theological reflection in the west had something to do with the colonial expansion of the west.. and we should pay attention to the character of this norm" (5). and sometimes with the use of philosophical categories. changing fashon daily. if any. This is certainly. It is a process aimed at determining. In short. So if we find that we cannot use the tools of western theology. we have consciously to seek others" (3).. For "the African theologian who has experienced the agonies of having a burning appetite but nothing to eat will surely theologize differently on the theme of food from the American theologian who knows the discomforts of having a plate full of steak but no appetite" (4). seeking its norm in the acts of God in history. African theology must be freed from the inhibitions handed down from past generations. on the basis of a study of the scriptures and the Tradition. a fact that should make us pause is that in the Scriptures we find very few instances.. theology begets theology. 234 .

Gustavo Gutierrez says that the church's activity should be "addressed effectively and primarily to those who are oppressed in the nations and not — as is presently the case — to the beneficiaries of a system designed for their own benefit. Relationship with the Black Theology in U. it is liberated from all that has manipulated and dominated it through the ages. "Theology is the community's continued attempt to define in every generation its reason for being in the world" (6). The question which is being asked today is whether Black theology and African Theology are related. through Jesus Christ. It does this because it realises that. (Italics mine). The marginated and the dispossessed still do not have their own voice in the church of him who came to the world especially for them" (10). The liberating of theology in the African context presupposes the liberation of the Gospel from cultural and historical impotence which in effect means the liberation pf the church from its captivity. There are similarities as well as differences between the two liberation theologies.A. in faithfulness to God.S. Or still better. then. For her. This contextualization takes the concrete locaTsituation seriously. Rosemary Ruether discovers the impotence of Western Christianity as imported to other countries when she notes that the integration of Christianity with imperial ideology and society made non-European peoples identify Christianity with Greco-Roman and European imperialism (7). By obstinately persisting in reflecting on the African cultures and histories from the vantage point of their own history and culture (or from western Christendom) they lose its intrinsic meaning. African theology maintains that theology can have no real impact on the lives of people unless. In this sense. African Theology is rooted in a concrete. the "third world" countries accurately perceived the true character of this Christianity as a wolf in sheep's clothing and as the ideology of European colonialism" (8). Let me here make it 235 . this is the basic apostacy of this type of Christianity which she calls "Constantinianism" and which she interprets as the "suppression of the messianic symbols of the Gospel to baptize the empire. Because of this. the oppressed themselves should be the agents of their own pastoral activity. particular situation.What is here stated precisely is that theology must be contextualized in order to have meaning. This is explicitly stated by professor John Mbiti when he describes African Christianity as "developed in the context of a false cultural inferiority" (9). African theology must protest against the prevalent ideologization of faith by the western theology.

To the black community.clear that there is Black theology in Southern Africa which has been developed through the influence of Black theology in U.A. Since Jesus was on the side of the oppressed over-against the oppressor. God must be black. To speak of him is to speak of the liberation of the oppressed" (19). and as such. "To be in sin is to be contented with white solutions for the 'black problem' and not rebelling against every infringement of white being on black being" (17).S. The Southern Africa situation is different from that of the rest of the continent. According to Cone sin is attributed to the white community only. God's chosen people. A black South African under the rule of force. Let me try to draw attention to James Cone's important concepts to which African Theology would easily subsrcibe. Cone lays great emphasis on Exodus and identifies black people with Israel. whites are not permitted to participate in the development of Black Theology. Black theology has entered southern Africa through the influence of James Cone. Cone identifies the blacks with the oppressed of the land. for the weak and against the strong (16).. According to Cone. He castigates two 236 . "Yahweh is the God of the oppressed and downtrodden and his revelation is made known only through the liberation of the oppressed" (11). economic and social structures of the society. and is rooted in a concrete situation. He has no future hence he tries to find meaning in his existence. sin means the desire to be white or behave as white. apartheid and a hundred and one unjust laws. Thus he writes. He compares his situation to that of a black American under the state of powerlessness and poverty. He goes on to say. In so far as God liberates them and no other. This is because they do not share the same experience of suffering as black people do. police brutality. it is a theology that is bom out of human experience. It is the refusal to be what they are. "He must be where men are enslaved. In such a situation black theology as explicated by James Cone makes a lot of sense. "Black Theology cannot accept a view of God which does not represent him as being for blacks and thus against the rich. because far from being mere intellectualism or sophistry. for the weak against the strong.. feels that his humanity is thus denied. "To know God is to know his activity of liberation. which in effect means the destruction of their whiteness in order to create blackness (18). His revelation is only for the oppressed of the land" (12).. In connection with Israel's liberation from Egypt he writes. This leads to his contention that God is against white. God's love for white people means wrath. an emancipation from the political.

Major James and Joseph Washington are quite moderate in their exposition of Black theology. a universal truth which would be applicable to all people who are willing to share the African experience. DeOtis Roberts. My criticism of the American Black Theology is that it dwells too much on the sufferings of the past under which black man has emerged. As Dr. theoretical-philosophical or ideological area of life than in the socio-political. I am aware that not all black theologians would subscribe to his views. African Theology tries to discover the selfhood of the African person as he participates in the task of reconciling the World of God. and is. the Africans appear to come at it in a more relaxed way. Gabriel Setiloane puts it:The difference between American Black Theology enthusiasts and the Africans is that the Americans do their theologising in the dust and heat of political warfare. both are born out of similar concrete situations. African Theology has the same point of departure with Black Theology in that. Unlike Cone. whereas we can claim to work in an atmosphere of physical freedom and comparative calm. as presently known in Africa has come mainly through Cone as its major exponent. of being dispossessed and essentially denied the very livelihood that human beings strive for. African Theology is not meant exclusively. I would wish to concentrate on his views in this regard. Therefore. In both the situation is that of suffering. They are both theologies that are born out of frustration and both try to make christian truths comprehensible to the oppressed. In giving my critique to Black theology as explicated by Cone. We feel the encroachment of the west or white man more in the cultural. But since black theology. Its uniqueness only lies in the fact that it is born out of a concrete situation of the black man in Africa. for the African peoples. therefore. hence their militancy and impatience.whites who had attempted to write on Black Power. "Who do they think they are. 237 . taking into account African philosophy and culture. It is the contention of African Theology that it sheds lights on God's truth. pontificating about their brutality against us as if they have a relevant word about black community?" (20).

"Harambee" (team work). in point of fact. The emphasis here is on communal development which takes into account the extension of family life. African Theology does not romanticise the African peoples today. It appeals to the African people to overcome their servant mentality. African Theology is in this respect. The community makes and produces the individual. The emergence of such new terminology as "Ujamaa" (pragmatic socialism). This is the reason why many Africans see western Christianity as a collaborator with colonial and neo-colonial power structures that have enslaved them in their own world. therefore. elitism. The African is enslaved by his own thinking and mental attitudes more than any outside power. It is the temptation to assert one's individualism to the detriment of the community. The individual. it must also show a concern for the oppressor. suffering is not the whole of black experience. It recognizes that the most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed. Sin in the African Theology. It is self-centredness over against other-centredness. therefore lam. It is the attempt to split reality into religious and secular. The individual has no existence of his own apart from the community's. Africans for the same reason reject a colonial mentality which is coupled with economic and political structures that are designed and intended to impoverish developing nations and create conditions of conflict and unrest. master/servant. and "Négritude" indicate that the yearning of the people is to go back to the kind of socialism that characterized unity in diversity. dualism between haves and have-nots.Although this is a good starting point for a theology of liberation. It is not only racism we need to be liberated from: our focus of attention. should be liberation from classism. African theology recognizes that in seeking liberation from oppression and degradation. powerful and powerless. the breach of friendship 238 ." It is necessary to understand this African doctrine of man before we talk about sin. "I am because we are. The oppressor also needs to be liberated from his role of being an oppressor to a life of reconciliation in love. this-worldly and other-worldly. is losing sight of this corporate nature of life. Sin is the "absence of brotherhood and love in relationships among men. and since we are. 'white Church'. Just as Cone rejects 'white God'. can only say. 'White Jesus'. This type of structure emphasizes corporateness as against individualism. African communities are closely knit together by a web of relationships and other social structures. sacred and profane. akin to liberation theology of Latin America in that it takes the class struggle seriously.

108. in the domination and slavery of peoples. p.Β Lippincott Company. white or yellow oppressor and oppressed alike. Liberation Theology. therefore. (9) The Gospel and Frontier Peoples. (2)Ibid. It is evident. 136. black. 91.C. 1970) p. the masters and exploiters. p.26). (II) James Cone. Pierce Beaver. This is the same as the desire to be like God. 12.p 196 (18) Ibid.214 (17). therefore. (12) Cone. 271. that sin is not a peculiarity or domain of one type of people. Wm.1972. p. (6) James Cone. (21) Gabriel Setiloane. Ed. easily identifiable with the dominant people. WSCF Books. i) p. Carey Library. A Theology of Liberation. W. personal fracture" (23). 239 . Anderson & Stransky (New York. (14) Ibid. "Theological Impotence". A Black Theology of Liberation. African theology characterises the root cause of sin as the usurpation of power. Toronto. 131.p. 175. Asman contents that. p. Spring 1973). 130. 132. A Black Theology of Liberation. (22) John Mbiti. op. p. 3: Third World Theologies. Violence and Reconciliation^ (Dialog.9. Mission Trends No. p. p. (To be continued in next issue) FOOTNOTES (I) Gustavo Gutierrez.l3. 1973). 1975 Vol. 1973) p. Sin is evident in oppressive structures. Gutierrez.138 (19) Ibid. (5) Jose Miguez Bonino. (8) Ibid. p. 69. (3) Quoted by David J. an interior.15. 176. (13) Ibid. 1. 0p. cit. 81. suspicion and alienation. p. (New York.. to judge and rule over the world like God. "True critical reflec­ tion does not exist without reference to a given situation or praxis'* hence a theology which does not take praxis seriously is theology in the sense of reflection from within. About Black Theology. 1972).p. It affects all mankind. 9.p. the oppressors. 215. " i t is theology of preambles of faith.with God and with other men.. nevertheless.30-31. vol. no. ed.1973. (20) Ibid. Pasadena. (10) Gutierrez.(15) Ibid. While recognising that all people are sinners. It is.C. p. (S.p. Calif. Paulist Press. and. (7) Rosemary Ruether.12.. races and social classes.11. 2. theology of the Thought-out* faith. in "A New Look at Christianity in Africa**. p. Toronto: Paulist Press. New York. The Struggle of the Poor and the Church. 195. (16) lbid.. African Religions and Philosophy. (23) G. No. 2." (RISK Vol. (Journal of Religion in Africa. p. Bosch in Currents and Crosscurrents in South African Black Theology. the desire to dominate others. (Maryknoll. Black Tbeolony on Revolution. in the exploitation of man by man. Paramus. p. Heinemann 1969. p. xvii No. Jan. cit. 10. in "The Ecumenical Review** (Geneva.38). R. 1976) p. Philadelphia & New York: J. Ramsey. vol vi fase. (4) John Mbítí. Sin crédites hostility.

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