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The Stories We Live In – And Live Out

The Sacrifice of Africa and a new imagination for the church

We have recently launched a Warehouse reading group through which a group of us are exploring some of the thoughts of Emmanual Katongole in his book, The Sacrifice of Africa: A Political Theology for Africa. Katongole is a Ugandan priest and theologian who thinks and writes very insightfully about the impact of colonialism on Africa, with a particular focus on what this has meant and continues to mean for Christianity in Africa.

In the book, Katongole draws our attention to the fact that, while the continent of Africa contains huge (and growing) numbers of Christians, Africa continues to suffer under the weight of poverty, violence, oppression, corruption, trauma. We are burdened, just as Katongole is, with the question of how these realities can exist side by side? Surely the existence and size of the church should bring into being a better reality?

Katongole seeks to explore these questions by providing what I believe is a really helpful framework, allowing us perhaps to make sense of why such a prominent presence of the church is not resulting in the change that we might hope. He argues that churches have embodied one of three paradigms (not mutually exclusive) through which they view their role in society, each of which are rooted in a particular conceptualisation of what the problem is. These are:

The Spiritual Paradigm: This approach views “Christianity’s social impact in terms of spiritual influence and motivation” (p.33). Therefore, the major problem is seen to be a problem with the spiritual identity of the individual, and as such the solution is seen as a spiritual ‘rebirth’ which will go on to have an impact on the social sphere.

The Pastoral Paradigm: Within this approach, the major problem is seen to be the social ills impacting society, and therefore the solution takes the form of relief and development, and is fuelled by a deep humanitarian concern.

The Political Paradigm: This approach is characterised by “commitments to justice, democracy and human rights” (p. 38), and thus the church itself takes responsibility in participating within the political sphere in order to further these notions within the realm of the public. The major problem is identified as a problem with politics and governance, and thus the solution lies in things like mediation, advocacy and reconciliation.

According to Katongole, neither of these three responses are likely to bring about real transformation, largely because they all operate out of a story in which, while it may be able to effect change within them, the church is positioned outside of society and politics – a neutral and apolitical entity. In his words, “all three paradigms are based on the premise that Christianity is a religion – and therefore distinct from the realm of politics” (p.41). Neither of these paradigms recognise and acknowledge the story out of which Christianity in Africa was birthed and thus this story remains invisible, but with particular social consequences that are simply expressions of this origin story.

Katongole’s work in this book deeply explores the impacts of stories – the stories that we live by and have accepted, but are often invisibilised, and yet have far-reaching implications. An example of one of these such stories plays out in the reality of African nation-states; pieces of land with borders that have been imagined and constructed by humans, and yet which have become immovable and unquestionable stories that we live by and that inform all that we do. Katongole suggests that as followers of Jesus, our imaginations should not be bound to such stories, but that embodied in the Christian faith is the power to imagine, construct and live out new stories, for a more just world.

However, according to him, until the church recognises its true position in the story of power, politics and society in Africa, everything that we do will be within the framework of that story – one that we live in and live out — and thus little meaningful change is possible. For the church to employ its prophetic imagination to create a new story for Africa, and Christianity in Africa, it must first recognise the story that it is currently living in and part of. For as long as this story is made invisible by our perceived neutrality, we disempower ourselves from the possibility of imagining or creating anything different.

“…we need to discover the founding story of modern Africa, within which nation building and the nation-state project are inscribed. Only by attending to this story and displaying its performance can a new framework for doing Christian social ethics in Africa emerge” (p63).

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