The African Church, Conflict Resolution and Reconciliation

The African Church, Conflict Resolution and Reconciliation

Charles Villa-Vicencio*

We live on a continent torn apart by conflicts, externally imposed and internally generated, that have threatened to destroy the very fabric of African identity.  I pose two simple and yet complex questions concerning the promotion of conflict resolution and reconciliation:  When and how ought the church to intervene in a way that is most likely to maximise the impact of healing and reconciliation in Africa?

The when question concerns timing. Conflict resolution and reconciliation are rarely things that simply happen.  They are more likely to occur as a result of a consciously chosen intervention at a consciously chosen time. The Book of Ecclesiastes tells us “there is an appointed time for everything and a time for every affair under the heavens.” (Ecclesiastes 3:1).

Theologically we use the Greek word Kairos, meaning a decisive, opportune and appointed time.  In the words of the South African Kairos Document , this is invariably “a  dangerous time because, if this opportunity is missed and allowed to pass by, the loss for the church, for the Gospel and for all the people of [the nation] will be immeasurable.” Jesus wept over Jerusalem because the people at the time did not recognise the opportunity when God offered it.

Kairos Moments

Consider briefly two significant and too easily forgotten historic kairos moments in the global and African church, as a basis for assessing the current shape and character of the Christian witness in African today. 

 The one  kairos moment concerned the World Council of Churches’ Programme to Combat Racism (PCR), established in 1970 to eradicate racism around the world where it was subtly imbedded, and more specifically to eradicate statutory racism in South Africa, in Namibia and what was then Rhodesia.  

My first encounter with the Ecumenical Movement and the African church beyond the Limpopo River came a few years later, when I was a young, unexposed, white South African pastor.  I attended a meeting in Nairobi that was arranged by the World Council of Churches’ (WCC) Programme to Combat Racism (PCR).  There I met with Baldwin Sjollema and Jose Chapinda, the general secretary and assistant general secretary of the PCR.  A year or two later I met Paul Boateng who was involved in the PCR programme.  The PCR was a brave and difficult intervention into society.  It had huge support from the victims of racism around the world, while threatening to destroy the unity of the global church, not least when the programme decided to provide funding for humanitarian purposes to those who had decided to take up arms against the South Africa military machine in South Africa and Namibia and the that of the Smith regime in what was then Rhodesia.

On that same visit to Nairobi, I met John Gatu, the moderator of the Presbyterian Church in East Africa who, a year after the establishment of the PCR called for a moratorium on missionaries to Africa.  This, I suggest, was a second kairos moments in the church.  “[Our] present problems,” Gatu explained, “can only be solved if all missionaries can be withdrawn in order to allow a period of not less than five years for each side to rethink and formulate what is going to be their future relationship. . . . The churches of the Third World must be allowed to find their own identity, and the continuation of the present missionary movement is a hindrance to this selfhood of the church.”   Gatu’s proposal was formally adopted by the All Africa Conference of Churches at its Lusaka meeting in 1974 – although never fully implemented. 

These two interventions, the founding of the PCR and moratorium on missionaries sent waves of discontent throughout the ecumenical world.  It was a theological equivalent of a tsunami, the effects of which continue to be felt in the African church.

The combined effect of the declared social justice mandate of the PCR and AACC  moratorium on missionaries led to the respected ecumenist, Bishop Steven Niell and others, asking whether the church had lost its sense of direction.   The upheaval also resulted in the German missiologist, Peter Beyerhaus and others producing the Frankfurt Declaration on The Fundamental Crisis in Christian Mission, which spoke of a fundamental crisis in the life of the church.  It rejected the attention given by the churches to socio-political concerns, stressing the need to focus in an exclusive sense on the spiritual salvation which comes through Christ alone.    John Scott and colleagues, in turn, produced what became known as the Lausanne Covenant, signed by 2,300 evangelicals at the International Congress on World Evangelization in Lausanne, Switzerland, which stressed salvation as coming only through the uniqueness and universality of Christ.  It urged people to turn to Christ alone for salvation, rejecting all forms of what it called syncretism and dialogue with other religions and ideologies.  At the same time, it affirmed a strong emphasis on social justice, stressing the need for liberation from every kind of oppression and freedom from all forms of exploitation.  Theologians, missiologists, church leaders and others joined the fray. Among these was  Mar Osthathius, a Syrian-Orthodox churchman and scholar who described the Lausanne Covenant in his Christian Mission in a New World,  as a “liberal expression” of evangelism, arguing that “interior freedom” is only half of God’s salvation for humankind, which the love of neighbour brings to completion.  Dawid Bosch, a South African Dutch Reformed missiologist joined forces with Osthathius, arguing that the Lausanne Declaration suggests a dichotomy (what he called a “double mandate”) between “the word spoken and the word made visible in the lives of God’s people,” that contradicts the holism of the New Testament.   This, Osthathuis and Bosch argued, needed to be repudiated as “a demonic attempt to drive a wedge between evangelism and social concern.”[1]

The debate continued in ecumenical and evangelical circles for some time to come and suffice it to say, this is a debate that unsettles the soul of the African church still today. At times it manifests itself in subtle divisions.   At other times the debate manifests itself in a robust and divisive way, not only with regard to social concerns but also concerning issues of culture and what some see as unwarranted forms of syncretism.  Some see these issues as undermining the heart of the gospel; others see them as a legitimate attempt to understand the theological meaning of a God who empties himself into all of creation.   (See the appendix to this paper.)

 An important theological question (which we may want to address in our group discussions) involves the theological, moral and political indicators that ought to influence and shape our interventions in conflict resolution and reconciliation in society. A second question involves an assessment of the impact of the PCR and mission moratorium.  To what extent has the church in Africa taken these initiatives seriously, and to what extent is the church today different from the church that persuaded the leaders of the church in the 1970s and 80s to call for the reforms and interventions that they did?   

And, to what extent have ‘other kairos moments’ built on these endeavours?  Consider, for example,  the South African Kairos Document in 1985, followed by the Belhar Confession and similar confessions, a statement of confession by Rwandan Christians in 2008 and  the Palestinian Kairos Document of 2009.  And meeting as we are in Ethiopia, what do we make of the recent appeal by Orthodox Christians, Muslim, Catholic and Evangelical Christians appealing for an amnesty for those convicted for crimes committed under Derg rule, some twenty years ago?  History has judged some of these initiatives to be kairos moments.   The jury is still out on others.  Each of these and other statements and confessions  are, however,  worthy of reflection, recognising the need to define what constitutes a meaningful confession of faith and a kairos response to a situation within which the church is called to be true to the gospel of Christ.

We have spoken about the timing of an intervention. When is the right time for the church to intervene on a particular issue in society?  Timing is often (maybe always) controversial. It requires a willingness to accept the consequences of our intervention – and ultimately it necessitates us being open to the criticism that it evokes – allowing time itself to tell us whether our intervention was of God and whether we have been prepared to endure in our endeavours, honour our commitments and allow those convictions that inspired our interventions to bear fruit and grow.

Mission of the Church

Bearing in mind some of the concerns of critics of the PCR and moratorium,  a question we need to ask ourselves is, how can we ensure that the church speaks to the needs of our time without reducing itself to a narrow political agenda?

An appropriate response to this question requires a reflection on the teaching of the incarnation. We talk in the Christian tradition of kenotic Christology, taken from the Greek word kenosis, to speak of God emptying himself, in order to take on a human form as described in Paul’s Letter to the Philippians: “… [God] emptied himself, taking the form of a slave. Being born in human likeness …” In order to reveal himself to humankind in first century Palestine, God became a first century Palestinian Jew. God adapted, reduced and incarnated himself in the world.  This suggests that a contextual gospel in Africa necessarily needs to reflect an African ethos and to address the challenges of the African continent.

But what is this ethos and identity – and what are its needs? The South African author Zakes Mda suggests that “African identity” and talk of “African unity” is a recent phenomenon.  Mda argues that, “until about 100 years ago the inhabitants of the continent did not generally refer to themselves as Africans … They recognized and celebrated various identities that were based on ethnicity, clan, family, gender and class. They at the same time recognised their human identity as their core identity. That is why they called themselves Abantu or Khoikhoi and other names that designate and validate their humanity in the various languages of the continent.” Africa, suggests Mda, is “an identity-in-the-making.”  It is an identity that draws on a plurality of ingredients, cultures, religions, practices and rituals with roots that go deep into an African past and that come from across the seas.[2]  The challenge facing the church is whether it has the will and the capacity to proclaim a gospel that is relevant to and capable of being heard and responded to in this changing situation.

Consider this challenge in relation to recent African history.  The dawn of African independence required the church to reclaim aspects of its pre-colonial identity and to prepare itself for a new African dawn.   Facing the  challenges that this involved, Kwame Nkrumah insisted that we seek first the political kingdom and all else will follow, insisting that without taking control of our own affairs, freedom, development and progress will not be realised.  The successes and failure of Nkrumah aside, I am intrigued by the extent to which  some church leaders were offended by Nkrumah’s words, seeing them as a subtle form of blasphemy. Still today, some Christians lose sight of the sense of African renewal that Nkrumah brought to the continent and his role in the establishment of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), focusing only on his political decline as an African leader.  Some attribute this to his alleged rejection of the Christian faith that gave him birth, although others argue that his political career was shaped by a blend of Christian, African and Marxist thinking. Suffice it to say, Nkrumah’s “African personality”, Leopold Senghor’s “Negritude” and Julius Nyerere’s “African socialism” and  theintellectual thought of other Africanists have left a bold influence on African thinking,  including theological thought.

In proposing a moratorium on missionaries and mission work, John Gatu was effectively making a call not dissimilar to that of Nkrumah – although his focus was the church.   Gatu called for an African theological vision, a new ecclesial agenda and the proclamation of a gospel that emptied itself of colonial ideas.  This needed to be a gospel that incarnated itself in Africa and one that addressed the needs of the African continent.

Gatu’s call was, of course, within the time of a fledgling African independence. African identity and African needs had to be prioritised.  At the same time,  he was aware that the church could not afford to reduce its message to that of political rhetoric.  It could not allow the voice of God to be reduced to a voice of partisan passion, self-interest and narrow forms of nationalism.  This was an underlying concern of those who were troubled by what they saw as the direction of the church in the 1970s, and those who signed the Lausanne Covenant.

Africa has, of course, always produced its prophetic voices – even in its darkest moments, in Uganda, Nigeria, Rwanda, Zimbabwe, South Africa and elsewhere.  The church has, however, in too many instances also allowed its voice to be reduced to the voice of constricted nationalism and sectarian self-interest. This has been the case in South Africa where prophets were often rejected by their own churches, in the Rwandan genocide, in Ethiopia and elsewhere. Far too often it has also opted out of the political realm, offering an other-worldly gospel that contradicts the centrality of the incarnation to the Christian faith.

Speaking to the people of Africa, including the church, former President Nelson Mandela observed a few years back:

We must face the matter squarely that where there is something wrong in how we govern ourselves, it must be said that the fault is not in our stars but in ourselves … We know that we have it in ourselves, as Africans, to change all this. We must assert our will to do so, we must say that there is no obstacle big enough to stop us from bringing about an African renaissance.                   

It was these words that gave rise to what was bravely called the African renaissance that saw the dawn of the African Union (AU) to replace the OAU. Enlightened voices in Africa agreed that it needed a body that was prepared to go beyond the restrictions of the OAU that  came to  be characterised by a policy of “non-interference” in the affairs of sovereign states – which gave dictator’s and            unjust rulers a space to violate their people,  often in the name of African practices and customs. The AU provides a different approach to such practices, which includes a peer-review mechanism, a Peace and Security Council and the intent to establish a viable Court of Human Rights. 

The question is whether at country specific level and at a continent level, the church is ready to play its role in ensuring that Africa rises to those essential values that are to be found in African  culture and in the Christian tradition – values that affirm all human beings.  It is this that brings me to the final section of my paper which concerns a theological understanding of our mission as a church in Africa.  

The Church in a Changing Africa

When all is said and done, the task of the church is to discern and point people to the presence of the divine in the world. The marvel of our continent, both within and beyond the Christian church, is the capacity of our people to discern the presence of God – even in the strangest places. Ours is a God-centred continent.

The Christian teaching that an African world view reflects the presence of the divine and that all human beings, created from dust, have within them the spirit of God, is something to cherish and protect. African and other theologians, mystics, musicians, poets and diviners who endeavour to find language and tone to speak of the divine in the broad Christian tradition, reaches back to before the time of the desert fathers and mothers. In the Book of Acts we read of Philip travelling from Jerusalem to Gaza and there encountering an Ethiopian eunuch, who Philip baptised, planting the church in this country.  It is in the indigenous religions of this place, in the early Coptic Church and in the first migration of the companions and relatives of the prophet Muhammad who found sanctuary in Ethiopia. The call of the divine cannot be controlled or limited by our dogma and we are a poorer people when we try to do so.   The New Testament teaches us that the realm of the divine is beyond all that the eye can see or that the heart can understand.  This we need to remember as we listen for the still, quiet voice that transcends our petty doctrines and religious squabbles.

But let us get our focus right.  As Christians our compass in the search for God is the person of Jesus.  It is to his historic presence among us to which we need to turn in order to respond with integrity to his call, amidst the many competing doctrines, ideologies and the conflicts on our continent. He was to be found among the poor, in the presence of prostitutes, siding with the weak against the strong, comforting the thief upon the cross and driving the money lenders out of the temple.  He tells us that “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.”  The gospel is in reality a simple one that we have complicated with generations of doctrinal, inventive and political intrigue.  It has to do with a call to follow a peasant man from Galilee. It is in him that we encounter the call of God.  He is “true man,” the one we are called to emulate.  It is in him that the spiritual and the social witness of the church are to be grounded. To follow him is to engage the demons and resist the oppressors of our time. In so doing we can do no other than to be socially engaged. We are obliged to rise above the powers and principalities of our time, never allowing our witness to be determined by the purely political, economic or other ideologies that are on offer. It was Jesus’ refusal to do so that nailed him to the cross.  

In Conclusion

The church can make a positive or negative impact on the African continent in this twenty-first century.  It can be the source of the renewal of the human spirit that reaches out in healing, tolerance and in pursuit of a common humanity. It can also be the source of conflict where people of different faiths and ardent religious convictions slaughter one another in the name of God. African history bears a terrible witness to this.

There is a new awareness in Africa of the need for Africans to learn to live together with human decency, in mutual respect and in peace.  This will happen when African leaders bring peace to the troubled Sudan, Zimbabwe, countries in the Horn of Africa and those of the Great Lakes.  The church has an obligation to ensure that this happens.  An important question is whether we have the will and the commitment to ensure that it does?   


The origins of the African Church

Early literature on Christianity in Africa stresses the role of foreign missionaries in “planting” the gospel in Africa. Recent research on Christian missions, however, shows the African contribution to the development of local forms of African Christianity from the time of the first encounters between early missionaries, explorers, traders and explorers on the one hand, and indigenous African people on the other.  This has, for example, led Richard Gray to observe: “The growth, expansion and development of Christianity south of the Sahara has depended on, and been distinctively moulded by, African initiatives.”[3]  Monica Wilson titled her formative essay on mission work in South Africa “Conquerors or Servants of God?”[4] Suffice it to say, it is the work of African prophets, independent churches, the revitalisation of mission activity, and African leadership that helped structure the character of religious life and the shape of the church in Africa.[5]

The earliest reports of European Christians insisted Africans lacked any indigenous religion. When the early Portuguese explorers erected their pillars or padraos as navigational markers and a claim to land along the African western and southern coastline however,  evidence shows that the African inhabitants of the area viewed these structures as fetishes or objects of spiritual power concerning spiritual relations between sea and land. For the BaKongo, the universe was divided into the realms of the living and the dead, which was separated by water – raising questions as to who these strange white people were who came from the sea and had placed padraos at the mouth of the Congo River. When the Bakongo later embraced Christianity, they translated this new religion into their own local Africa idiom, with the crucifix and the bible becoming ritualistic objects. In South Africa, the Xhosa prophet and war visionary, Nxele, interpreted the God of white people as Thixo, who had punished his followers by casting them into the sea for killing his son, Jesus. The Zulu creation myth was reconfigured into in terms of uNkulunkulu creating whites to live in the sea, to which they needed to return, and black people to occupy the land. 

Among the Tswana in South Africa’s Northern Cape and in Botswana, the Christian God becomes Modimo, the source of all power beyond the ancestral spirits.  Elsewhere in colonial Africa, the influence of African prophets imbued the religion of missionaries with traditional African belief and customs.  In West Africa, the prophet William Wade Harris, born in Liberia, which was settled by African-American immigrants, led an evangelical movement which resulted in the emergence of independent churches and increased the membership of mission churches. He ironically insisted that his followers should destroy the altars, masks and other ritual objects of their indigenous religions, while on the other hand, he challenged the authority of foreign Christian missionaries and colonial masters. In Nigeria a distinctive Yoruab Chrisitianity emerged, which was a blend of Christian and indigenous beliefs. In Zambia and Malawi, the millennial teachings of the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society was promoted as a way of resisting mission churches and colonial rule.

Above all, it was the myriad independent African churches that became alternatives to the mission churches, with the symbols of Zion and Ethiopia instilling sense of African pride and identity in African communities. The Ethiopian Independent Church emerged when in 1892 Mangena Mokone, a minister in the Methodist Church who protested against the colonial domination of the Methodists established an independent church. He embraced Psalm 68:31 which states that, “Ethiopia shall stretch forth her hands unto God,” as a biblical promise of independence for African people.  This belief was bolstered with the Abyssinian victory over European troops at the Battle of Adowa in 1896, which was seen to be a first step in black redemption and liberation.  It was a vision that led to what was seen as “highway across the Atlantic” that would link Africans and African Americans in pan-African unity.  This led to the affiliation of Mokone’s Ethiopian Church to the African Methodist Episcopalian Church in the United States, while “Ethiopia” continues to be used in the names of a host of other smaller independent churches. The Zionist Christian Churches (ZCC) were, in turn, inspired by the notion of Zion, the Mountain of God or the New Jerusalem.  Modelled on the religious community near Chicago in the United States of America, it projected an alternative to what was seen as the undisciplined ethical practices and loose living of the colonisers and their converts, by emphasising the need for moral rectitude, spiritual discipline, faith healing and ecstasy.   The larger institutional ZCC that was founded in 1910 by Ignatius Lekganyane with its headquarters in Moria in the Northern Province has, for example, emerged as a powerful ecclesial force in South Africa, courted by politicians of the old regime as well as the new. As with the use of “Ethiopia,” the notion of “Zion” is also used by smaller independent churches.

It is clear that foreign missionaries and mission societies played a major role in promoting Christianity in Africa.  I have simply reminded you of the ‘other’ dimension of Christian identity in Africa. It is an identity which saw the merging of European and African culture, customs and rituals as vehicle for giving expression to salvific and liberating dimensions of the gospel.  This is a theme to which I shall return in the final section of my paper.

* Charles Villa-Vicencio is a Senior Research Fellow in the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, Cape Town, South Africa. Contact:

[2] Charles Villa-Vicencio, Walk With Us and Listen: Political Reconciliation in Africa (Washington DC:  Georgetown University Press, 2009), 116.

[3] Richard Gray, Black Christians and White Missionaries (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1990), 80.

[4] A theme discussed in C. Villa-Vicencio, Trapped in Apartheid (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1988).

[5] I am indebted to David Chidester for much of the alternative history of Christianity in Africa that follows,.  See David Chidester,   Christianity:  A Global History (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 2000), 424-433.


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