While the primary agenda of my writing here in Providence is to investigate the formation of the foreign policy of the next American president towards Africa, I am also secondarily interested in the reception of that policy by Africans. And given that Providence is a journal concerned with the relation between Christianity and American foreign policy, it should come as no surprise that I am particularly interested in the frameworks that will shape that reception among African public theologians.
The attitudes and views of theologians (academic or ecclesial) are not a proxy for popular sentiment or public opinion. But African public theologians have, as their vocation, the study of the relation between religion and public life in Africa… so I presume their work will cast light on what Africans in general (or at the very least Africans actively participating in Christian churches) feel and think about the politics, economics, and cultures of their cities, nations, continent, and the world, and how these feelings and thoughts relate to liturgical practices and theological convictions.
Given what I’ve learned in my recent conversations with African and Africa-engaged pastors and priests, theologians and ethnologists, business people and philanthropists – it seems to me that there are three questions that will be particularly helpful in my efforts to take a closer look at the frameworks used by African public theologians.
What do you make of human rights?
As I’ve recently written here, I believe that human rights provide the middle axioms by means of which we can make sense of the connections between the first things of human life and contemporary political practices. What theologians make of human rights therefore provides us with particularly significant insights into how they understand those connections.
Human rights provide us with common points of reference when talking out of the contexts of very different local political realities, with norms against which to evaluate the quality of political life in a particular political community, and with a language in terms of which to debate the global common good and the proper pursuit of national interests.
In the South Africa of my youth, apartheid theologians attacked the very notion of human rights on the basis of theological anthropologies that validated their own ethnic supremacisms. (And if my recollection of in-person conversations is accurate, these attacks were often motivated by visceral racist prejudices.) The treatment of human rights in apartheid theology brightly illumines how its proponents understood the connection between everyday politics and their own ultimate convictions regarding the humanity of the people with whom they shared a country and a continent.
Public theology in South Africa during the years of struggle about apartheid therefore attended closely (although not exclusively) to the question of human rights – and this question remains as illuminating of African politics today as it was during the most intense years of that struggle.
What do you make of Islam?
When great religions are motivational factors in intense political conflicts, as is the case with Salafi jihadist movements like Boko Haram (in West Africa) and Al-Shahaab (in East Africa), the question of the relation between religion and the state becomes urgent and difficult. What African public theologians make of Islam will brightly illumine their understanding of the proper relation between religion and politics – and also their understanding of the cultural dynamics that result from the interaction of Islam, Christianity, modernity, and Africa’s autochthonous paganisms. Freedom of religion, the political treatment of religious diversity, the political establishment of religion – these and related issues are live concerns in Africa, and (I believe) will come most clearly into the light when the current reality of Islamicist violence is addressed.
What do you make of prosperity teachings?
Prosperity doctrines (and I am sure this is an oversimplification, but here it goes…) teach that human beings prosper (in particular with regard to goods like health and wealth) when they feel and verbally articulate a doubt-free faith towards the manifestation of such goods (and, at best, a doubt-free faith in the generous providence of God). Commensurately, prosperity doctrines teach that human suffering is the result of inadequate faith. Prosperity doctrines are, by many accounts, widely and increasingly influential among African Christians. (See this video made by Nathan Clarke for Christianity Today, and the article by J. Kwabena Asamoah-Gyadu that it accompanies.)
Knowing what public theologians make of prosperity teachings will help us critically evaluate what they have to say about poverty, poverty alleviation, economic development, and the vocations of politicians. Digging towards first things, the take of a theologian on prosperity teachings will tell us a great deal about how that theologian understands both human agency and divine providence.
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This then sets out my agenda in writing for Providence in 2016: exploring the formation of the Africa policies of the USA after Obama and the reception of those policies by Africans – as both formation and reception relates to Christianity.
Gideon Strauss is a Senior Fellow of the Center for Public Justice and Associate Professor in Worldview Studies at the Institute for Christian Studies
Photo Credit: Christian worship service in Sudan’s Nuba Mountains (Slater Armstrong)