The Common Good

An Atheist's Praise of Evangelism in Africa

Matthew Parris is a self-confessed atheist, but he writes with extraordinary candor and insight about the role of faith in social transformation in a recent Times article. He explains,

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Now a confirmed atheist, I've become convinced of the enormous contribution that Christian evangelism makes in Africa: sharply distinct from the work of secular NGOs, government projects and international aid efforts. These alone will not do. Education and training alone will not do. In Africa Christianity changes people's hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good.

He used to say, "... if faith was needed to motivate missionaries to help, then, fine: but what counted was the help, not the faith." But now he believes otherwise. Reflecting on his experiences with Africans over 45-plus years, he confesses,

Far from having cowed or confined its converts, their faith appeared to have liberated and relaxed them. There was a liveliness, a curiosity, an engagement with the world -- a directness in their dealings with others -- that seemed to be missing in traditional African life. They stood tall.

There was

... something in their eyes, the way they approached you direct, man-to-man, without looking down or away. They had not become more deferential towards strangers -- in some ways less so -- but more open.... What they were was ... influenced by a conception of man's place in the Universe that Christianity had taught.

He explains,

There's long been a fashion among Western academic sociologists for placing tribal value systems within a ring fence, beyond critiques founded in our own culture: "theirs" and therefore best for "them"; authentic and of intrinsically equal worth to ours.

I don't follow this. I observe that tribal belief is no more peaceable than ours; and that it suppresses individuality. People think collectively; first in terms of the community, extended family and tribe. This rural-traditional mindset feeds into the "big man" and gangster politics of the African city: the exaggerated respect for a swaggering leader, and the (literal) inability to understand the whole idea of loyal opposition.

Anxiety -- fear of evil spirits, of ancestors, of nature and the wild, of a tribal hierarchy, of quite everyday things -- strikes deep into the whole structure of rural African thought. Every man has his place and, call it fear or respect, a great weight grinds down the individual spirit, stunting curiosity. People won't take the initiative, won't take things into their own hands or on their own shoulders.

Then he concludes,

Christianity ... with its teaching of a direct, personal, two-way link between the individual and God, unmediated by the collective, and unsubordinate to any other human being, smashes straight through the philosphical/spiritual framework I've just described. It offers something to hold on to to those anxious to cast off a crushing tribal groupthink. That is why and how it liberates.

Those who want Africa to walk tall amid 21st-century global competition must not kid themselves that providing the material means or even the know-how that accompanies what we call development will make the change. A whole belief system must first be supplanted.

And I'm afraid it has to be supplanted by another. Removing Christian evangelism from the African equation may leave the continent at the mercy of a malign fusion of Nike, the witch doctor, the mobile phone and the machete.

In my book Everything Must Change, I use the term "framing story" for what Parris calls a "belief system" -- giving us our sense of our place in the universe, liberating us from various forms of crushing tribal or geo-political groupthink. Parris is right: if you want to help people be liberated from a destructive belief system or framing story (and I believe certain versions of Christianity present some scary and unhelpful twists -- all aren't equally liberating because all aren't equally true), you can't simply eliminate it. You have to replace it with something better.

And, of course, what's true for rural Africa is equally true for the urban West. Take away Jesus' radically transforming good news of the kingdom of God and we may find ourselves at the mercy of a malign fusion of the military-industrial complex, the slick politician and televangelist, the carbon-based economy, and the nuclear bomb.

Brian McLarenBrian McLaren (brianmclaren.net) is a speaker and author, most recently of Everything Must Change and Finding Our Way Again.

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