Whom Do You Say Jesus Is Today? — An African Perspective
Bonganjalo Goba, Executive for Africa
Christ enough to break all barriers;
Christ enough in peace, in strife;
Christ enough to build our nation;
Christ enough for death, for life;
Christ enough for old and lonely;
Christ enough for those who fall;
Christ enough to save the sin-sick; and
Christ enough for one; for all.”
(John B. Gardener)
“But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”
This response from the gospel of Matthew 16:15-16, has found new theological significance amongst many African Christians as they share their spirituality with the rest of the world. Just as the hymn says, “Christ is enough to break all barriers,” that is testimony to the impact and power that Christ continues to manifest in every situation of their lives. There is a deeper appreciation of Christ in every aspect of life. Because life for many African Christians is full of contradictions, such as poverty, strife, hunger, conflict, starvation, and the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Christ’s presence in their lives points to the new reality, new hope, new future.
But they have been challenged to reclaim Christ from western colonial and ecclesiastical interpretation; a Christ that supported the status quo, to a new to a radical discovery of the Christ who is the Liberator the one who shares their experience of oppression as well as their liberation. There are also those who see Christ in the context of their religious and cultural milieu as the forerunner of all the ancestors, the mediator whose role was to promote and celebrate the presence of the Divine, given many names by different religious communities in Africa, e.g. the Zulu called the Divine (God) Umvelinqangi, which means the One who is the Source of Everything, a name that was rejected by the early western missionaries.
Because healing is the central focus of the African initiated churches, Christ is known as the great spiritual healer. This healing ministry, as it occurs in the New Testament, is practiced in the life of the Christian community to exorcize evil spirits, to drive demons away, to bless and promote prosperity, and the blessing of newborn infants. As Priscilla Pope-Levison and John Levison observe in their important book, Jesus in Global Context – “Also like the healer, Jesus places healing within the context of social reintegration into the community. In other words, He re-establishes equilibrium to the community by returning those who are healed to normalcy.” (p. 109)
This healing dimension of Christ’s ministry has become important, especially in the context of the AIDS pandemic. There is a growing spiritual realization that the essence of Christ’s ministry is the healing of the community, that this healing focus is what promotes a deep understanding of salvation. Salvation is about healing in all its dimensions, both physically, spiritually, psychologically, as well as in the political context. Healing in the African sense also points to the healing of broken relationships. So, Christ as a healer is understood in this holistic sense. This view of Christ as healer needs to be explored much deeper because of its relevance today in a world characterized by deep brokenness in the human family. I believe we have a lot to learn about Christ from the African initiated churches. One of our partners in Swaziland, Ukukhanya Okusha Zionist Community provides a unique opportunity for us to experience this healing dimension of Christ’s ministry.
Because of the colonial experience of domination whose modern manifestation is globalization, there is a growing vision among African Christians to see Christ as the Liberator. We have discovered this dimension of Christ’s ministry in the black theology movement in South Africa; Christ being seen as the black Liberator; Christ as one who identifies with suffering of the oppressed majority under the Apartheid era. This view of Christ rekindled interest among the black youth to see Christianity as part of their struggle against white supremacy and racial bigotry. But this view of Christ as the Liberator within the Kairos movement brought a new dimension to see our struggles as all South Africans, that our common enemy is the tyranny of the Apartheid state. That following Christ as the Liberator demands that we engage in acts of civil disobedience as we challenge the system of Apartheid. This view of Christ continues to inform the theologies against all forms of tyranny and oppression around the world today.
Amidst hunger, conflict, poverty, and the AIDS pandemic, African Christians have found new hope in their faith in Jesus Christ. This faith is dynamic and relevant to the issues of the day. This faith in Christ entails risk-taking, challenging the status quo. It is a faith that promotes a new critical presence characterized by a spirituality of resistance against all forms of oppression and bondage, but also of celebration as we embrace forgiveness and reconciliation. This faith in Christ should be the basis of our understanding of mission in the world today. Mission with the preferential option of the poor because this is the choice Christ would have made if he was living in our world today.
So the themes of Christ as the healer, mediator and liberator will continue to play an important role in the self-understanding of many African Christians and their understanding of mission in the world. I believe this has serious missiological implications for Global Ministries: It challenges us to engage in a critical examination of the Christological foundations of our understanding of mission. I believe we need to articulate this more clearly in reclaiming our mission mandate in all we do. In what ways does our understanding of Christ shape all the decisions we make as a mission agency of both the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)? To what extent are we in deep dialogue with our partners about their understanding of Christ’s ministry as it informs mission in the world today with the view of developing our own understanding of our mission mandate? I believe it is in responding to these questions that a realization will occur that we need to revisit our mission mandate.
The other critical question we need to examine is who is Christ for us today in the context of U.S. hegemony and power in the world today? How does this understanding pose challenges for our mission mandate? Again, responding to the question in the context of the negative impact of American foreign policies in the world, how does our faith in Christ enable us to renounce and denounce the negative foreign policy of this administration? Are we prepared to engage in this act of critical self-examination as we reclaim our faith in Christ today? We can no longer avoid dealing with these questions for our partners around the world want to know how our faith in Christ really make a difference in what is going on in Africa, Middle East, Haiti and Iraq. Who do you say that I am? For many of our partners to respond to this question entails a great sacrifice and at the same an invitation to the celebration of their Spirituality.
1) Priscilla Pope-Levison and John R. Levison, “Jesus in Global Context” published by Westminster/John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky, 1992
2) Rienzie Perera “The Task of Rewriting Christology in Voices from the Third World” Vol XX No. 1, 1997
3) John B. Gardener, Christ Enough, in Desmond Tutu – An African Prayer book published by Doubleday, New York, 1995, p. 83