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Marco Moerschbacher {*}

When Black Priests Bring Themselves to Notice

Where does African Theology Stand Today?


From: Herder Korrespondenz, 5/2007, P. 262-264
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    A book, published fifty years ago by black seminarists and religious, is considered as something like the birth of African theology. In Abidjan (the Ivory Coast) now 50 years after the publication of "Des prêtres noirs s´interrogent" a symposium took stock and showed perspectives for future theological research in Africa.


In the year 1956 in Paris the publishing house "Présence africaine" publishes a book with the title "Des prêtres noirs s´interrogent" (in German: Schwarze Priester melden sich, Frankfurt 1960, which causes a stir. Black seminarists and prospective priests of an order, who for the most part stay in Rome and Paris for the purpose of studies, say for the first time openly what they think of European colonialism and European dealings with Africans and their culture. This book published a good 50 years ago, is considered as the hour of birth of African theology, a theology for which African culture and being a Christian do not exclude each other, in which rather the one becomes the expression of the other.


The Pioneers of African Theology Still Play a Central Role

The fact that in this way also Christianity is enriched by the African culture in 1956 did not yet appear on the agenda. It is rather about the question: Is Jesus Christ the redeemer of the Black too? Rigid prejudices in the western world about the inferiority of the African culture and thus of the African people made it impossible for the authors of those fifties, who wrote as deputies of a whole continent, to be Christians and priests in the Catholic Church in an African way and as Africans.

50 years later the three francophone theological faculties in Africa, which are established at the Catholic Universities in Kinshasa, Abidjan and Yaoundé, invited to a symposium about half a century of African theology. Thus in February of this year more than 45 guests from many African countries but also representatives from Europe, India and the USA travelled to Abidjan, in order to take stock of the African theology today and to point out perspectives for future theological research in Africa.

With François Kabasele, Bénézet Bujo, Fabien Eboussi Boulaga, Eugene Uzukwu, Ngindu Mushete, Anselm Sanon and Tharcisse Tshibangu the founder generation of the African theology met that younger generation of theologians who today teach and do research at the African universities. On that occasion it became clear that the "ancestors" of African theology, many of whom - and that makes you think - are active in the "African Diaspora" in Europe or North America, still play a great role. Thanks to their pioneer work in the different theological disciplines from exegesis up to moral theology the attention and sensitivity for the African cultures and traditions have increased.



But it became also apparent that today's situation of a globalized world confronts the African theology with new, specific challenges. How can in the year 2007 a message of hope for the marginalized continent Africa read?

A history lasting for centuries of suppression, slave trade, colonialism and neo-colonialism, which disparaged the African culture and the African people and defined it/them as hopelessly inferior compared with the western world, confronted the Africans with the problem of maintaining their own cultural identity which has been taken up for instance by the Négritude movement. This fundamental African identity problem, which Engelbert Mveng as "anthropological poverty" has put into a nutshell, is still latently present.

But today a mere cultural self-assertion is not sufficient in view of corrupt politician élites, international economic crime and the devastating consequences of the pandemic HIV/AIDS in Africa. For today's generation of theologians it is about a new cultural identity, in which tradition and modern trend sensibly complement each other, and by which Africa is able to make its genuine contribution to the intercultural dialogue.


Liberation and Inculturation Are Related to Each Other

The relation between liberation and inculturation, which determined the African theology up to the eighties, may meanwhile be regarded as clarified: Both are closely related to each other; the one is not possible without the other. Authors of the founder generation, such as Jean-Marc Ela and John Mary Waliggo, stand for this cognition. But the relation of tradition and modern age denotes a creative field permanently full of suspense - just in view of rapidly changing living conditions by urbanisation and further impoverishment in nearly all African countries. A critical reading of the African traditional cultures as well as of the globalizing modern age is waiting to be dealt with and must - in view of the danger of glorification on the one and condemnation on the other side - ask the question with what means and method it is to proceed.

In Biblical theology one came from the colonialist epoch (1930 to 1960) over the contextual phase (1960 up to the eighties) to a "popular" Bible reading, which - by means of reconstruction hermeneutics - looks at readers from the people. Accordingly the special attention has shifted from the texts of exodus and liberation to the writings after Exile, as e.g. Ezra and Nehemiah. Exploitation and sexual force against women and children, which are still intensified by the pandemic HIV/AIDS, have made the gender problems a central topic of Bible reading in Africa. Thus today those patriarchal ideologies, on which also the Biblical texts themselves are based, are on the test bench of the African Biblical theology.

Similar developments are to be observed in other theological disciplines, for instance in ethics, which from denying African cultural values over a phase of adaptation meanwhile has found to an engaged dialogue with traditional African cultures and religions. Starting from the basic value of 'life' it here is about a critical reading both of modern globalization and the African susceptible to abuse tradition. Headwords are here: absolutist understanding of politics, tribalism and perpetuation of patriarchal power structures. In contrast to the forces of death in many ways present in Africa the Christian African ethics emphasizes the force of life and the aim of a life in abundance.

The contributions of four nuns from Benin, Burundi, the Congo and Senegal and of a (Protestant) lady pastor from South Africa, who are active in theological training, made a particularly positive impression in Abidjan. They confronted the African church, which is reflected in the African theology, with its claim to give testimony of Jesus Christ's liberating message, and its wish to evangelize the African society. African church - how are you to become in order to preach a credible message, Anne Béatrice Fayé (Senegal) asked. In this perspective it is - with questions of life-style, handling power or participation of women in decision-making processes - not about organizational solutions, but the spiritual substance and future of the church in Africa is at stake.


The Search for an Authentic Spirituality

The search for an authentic spirituality in the various crises and tragic situations determining the African continent time and again played a central role in the debate. African theologians who at the same time are active as pastoral workers and always stand in the wider solidarity connection of the African family, the small Christian community



or the religious community (Order), are daily confronted with great need, also and especially with spiritual need. The unresolved questions are also the cause that more and more sects develop and the new religious movements and the African Independent Churches become so numerous and so confusing. A differentiation of the 'spirits' becomes more and more important and difficult.

Here the African theology meets a great inner challenge. Will the efforts succeed to counter the centrifugal forces of a society that is radically changing and marked by gross injustice and to develop a pastoral care und culture of relationship that take each and all individuals seriously?

On the other hand there is just as great an outside challenge, i.e. that of the church's relevance in society. Just in view of corrupt elites of politicians and American or Chinese geo-strategic interests the church, particularly the Catholic Church with its tight international organisational structure, must find an answer to the question how it can positively and unselfishly influence the political culture in the African countries.

Here the Catholic Church in Zimbabwe is an outstanding example in a tragic situation. In the interest of the people it has ventured out on the political mine field and has recently experienced support on the part of the Association of the Bishops' Conferences of Africa and Madagascar (SECAM). The churches in Zambia and in the Congo-Kinshasa too undertook extraordinary steps in creating democratic awareness and organizing a just society. But the way is still long, so the unanimous opinion of the theologians assembled in Abidjan.

It is essential to build bridges on this way: bridges between the francophone and the Anglophone Africa, which for instance in the field of Small Christian Communities, church offices and participation of women has to show helpful experiences and considerations, but was not sufficiently represented in Abidjan.

In view of the frequent instrumentalization of religion for political and economic purposes bridges are urgently needed between the different denominations and - particularly in countries such as Nigeria or the Sahel states - between Christianity and Islam in its genuine West African form. Especially in situations of war and conflict the forces ready for dialogue must be brought together and strengthened. Also here it becomes apparent that politics today is the place where the church in Africa can and must offer its services.

The necessity for an intensified co-operation between bishops and theologians was especially emphasized in Abidjan. According to Barthélemy Adoukonou's (Cote d´Ivoire) the African church, founded a little more than a century ago, is in the "patristic" age, which is characterised by the proximity of concrete pastoral experience and theological concept formation.

"Reconciliation, justice and peace" is the theme for the second special meeting of the Roman Synod for African Bishops announced for 2009. The explosiveness of this topic, which is about building fairer societies in the Africa of the future, should make this bridging of bishops and theologians easier. On the background of the tensions that existed in the run-up of the first Africa synod especially also between bishops and theologians, the African theology now faces the task to let its competence in a structured way flow into the preparation process of the synod.


The holistically saving and healing dimension of Christianity

In Abijdan those present could not reach agreement about a revival of the in 1977 created "Ecumenical Association of African Theologians" (Association Oecuménique des Théolgiens Africains); it existed until 1989 and held several international symposiums and plenary assemblies. With the discussion about the resumption of the scientific organ of this association, the Bulletin de Théologie Africaine, the different views of the generations represented became apparent. The younger generation was rather for a different publication that was to be drafted anew.

Following African wisdom one position did not assert itself at the expense of the other. On the contrary, the interest in an association of African theologians was tested and a provisional committee nominated, which is to discuss the further procedure and to prepare a foundation meeting at a later time. The question about an appropriate scientific publication was left open.

The final report on the symposium sees African theology in the perspective of a spirituality and ethics of giving testimony. For the concrete, today living and suffering in Africa people it was essential to bring out - by co-operation of the different theological disciplines - the holistically saving and redeeming dimension of Christianity. This cooperation among the theological disciplines also requires an intensified exchange between the six theological universities, respectively institutes that offer continuation courses in theology within the Catholic area in Africa: the Catholic University of West Africa (UCAO/UUA) in Abidjan, the Facultés Cotholiques de Kinshasa (DR the Congo) - its theological faculty this year celebrates its 50th anniversary-, the Catholic University of Central Africa (UCAC) in Yaundé (Cameroon), the Anglophone Catholic Institute of



West Africa (CIWA) in Port Harcourt (Nigeria), the Catholic University of (the) Eastern Africa (CUEA) in Nairobi (Kenya) and finally the Catholic Institute of Madagascar in Antananarivo.

The organizing theological faculty of the UCAO/UUA has decided to found a "Research Center for African Theology", to the further development of which one may eagerly look forward. Urgently advisable is a co-operation with the renowned Centre des Études des Religions Africaines of the Catholic Faculties of Kinshasa but also with more recent African research institutions, as for instance the African Research and Documentation Centre at the Uganda Martyrs University in Kkozi (Uganda).

In his final word Bishop Anselm Titianma Sanon of Bobo Dioulasso (Burkina Faso) pointed to the necessity of adopting the Second Vatican Council in the African local churches and stressed three desiderata: the forming of structures of "Kollegialität" (helpfulness and consideration), a reinforcement of African anthropology in the sense of a Christology "from below" and the development of hermeneutics that understand the Bible as word living in the African Christian communities. To sum up, these three points denote a program for the African theology of the future.

Who will roll off the stone from the grave for us? African theologians must - like the women on Easter morning - want to carry out the service to cross the well-known area of fifty years of African theology but then to take on the venture of going on. The task, respectively the challenge today is to reach - in a genuine African conceptualization - the message of Resurrection, i.e. the redemption from all powers of death, and to pass on this message in a new African language that combines spirituality and politics.


    {*} Marco Moerschbacher (born in 1964) attained a doctorate in pastoral theology in Frankfurt by a dissertation on the reception of the Second Vatican Council in the local church of Kinshasa, the Congo. He is Africa adviser at the Missionswissenschaftliches Institut Missio e.V., Aachen.


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