Notes from underground

يارب يسوع المسيح ابن اللّه الحيّ إرحمني أنا الخاطئ

Postcolonial Christianity in Africa

I’ve recently heard quite a number of people (well, read on their blogs rather than “heard”) saying that they are “post colonial Christians”. Actually I think I recall Brian McLaren saying something about post-colonial Christianity when he visited Pretoria last year too.

My difficulty is in trying to work out what this “Post-colonial Christianity” that people talk about actually is. What do people mean when they talk about “postcolonial Christianity”? This is one of those blog posts where I toss in a lot of half-baked ideas in the hope that other people will help me to bake them — and especially those people who regard themselves as “postcolonial Christians” — what is it that makes them such, other than pure chronology?

One of the things that I found helpful was a blog post by Julie Clawson, at One hand clapping, on Cultural Imperialism, Contextualization, and Postcolonial Missions. What she described is a good example of what postcolonial mission is most decidedly NOT, which can help to clarify one’s thinking on the topic, except that it is from an American rather than an African point of view.

A step forward, and what actually got me thinking more seriously about this, was reading The Cambridge history of Christianity. Volume 9: World Christianities c.1914-c.2000. Actually the title is a bit misleading — the book is quite specifically about Western Christianity and its offshoots, but still, this is what it says about postcolonial Africa:

Autocratic regimes prevailed until the end of the 1980s when a combination of forces led to their demise. The collapse of the Berlin wall and the end of the Cold War deprived states of Western or Eastern benefactors and of legitimating models of communist dictatorship. Moreover, events in Eastern Europe inspired a revived and resurgent civil society to challenge near bankrupt regimes. A ‘second democratic revolution’ ensued as more than half of sub-Saharan African states made political reforms and moved toward multi-party democracy. In this revolution the churches played a leading role. Sadly, however, the political transformation begun at the end of the 1980s was shortlived. In a new world dominated by America the new regimes had to embrace neo-liberal economics of trade liberalisation, privatisation and diminished state provision in the form of structural adjustment programmes ordained by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. While such policies benefited a minority of African businessmen working for international companies, they stifled local enterprise, boosted unemployment, and led to new levels of poverty, crime and violence. Worse still, many of the newly elected leaders of multi- party regimes were ‘born-again’ politicians from the previous generation of politicians. Their conversions to democracy proved to be superficial and they were barely distinguishable from their predecessors. Soon they learnt how to stay in power by dividing opposition parties and manipulating elections and constitutions while satisfying international pressure. Their governments became de facto one- party regimes. Thus from the mid-1990s Africa’s churches have been involved in a third democratic revolution. This revolution is against ‘presidential third-termism’ — the tendency of leaders to cling to office. It is a struggle for incorrupt ‘transparency’ and the development of electoral institutions, and a struggle for a democratic political culture. Only through such a revolution can African states begin to reconnect with the needs and aspirations of their citizens (McLeod 2006:405).

We have seen attempts at the ‘third democratic revolution’ in Kenya, where it was stifled, and at the December ANC congress, where the levers of power in the ANC were prised from the clutches of those who had hitherto held them. What is the role of postcolonial Christians in all that?

Five years ago we had SACLA II, the Southern African Christian Leadership Assembly, but where did it get us? We were supposed to face up to the “giants” that threatened our society, which included unemployment, poverty, crime and violence. But there seemed to be a reluctance to face up to the giants behind the giants — America, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, structural adjustment programmes and the ideology of neoliberalism that they have been peddling to African governments. My recollection of SACLA II was that some American came round and gave out free copies of a rather kitschy book called The prayer of Jabez, which seemed to be a good example of what Karl Marx described as “the opium of the people.”

So what IS postcolonial Christianity? And what is it going to do about the “giants”? And what will happen when Jacob Zuma and umshini wakhe doesn’t turn out to be the kind of saviour that people are apparently hoping for?

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One thought on “Postcolonial Christianity in Africa

  1. Yvonne on said:

    I guess postcolonial Christianity would be a Christianity that is not tainted with or bound up in the “mission” to westernise the rest of the world – so as you suggest, a radical critique of state power and imperialism.

    I personally feel that Christianity lost its way when it “got into bed with” the Roman Empire and subsequently the Byzantine Empire. Orthodoxy became (imho) more credible once the Byzantine Empire ceased to be and it became a non-state-endorsed church under the Ottoman Empire. Likewise Russian Orthodoxy was more credible under Communism because it was a focus of resistance to state hegemony.

    It also sounds similar to the post-Christendom idea put forward by Ekklesia.

    Does all of this make me a post-imperial Pagan? 🙂

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