This piece first appeared at Thicket of the Jordan.

Sally Struthers was the first to introduce me to Africa. She told me that while 70 cents would garner me a Coke, that same amount could feed an African. My next memory of Africa comes from watching the rise and fall of that famed warrior Shaka Zulu in the 1986 TV series of the same name. In the series, his story ended in a doomed war against colonialist invaders. These two images, Africa as starving and in need of American salvation and Africa as primitive and violent, shaped my initial view of “the dark continent.” I wish that I could say that time has changed the way that Africa is presented in the West, but recently my seven-year-old son came home from school and asked me whether Africa had cities.

Memories of this paternalistic and monochrome view of Africa returned as I observed the response of some members of the Episcopal Church to the recent meeting of the Primates. I have listened as we lambasted “the Africans” as if they form one country that spoke one language and shared one view of the world: apparently, uninformed bigotry.[1] We have pretended that they are not a multi-cultural continent with the same mix of good and bad that is indicative of all societies. I must say this as plainly as possible: If Korea, Japan, India, and China shared a similar view on human sexuality would we blame — implicitly and explicitly — “Asian” culture? Would we speak about them as a monolith? Would we assume that they are unthinking and “behind” America and the West? This smacks of cultural imperialism. It is cultural imperialism.

Western Anglican media coverage of Africa often follows a familiar pattern. The coverage of non-Western Anglicans usually focuses on economic development, especially the work of Western companion dioceses in the third world. The subtle message is clear: theology is for the West; the Global South receives our aid. Thus, when the Anglican Communion does gather to discuss issues of theology and Africans repeat the official teaching of the Communion and the teaching of the vast majority of Christians everywhere, they are rebuked for taking the focus away from the common mission (of African economic development) that unites the Communion. We seem to be confused as to how those Africans would dare do this after we have spent the last thirty years congratulating ourselves for granting the aid that we have made the basis of our common life. We cannot understand why they would be so divisive and on the wrong side of our definition of justice.

African Anglicans who oppose changing the Communion’s teaching on sexuality may not know that their views violate a central tenet of progressive thought. Their opposition challenges what appears to be the canonical interpretation of the black experience in the Episcopal Church in the United States. This definition unites the experiences of the descendants of the slaves, women, those stigmatized for their sexual orientation, and now Muslims into a single narrative of oppression and freedom. The primary work of the Church in our day is to locate and free those who are oppressed in the name of love and acceptance.[2]

It is fair to say that the African-American experience, in particular, is paradigmatic in this narrative. Presiding Bishop Curry himself referred to this idea in his response to the Primates’ decision. He said,

I stand before you as your brother. I stand before you as a descendant of African slaves, stolen from their native land, enslaved in a bitter bondage, and then even after emancipation, segregated and excluded in church and society. And this conjures that up again, and brings pain.

Every last word in that statement is true, but his application of that truth is contestable. In linking the struggle of African Americans to the present day issues surrounding human sexuality, Bishop Curry taps into a stream of the African-American Christian tradition that makes just this connection. But Bishop Curry will no doubt recognize that this particular interpretation is not the only interpretation of the African-American Christian experience. His, in fact, is probably the minority position. This does not make it false, but it should be acknowledged that the vast majority of black Christians read our history differently. Yes, there was oppression, and we must continue to fight it in its many forms. However, most of us do not place Scripture’s call for justice in opposition to what we believe those same Scriptures have to say about marriage and the family. For example, three of the largest African-American churches in the United States: the African-Methodist Episcopal Church, AME-Zion,  and COGIC combine an emphasis on social activism with a traditional view on marriage.

Pointing out the views of other African-American Christians does not make this side right, but it does make it problematic to dismiss all those who disagree with the changes advocated by the Episcopal Church. We can only advance this claim by assuming that the entire Christian world apart from especially enlightened portions of the West is simply uninformed. I am asking for understanding and the ability to think the best about one another. More to the point, it is one thing for Presiding Bishop Curry to articulate his interpretation of the black experience, it is quite another for white progressives confidently to adopt this posture and rely on it to criticize black people who disagree with them. That is not your story, you do not own it. There is no canonical interpretation of the black experience that progressives can use to berate Africans or African-Americans who disagree with them.

The Christian definition of justice (even as it pertains to marriage) will be communally discerned in the long arc of history. Our discernment will take place cross-culturally. It will be soaked in prayer and empowered by the Spirit. This definition of justice will arise from attending to what the Spirit is saying today, but we will also listen to what the Spirit has said to the Church in the past and to our brothers and sisters around the globe today. Most of all, we will give our obedience to what we believe to be a faithful reading of the canonical books of the Old and New Testament. This is the Anglican way, and we will not be shamed into believing otherwise.

Esau McCaulley‘s other posts may be found here. The featured image of former Archbishop of Uganda, the Rt. Rev. Henry Orombi, and the current Archbishop of Uganda, the Rt. Rev. Stanley Ntagali, comes via the Saturday Monitor

 


[1] The common assertion that all African Anglicans want to lock up homosexuals is slander. Homosexuality should not be criminalized, and Christians should oppose any such laws. I am glad that the recent statement out of the primates meeting says as much. However, before we go about lauding the laws in America, I would point out that late term abortion is legal in the United States of America. Second, African-Americans have their own historic and ongoing critiques of their treatment at the hands of the American legal system.

[2] There is some truth in this idea. Our common imago dei means that it is sub-Christian to mistreat, abuse, or denigrate any person. Nonetheless, the affirmation of same-sex marriage in the Church does not follow from the protection of the human rights of homosexuals any more than affirmation of the teachings of Islam follows from the belief that the rights of Muslims should be protected and treated with respect.

 

About The Author

Fr. Esau McCaulley is assistant professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at Northeastern Seminary in Rochester, New York. He recently completed his Ph.D. in New Testament at the University of St Andrews where he studied under the direction of N.T. Wright.

 

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2 Comments on "Blaming the Africans: cultural imperialism and the meeting of the Primates"

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I am an African in the fullest sense of the word. My genealogy includes aboriginal Khoisan and two groups of settlers in Southern Africa, namely European and Indian. I have spent most of my life on the Southern tip of the African continent, and am now living in the USA, but return each year to teach and visit with family and church. Mr. McCaulley’s article reflects a patronizing, sympathetic response, critical of outsiders who give aid to needy African countries. Africans generally are not empowered by handouts or encouraged to participate in shaping personal destiny. Of course, there will always… Read more »
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