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In Memoriam: Lamin Sanneh (1942-2019)

By George Sumner

I would like to add my voice to a chorus of lament and gratitude on the occasion of the death of Dr. Lamin Sanneh, who was a teacher of mine at Yale. Others have mentioned the “cost of discipleship” in his life and his considerable accomplishments. For my part, I would like to mention three of his missiological contributions.

Lamin had a deep commitment to the gospel of Jesus Christ, with the resulting sense of its distinctiveness and its primacy. He was no pluralist! He also was well aware of the dangers of radical Islam. His recent book, Beyond Jihad, calls Muslims to a “yet better way.” At the same time, I recall taking an introductory course on Islam from him at Yale, during which he insisted that students attain a deeply sympathetic and charitable understanding. He liked to say that unless you could see the Islamic tradition’s grandeur, unless you could feel its pull, you had not yet understood it. Holding evangelistic clarity and a deep sympathy at once is the bedrock of interfaith dialogue, and Lamin embodied this.

Lamin contributed greatly to a major shift in perception of the nature of ecumenical Christianity in the latter half of the 20th century. In our time it is commonplace to say that there has been a shift toward the Global South, that we are moving into “the next Christendom” (see Philip Jenkins’s work). Sanneh’s was one of the voices that called Christians to this wider, more genuinely catholic view of themselves. It involved, among other things, seeing the importance of the agency of Christian evangelists and leaders in the history of the Global South, as well as appreciating the contribution of the missionary movement without reducing its pioneers to heroes or villains. Sanneh was one of a number of thinkers ready to see how the gospel took on a life of its own in the places it arrived, and how it was often a friend of protecting local culture.

In this regard, Sanneh offered the master metaphor of translation, one he shared with a missiological historian like Andrew Walls. It is appropriate to our Word-centered tradition, and is fruitful for thought about the history of the expansion of Christianity. At the same time, translation assures that the gospel has a prior and irreducible form and substance. In this he contributed at the intersection of mission theology and history.

In a more personal vein, Lamin was unfailingly gracious and helpful, though woe betide the student who submitted sloppy or ill-thought-out papers! He had expectations commensurate with the importance of the topic. We his students recall him with affection and gratitude. Now he stands in class before a greater Magister!

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