Authority, Community & Identity article

Between ‘Descriptive Haste’ and ‘Prescriptive Haste’

Maggie Barankitse, one of the exemplars featured in Katongole’s book, speaks at a UN summit on Burundi. Photo: Eric Bridiers / U.S. Mission

The central thesis of Emmanuel Katongole’s Born from Lament: The Theology and Politics of Hope in Africa is that lament is the boat in which African victims and survivors navigate the turbulent waters of hatred and violence in which they could drown at every turn. Lament is the language they use to make sense out of senselessness, meaning out of suffering, humanity out of inhumanity and hope out of hopelessness. Katongole describes lament as “a way of naming what is going on, of standing and of hoping in the midst of ruins” (48).

Through this book, Katongole intends, to respond to “the most pressing theological task [which] is to give an account of Africa’s hope” (19), because according to him, “no such theological account exists” in Africa today (20). He also argues that the few theological attempts available tend to issue premature and blanket prescriptions of hope while displaying blindness to grassroots practices of hope. This is what he calls ‘prescriptive haste’.

1. Book Strengths

The focus on East Africa and Great Lakes Region makes this a clearly delimited and grounded book. While the book contains a number of extravagant and general references to the African continent, (a matter to which we will return below) the geographical delimitation anchors the book firmly. This approach provides tremendous scope both for the author’s narrative portraiture approach and his desire to probe deep into the everyday practices of lament. It also lends the narrative of book the correct cadence, the right density of argument, as well as the necessary depth of inquiry.

At the heart of this book are a number of true stories, what Katongole refers to as portraits, of resilience, faith and hope in the middle of ruins. These stories of lament refute the popular and repeated trope of Africa as a place of hopelessness and no agency. The stories of Christophe Munzihirwa (later assassinated) and Emmanuel Kataliko (probably poisoned to his death), successive Archbishops of Bukavu in Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and that of Sr. Rosemary Nyirumbe of Gulu in Northen Uganda are offered as portraits of impactful leaders who met  violence and hatred with ‘excess love’ which inspired a sense of agency. Other compelling portraits given are that of David Kasali, founder of a Christian University in the town of Beni (Eastern DRC) and that of Maggy Barankitse (pictured above), whose faith activism in Burundi sent her into exile but also earned her the accolade of being called ‘mother of Burundi’.

Following the work of Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot and Jessica Hoffman Davis on portraiture, Katongole attempts to deploy the arts of the portraitist in the exploration of his theme – that is, he proceeds as one who, in an effort to fathom complexity, nuance and subtlety, proceeds by means of blending aesthetics with empiricism, story-telling and the explicit intention not merely to inform but also to inspire. Crucially, Katongole relies heavily on poetry, poetic prose and metaphor in order to dig deep into the nature of hope and lament. His use of lamentation poetry from the Great Lakes Region is especially riveting. Katongole handles the gruesome circumstances with which his faith activists are saddled gracefully, insightfully and sensitively.

He builds his admirable foray into portraiture upon biblical exegesis. Spurred on by the biblical motif of ‘giving an account of the hope’, he proceeds to offer impressive exegetical work on the Book of Lamentations. Katongole comes close to adding a wholly new dimension of theology in Africa. But there are serious shortcomings, to be discussed below. Still, Katongole’s book is one of the best responses to the 1971 call by Kenyan theologian John Mbiti, who warned that whatever else African Christian theology may become, it does not deserve the name if it does not put biblical exegesis at the center. In this regard, Mbiti warned fellow African theologians against the risk of becoming mere ‘anthropological theology’.

2. On Descriptive Haste: Comment and Critique

The book contains many strengths worth celebrating, yet a number of serious problems remain. If Katongole accuses other African theologians of ‘prescriptive haste’, he himself could be accused of ‘descriptive haste’. This shortcoming shows up in more ways than we can list here. Firstly, he issues a summary, hasty and unsubstantiated dismissal of the theological output emanating from the largest single continent on earth, home to more than a billion human beings. It is rather precipitate to suggest that all of the theological literature coming out of Africa provides no account of the hope in that continent.

Nor is it helpful to suggest, albeit not in so many words, that Katongole’s approach to hope and lament analysis is the only fitting approach for the theological community of the entire continent. As if 75 years of published modern African Theology—not to speak of the much earlier contribution of African church fathers like Augustine, Tertullian, Tatian and Clement of Alexandria—could be completely blind to the theme of hope and suffering! By claiming that no account of the hope that is in Africa currently exists, Katongole, by deduction, suggests that only his method makes such an account possible. The truth is that while not many theologians may have used his specific language of hope and lament, they have been dealing with hope and lament nevertheless. In fact two women theologians who have specifically used the notion of lament in their work are Nyambura Njoroge and Denise Ackermann. But what is African Theology if it is not also a theology hope in the face of massive de-culturation and de-racination? What is Black Theology if it is not also a theology of lament in the light of church and state practices that equate blackness with curse in order to justify racial oppression and dispossession? What is African Women’s Theology if it is not also a theology of lament in the face of global patriarchy, African patriarchy and Christian patriarchy?

The second manifestation of the descriptive haste is in Katongole’s insistence that although the research material with which he interacts emanate “from East Africa Great Lakes Region” he will nevertheless retain ‘Africa’ in the title of the book (xvi). This is not an argument, only an assertion. Why pretend to be writing about all of Africa when the book has a clearly delimited geographical locus? The subtitle of this book might have been more truthful if it was: “The Theology and Politics of Hope in Selected Countries of East Africa and the Great Lakes Region”.

Incoherently and rather strangely, Katongole seems to think that his “use of portraiture as a theological method” allows for the reader to “discover general themes and patterns that resonate across much of sub-Saharan Africa” (p.xvi). But how is this possible? Is the Sudanese conflict exactly the same as the conflict in the Central African Republic? Are the so-called faith activists in the DRC deploying the exact same tactics and strategies as those of faith activists operating in Northern Zululand? Even a cursory reading of Katongole’s own attempt to summarize the essence of the method of portraiture (33), it is clear that while this method may help with digging deeper and with finer nuancing, it is neither intended to or especially suited for the deduction of patterns and the making of generalizations.

Clearly, Katongole is rendering unto portraiture what does not belong to portraiture, attributing to the methodology what it is incapable of accomplishing. Seemingly, the clearly delimited geographic and thematic focus of the book are insufficient and unable to restrain the author from repeatedly foraging into grandiose claims and generalizations about the entire continent which go way beyond the limits suggested by his focus.

The centering of an African theology of hope within a biblical framework is especially important for Katongole as noted in the section on biblical theology above. And yet one of the most deafening silences in this book is the lack of engagement with African Biblical scholarship. Had Katongole interacted, however minimally, with the likes of Teresa Okure, Lovemore Togarasei, Dorothy Okoto, Musa Dube, Sarojini Nadar, Tuesday Adamo, Jonathan Draper, Elelwani Farisani, Madipoane Masenya, John Mbiti, Itumeleng Mosala, Justin Ukpong, to mention but a few, perhaps he might not have been as hasty as to conclude that there is no theological accounting for the hope that lives in Africa.  This conclusion is only possible in a book that reduces the work of the likes of Desmond Tutu, with four new books since the year 2010, to an extended footnote (218).

More importantly, in his references to the Bible, Katongole seems to ignore totally the decades old exegetical, methodological and hermeneutical toils of fellow African theologians. This might explain the almost total absence of engagement with the contentious issues in biblical hermeneutics, one of the most abiding themes in African biblical scholarship. African biblical scholarship has wrestled not only with the contents of the Bible but its symbolic meaning and its insertion into the African political, cultural and ideological worlds. These themes are absent in Katongole. In this regard, Katongole’s biblical exegesis comes close to an attempt to reinvent a wheel that has long been hard at work. More importantly, in his exegetical work, Katongole is clearly susceptible to the ideological pitfalls long identified and long debated among African biblical scholars. Nearly thirty years ago, Itumeleng Mosala published, with Eerdmans, his book on biblical hermeneutics and Black Theology in South Africa. This book is not in Katongole’s bibliography. Nor does Katongole seem aware of the fruit of years of scholarly collaboration between African and African American scholars.

As well as the notion of lament, Katongole repeatedly invokes the notion of agency. However, he does this without reference either to postcolonial theory or to African postcolonial theology whose forté is biblical scholarship. As a result, Katongole tends to depict agency as straightforward, uncomplicated and unproblematic – except perhaps in a philosophical kind of way. But subaltern and postcolonial scholars have long pointed out how complex agency is so that some distinguish between survival, resilience and agency. Others have sought to distinguish between various faces and phases of agency. Nor does Katongole problematize his notion of martyrdom much beyond Catholic canonization of martyrs. When a poorly built church building collapsed and killed more than a hundred worshippers at the church of televangelist TB Joshua in Lagos Nigeria in 2014, he immediately conferred martyrdom on the deceased. Which kinds of martyrs are more authentic and why?

Agency – of the straightforward and one-size-fits-all type – tends to be thrust upon Katongole’s chosen faith activists without much interrogation or nuance. This reflects both the limitation of his particular take on portraiture and his neglect of insights from African postcolonial theology. This neglect extends to one of the most prolific African theologies of our time, namely African Women’s Theology produced and sponsored mainly, but not exclusively by the CIRCLE for Concerned African women theologians. I do not recall seeing a single reference to the work of a single member of the CIRCLE. How can an African male theologian expect to analyze the stories of female victims of violence in Africa, including doing justice to the biblical notion of ‘daughter of Zion’, to the total exclusion on the voices of African women theologians?

While it is understandable and even commendable that Katongole centers his theology around the amazing work of his native Catholic Church in Africa, the truth is that the fastest growing and the largest African churches today are of the Pentecostal, Independent and Charismatic churches. Like the African biblical scholarship and African women theologians, these churches are conspicuously absent in this book. This is not to say that the portraiture of Catholic Archbishops, bishops and Sisters is not instructive. This is rather to suggest that within and between the youthful charismatic churches of Africa, a new thing is being born. It is a thing to which Katongole may not be fully awake.

My sense therefore is that the practices of hope and lament in Africa are probably more complicated than Katangole’s mainly Catholic template allows for. While Katongole’s book offers a captivating engagement with the practices of hope and lament in selected areas of East Africa and the Great Lakes region, he makes himself guilty of what I call ‘descriptive haste’ which, amongst others, ignores the complex and fruitful scholarship by African theologians, especially women and non-Catholics, on this very topic.

Tinyiko Maluleke
Tinyiko Maluleke is Professor of Theology in the Faculty of Theology at the University of Pretoria in South Africa. In addition to his scholarship on African theology he is a prominent public intellectual on South African, African and global socio-politics.