Theorizing Modernities article

Doing African Political Theology Outside the Box with Emmanuel Katongole

Wax print commemorating Pope John Paul II’s second visit to Nigeria in 1998. Image via Flickr user Tommy Miles. CC BY-SA 2.0.

Emmanuel Katongole’s recent work, Who Are My People? Love, Violence, and Christianity in Sub-Saharan Africa (2022) focuses on an important question about which little has so far been written, namely the question of African Christian identity. What does it mean to be an “African” and a “Christian” at the same time? Apart from the Ghanian Christian scholar Kwame Bediako’s book, Theology and Identity: The Impact of Culture Upon Christian Thought in the Second Century and in Modern Africa (1992), an offshoot of his doctoral dissertation presented at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland, in 1983, which sees African Christian identity as purely a spiritual and theological construct, there has been no other substantial exploration of this topic. Interestingly, the freshness that Katongole’s work brings to the conversation is that he is not exploring the question as a merely theoretical or speculative one, but as an existential question that shapes in very decisive ways the day-to-day realities, perceptions, and outcomes of African social, political, and Church life.

The Problem of Ethnicity in the Church in Africa

Let me begin with an example from a West African country—Nigeria—a bit far-away from the countries in eastern and central Africa which Katongole focuses on in his book. In 2015, two well-known Nigerian Catholic leaders—one an apostolic nuncio in the West Indies and the other a diocesan bishop in northern Nigeria—organized a seminar to discuss the problem of ethnic and sectional prejudices in the Church. The seminar came on the heels of an issue that was threatening the unity of the Catholic Church in Nigeria. In December 2012, Pope Benedict XVI had appointed a bishop for a vacant diocese in south-eastern Nigeria. The new bishop came from another diocese. He was from the same ethnic group as that of the diocese to which he was appointed, but spoke a different dialect. Many priests of the diocese mobilized the laity and together with them rejected the papal appointment, stating that they wanted a “son of the soil,” i.e., an Indigenous priest of their diocese, to be their bishop and not an “outsider.” This came as a shock to many people who always looked upon the south-eastern people of Nigeria as belonging to a homogenous ethnic group. The clergy and laity of the diocese in question accused a senior Nigerian Church official at the Vatican of masterminding the appointment of someone from his home as their bishop, decrying what they called “ethnic colonization.”

Despite the intervention of Pope Francis, the priests refused to back down. The “rejected” bishop resigned and was re-appointed to a newly created diocese in his own homeland. In 2022, Pope Francis surprised everyone by making this bishop a cardinal. As I write, the embattled diocese still does not have a bishop after more than a decade since its first bishop passed on. A similar event occurred in the diocese of Makeni, in the West African country of Sierra Leone, where a bishop appointed in 2012 to head the northern diocese was rejected by the Indigenous priests and lay people of the diocese, saying “they consider it an insult for the church hierarchy to bring in an outsider to lead them.” The new bishop hailed from a different ethnic group in the eastern Kenema district of the country.

I cite these sad stories to illustrate the fact that ethnic prejudices are a real issue in African societies and churches. However worrisome the Nigerian and Sierra Leonean cases are, they are nothing compared to the Rwandan genocide in 1994 wherein Christians who had been baptized with the same water of baptism, attended the same church, and participated in the same Eucharist, woke up one day to hack one another to death after using derogatory slurs such as “cockroaches” to describe their brothers and sisters. Thus, when Katongole in Who Are My People? asks the question which had been asked by French Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, then president of the Vatican’s pontifical council for justice and peace and John Paul II’s envoy to Rwanda in the aftermath of the genocide, “Is the blood of tribalism deeper than the waters of baptism?” (1), he is asking the crucial question about what constitutes the identity of the African Christian: Which marker of identity should establish a bond among Christ’s followers who are African—baptism or the tribe? If baptism, why has it not made more of a difference when it comes to tribal conflict? If tribe, why?

What happened in the Rwandan genocide has concerned Katongole for nearly thirty years. In his first major work on African political theology, The Sacrifice of Africa, he recalls: “This tragic event not only made me angry at the callousness with which the lives of so many people could easily be wasted; it shattered any naïveté I had about the church and Christianity in Africa” (8). How could this happen in a majority Christian nation at the same time that African Catholic leaders were meeting in Rome for the first Synod on Africa to set forth the identity of the church in Africa as “Family of God”?

Which marker of identity should establish a bond among Christ’s followers who are African—baptism or the tribe? If baptism, why has it not made more of a difference when it comes to tribal conflict? If tribe, why?

Tragic events such as the Rwandan genocide have shaped negative perceptions of sub-Saharan Africa in the western imagination, as that “God-forsaken wilderness” (15)—to borrow the expression of Joseph Conrad in Heart of Darkness—from which nothing good can come. Kurian, Katongole’s doctoral colleague at KU Leven, was perhaps acting on such perceptions when after watching the breaking news of the genocide, turned to Katongole as they were leaving the common room and asked, “Why do you Africans always kill your own people?” Katongole writes: “I was deeply troubled by the question” (12). Who Are My People? is his response to that troubling question. The first part of the book is a philosophical and theological reflection on Africa Christian identity, and draws significantly on the works of African and non-African, Christian and non-Christian, scholars. In the second part, Katongole focuses on ethnic, religious, and ecological violence in Rwanda, the Central African Republic, and Rwanda respectively. He sees these three forms of violence as symptoms of an “ongoing crisis of belonging” plaguing many sub-Saharan African countries, a crisis which has its origin in the invention of Africa at the dawn of colonial modernity. When he calls for a reinvention of Africa, therefore, Katongole is advocating for a critical engagement with modernity—a task he envisages for Christianity, Christian theology, and the Church in Africa.

Katongole’s diagnosis is compelling, but limited in its account of the history of this crisis. He does not seem to take account of the ubiquitous reality of sin. Sin is a wound, a rupture in the relationship between God and human beings, and it is the symptom of this wound that plays out in human societies whether we are looking at violence, poverty, war, or tribalism. Without addressing this theological issue, which is at the root of what the Catholic social tradition calls “social sins,” the possibility of redemption will be elusive. In this regard, Who Are My People? needs to be enriched by resources from Christian anthropology and soteriology, especially when it comes to what the tradition says about sin and about redemption.

Bringing Missiology to the Forefront of Africa’s Ecclesiological Identity

Notwithstanding, Katongole’s question remains valid. What does it mean to be an African Christian in the midst of harsh and sometimes tragic realities of African social life? To ask this question is to ask what difference Christianity can make in the task of reinventing Africa. I will highlight a few key areas where Katongole’s book makes a significant impact on how we answer this question. First, it elevates the question of the Church’s self-identity in Africa in a way that previous works have not done. In this way, it brings missiology—the theological understanding of the church’s mission—to the forefront of African ecclesial discourse. For instance, in the remarkable Christian individuals and activists from Uganda, Rwanda, the Central African Republic, and the Benin Republic, who are putting their lives on the line and interrupting the ethnic, religious, or ecological violence in their communities and nations, we see what it is to be a Church that is both attentive and responsive to the realities of its own social environment. 

When Pope John Paul II wrote the post-synodal exhortation to Africa, Ecclesia in Africa (1995), he compared contemporary Africa to the man going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, who fell into the hands of brigands, was beaten and left lying half dead by the roadside (cf. Luke 10:25-37). “Africa is a continent,” John Paul II said, “where countless human beings—men and women, children and young people—are lying, as it were, on the edge of the road, sick, injured, disabled, marginalized and abandoned” (para. 41). He expressed his hope that “the Church will continue patiently and tirelessly its work as a Good Samaritan” (para. 41). This is the ecclesiological identity and vocation of the Church in Africa that rings through Benedict XVI’s post-synodal exhortation Africae Munus as well—a church that is an instrument of reconciliation, justice, and peace on the continent of Africa.

Katongole’s book elevates the question of the Church’s self-identity in Africa in a way that previous works have not done.

Similarly, this is a concern that has been at the heart of the pastoral agenda of Pope Francis. Since the start of his pontificate in 2013, he has dreamt of a church that is a “field hospital.” By this, he means a church that is out on the battlefield attending to the wounded in dire need of healing, rather than a church that is timid, closed in, and afraid of stepping out of the securities of its own institutional existence. When he spoke to the Church’s pastoral leaders during his apostolic journey to war-torn South Sudan at St. Therese Cathedral in Juba, on February 4, 2023, Pope Francis reminded them that they are not called to be “tribal chieftains, but compassionate and merciful shepherds; not overlords, but servants who stoop to wash the feet of [their] brothers and sisters.”

Francis’s invitation to church leaders in sub-Saharan Africa to stand above tribal politics is a strategic call to embrace a different identity that is rooted in compassionate shepherding which should be the hallmark of the church. “Our first duty,” Francis notes, “is not to be a Church that is perfectly organized—any company can do this—but to be a Church that, in the name of Christ, stands in the midst of people’s troubled lives, a Church that is willing to dirty its hands for people.” This identity is in sync with what Katongole advocates in his book. Through the waters of baptism, the Christian acquires a new identity and starts off on “a journey of incorporation into a people—God’s new people—whose identity does not simply build on the so-called natural identities of ethnicity, tribe, race, or nation but reconfigures them in a distinct way, even as it heals and reconciles them” (44). This new identity is not merely spiritual. It has deep political resonance. Its power lies in the capacity to shape new visions and processes of politics in Africa that are grounded in an understanding of Christian life and identity as a journey. This is a journey, in which the African Christian is invited into new forms of community that cut across divides and heal different forms of brokenness and identities that often divide people.

The Importance of History and Social Experience in the Practice of Theology in Africa

A second area where Katongole’s book is impactful is in its attention to history and social experience in the practice of African Christian theology. The works of most modern African Christian theologians have largely been shaped by scripture and tradition as veritable sources of theology, without giving much attention to the concrete historical subjects of African theology, namely African Christians, in their day-to-day lived experiences. In 1992, the noted Congolese theologian Bénézet Bujo wrote in his book African Theology in Its Social Context: “The crisis of contemporary Africa can be solved only by those who have understood its historical roots and can see them in the light of the actual situation. Only thus can a new society arise which is both truly African and truly modern” (64).

The remarkable Christian individuals in the book who are disrupting these forms of violence in their communities and nation are given significant attention, not just for their faith-inspired activism, but more importantly because of their theological vitality and social agency.

The call that Bujo makes is for the renewal of African society through a fruitful engagement between theology, history, and social experience. Who Are My People? demonstrates a clear appreciation of Bujo’s call. In the African Christian theological landscape where the attention to history and experience in the practice of theology has been rather poor, Katongole’s book stands out for its conscious effort to pay attention to these neglected sources of theology. It critically interrogates the historical trajectory of Africa since the dawn of colonial modernity and brings that history into dialogue with the actual social experiences of the African peoples bearing the brunt of ethnic, religious, and ecological violence. The remarkable Christian individuals in the book who are disrupting these forms of violence in their communities and nation are given significant attention, not just for their faith-inspired activism, but more importantly because of their theological vitality and social agency. They understand the Incarnation not as a theological truth that stands outside human history, but as something that is deeply embedded in their own concrete social lives. Just as God in Jesus Christ takes on human flesh in order to condescend to meet suffering humanity, so these African Christian individuals are incarnating that love of God in Jesus Christ in their own suffering communities. They see their deepest identity in the story of God’s love made manifest in Jesus who sacrificed himself and died on the cross. This story, as Katongole notes, is the answer to the crisis of belonging in sub-Saharan African societies. “The power of this story,” he argues, “lies not only in resisting violence and healing its wounds but in shaping a new sense of self, a new sense of community (“my people”), and a new social order infused with love” (4). This is what makes Who Are My People? quite refreshing.

Conclusion: The Question of Gender

Considering how vexed the discussion on identity and violence is in sub-Saharan Africa today, it would be interesting to inquire what difference such a book would have made if it had included an investigation into how violence is produced in African societies from a gendered perspective. Gender remains an important site of violence, oppression, and resistance, and authors have argued for the need to include gender in the arsenal of analytical tools for rethinking African identity. While speaking to the victims of the armed violence, massacres, rapes, and exploitation going on in the eastern part of the Congo at Kinshasa on February 1, 2023, Pope Francis would not end his address without drawing attention to the plight of women, noting, “Violence against women and mothers is violence against God himself, who from a woman, from a mother, took on our human condition.” In this context, what does it mean to be an African Christian on a continent where mostly women are the victims of ethnic, religious, and ecological violence? Can Katongole’s work converse with the works of postcolonial African and non-African women scholars writing on the plight of women in Africa, such as Mercy Amba Oduyoye, Musa Dube, and Dorothy Louise Hodgson? This is a question we hope he can take up in more detail in later works.

Emmanuel Ojeifo
Emmanuel Ojeifo is a second-year doctoral student in theology at the University of Notre Dame. He researches issues related to political theology in sub-Saharan Africa.

One thought on “Doing African Political Theology Outside the Box with Emmanuel Katongole

  1. I am an ordained clergy man and a therapist who has been working with the survivers of the Rwandan massacre. Such an event is cause for serious reflection as to the actual priorities of those who have supposedly dedicated themselves to a specific religious belief. Nationalism is not limited to only tribal membership it may also include followers of diverse faiths who impose their own beliefs upon others in the name of Jesus, Allah, Deva, of Budda. One’s spiritual commitment must be beyond any allegiance to civic or national bonds.

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