Beckett: Listening to the African Women’s Collective Voice

Context

In the book edited by Ogbu U. Kalu, African Christianity: An African Story is a collection of essays by various African theologians that give a fascinating account of church history in Africa that both dispels myths perpetuated by Western Christianity and gives an edifying image of the current state of Christianity in Africa. In this article, I will be reflecting on one chapter in particular, chapter 17 by Nyambura J. Njoroge: “A New Way of Facilitating Leadership: Lessons from African Women Theologians.” Before I continue with my reflection, however, it is necessary to distinguish between African Christianity and Christianity in Africa.

The book is largely a reaction against the latter, Christianity in Africa, which can be described as the Western colonial and imperial invasion of Africa. Such Western efforts have been historically insensitive toward genuine African cultural expression and regarding all traditional African cultural expressions as “pagan” and “heathen.” As a result, African cultural expressions throughout history have been entirely deposed, forcing African Christianity not to be uniquely African but in accordance with Western ideologies that are entirely alien to African culture and socio-economics. In short, Christianity in Africa can be characterised as the Western imperialistic demand, “You must look and sound like us in order to be Christian.”

African Christianity, on the other hand, is that expression of Christianity that is uniquely African in identity and agency. Much of scholarship on historic Christian missions has been focused on Western missionaries in Africa. However, as this book shows in its beginning chapters, missionaries who are African in origin are also largely responsible for evangelism and mission in Africa, including famous early Church Fathers such as Tertullian, Origen, and Augustine! African Christianity consists of an African people whose hearts and minds have been transformed by Christ (Romans 12:1-2) to be unquestionably Christian but also uniquely African through decolonisation efforts and a rediscovery of African cultural identity (i.e. contextualisation).

It is within this context of African Christianity that Njoroge writes in chapter seventeen. Her chapter needs to be understood within this context of seeking An African Christianity. She addresses issues that are worthy of our attention while there are also some errors that need to be addressed.

Yet some more context is necessary before I begin, specifically on this chapter’s author. Nyambura J. Njoroge is an “ordained minister” of the Presbyterian Church of East Africa (PCEA) in Kenya. She was the first Presbyterian woman to be “ordained” a minister by the PCEA in 1982. (As Lutherans, we do not believe in women ordination, which will be very briefly addressed at the end of the article, but her voice is still worth listening to.)

She has a doctorate in African Christian Theology and Ethics from Princeton Theological Seminary and she is extremely passionate about sexual violence issues. As such, since 2007 she has sat as program executive for the Ecumenical HIV and AIDS Initiatives and advocacy at the World Council of Churches. She has written extensively, which includes 35 works in 66 publications in 5 languages.

Hearing the African Women’s Voice

The chapter has a twofold focus on a leading female African theologian named Mercy Amba Oduyoye and her Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians (aka, the Circle) that was launched quite recently in 1989 with the courageous objective to speak on issues concerning African women: “theological education for women; gender and theology; biblical and cultural hermeneutics; imperialism and globalization; gender-based violence; theology of lamentation; and theology of HIV and AIDS pandemic” (Kalu, 389).

The World Council of Churches (WCC) played a large role in helping to formulate the Circle. The Circle rose from Oduyoye and her female colleagues’ desire to see African women’s academic education become significantly more practical. As they met, they articulated this desire: “Affirming that the true Christian is involved in the world, the women felt that theological education relevant to their culture would enable them to work within the community from a basis of sound biblical and theological principles: not that they neglect academic and biblical part[s] of their training but that they be shown how to use it in their daily lives and work” (Kalu, 390).

This desire rose from their experiences that theological institutions fail to recognise and respond to the needs of women, especially African women. Generally speaking, this is the background in which the Circle was instituted.

The Circle is not solely Christian based, however. Oduyoye wrote that they seek to include participants in the Circle from other religions as well, such as Islam and Judaism. Oduyoye wrote, “‘We do not ask for religious affiliation in the Circle, only that one should consciously live by a belief in God.'” Njoroge calls it “an ecumenical and multi-faith movement,” which really is just a misnomer for unionism (Kalu, 392). This gets me into my disagreements with Njoroge, but for now, I will echo the African women’s voice that needs to be heard. For now, it should suffice to say that the Circle cannot be called Christian if it has a unionistic function.

The first thing to echo is letting the African women’s voice speak on the ubiquitous problem of HIV and AIDS and other evils in Africa. Since the Circle has been formulated, African women and others (including men) “have written on such topics as widowhood, wife inheritance, childlessness, single parenting, [and] female genital mutilation” (Kalu, 400), which is a tremendous accomplishment worthy of recognition, admiration, and praise. Yet women don’t need to be ordained in order to bring attention to these issues, as Njoroge believes.

Nevertheless, their honourable efforts led to the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) to learn of the grim trepidations committed against African women that was otherwise kept silent. The following quote from UNIFEM is quite graphic, so bear that in mind as you read this section of their statement:

We were completely unprepared for the searing magnitude of what we saw and heard in the conflict and post-conflict areas we visited… We learned of the dramatic increase in domestic violence in war zones, and the growing numbers of women trafficked out of war zones to become forced labors and forced workers. But knowing all these did not prepare us for the horrors women described. Wombs punctured with guns. Women raped and tortured in front of their husbands and children. Rifles forced into vaginas. Pregnant women beaten to induce miscarriages. Fetuses ripped from wombs… We heard accounts of gang rapes, rape camps and mutilation [of female genitalia]. Of murder and sexual slavery. We saw scars of brutality so extreme that survival seemed for some a worse fate than death.

Kalu, 401

From this disturbing report alone, I believe the Circle needs the support of people everywhere in spite of their unionistic and heterodox tendencies.

Regarding this, a final voice worth echoing is Njoroge’s endorsement of Christian lamentation, which is a subject I myself have been passionate about teaching since vicarage. She reacts against John Mbiti, who said, “‘one would hope that theology arises out of spontaneous joy in being a Christian, responding to life and ideas as one redeemed'” (Kalu, 402). While what he says is generally true—that there is absolute joy to be found in Christ’s redemption won for us—in light of the disturbing research just read from UNIFEM, Njoroge sees a need for proper lamentation, which I agree with wholeheartedly. She quotes from Denise Ackermann, a South African theologian, who is worth quoting in full:

I suggest that our scriptures have given us a language that can deal with suffering. In the ancient language of lament we have a way of naming the unnamable and of crying out to God in situations that are unbearable. What is lament? It is a form of mourning but it is more purposeful. It signals that relationships have gone terribly wrong and it reminds God that God must act as partner in the covenant. It is both individual and communal. It is a primal cry that comes out of the human soul and beats against the heart of God. It calls God to account for our human suffering. Lament is risky and dangerous speech; it is restless; it pushes the boundaries of our relationships, particularly with God; it refuses to settle for things the way they are.

Kalu, 402

Denise Ackermann is spot on. The ancient language from the Scriptures she’s speaking of is the Psalms! Within these songs, we have great resources for lamentation. Psalm 13 is a wonderful example. All these psalms, excluding Psalm 88, all have the general formula of: complaint, call to action, and trust in God. Again, Psalm 88 is the only exception, which is why it must be coupled with Psalm 89 (Psalm pairing is a common exegetical move among Hebrew scholars).

Njoroge’s Errors (In Brief)

This article does not allow for a full discussion of Njoroge’s errors, so the three errors I’ll be reacting against will be extremely brief and deserve fuller attention elsewhere.

First is the Circle’s “biblical” focus that comes from the biblical context of Jairus’ daughter and the bleeding woman (Mark 5:21-43). Njoroge’s interpretation of these events is indicative of what Chris Rosebrough calls “narcigesis” (narcissism + exegesis). Narcigesis is making the text about you, the self, rather than using proper exegetical principles that reads it in its given context in the Scriptures as well as disregarding any Christological significance.

A common example of narcigesis is when people use the story of David and Goliath and say something absurd like, “You are David, and like David, you need to find your five smooth stones to slay your Goliath,” rather than reading the Scripture as it is: a historical account that also foreshadows the vicarious atonement of Christ on the cross (the Son of David) slaying the Devil (Goliath).

Njoroge’s narcigesis of these two women is, as she writes, “Let us lend supportive hands to one another and help one another to arise. For Africa will not arise unless its womenfolk, the mothers and bearers of life, arise” (Kalu, 392-393). Her interpretation is remarkably self-centred rather than Christ centred.

Second, Njoroge defines the “missing link in God’s mission” as the “lack of affirmation of women’s full humanity and denial of women’s full participation in God’s mission in the church and society as our voices and contributions are overlooked, silenced, devalued and not recognized as fully authentic and credible” (Kalu, 394-395). It is from this perspective that she and others in this chapter and their own writings argue for women’s ordination from their desire to see more female leadership in the church. However, women do not need to be ordained in order to have a position of leadership in the church.

She and other women feel that their voices are not being “heard, heeded or taken seriously.” In other words, “Being heard, seen, valued and acknowledged as full human beings created in the divine image and sound cannot be disputed as key to the success of African women’s theologies” (Kalu, 395). This expression that has resulted from the African women’s desire to apply their academic scholarship to more practical matters in their daily lives is a vocational issue, which Lutheran theology has an answer to. What they need is a right understanding of vocation, not a subversion of the Pastoral Office.

She correctly states, “Even today there are people who cannot comprehend that women are equally endowed with theological minds and leadership qualities, especially if they happen to be black women” (Kalu, 395), but the proclivity toward a certain aptitude does not justify displacement of God’s created order according to 1 Timothy 2:11-14.

It is true that female voices—especially African women—often go ignored, and they shouldn’t; but this does not mean the correct course of action must be to place women in the Pastoral Office. As I read this chapter, I kept thinking of something my mentor, Dr. Peter Nafzger, said at seminary, “If we respected women, they wouldn’t seek or ‘need’ ordination.” Nafzger sees a problem of respecting women in our synod, not just in the world. If we respected women as the creatures whom God has made them in His image, he argues, they wouldn’t need to seek ordination to acquire the respect and honour they rightly deserve.

Lastly is Njoroge’s advocacy for “‘other ways of reading the Bible'” (Kalu, 396), which is another way of saying “without Christ at the centre of our hermeneutics.” Even when she says Jesus is their inspiration, their theology is exceptionally me focused. She gives a long quote from Musimbi Kanyro, a female Hebrew scholar from Kenya, but I find a particular sentence problematic: “Since the Bible forms the base and informs the African Christian on what they can validate or not validate in their culture, I will start from the framework of reading the Bible with cultural eyes” (Kalu, 397).

This is a theology of glory. Rather than reading the Scriptures through the lens of the cross (theology of the cross), she contends for a reading through the eyes of culture. Richard Niebuhr calls this the “Christ of Culture” paradigm that “interprets Christ wholly in cultural terms and tends to eliminate all sense of tension between him and social belief or custom” (Niebuhr, 85).

As Niebuhr later critiques this perspective, “They take some fragment of the complex New Testament story and interpretation, call this the essential characteristic of Jesus, elaborate upon it, and thus reconstruct their own mythical figure of the Lord… It is always something that seems to agree with the interests or needs of their time” (Niebuhr, 109). In other words, we get narcigesis. This is precisely what we are seeing going on here with Njoroge and her colleagues

The problem with this paradigm is that this “cultural Christianity” is not effective in making disciples of Christ for life, it results in dishonest readings of the text (i.e., narcigesis), Jesus is reduced to a moral teacher worth emulating while underplaying His salvific role as Kinsman Redeemer, it places the culpability of sin in social institutions rather than in the individual and corporate humanity, and it tends “toward the extreme of self-reliant humanism” (Niebuhr, 113).

Supporting the African Women’s Voice

Regardless of these errors, the African women’s voice addressed in its respective section is worth listening to and supporting. Because of the Circle’s aim to educate institutions and individuals on sexual violence against African women and to stop this evil, I believe their aims ought to be supported. However, the problem remains that the Circle is unionistic and advocate for women ordination.

So, the question remains: What are good, practical ways for our synod or any congregation to support and endorse the Circle in their efforts toward education for African women and preventing sexual violence against African women without simultaneously endorsing their unionistic practices and in some cases false theology? Because of their unionism, we obviously cannot support them in any official capacity, so what other ways can we support their efforts? This is a dialogue I believe needs to start happening within our church body.

Bibliography

Kalu, Ogbu U. African Christianity: An African Story. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 2007.

Niebuhr, Richard H. Christ & Culture. New York: Harper & Row, 1951.

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