Laurenti Magesa – « From Brokenness to Wholeness »

Laurenti Magesa

« From Brokenness to Wholeness: Healing a Wounded Church in a Wounded Continent and Fashioning an African Christianity of the Future »

Geraldo de Mori, Michel Andraos, Bernardeth Caero Bustillos

Concilium 2019-4. Christentum und indigene Völker
Concilium 2019-4. Christianities and Indigenous Peoples
Concilium 2019-4. Cristianismos y pueblos indígenas
Concilium 2019-4. Popoli indigeni e cristianesimi
Concilium 2019-4. Les peuples indigènes et le christianisme
Concilium 2019-4. Povos indígenas e cristianismos


Missionary evangelization in Africa played a big role in the alienation of African Christians from their cultural identity. It was all a result of the blatant ethnocentrism that associated Europe with the Gospel. By the sixteenth century, at the second encounter of the continent with Christianity, the misappropriation had become normative and formed the model for spreading the Christian message. But the approach clearly flouted the archetypical paradigm of evangelization established by the earliest Christian community. 

1. The foundational paradigm for evangelization

A few years after the beginning of the Christian movement in the first century, non-Jewish converts constituting the “Gentile” members of the Church already experienced firsthand what it means to be culturally alienated and wounded in the name of Christ. This was the case in Antioch where Paul and Barnabas were evangelizing. At stake was an issue that was threatening to severely limit, if not completely destroy, the unity and universal impact of the Gospel that Jesus himself intended (Mk.6:15, Lk. 14:23, Mt. 28:19-20, Acts 1:7-8). 

The root of the problem as both Luke (Acts 15) and Paul (in his letter to the Galatians) narrate it was a theological and pastoral lie. Some Jewish Christians emerged to champion the position that everyone, including non-Jewish converts, had to undergo the Jewish rite of circumcision and be required to observe Mosaic Law as a condition for valid baptism. These “Judaizers” contended that salvation in Christ depended on this hitherto exclusively Jewish religious ritual (Acts 15:1-6). 

At stake, therefore, was the crucial question of whether one had to become a Jew to be a Christian. In other words, what role does one’s cultural identity on the one hand, and one’s Christian character on the other, play in accepting the Christian faith? For baptism and salvation in Christ, are these mutually exclusive? Whereas Luke – probably for reasons of deference to Jewish Christian sensitivities at the time – retains a number of specifically Jewish customs as also applicable to the Gentile Christians, Paul, writing to the Galatians, paints a much more radical picture. For him, “absolutely no [cultural] conditions were to be imposed on the Gentile Congregations”[1] for baptism or in the general conduct of Christian life. 

Despite these small differences, however, both accounts concur that the Holy Spirit guided the Church to arrive at a resolution to the problem: particular cultural customs must not be imposed as requirements for baptism or seen as necessary for salvation.  Thus, what was threatening to open a gaping wound in the body of Christ received a healing balm. Without it, there would have resulted two grave and enduring consequences: either non-Jews would not have felt at home in the Church, or there would have been “a schism” resulting into “two classes of Christian, the perfect who observed the Mosaic Law and the imperfect who did not.”[2] The early Church concluded that the message of Christ did not warrant such divisive and demeaning processes and structures.

2. The Origins of Caucasian Ethnocentric Christianity 

The decision impressed upon the early communities as normative the imperative of accepting cultural differences in disseminating and accepting the good news of Christ. What the resolution of the dispute established could be summarized in the maxim (coined by the German Lutheran theologian Rupertus Meldenius in the 17th century): “unitatem in necessariis, in non necessariis libertatem, in omnibus caritatem” (in essentials, unity; in doubtful matters [non-essentials], liberty; in all things, charity).”[3] Acceptance of this truth in the evangelization of cultures should be paradigmatic. Nevertheless, it has not been fully adhered to historically, causing deep alienation and stigma in African Christianity. 

A combination of factors led to a warped model of evangelization. European conceptual, historical, cultural, spiritual and economic prejudices generally placed Africans at the bottom rungs of the human development ladder. Many of the same formed major components of the European missionary disposition to Africa in numerous open and subtle ways. Besides deeply wounding the continent and its peoples, it turned the Christian faith in Africa into a form of mimicry, ultimately rootless and soulless. Christianity in Africa developed into a religion apparently more concerned with exterior observation of regulations and obligations than with interior conviction and change.

The historical longevity of Christian presence in Europe contributed to the formation of this outlook there. After its beginnings in Palestine and early spread in the northern parts of Africa, Christianity extended to Europe from the sixth century facilitated by the political stability created by the Roman and Byzantine empires (Pax Romana) west and east of the Mediterranean. The dispensation of Emperor Constantine in the fourth century rendered Christianity the official religion of the Empire and accorded it extensive social supremacy from a persecuted social fringe. This enabled the formation of Christian structures in the subsequent twelve centuries and consolidating Christian religious power that theology sought to justify on the basis of Scripture. 

Many doctrines of the Church that were established or explained during this time took current European contexts and shapes. European Christianity consequently developed a sense of entitlement over the Christian faith in essence and appearance, actually ultimately “privatizing” it. It eventually imagined that the European expression of the meaning of the message of Jesus Christ developed at the time was normative universally. Ingrained deep within them, the missionaries from Europe spread this ideology wherever they went. They did not entertain other possible expressions of the faith; indeed, how could they? 

Rather than follow the foundational evangelization paradigm of discernment and judicious accommodation of the cultural others, they opted for imposition and theological and spiritual threats – or even at times physical violence – as evangelization tools. Thus, beyond mere superficial submission and imitation, this European missionary paradigm, so hostile to cultural difference, did not allow African Christianity to develop its specific self-understanding in its particular physical and social reality.

3. Consequences on African Christian Identity

Author Okot p’Bitek describes the attitude by which European Christian missionaries evangelized Africa as “arrogant.” Taking their culture as the criterion of Christ’s Gospel, they thought of themselves as representatives of a “higher” civilization than what they encountered in Africa. For the missionaries, “Western values and customs were … identical with Christian morality,” necessary conditions of civilization.[4] Almost everything African was stigmatized.

Consequently, the language, symbols and signs used in Christian catechesis in Africa became deeply alienating at many levels. Equating blackness with evil and damnation, for example, drove many dark-skinned African converts to consider themselves inferior and hate themselves. To escape the predicament of the “damned,” Africans tried as much as possible to become like the white missionaries. School education which the mission churches championed everywhere compounded the situation by instilling a state of “anthropological poverty,” dispossessing the African peoples of everything that made them who they were – “their identity, history, ethnic roots, language, culture, faith, creativity, dignity, pride, ambitions, right to speak.”[5]

Over time, the very mental outlook of Africans has thus been drastically altered. Gradually discarding the values of community and human equity embedded in their socio-religious traditions, the educated African elite in the church and society generally now promote a culture of class distinctions. Often, they reject the African spiritual and religious heritage and instead assume indiscriminately European cultural thought and behaviour in the name of faith in Christ.

Karl Marx’s observation on how the European capitalist economic system involves the dehumanization of people is very relevant to the history of Africa. Besides prospecting for ivory, the system perpetrated the sin of “turning … [the continent] into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins.”[6] The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade – without doubt the most heinous and destructive chapter in the history of Africa – rejected the identity of indigenous Africans as human beings. Yet the ideology was for a long time fully abetted by the Christian churches under the pretext of Christianizing and civilizing the “natives.”

The slave-traders were accompanied everywhere by Christian ministers acting as chaplains or spiritual guides. At the ports of departure of the slaves on the African coastline, the chaplains – when, at last, the Christian churches conceded that blacks  had redeemable souls – baptized them en masse in order to save them from sure damnation that was otherwise their lot. Beyond being objects of commerce for the slave traders and of spiritual pity for the Christian chaplains, indigenous Africans were literally nothing as human beings to the slave traders and later to the colonizers and imperialists. The damage this has inflicted to the African’s sense of self-identity is incalculable.

The educated elite, as the closest collaborators of Europeans in the alienation process in Africa, constitute the “comprador class” of the imperialists. Ever since they replaced the colonial rulers in the 1960s as political and civic leaders, they have cooperated in promoting the process of expropriating from Africa its economic and cultural resources and subjugating the continent to foreign interests. Spiritually they continue to do so under the dubious banner of Christian universality. But these unilateral models of existence, now undergirded by the ideology of globalization, serve only to traumatize African dignity. And by undermining much of the spirituality of the African people, Christianity diminishes the ability of Africa to develop its identity as a distinct political, economic, and social entity. By the same token, it undercuts the power of Jesus as a comprehensive healer in Africa and, thus, the wounds of the continent continue to fester.

4. Recovery of Sight: Culture as a Way to Authentic Evangelization

For a long time now, Western political intellectuals have been well aware of the centrality of culture in human progress, as certain statements attributed to some of them indicate. The sentiments reveal a guaranteed technique to defeat a people and create a Caucasian empire. The procedure involves dispossessing indigenous communities – the subalterns – of their language, their system of education, their customs, their culture, further compounding their peripheral status. In a word, it is necessary to alienate people from themselves in order to fashion them in the image of the conqueror. Consequently, in 1835 the English Lord Macaulay is reported to have insisted to Parliament with reference to India:

I do not think we [the British] would ever conquer this country, unless we break the very backbone of this nation, which is her spiritual and cultural heritage, and, therefore, I propose that we replace her old and ancient education system, her culture, for if the Indians think that all that is foreign and English is good and greater than their own, they will lose their self-esteem, their native self-culture and they will become what we want them, a truly dominated nation.[7]

And referring to modern Greece, US Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, argued:

The Greek people are anarchic and difficult to tame. For this reason we [America] must strike deep into their cultural roots: Perhaps then, we can force them to conform. I mean, of course, to strike at their language, their religion, their cultural and historical reserves, so that we can neutralize their ability to develop, to distinguish themselves, or to prevail.”[8]

In the most sinister of ways this strategy has been applied to Africa by both colonialism and Christianity, with the goal of obliterating the selfhood, the awareness of life, of the African people. 

But Jesus came to show the way to the fullness of life (Jn. 10:10) for individuals and communities everywhere, entities that can grow into the fullness of who they are only through the development of their own consciousness. The basis of this in history is the process of co-creating oneself with God. Self-realization is therefore a movement of “self-making” whereby a person forges one’s reality through one’s “acts of meaning,” leading, once again, to self-definition in community or as community.[9] Culture or civilization therefore implies the process of “meaning-making” and “meaning-giving,” a characteristic of all human communities. No community is in this sense a spiritual, political, or economic vacuum or “tabula rasa.” But African indigenous communities were perceived as such, where missionaries and colonizers aimed to write their grand scripts.

The damage this caused to Africa is incalculable, for, as Eugene Hillman elaborates, it blocked the construction of the “social identity, cohesion and continuity” of African communities, because for any community the process “depends upon the strength of its symbol systems … which contain and communicate a society’s common meanings, values, perceptions, judgments, goals and worldview.” Hillman is right in arguing that if these “commonalities” are suppressed or destroyed, as they were to various degrees in Africa, “communities gradually fall apart.” They “become progressively more vulnerable to foreign manipulators and to the emerging selfish individualism of their own members.”[10]

In Africa, spearheaded by European colonialists and imperialists as well as by Christian missionaries, the stereotype grew and spread that African “meanings” are  “barbaric,” “savage” “primitive,” ”animist,” “fetishist”  “tribal,” and so on. They are as such always in need of European assistance to transcend these “sub-human” states of existence. In one form or another, such presumptions are still extant; covertly or openly, they continue to shape Africa’s socialization processes and interactions with other human communities. What history clearly shows, however, is that these particular assumptions and others like them are impositions which deeply wound the African person and cry out for healing from within.

5. “Stand Up and Walk”: Enhancing Freedom from the Yoke of Cultural Slavery

When the early Church rejected the Judaizers’ claim that salvation was contingent upon the ritual of circumcision, it specifically argued that this would be too burdensome a yoke for non-Jewish Christians to bear; in fact, it admitted that Jews themselves found strict adherence to the Law of Moses an almost impossible requirement (Acts 15:9-11). What was important, the Church concluded, was faith in Jesus demonstrated practically through works of love and justice. The implications and requirements of this insight for evangelization in Africa are far reaching; the depth they denote for African Christianity has yet to be completely captured, despite talk of inculturation. 

The requirement has to do with radical cultural freedom in Christian discipleship, such as Paul defines for the Christian community of Galatia: “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery” (Gal. 5:1). Paul’s goal here, according to one commentator, is “to emphasize that Christians had been freed from the requirements of the Law. For those who placed their faith in Christ, salvation was no longer contingent upon obedience to the Law’s requirements … but was a gift of God.”[11] This divine gift could be experienced in, and expressed through, any cultural form. In terms of faith in Christ, every culture is called to “stand up and walk.”

The Christian churches now largely recognize this truth as well as the need to transform alienating models of evangelization. A reference can be made here to Pope John Paul II’s apology to the Christian world as he marked the beginning of the third millennium. Reflecting on the historical anomalies of Christian evangelization, he described certain periods of missionary work as “painful” and deserving “repentance” from the Church. Periods that saw “the acquiescence given … to intolerance and even the use of violence in the service of [Christian] truth,” according to the Pope, constitute a blatant disregard of the fact that “The truth cannot impose itself except by virtue of its own truth, as it wins over the mind with both gentleness and power.”[12] The Truth of Christ can take root only through inter-cultural encounter and dialogue. 

Already in the 1960s, Pope Paul VI made a direct appeal to the African continent’s bishops to construct “an African Christianity” in terms of “the language and mode of manifesting” the one, universal faith in Christ.[13] And, as Pope John Paul II later affirmed, from the period of the Council of Jerusalem onwards, “the Church opens her doors and becomes the house which all may enter, and in which all can feel at home, while keeping their own culture and traditions, provided that these are not contrary to the Gospel.”[14]

It is why Pope Francis has recently found it necessary to reiterate as paradigmatic the model of evangelization established by the earliest Christian communities. He underlines the fact that “cultural diversity is not a threat to Church unity.” Quite the contrary: through cultural diversity, the Holy Spirit works to bring about unity “which is never uniformity but a multifaceted and inviting harmony.”[15] As Pope Francis explains further,

While it is true that some cultures have been closely associated with the preaching of the Gospel and the development of Christian thought, the revealed message is not identified with any of them; its content is transcultural. Hence in the evangelization of new cultures, or cultures which have not received the Christian message, it is not essential to impose a specific cultural form, no matter how beautiful or ancient it may be, together with the Gospel.[16]

The logical consequence of the foundational New Testament paradigm is clear to Pope Francis: “We cannot demand that peoples of every continent, in expressing their Christian faith, imitate modes of expression which European nations developed at a particular moment of their history, because the faith cannot be constricted to the limits of understanding and expression of any one culture.”[17] The European ethnocentric mode of evangelization in Africa fell into this mistake. Undergirded by a false sense of superiority, European Christianity deliberately projected Caucasian culture as the only form of expressing the Christian message. This has rendered Christianity in Africa superficial. 

6. Looking to the Future

However, Euro-Christianity in Africa will not endure the upsurge of post-colonial consciousness evident not only among her visionaries and reformers but to an unprecedented degree hitherto in the general public as well. The contours of the form that the Christianity of the future should take are already being drawn. The religious traditions of Africa, embedded in the culture(s) of the African continent are understood to be part and parcel of the human patrimony, and as such they are taken to constitute an indispensable basis for a new African theology and Church.

Cultural liberation is, of course, a central feature of the reconstructed Christianity. There is awareness of cultural difference, but not of inferiority. As part of the one body of Christ African culture has a role to play in interpreting and understanding the inexhaustible message of Christ, without which this understanding will be so much diminished to the detriment of the Church universal.

Contact with African culture is at the same time a meeting with African spirituality and religion whereby the realization is confirmed “that God has acted [there] from the beginning

  • on individuals, by ordaining the spiritual instinct in them
  • on the whole body of culture, by penetrating it with a sacred universe
  • on their myths, by depositing frequently in them seeds of truth.”[18]

With such awareness, the African Church from the grassroots upwards has to arm itself with a new attitude, one of proactivity. While ready to learn from the mistakes others have made in the long history of Christianity, the Church in Africa must learn to risk: in the formation and interpretation of doctrine, in formation and establishment of new ministries demanded by its own needs, and particularly in the celebration of the signs of salvation. If there is one thing the Church in Africa must ignore without apology, it is the humiliation that has been attached to the reality of African identity here. To discard the state of internalized stigmatization is, absolutely, the beginning of wisdom.For more than two millennia, God’s grace has preserved divine presence in African culture, despite human senseless endeavours to eradicate it. It has been proven that the mission of God transcends Church and that no earthly power can contain the divine Spirit. Meeting the African soul in African culture is meeting God there. As Pope Paul VI declared in 1964, “All religion raises us towards the transcendent Being.”[19] African Religion is therefore a path towards God. As is the case with all human reality (historical “Christianity” being no exception), the Word that is Jesus constitutes its excellence. It is on this perfecting power of the Christ that the gaze of African Christianity should exclusively focus.


[1] Norbert Brockman and Umberto Pescantini, A History of the Catholic Church (Nairobi: Paulines, 2004), 21

[2] Brockman and Pescantini, A History, 23.

[4] Okot p’Bitek, African Religions in Western Scholarship (Nairobi: Kenya Literature Bureau, 1970), 54

[5] See Akintunde E. Akinade, “The Crucible of Faith: Justice and Liberation in the Work of Engelbert Mveng.” Accessed on September 9, 2018.

[6] See Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States (Boston: Beacon, 2014), 32

[7] Accessed on September 12, 2018.

[8] Accessed on September 12, 2018.

[9] Ben F. Meyer, The Early Christians: Their World Mission & Self-Discovery (Eugene, OR.: Wipf & Stock Pub, 2009), 25.

[10] Eugene Hillman, Toward an African Christianity: Inculturation Applied (New York: Paulist, 1993), 9.

[11] Accessed on September 11, 2018.

[12] John Paul II, Tertio Millennio Adveniente, 35.

[13] Accessed on September 12, 2018.

[14] John Paul II, Redemptoris Missio, 22.

[15] Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, no. 117.  Accessed on September 7, 2018.

[16] Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, no. 117.

[17] Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, no. 118.

[18] Secretariatus Pro Non-Christianis, Meeting the African Religions (Roma: Libreria Editrice Ancora, 1968), 10.

[19] Secretariatus Pro Non-Christianis, Meeting, 123.


Harry Lafond is from and lives on the Muskeg Lake Cree Nation, which is in Treaty 6 Territory. The Cree Nation occupies the territories stretching from James Bay to the Rocky Mountains. By profession he is a trained teacher and has taught from elementary classrooms to university classes. He has a Masters degree in education with certification to teach the Cree language. Harry was asked to be the chief of Muskeg Lake and served the people in this role for 10 years. He is currently a councilor and has been in that role for the past 9 years. For 11 years he served as the Executive Director of the Office of the Treaty Commissioner in Saskatchewan. Harry believes in the power of building relationships as the primary road to a better community and the building block to the strengthening of a people.

Address: P.O. Box 82, Marcelin, Sask. S0J 1R0, Canada.