It is much too easy in these days of self-examination as Anabaptist Christians in the 21st century to punish ourselves for colossal blunders when “spreading the gospel” here and around the world in the last century.
Such could be the case as we celebrate, with what is the Africa Inter-Mennonite Mission and its predecessors, 100 years of our mission efforts on the African sub-continent and what that work has spawned—the Communauté Mennonite au Congo or CMCO (Mennonite Community in Congo), see our major feature, p. 4.
Like our enmeshment in the political and cultural ethos of the late 19th and early 20th centuries as a colonial power in North America when we considered the indigenous peoples “savages” who needed redemption from their satanic ways, we not only thought, but labelled the people of Africa “pagans” who were to be rescued from their witchcraft and magic rather than recognize this as their authentic spirituality.
Today, we know better, of course, and are rightfully repenting of our complicity in these very wrong approaches to persons different from us. We, along with the Catholic Church, have done a 180-degree turn and in some cases, are actually tapping into the “spirituality” of these indigenous peoples as a way of refurbishing what some of us see as a decadent Christianity in Western culture.
In his review of a book on African spirituality, my college classmate and former Mennonite Central Committee worker who now calls himself a “retired Mennonite ecumenical worker in Nairobi, Kenya,” Harold Miller, quotes Pope Nicholas V “as authorizing Alfonso V of Portugal to ‘reduce any pagans and any other unbelievers’ to perpetual slavery and, later in another bull, to exercise dominion over discovered lands during the Age of Discovery.”
That was in 1452, but by October, 2009, six centuries later, Pope Benedict XVI declared: ‘The absolute Lordship of God is one of the salient and unifying features of the African culture. This sense of God makes Africa the repository of an inestimable treasure for the whole world, an enormous spiritual lung for a humanity that appears to be in a crisis of faith and hope.”
To be clear, this reversal is not to be considered universalism or pantheism, but rather a recognition, first, that as Christians we do not have an exclusive franchise on God’s dealings with humankind, and secondly, to partner with faith communities such as Islam and other eastern religions to find commonalities in our confessions and work together for peace and justice in overcoming the violence so debilitating to God’s creation. We do not have to give up our core beliefs to do that.
And so, in this context we should set aside our guilt and shame for the sins of the past, and celebrate with our sisters and brothers in the Mennonite Community of Congo with equal enthusiasm. After all, they are not overlooking our messianic blunders but are graciously integrating them into their joy of this occasion.
In his opening address, writes Lynda Hollinger-Janzen, “the CMCO president, Adolphe Komuesa Kalunga, named weaknesses and failures in the missionary approach of those who came to Congo—paternalism, a heavy focus on the spiritual with less concern for conditions that oppressed the Congolese people, and a reluctance to trust the Congolese church with financial management.”
But in his concluding address Konuesa said: “I salute those missionaries who gave of their youth and their lives for our country. I also render homage to their descendants who are still laboring for the welfare of our church. Let all of them know how grateful we are.”
How gracious and forgiving!
We should rejoice that the Mennonite Community of Congo is now almost as large in numbers and congregations as are we in the US/Canada—110,000 members, 798 congregations, 95 schools and 7 hospitals, compared to 131,750 members and 1,130 congregations (Mennonite Church USA/Canada combined) and to know that the Congo did grasp the social component of the gospel by establishing schools and hospitals in addition to churches.
Religion News Service added
Canadian Mennonite has added Religion News Service based in Westerville, Ohio, to its news sources for online articles. RNS, combined with Ecumenical News International, now gives more depth and breadth to religious happenings on both a global and US scale. Please tap into this new resource online; stories are updated daily.