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Why have you consistently stressed the need for the Western Church to learn from the African Church?

Question: I’ve heard you argue that the white Western church has a lot to learn theologically from African cultures. What is it specifically that you’re referring to?

Response: I do strongly believe that the western church needs to humbly sit at the feet of our fellow Christians in Africa. My conviction is based on four observations.

First, most African cultures, like most non-western cultures, have some form of a “warfare worldview” in which the world is inhabited by spiritual beings of varying degrees of strength and authority. Some of these beings are good, others evil, and they battle one another. Humans, and indeed the entire earth, are their battlefield. In these “warfare worldviews,” much of the suffering in the world is understood to be the result nefarious spirit agents.

In my book, God at War, I argue that this worldview is closer to the biblical worldview than the western Christian worldview that traditionally has assumed that everything in history (including sin and evil) proceeds according to a divine “blueprint.” I believe the western Church would benefit immensely by learning from our African sisters and brothers about the reality of the spirit realm.

Second, because it is largely free of the influence of the Hellenistic philosophical tradition, theologies that have arisen out of African cultures have better emphasized God’s involvement in human affairs. Unlike classical western theologies, there is no echo of anything like Aristotle’s “unmoved mover” or Plato’s timeless “form” of “the good.” This is why non-western theologians tend to be more sympathetic to the view that God faces a partly open future than western theologians.

Third, because of their experience of oppression, African-American theologies better emphasize the strong (but often ignored) biblical motif of God’s special concern for the poor and oppressed. Although Jesus said, “I’ve come to preach the good news to the poor” (Luke 4), for humans in powerful positions, as most white male western theologians have historically been, it’s been convenient to minimize this important motif.

Finally, African cultures tend to be more community-oriented than the modern, highly individualistic western culture. Westerners can learn a lot from these cultures regarding the (very biblical) concepts of community, interdependence, solidarity, and so on.

This is not to suggest that African culture, or African American culture, is inherently more Christian that white western culture. Aspects of these cultures also conflict with Christianity. Learning between cultures must go both ways, but traditionally it has only gone one way. With a sense of assumed superiority, white people have always presumed to teach everyone else. It’s time for the teaching to go both ways.

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