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Living on the Seam of History: African Chrisitanity Part 5

Categories Theology

With today’s post I would like to take a longer look at Samuel Waje Kunhiyop’s African Christian Ethics. It is part of the Hippo Books line. I’ve been quoting from it occasionally throughout this series but I believe Kunhiyop’s work merits its own post. In the introduction he describes the need for writing this book:

“A cursory look at the syllabi in many Bible colleges and seminaries in Africa will show that Christian ethics is often packaged along with Western ethics as if they are one and the same thing. They are not. The two have become confused because Western missionaries did not bring a naked gospel but one dressed in their own clothes and shoes. Students who should be studying African Christian ethics are too often engaged in wrestling with teleological, deontological, utilitarian and relativistic ethical theories emanating from the West. What should be taught in African theological colleges is an ethics that is African, biblical and Christian. That is what this book seeks to provide.” (p. 6) African_christian_ethics_2

Kunhiyop divides the book into two sections. The first focuses on the theory of ethics – from contemporary African ethics, Western ethics, Christian ethics and finally African Christian ethics. The second section is more practical in nature and changes topically with each chapter covering a wide range of subjects (Church and State, War and Violence, Strikes, Poverty, Corruption, Fund-Raising, Procreation and Infertility, Widows and Orphans, Rape, and Witchcraft to name a few).

“African ethics is intensely personal, communal and religious. It is personal in the sense that it is deeply rooted in the being of the person, affecting not only the mind, but also the heart, body and spirit. Any attempt to draw a distinction between theoretical (or spiritual) ethics and practical morality is wrongheaded and irrelevant to African Christians.

African ethics is communal in that it seldom thinks in terms of individual ethical decisions that do not affect other people. Whatever affects individuals also affects their immediate family as well as their distant relatives, both those who are living and those who are dead but still interested in the affairs of the living. This comprehensive community is critical to understanding African ethics. It also means that these ethics are developed in interaction with the past, the present and the future.

African ethics is also very religious. God, the spirits of the departed (the ancestors), and good and evil spirits have a pervasive influence on the morality of the people. For Christians, the Bible also serves as an authoritative moral influence. Thus in Africa there is no such thing as an abstract ethical system that has no practical and religious implications. The principles or rules that guide behavior are intertwined with the practice of ethics. It is in doing what is right that one discovers the ethical rules underlying the behavior.” (From the preface, p. xv)

As Kunhiyop moves through each ethical topic in section two he follows a concise and helpful formula:
He first describes each problem in detail – taking into account any factors that are historically tied to the given topic, then he looks for a Biblical perspective on the issue, usually asking what does the OT say and what does the NT say individually before drawing an overall conclusion, then he examines the Church’s response thus far – separately including the African church’s response – before offering a final conclusion. This model is effective because it keeps the Western reader aware of the differences in approach to ethical problems between the West and Africa.

“Just as the Western understanding of ethics has affected the ethical thinking of Christians in the West, so the traditional African understanding of ethics affects the ethical thinking of Christians in Africa. And just as western Christians have brought some principles of Western ethics to Africa, so African ethical thinking can feed back into Western thought, pointing out biblical principles that have been neglected in Western Christianity.” (p. 65-66)

I am continually reminded as I read through this book that my perspective of the Church needs to change as the Church grows and becomes stronger in other parts of the world. To read about hunger, motherhood and community through Kunhiyop’s lens is eye-opening.

To conclude his thoughts Kunhiyop offers an outline for decision making based on five important principles:
•God is the ultimate source and model of morality
•The Scriptures provide the ultimate authority in matters of morality
•Every aspect of life is subject to the scrutiny of the Scriptures properly interpreted
•The community of faith provides support, responsibility and accountability
•The world provides the context in which we live out this morality

Looking at this list I don’t see any difference between Western Christian Ethics and African Christian Ethics – and that’s good – but Kunhiyop’s point is what is underlying these ethics. Understanding the worldview’s we each begin with will help the Western church make better ethical decisions in Africa as well as prepare us to be affected by the African church.

What are your thoughts? How has the Western church made mistakes in the past by not understanding African ethics or African Christian ethics? How will work like Kunhiyop’s help us to “live on the seam of history”? --Andrew

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