By Dr. Mark Ogunwalè Lomax,
The block buster movie Black Panther turns long-held worldviews upside down in an hour and thirty-four minutes. It takes the ugly, messy, morally and destructive story of Afrikan experience in the “white” world and posits a counter-narrative that simultaneously deconstructs the carefully constructed and derogatory image of Africa and Africans and constructs a hope-filled eschatological vision borne on the wings of African ancestral legacy. This article argues for the need of an Afrikan-centered Christian hermeneutic born of a reconsideration of the religio-cultural and social antecedents of both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament as well as the development of a prophetic vision that sees in Wakanda an image of the Reigndom of God where Afrikans walk in the fullness of their humanity for the benefit of all people.
From the beginning of her encounter with europeans Afrikan humanity was denied. Her families and villages were destroyed in the name of a european-looking Christ. Her cultures were annihilated. Her histories were almost completely eviscerated. And her spiritualities were (and continue to be) demonized and barbarized. And in the place of her own stories and cultures and histories and spiritualities were placed first, Islam, then versions of Christianity that had been thoroughly baptized in european culture and reframed in ways that were and are consistent with pre-Christian Druid, Celtic, and Germanic spiritual practices. In his book Must God Remain Greek?: Afro Cultures and God Talk the late professor Robert E. Hood says the following:
“. . . Graeco-Roman and Renaissance/Enlightenment cultural dominance in Christian thought is also implicitly linked with conquest and power rather than just natural selection and emergence of the fittest . . . even the university contributed toward sanctioning this Graeco-Roman cultural and intellectual hegemony. . . The Graeco-Roman packaging of Christian theology, dogmatics, languages, and traditions particularly raises acute issues of cultural and religious hegemony, called by less charitable people “cultural imperialism.”1
Professor Hood’s insights should cause us to ask a couple of questions. First, by who’s authority did Graeco-Roman and Renaissance/Enlightenment cultures dominate intellectual discourse? Second, does what Hood call “packaging” or the “cultural and religious hegemony” of Christian theology and etc. by those who would at a later point in history be called “european” (a word deriving from the Greek goddess Europa), make their assumptions and insights authoritative for all peoples everywhere, regardless of their own legitimate perceptions and experiences of the Holy? My answer to the first question is their authority came in all too many cases at the point of the sword and later, with the force of buckshot and cannon blasts. This is the way that my ancestors were converted to Christianity. To the second question I respond that the europeans possessed no real authority outside of their own capacities to impose their adopted cultural and religious notions on other less powerful and less vicious peoples. That is, they were guided more by political expediency and economic greed than by the Holy Spirit of God.
The Greek, Romans and later, the european divines of the protestant tradition and their successors (Catholics played a significant role form the outset) participated in and lent moral suasion to, the transatlantic slave trade, and the destruction of indigenous peoples and cultures in the southern and western hemispheres. They never stopped to ask either themselves or those whom they enslaved or slaughtered, about their own faith traditions and spiritual practices. Although they believed they were called of God to evangelize the “heathens,” they never even attempted to discern whether those so-called heathens were already people of faith.
Had europeans any interest at all in forming relationships with West African peoples they would have discovered that the distance between the Christian doctrine and West African traditional religious belief wasn’t far; that there were more commonalities than differences. According to John S. Mbiti in his book African Religions and Philosophy, 2nd ed. Africans believed in a high “monotheistic”2 God who is transcendent and immanent; who creates all of the worlds ex nihilo; who is sovereign, who sustains the whole of creation and is Lord and judge of all.3 Mbiti goes on to demonstrate that West African cosmology, in particular though not exclusively, is very similar to Christian worldviews of the modern era. Mbiti, for example, says the following:
“The Ovimbundu name for God means ‘He Who supplies the needs of His creatures.’ This is one of the most fundamental beliefs about God, and examples of it come from all over Africa. In various ways God provides for the things He has made, so that their existence can be maintain and continued. He provides life, fertility, rain, health and other necessities needed for sustaining creation. His providence functions entirely independently of man (sic), though man may and does at times solicit God’s help.”4
Yet perhaps it is not the theology that bothers those who confess Christ. Many Christians can accept that practitioners of African Traditional Religions (ATR) and African Derived Religions (ADR) possess similar or even the same notions of God. Christians are most interested in whether or not a person makes a confession of faith in God through Christ Jesus (and their Christological notions are almost always governed by eurocentric phenotypical and ideological impositions and interpretations). In the Nicene Creed (which is written in Greek language and thought forms, then re-interpreted in Latin, French, German, English & etc.) we confess with the whole church:
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father; through him all things were made. For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven, was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became truly human.5
With the divines at Nicaea we are clearly confessing that Jesus is more than just God’s anointed one or the Christ, we are also confessing something about what we believe is his essential nature – “only son of God,” “eternally begotten of the father,” “God from God,” “Light from Light,” and etcetera. Jesus is human and divine. He maintains his humanity even as he simultaneously participates in God’s essential essence. Those who crafted and imposed this set of beliefs about Jesus on the unsuspecting masses, took centuries to figure out what they really think and believe about Jesus and God. Indeed, many are still attempting to figure it out.6
In the Apostle’s Creed, we confess:
I BELIEVE in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord . . .7
It is the special Greco-Roman attributes the church ascribes to Jesus in the 2nd century of the common era that separates it from other African Traditional Religions and certainly from African Derived Religions. Dr. Charles S. Finch in his book Echoes of the Old Darkland: Themes from the African Eden has this to say,
Another remarkable parallel is revealed in the Shango cycle of Yoruba Mythology. Shango is the first king of the Yoruba nation of Oyo who is eventually persecuted by his own subjects and driven from the throne. In his despair, he hangs himself from a tree after which he falls into a deep hole. Eventually he ascends into the sky on a chain and becomes one of the most powerful orishas, the controller of thunder and lightning. His emblem is the axe and his zootype is the ram. There are a number of curious mythic parallels between Shango and Jesus,” says Finch. “1) each is styled a king, 2) each suffers persecution by his people, 3) each dies by hanging, 4) each descends into the nether world, 5) each is resurrected, ascends into heaven and is translated into a divine immortal, and 6) each exhibits a zootypical identification Arian ram” (“Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29 NRSV)8
Admittedly, the Shango cycle of Yoruba Mythology is different from the confessions we Christians have come to make or believe of Jesus.9 There are however, also similarities between what practitioners of Ifa, Candomblè, and Vodun believe about Shango and what we believe about Jesus. What then is the rationale for condemning those with whom we have differences when in fact, there are also profound similarities? Do we really believe that the Creator of the universe is “without a witness” in every culture on the planet? Are we so arrogant and/or misguided to make this assumption about the Sovereign One of the whole multiverse in whom we profess faith? Certainly this Sovereign One about whom we speak and to whom we bear witness in such lofty language speaks to all peoples, even to those whose cultures, languages and cosmologies are foreign to us, in their own contexts too.
In chapter six of his book, Must God Remain Greek, professor Hood meticulously illustrates the relationship between western Christology and African Traditional and Derived Religious practices of anointing and its implications for the devotee’s relationship with God and neighbors.10 Professor Will Coleman in Tribal Talk: Black Theology, Hermeneutics, and African/American Ways of “Telling the Story,” examines the practice of conjure in African Traditional and African Derived religious cultures asserts that,
The West African priest or priestess and early African American conjurer (both male and female) and/or preacher was a mediator of the sacred. Like the very young and the elderly mentioned above, he or she lived between the realms of the physical and the spiritual. The primary difference was that as a self-conscious mediator he or she responded to a “call” to serve his or her community . . . the first religious leaders to be recognized as authentic by the slaves were not Euro-American Christian missionaries, but men and women who either had learned the priestcraft in West Africa or were taught by someone else who had.”11
Hood and Coleman both articulate beliefs and practices within Afro-Religious cultures that could lend real value to western Christian understanding, identity and praxis. Yet, the age-long and misguided hostility of the Christian west toward Africa, African peoples wherever they are found, African cultures, histories and especially its spiritual identities and practices continue to hinder the formation of true and healthy relationships.
Christian attitudes towards Africa and Africans in regard to African religious values, beliefs and practices is very curious because Christianity itself is an African Traditional Religion. Hosea 11:1 says in part, “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.” The prophet of course, was thinking not of a person; he was not thinking of Jesus. He was referring to the nation of Israel. This biblical reference is important because it explicitly states that the origin of those who practice the Jewish faith is Egypt, Africa. We Christians have an unhealthy habit of ignoring the spiritual antecedents of Judaism. Instead of examining the ancient Egyptian religious context in search of conceptual frameworks, theological concepts, Christological antecedents, and soteriological models, we act as though the purported 380-year sojourn of Jacob and his children in Egypt is of no real consequence; as though any people can live anywhere for nearly four hundred years and remain untouched by their environment. Gary Greenberg, who serves as President of the Biblical Archaeology Society of New York wrote a book entitled The Moses Mystery: The African Origins of the Jewish People. In it, he argues quite persuasively that the ninth king of the Eighteenth Egyptian Dynasty, Pharaoh Akhenaten, was the first true monotheist; that Moses and subsequently the Levites were devotees of the Aten (or Sun) which Akhenaten asserted was the symbol for the one and only God, and students of Akhenaten.12 And in fact, a careful reader of the Pentateuch can see the tension between radical monotheists (Moses and the Levites) and rest of the Hebrew escapees. Those outside of the Levitical line kept “whoring after other gods” while Moses and the Levites were faithful to Yahweh. Indeed the experiences of Moses and the Levites reflects those of Akhenaten who is called “the heretic king” because he attempted to rid Egypt of all deities except Aten.
The writer of the gospel of Matthew seems to ignore the fact that one’s lineage is traced through one’s mother, lists Jacob as an ancestor of Jesus through Joseph in chapter 1 verse 2, then quotes Hosea 11:1 and applies it to Jesus in chapter 2 verse 15. While we can question Matthew’s hermeneutic, it is clear that linking Jesus to the Exodus event and Moses is an important element in his gospel. By so doing however, the writer of the gospel of Matthew also connects Jesus to Egypt, Africa, and he does it twice. First, he ties Jesus to Joseph’s ancestral linage through Jacob, then he images the holy family fleeing into Egypt to find refuge from Herod. The Gospel of Luke also links Jesus to Jacob (3:34) through Joseph. And in the Book of Acts chapter 7 verse 22 Luke images Stephen saying “So Moses was instructed in all the wisdom of the Egyptians and was powerful in his words and deeds” at the time of his stoning.
The Early Church Fathers were also aware of the connection between Egypt, Africa, Judaism and Christianity. In 427 C.E. Saint Augustine in Retractiones (1:3) writes: For what is now called the Christian religion existed of old and was never absent from the beginning of the human race until Christ came in the flesh. Then true religion which already existed began to be called Christian. And Bishop Eusebius, in The History of the Church (2:4) said, The Religion proclaimed by him to All Nations was neither New nor Strange.13
As a preacher who is a son out of the African diaspora and a member of an oppressed people; as a believer in God and a follower of Christ, I cannot afford to ignore the fact that the divine and human drama recorded in the pages of our Bible has its origin in Africa. Nor should anyone else. Geography matters especially when it is occupied territory. Those whom we call “the Jews” did not exit Egypt tabla rasa, with an empty consciousness. They were in fact Egyptians (the word Hebrew/Habiru- foreigners/wanderers perhaps obscures who they really were) who had been thoroughly baptized in Egyptian religious practice and culture on Egyptian/African soil. Further, it is clear that the writers of the gospels of Matthew and Luke believed the historic and genetic connection to Egypt important enough to mention in their narratives. Doesn’t meaning elude us as exegetes and hermeneuts when we ignore, for no other reason than our prejudice, the geo-religious and political contexts of the narratives, poems, prayers, laments, and laws documented in the Bible?
Second, if Jesus is a Son out of Egypt then he is African. This is a powerfully important hermeneutical insight not just for oppressed Africans and other First Nation or indigenous peoples, but for dominant whites who have been grossly miseducated via Greco-Roman and Germanic hermeneutical inventions and interventions, also. Because the ideology of race is so pervasive in Bible lands and biblical hermeneutical landscapes like N. America, S. America and S. Africa; and because light skinned people have privilege based solely on the color of their skin, accepting the Africanity of Jesus regardless of the actual color of his skin, is significant. It means, in part, that God chose an Afrikan as God’s son, anointed him, and used him to fulfill divine purposes in the world.
Third, the identification of Jesus with Africa and by extension, with Africans, allows the well-grounded and exegetically sound preacher to confidently read the texts of scripture through the “little tradition” and thereby 1) see and acknowledge those without privilege and pedigree in the text and 2) observe and declare ways in which God is surely as present with the underprivileged, the outcasts, and the poor as God may be with the privileged and the prosperous.
Fourth and perhaps most importantly, Christians can find no real justification for objectifying, vilifying and ultimately rejecting the humanity, the stories and the experiences of African peoples on the basis of their confessions of faith in God through Christ. Doing so reveals that other, non-Christian sociological, economic, military, cultural and even intellectual forces have trumped the gospel and become demigods sitting upon and ruling the conscious.
Jesus cast the vision of the Reigndom of God for his poor and oppressed contemporaries. The Reigndom of God envisioned by Jesus was and is a proleptic notion. It is simultaneously a present experience and an attainable future. The followers of Jesus participate in the Reigndom the moment they place their faith in God through the Christ.
Afrikan people possess all that is needed to construct healthy, livable, sustainable, and safe environments right now. Marvel’s production of The Black Panther has provided devotees and practitioners of African spiritualities (including Christianity) a hopeful, proleptic notion that takes Afrika, its cultures, spiritualties and peoples seriously. It is time to re-tell the story of how we’ve overcome; to proclaim the good news of Wakanda because it is an achievable possibility consistent with the will and purpose of the Deity of all of the worlds.
1 Hood, Robert E. Must God Remain Greek?: Afro Cultures and God-Talk. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990), p 7.
2 I place this word in parenthesis in order to emphasize the fact that Afro-religious cultures are in fact monotheistic. The same henotheistic cosmological structure observable in the Old Testament, is also quite visible in West African religious cultures. 3 Mbiti, John S. African Religions and Philosophy, 2nd Ed. (Lausanne, Switzerland:Heinemann, 1967), pp. 39-47.
4 Hood. p, 41. 5 Book of Confessions: The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA), Part I. (Louisville: Office of the General Assembly, 2014), 2.6 It is important also to recognize that this confession is more reflective of Neoplatonic and/or Hellenistic thought than North African Hebraic thought. This creed is thereby further evidence of the imposition of cultural and intellectual notions that in effect alienate non-Greek and non-Roman peoples from themselves. 7 Ibid. p, 7. 8 Finch, Charles S. Echoes of the Old Darkland: Themes from the African Eden. (Decatur, Georgia: Khenti Inc., 1991.) p. 198. 9 And we must always keep in mind that “our” confessions of Jesus were, more often than not, made at the point of a sword or the blast of a gun. Confessions were coerced, not solicited on the basis of moral or spiritual suasion. 10 op. cit., pp. 145-182.11 Coleman, Will. Tribal Talk: Black Theology, Hermeneutics, and African/American Ways of “Telling the Story.” (Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000), pp. 38-39.13 See D.M. Murdock, Christ in Egypt: The Horus-Jesus Connection. Stellar House Publishing, 2011, p. 49.
Dr. Mark Ogunwalè Lomax is the Senior Pastor, First Afrikan Church in Lithonia Georgia and Associate Professor of Homiletics at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta Georgia.
This is part of our series on AfroCultures, God-Talk and the African World.
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