South African Tony Balcom on “faith in the boiling pot”

emergingvoicesIn 2014, I am committed to plunge into the massive literature on African theology, or what I prefer to call “Christian theology written by Africans.” After all, we don’t usually speak of “European theology,” “Australian theology,” or “North American theology,” so why should we insist on the term “African theology”? By speaking of Christian theology, it is an acknowledgment that the broad, Scriptural themes that unite us – wherever on this planet we happen to have been born and raised – are the priority.  On the other hand, speaking of “Christian theology written by Africans” admits that each of us unwittingly brings cultural “glasses” to the reading of Scripture that cannot be removed. These glasses affect the way we go about building our theology, including the choice of which themes from Holy Writ to emphasize and which to soft-pedal or even (unconsciously) which we ignore. Teaching only theology developed in Western settings means neglecting themes that are dear to the heart of Africans while emphasizing some that for them may hold less interest.

To begin this plunge, I took down from the shelf a book that – to my embarrassment – has sat unread for years, even if it has traveled with me as I’ve made my home and served as a missionary in Côte d’Ivoire, Benin, Haiti, Kenya, and now South Africa. William Dyrness helped edit Emerging Voices in Global Christian Theology (Zondervan, 1994). The compendium contains three essays penned by Christian theologians from Africa, as follows:

Anthony Balcom, “South Africa: Terrifying Stories of Faith from the Political Boiling Pot of the World”

Cyril Okorocha, “The Meaning of Salvation: An African Perspective”

Kwame Bediako, “Jesus in African Culture: A Ghanaian Perspective”

Today, we will look at the first.

Tony Balcom was born in South Africa but raised in Northern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). His essay was published the same year when South Africa elected Nelson Mandela as President. This means that Balcom would have been writing some time in 1993, when many South Africans feared that their country was teetering on the brink of civil war. In this context of seemingly intractable mistrust between citizens of differing backgrounds, Balcom poignantly observed (pp. 47-48):

For almost four centuries in South Africa, we fought and killed each other. When we tired of this we shouted abuse at each other across great divides of race, culture, and ethnicity. When we tired of this we slammed the door on each other, each pretending the other was not there, each hoping the other would go away. But when we squatted at the keyhole and squinted through to the other side, we saw each other there, as large as life, waiting. And we knew that one day we would have to do it. One day we would have to talk…it is the conversation of those who have begrudgingly come to realize that conversation is the only way out, because those who do not talk, fight. It is therefore conversation steeped in suspicion, resentment, fear, and hate. But it is nevertheless conversation.

Balcom tells three stories to illustrate his contention: “Not a single issue of life can escape the fact of our faith. Our faith demands of us that we ask the questions to do with our lives” (p. 47). The best story is that of Nonqawuse. A prophetess from the Xhosa people group, in 1856, she revealed that the ancestors had spoken to her and had instructed that all the cattle must be slaughtered. Once they were dead, not only the cattle but all the ancestors would come back to life in spontaneous resurrection, chasing away the white oppressors (p. 50). The paramount chief of the Xhosa, Sarhili, accepted the prophecy, and he ordered the slaughter, believing – according to the prophecy – that the resurrection would happen on 11 August 1856. The date came and went, with no resurrection. Balcom concludes: “The Xhosa people were effectively decimated” (p. 50).

The story of Nonqawuse is a tragic narrative that makes one appreciate the desperate lengths that the oppressed will go to in search of liberation. Further, it encourages today’s messengers of the Gospel to make sure that we are preaching Good News. This Good News is of a Christ who not only liberates us from our sins. More than that, regardless of our cultural heritage – in the words of our Nazarene communion ritual – Christ unites us as believers who are “one, at one table with the Lord.” Barriers of ethnicity must crumble around the Table.

It has been 19 years since Tony Balcom’s essay. Just over one month ago, former President Nelson Mandela passed away, heralded by one and all in the country as a Great Uniter. Debate continues regarding whether Madiba was a follower of Christ. Certainly God knows the heart, and we rest in that truth. However one answers the question, one thing is certain: Of all peoples, Christians should be at the forefront of promoting harmony among peoples of all backgrounds. This is the primary take-away from Balcom’s chapter, a timeless lesson in a troubled and divided world.

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Photo credit: Barnes and Noble

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