Bishop Okorocha on the meaning of “salvation”

Rev Dr Cyril Okorocha, Anglican Bishop of Owerri (Ima State, Nigeria)
Left: Rev Dr Cyril Okorocha, Anglican Bishop of Owerri (Ima State, Nigeria)

Like people, churches have a lifespan. They will eventually die. That doesn’t make it any easier for me to see buildings that used to house vibrant Christian communities of faith turned into houses or bookstores.

Yet the Gloria Gaither “Church Triumphant” lyric aptly states, “God always has a people.” In these days of declining church attendance in North America and Great Britain, it’s easy to lose sight of Gaither’s profound insight, that the “Church triumphant is alive and well.”

Exhibit A of that “aliveness” and “wellness” is Nigeria. In a West African nation brimming with the vitality of youth amidst a population of nearly 170 million, there are enough brands of Christianity to make your head spin. Many are independent churches, mixing up a strange brew of African Traditional Religion (ATR) and imported prosperity messages. Yet even long established Christian groupings – such as Anglicanism – are thriving.

An Anglican, Rev Dr Cyril Okorocha is the Bishop of Owerri in Imo State, Nigeria, and holds a PhD in missiology from the University of Aberdeen. Below is my review of an important chapter he contributed to a collection.

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emergingvoicesSome words I’ve always taken for granted. They seemed to need no definition. Salvation was one of them. For one brought up in the North American evangelical milieu, “salvation” for me as a child meant “going to heaven when I die” or “asking Jesus into my heart.” There were “wordless” books or Roman Roads, the “Four Spiritual Laws” or other “evangelism plans” that if followed meant that my “name is written in the Lamb’s book of life.” Or, to use the vernacular, “I’m saved!”

The more I study, the more I realize that – while an encounter with Jesus Christ is still vital – Scripture talks about salvation in a much broader sense. But what Cyril Okorocha does in his chapter entitled “The Meaning of Salvation: An African Perspective” (in William A. Dyrness, ed., Emerging Voices in Global Theology [Zondervan, 1998]) is to pull back the curtain on the worldview of the Igbo, a large people group in southern Nigeria. Specifically, he teases out how the Igbo understand the word “salvation.” In short, salvation is intertwined with well being (Ezi Ndu) in the here-and-now, which explains in-part the popularity of prosperity teachers in Nigeria. Okorocha observes (p. 83):

African primal peoples have no disinterested love for their gods. Worship is given only in return for protection and life-enhancing benefits. This pragmatic and almost utilitarian attitude to religion is the key to Igbo conversion to Christianity. But it is also the explanation for the rise of new religious movements, including the African Independent Churches.

A strength of the chapter is its presentation of prayers traditionally offered by Igbo who are not Christian. Besides prayers for health and well-being, there are prayers for peaceful community, prayers that accompany sacrifices to appease the spirits, and prayers for women to bear many children: “Marriage is primarily for, and in order, to have children. When a marriage fails to provide children, traditional steps are taken to rectify the situation” (p. 84).

In Western settings, “sin” is usually conceived individualistically. When Paul says that “all have sinned and fall short of God’s glory” (Romans 3:23), the individual is taught to think of this as “I have sinned.” Arguably, perhaps due to the influence of the Puritans in early American life, many Americans think of “major offenses” in terms of sexual sins. (Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 The Scarlet Letter is the epitome of this approach). But for the Igbo, “sin” is considered “any conduct or occurrence which may incur the wrath of the gods and therefore lead to the vitiation of life” (p. 87). Further, sin is dealt with communally. In a passage reminiscent of the Old Testament practice of Yom Kippur (see Leviticus 16.8-10), Okorocha (pp. 86-87) tells of the Yoruba practice of the télé (osu):

The télé is the Yoruba osu, or ‘human (usually male) scapegoat’: The people symbolically bind their sins on him on the day of the final ritual cleansing and warding off (after the cleansing sacrifice of the animal has been offered). The sins are tied on the back of the télé in the form of a heavy load (made up of all kinds of rubbish, often including human waste) which he bears to the sacred grove, the evil forest. The people throw the télé into the forest and chant: Take sins away! Take misfortunes away! Take disease away! Take death away!

Bishop Okorocha does a good job of describing the Igbo worldview but is less effective when offering a critique. While he speaks of the “anthropocentrism” (human centeredness) of African religion, unfortunately, he prescribes nothing to remedy the situation. (Such a remedy would certainly be helpful in North America, too). Instead, he lays out the importance of “power” without exposing the dangers of an outsized emphasis upon this one aspect of Christian faith. After all, can a Christian ethic be built upon “power” alone? As a missionary educator living in Benin (Nigeria’s smaller neighbor to the West), I encouraged our pastors to avoid speaking of power in isolation of other qualifying terms. Instead, our message should be the “power of a holy life.”  In this way, we can make sure that two elements often presented in tandem in the New Testament stay coupled.

This criticism aside, Cyril Okorocha does an admirable job of acquainting the reader with how many Africans view salvation, a vital topic not only to Christianity in general but to Wesleyanism particularly. I look forward to reading other writings by the Anglican Bishop.

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Photo credits:

1) Bishop Okorocha: Christian Voice News Online

2) Emerging Global Voices: Barnes and Noble

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