Chapter 12: What Does God Ask of Us? by Mercy Amba Oduyoye
(Mary Amba Oduyoye, an ecumenical leader from Ghana, is President of the Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians [EATWOT].)
The Assembly of the World Council of Churches held in Vancouver, Canada in 1983 had the theme: "Jesus Christ, the Life of the World." It did not come as a surprise to anyone that while we were being called to life we had to talk about death. We would like to praise God, adore God, thank God for the gift of life. Everyday is a fresh gift from God -- we know, but we praise our Maker while we have life. We believe that when our voices are lost in death, our nobler parts shall continue to praise God: But here and now we need to live as people who recognize that life is a gift from God.
What does God expect us to do with the life he has given us? If God loves the whole world and brought it into being, we ought to relate to creation as having the same source as us -- as if we were siblings. St. Francis of Assisi caught this vision of our link with the rest of creation. If we believe that God is a God of justice, the Righteous One, dealing with compassion and showering us with well-being -- shalom, then our lives have to reflect this justice and this peace. We begin life loving, appreciating beauty and care and tenderness. We begin life acknowledging our dependence on those around us, smiling for pleasure offered us and holding firmly to friendships that are offered to us. And even before we can say it, we show that we are thankful to God for life. We are thankful to God for the healthy environment and we are thankful to God for people. We do not say it and may be we have forgotten that time was, when all we had were people and what we needed to survive was the life of another human being. JPIC (Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation, June 3-5, 1989) calls us to praise God for human beings and for all of God’s creation.
How did a conference on life pass into deliberations on death? Brokenness is an experience we all share. Barriers and fences, they and we, are divisions Set up not simply to recognize diversity, but to fence off others, to conserve for our sole use the gifts of God, and to prevent others from trespassing on what we see as ours. When we go over boundaries we do so usually to exploit, to add to what we have. The JPIC call here is to penitence and confession. To this we shall return.
Faced with a world at home with sin, John the Baptist proclaimed the word of hope, a way out of our seemingly intractable problems and irreconcilable postures -- Repent and be forgiven, turn to your neighbors and hence to God. When Jesus began his work he brought the same message and even more urgently. God reigns, he said and if you acknowledge this then your lifestyle and attitudes have to conform to life in God’s presence. Whenever the word of God is proclaimed, whether in the Old Testament, New Testament, or to us today through the events around us we are called to make a decision. All who are concerned with the human stewardship of the earth, with justice and with peace, are called to be committed to what makes for justice and for peace.
The focus on the integrity of creation, on peace and on justice has been launched because there are many who hurt, and know that they hurt. This is the sign of hope. There are people all over the world who have never doubted the interdependence, inter-relatedness and common welfare of all of creation and who have lived conscious that they have no right to pillage and despoil the earth. That is a sign of hope. All over the world there are people who cannot stand by and see others exploited and dehumanized, they themselves would never sit quietly under indignities, there are persons who have courage to call for justice and to deal justly with those they encounter, they are a sign of hope. All over the world there are people who know the injustices cannot go on for ever and that the peace of any community is perched precariously wherever there are people who hurt. More and more people have become aware that the absence of military combat does not necessarily mean peace but also that preparing for war is a waste of what may be used for better expression of humanness. Peace movements all over Europe and North America have done great work to expose the arms race, militarism and militarization which in the final analysis is a profit-earning enterprise that feed directly on human blood and human greed. All these people and organizations are signs of hope. We have not gone too far to turn back. That is the sign of hope on which we call for further efforts. We still burn with desire not to perish together. God, I believe, will continue to keep stirring in us, this love for life and this awareness of our inter-relatedness.
It is the faith that God is in our struggle for survival, that God stands for justice and for peace and that there is no part or portion of creation that God ignores, which keeps us praying. We pray not only for just and peaceful relations among human beings but for an awareness of God’s care for creation of which we are a part. How can we say we love God, we thank God for giving us the earth for a home, and then continue to ruin all that is given to sustain our lives. The litanies of our intercessions grow longer with our awareness of what we ought to be about as human beings. The creation that used to rejoice with us and to remind us of the beauty and bounty of God now groans with us as rain and snow do not come to feed our crops and as the earth grumbles and the waters spit out death. We call on God to sharpen our awareness and to give us the will to live as we pray.
We commit ourselves to all, not only other Christians. but all human beings who work for justice, who recognize that a necessary first act on the road to peace is to recognize our common humanity, our common dependence on God and the earth God has given us. All who realize that the future of humanity is linked together are beginning to subsume their physical and economic differences under the need for human survival which depends on the survival of the earth. Religious people are contributing to this search in the belief that the earth and all of creation is God’s and that our future depends on recognizing this. We, all human beings, share one human nature and our future depends on this. Recent experiences remind us of how easily we can share and spread death around. Our future depends on sharing and spreading life to all peoples. We cannot call God our common Father and live as if some human beings are expendable.
We who have met under this theme of justice, peace and the integrity of creation have done so as part of our commitment to stand together and to work. For this we share our experiences of the struggle, the joy of the signs of hope and the agonies of the barriers to shalom. We shall gather further steam to launch forward, firm in our faith that working in this is doing God’s will, that indeed we are standing together with God against death and suffering. So let me share something of what I see as the affirmations, and the signs of hope that Americans are an integral part of this struggle to manifest total humanness and to acknowledge God’s ownership and care of the whole of creation of which human beings are a part.
Creation Hangs Together
In the wisdom and religious beliefs of Africans, we human beings are linked with the earth and nature around us although we know ourselves to be children of God. We know that we depend on the earth, the sea, the rivers, all of nature to sustain the life God has given us, but also that there is a living spirit in all of this created life that we must recognize and honor. When we Africans acknowledge this by associating the spiritual powers we feel around us with these other manifestations of God’s creative power, we are despised as pagans, worshiping trees and stones. We were told to be more scientific about our relations with the rest of creation. To tap their potential for our technological development and never mind how many trees we cut down nor how much waste we pour into our waters as long as each year we produce and consume more than the previous year.
The worst of this education is that we were being prepared to open our lands for callous exploitation. The best of our forest was cut down for furniture that soon became archaic and was replaced by cutting down more forests. Land that could grow corn for staple food went for cocoa for luxury chocolates and human beings who could have developed Africa were bought and sold to grow sugar cane which today we have realized is not too good for human consumption. The recognition of the integrity of creation means for me above all the recognition that all human beings have a right to live and that our environment has to be protected and respected to ensure this life. The labels primitive people, non-technological cultures, have helped to create a hierarchy of human beings. We all live in a developing world and our common survival depends on how we understand how much we need to live and how much of what we have is a show of power and prestige.
Much of what we call culture is the outcome of how we relate to our physical environment and our sense of responsibility towards the human beings among whom we live and the rest of creation around us. Under the philosophy of development built on the illusion that change and growth are the same as progress and that any move, especially if it goes in the direction of control and exploitation of nature is to be desired, we have set up the Euro-American culture as the mark of development, and the acceptable level of human consumption.
We have argued that since theirs is a developed world all that they do must be right. Their values and relationships as expressed in social and legal systems are set up as being better than what obtains in African culture. To be developed Africans have to give up their world view and human values, take up those of Europe and make innovation and consumption the end of life.
Our very physical form is disparaged and people are simply exploited, ignored, dehumanized for no other reason than that they are black. They represent a "dying" culture, a primitive form of being human. The white world is unable to integrate black-skinned people into their view of the human species. Primitive ideas that people who look different are not quite human still rules the minds of most white people. This deep-seated disability gets rationalized into sophisticated theories that enable the white world to exploit Africa, Africans and all peoples of African descent with impunity and satisfaction. The integrity of the human race is daily disputed by our language. We speak of races, a concept which has no translation in my language. All human beings are children of God, the Akan say -- none is the child of the earth. The injustice built into global economic relations that exploit sectors of human race by color and gender disputes the integrity of humanity. Peace in the southern hemisphere is violated daily and continuously because of injustice that flows from lack of recognition of the integrity of all creation. It is stewardship turned into domination. This is injustice -- the absence of right relationships.
To Do Justly is to Live Peaceably
The ability to respond to God only comes as we relate gently (justly) to the world and to one another. Time was when we blamed poverty on indolence, attributed domination and hierarchies to natural order and appropriation of land as the will of God. Today, we are more critical about the causes of the inequities that we experience. In most of Africa, before the intervention of Europeans, land was not sold, it was not owned, it was assigned for use and when not in use reverted to the whole community. Today, land issues are central in the struggle for justice in South Africa, in other parts of the continents, small farms are giving way to commercialized plantations that take away land without providing employment.
We lament the state of family life, but today we cannot blame prostitution, child abuse, delinquency of adults and children simply on lack of morals and irresponsibility. To deal justly with the socio-economic situation of Africa, we have to agree to the necessity of social analysis and an understanding of the historical and cultural underpinnings of what we experience. Not much of this analysis is being done in Africa itself. The Africans who do so in the global context in international meetings are often made to feel like they do nothing but complain. People are tired of hearing of our colonial and missionary past and what it has done to us. But we cannot forget. We have to work with this history if we are to be just to ourselves. We have to do this analysis if we are to act effectively on root causes. Since the end of the U.N. Decade celebrated in Nairobi, a more realistic approach to the world of African women has begun. The only problem is that we African women have become objects of study. We want to do our own analysis and to seek solutions to what matters most to us. We are yet to find people who understand our position.
We would like to see how the struggle for human dignity is undertaken without having to divide the search into racism, sexism and classism, least of all to be made to prioritize our struggle. Some women’s experience is that of domination, other feel marginalized, while for some the experience is one of rejection. For women in Africa much of the injustice and lack of a sense of well-being is located in the area of technological development. So much of what the West takes for granted is, still in Africa, a struggle for survival. Women in Africa have to decide whether to abandon ourselves to the technological culture or to remain in the fire wood and water-fetching age. Left to the priorities of the men at the helm of affairs nothing will change for women in the homemaking and food production lines; men do none of this except for pay outside the home. The disabilities of women are legitimated by the exploitation of God and what is said to be natural. Violence against women may not show itself blatantly as sexual violence, but much of religious rites do violence to the self-esteem of women.
The global phenomenon of the increase in the numbers of poor applies to Africa. With modern land-use acts some women have lost their means of livelihood. In West Africa where commercial enterprises give women a fair amount of economic independence, there is an invidious language that disparages this and makes it sound unnatural for women to be wealthy. In the 1950s a whole gender of literature known as "The Onitsha market Literature of Nigeria" focused on the economic activities of Ibo women describing them as viragoes, witches and prostitutes or else portraying them as money-loving, adulterous killers. More insidious in this attempt to control the economic success of women is the Legio Maria a Namuwango church which uses confession to control women. Women are made to feel guilty for trying to acquire an independent source of income. They are accused of being greedy and of departing from Luo traditional image of a good wife. Women who succeed economically cannot be decent women, if they were, they would submit to the control of men. In this way women are made to fear the disapproval of society if they did not play the right game in a man’s world, playing this game means allowing oneself to be marginalized from most modern structures.
Justice for women would involve a just definition of development which implies that women participate in defining national development. Justice for women means the possibility to influence policies involving war and peace, militarism and militarization, the possibility of diverting resources from death-generating enterprises to life-sustaining efforts. Justice for women includes room to participate in deciding what health care is needed, what legal developments are just. Women want to and must be left in peace to organize themselves against control, domination and exploitation. The yearning for a just society is deeply woven into the bearing and caring of life.
There are several government-sponsored or -created women’s organizations in Africa, usually named National Council for Women’s Development or similar appellations. There are African heads of state who have gone out of their way to promote the political activities of women and to sponsor them as party-politicians. There are others who have been made to accept women’s participation. But there is more of the atmosphere of lip service or sheer antagonism towards women in politics. Justice demands participation.
Women in West Africa have been known to hold governments to ransom when they have had enough of being marginalized, manipulated and managed. There were events against colonial governments in Nigeria. At least since 1956 when South African women hit the headlines with their protest against pass laws, they have never rested. They fight forced removals, they protest against the detention of their children. They continue to labor relentlessly for the birth of a South Africa that respects the humanity of all of God’s children.
There can be no just and life-giving shalom as long as forces that promote death continue to reign. There can be no peace and caring relationships in a human community that treats as less than human any group of persons within or outside of it. As Christians we affirm that one of the fruits of righteousness is peace. Opposing nuclear weapons is a good course, but we know that beyond that is the peace we are yet to understand. When there is no more physical combat will we be able to boast of an end to the psychological violence of all sorts that we experience today? When will people be able to live unmolested by laws that safeguard the interests of the powers-that-be? Shalom (peace) is the well-being of the total community, not just sectors of it. On this more than anything else, the whole community must stand together for we are in danger of perishing together. Peace and the well-being of the whole of creation is one agenda. The victims of war are victims of injustice and greed and they include human beings as well as the rest of creation. We cannot struggle for human rights in the midst of war, neither can we enjoy social and cultural developments when the conditions for peace are absent.
Response and Commitment
As Christians the struggle for the integrity of creation, for justice and peace in the human community, for compassion towards the neighbor and concrete expressions of our love of God, all flow out of our affirmation that God first loved us and gave us Jesus Christ. It is our response to the call of Jesus to take up our cross and follow him. We share the pain the rest of creation is going through as a direct result of our lack of integration of theology, ecology and technology. Our involvement in the struggle has to be one of a permanent concern that will guide our lifestyles. If we can make joint commitments, then we have to speak and act together or at least in concert as we pursue different aspects of the struggle. We have to affirm our faith together and continue to worship together so that the world may come to believe that we mean it when we say all human beings are the children of God and that this world belongs to God.
We shall join as a world of humans to commit ourselves to a theocratic world, getting rid of all patriarchies and androcentric view of life that draw us even into militarism, incessant innovations.
We need to join hands to reconceive and give birth to a model of development that is not exploitative either of humans or any aspect of creation.
We shall join as a human community in seeking to end the spiritual, psychological, intellectual and economic impoverishment of all women.
We need to create more awareness of the detrimental use of chemicals on women, rivers and plants.
We shall be dealing justly when as a Christian community we commit ourselves to the abrogation of all structures that generate external debts in the Third World.
As humans we have to rekindle our commitment to the ending of all human rights violations or else we all stand dehumanized.
There can be no peace where there is no justice-this you who belong to peace movement have to digest and act accordingly.
Europe has just been through an assembly with the theme "Peace with Justice" saying "Justice and Peace embrace each other."
Between Europe and world peace is the exploitation of the Third World.
Children die before they have lived, starve in the face of Europe coming between Europe and the peace she thinks of.
What does this ask of us but to turn back from our foolish ways. Turn back from ethnocentricity and self-justification. Turn back from the lust for scientific and technological innovation whatever it costs and however it is used. Turn back to God the Creator of all.