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Christians and Their Ancestors: A Dilemma of African Theology

by Jack Partain

Dr. Partain, a religion professor at Gardner-Webb College in Boiling Springs, North Carolina, taught at the Baptist Seminary of East Africa, Arusha, Tanzania, for 13 years. This article appeared in the Christian Century, November 26, 1986, p. 1066. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


It is easy to be bullish on the growth of the church in Africa. On a continent where barely a million people were Christians at the turn of the century, there will be, if current trends continue, as many as 350 million Christians by the end of the century -- equal to the number in North America.

Yet many thoughtful African Christians are concerned about the future of African Christianity. They note that almost one-third of those 350 million will be first-generation Christians. Moreover, they see that many Africans -- both Christians and non-Christians think of Christianity as a foreign religion. The gospel is often not seen as offering resources for life’s most deeply felt experiences. When face to face with death or famine or infertility, many African Christians resort to traditional rites and beliefs.

At issue is a problem more nettlesome than the usual one of nominal Christian commitment. Rather, the central question is: Has there been an authentic engagement between the gospel of Christ and the cultures of Africa? More broadly stated: Does the gospel have a place everywhere in the modern world? Can authentic Christian faith flourish in every culture?

Important answers to these questions may arise in Africa. Andrew Walls believes that "what happens within the African churches in the next generation will determine the whole shape of Church history for centuries to come." He continues: "A high proportion of the world’s serious theological thinking and writing will have to be done in Africa if it is to be done at all" ("Towards Understanding Africa’s Place in Christian History," in Religion in a Pluralistic Society). edited by John S. Pobee [Brill, 1976], pp. 182-184)

Serious theological work is being done in Africa. Since the mid-1950, African theologians like John Mbiti, Edward Fashole-Luke, Desmond Tutu, Vincent Mulago and Harry Sawyerr have made it their mission to bring the gospel to bear on Africans’ lives and thought-worlds -- to make Christianity indigenous on a continent that first heard the gospel in New Testament times.

A major focus of these theologians is on the need to address some of the specific frustrations of African Christian spirituality. Of particular importance is the question of Christians’ relationships to their dead ancestors. In traditional thinking, ancestors are an essential link in a hierarchical chain of powers stretching from this world to the spirit world. Insofar as African traditional religion can be defined by specific "religious" actions, the cult of the ancestors is its most common and essential activity.

In order to understand the importance of ancestors one must realize that in the African view, death is not thought to end human relationships. Rather, those who die enter the spirit world in which they are invisible. Though the spirit world is a radically different world, it is also a "carbon copy of the countries where [the ancestors] lived in this life" (John S. Mbiti, Concepts of God in Africa [SPCK, 1970], p. 259). Deceased ancestors remain close by, as part of the family, sharing meals and maintaining an interest in family affairs -- just as before death. Yet they are thought to have advanced mystical power, which enables them to communicate easily with both the family and God. Thus they are considered indispensable intermediaries.

Deceased ancestors are integral to the traditional African social structure. In a culture where tribe, clan and family are of utmost importance, ancestors are the most respected members of the family. To be cut off from relationships with one’s ancestors is to cease to be a whole person. Moreover, the ancestors sanction society’s customs, norms and ethics. Without them, Africans are left without moral guidelines or motivation, and society is powerless to enforce ethics.

Rites for the dead are simple and omnipresent. The presence of the "living dead" is often acknowledged, particularly at meals or when drinking. Small portions are set aside or spilled on their behalf. In times of extremity, expensive gifts may be offered to them to gain relief or enlist their help.

Thus, a widespread "dichotomy of the soul" has grown up, in which believers assent to orthodox Christian belief and join in the denunciations of the ancestor rites, but privately retain their loyalty to the tradition -- especially in times of serious misfortune or death. South Africa’s new archbishop, Desmond Tutu, once lamented: "I, though a third-generation Christian, knowing only urban life with a father who was headmaster of an Anglican primary school, feel this division within my own soul" ("The Ancestor Cult and Its Influence on Ethical Issues," Ministry [July 1969], pp. 103-4)

On the other hand, some independent African churches, which have arisen without missionary tutelage -- while officially taking a harsh stance against traditional beliefs -- make use of prophets who play a role similar to that of the mganga -- traditional doctors -- in the ancestor cult. Other independent churches that affirm African tradition as essential to their faith encourage participation in the ancestor cult as a part of the Christian life. Some observers believe that the phenomenal growth of these independent churches is directly attributable to the mission churches’ strident attacks on African traditions.

Many African theologians -- themselves highly educated and westernized Christians -- speak of their passionate desire to be linked with their dead and of their own inner struggle. Tswana theologian and poet Gabriel M. Setiloane speaks for many African Christians:

Ah, . . . yes . . . it is true.
They are very present with us
The dead are not dead; they are ever near us;
Approving and disapproving all our actions,
They chide us when we go wrong,
Bless us and sustain us for good deeds done,
For kindness shown, and strangers made to feel at home.
They increase our store, and punish our pride
["How the Traditional World-View Persists in the Christianity of the Sotho-Tswana," in Christianity in Independent Africa, edited by Edward Fashole-Luke (Indiana University Press, 1978) , p. 407].

The theological issue facing African church leaders is both pastoral and existential. If the Christian faith is to have any real effect in African life, it must accept and address the spirit world. "We Africans cannot ignore the dead," Tutu insists. "A Christianity that has no place for them speaks in alien tones" ("The Ancestor Cult," p. 100) John Mbiti, one of East Africa’s most widely read thinkers, adds that "until Christianity can penetrate [the spirit world], it will for a long time remain on the surface" (New Testament Eschatology in an African Background [Ecumenical Institute, WCC, 1977], p. 155).

African theologians are the first to admit that this agenda is extremely delicate. Biblical evidence concerning relations with the dead is scant, and the issue certainly has not been of major interest among Western theologians. Church leaders also agree that some traditional notions about ancestors cannot be accepted by Christians. For instance, Christians cannot accept the view that ancestors have power over living family members, and they must emphatically deny that deaths are caused by ancestors. And divination, a primary preoccupation of the ancestral cult, is entirely unacceptable.

However, with these (and in some cases other) reservations, many theologians embrace or adapt traditional beliefs about ancestors. As theologian S. E. Serote insists, "Christian Africa must have a Christian ancestry" ("Meaningful Christian Worship for Africa," in Relevant Theology for Africa, edited by Hans-Jurgen Becken [Lutheran Publishing House, 1973], p. 150). In developing a Christian theology that speaks to the African understanding of ancestors, these theologians are confident that their insights will enrich worldwide Christianity.

According to these African theologians, the main tenets of traditional thinking about the spirit world do not really conflict with Christianity at all, but in fact parallel the New Testament understanding of a spirit-inhabited world. Furthermore, they say, there is no reason for Christian thought to be bound to a rationalistic, materialistic, scientific world view. A group of theologians who gathered in 1962 declared:

It is not part of the Christian Gospel to impart a particular metaphysic, but to speak to each man where he is. . . . It is necessary to present the Gospel in a form which meets that large area of human experience which is essentially irrational [quoted in African Independent Church Movements, edited by Victor E.W. Hayward (Edinburgh House Press, 1963), p. 74].

The theologians also agree with the traditional belief that death "is not the end of the story" (John V. Taylor, The Primal Vision [SCM, 1963], p. 165). To be sure, relations with a dead person are different from relations with someone who is living. But there is continuity; death is but another passage. In particular, family ties are not severed by death; the tribe or clan lives on. And most to the point: those who are in Christ enter a fellowship that "death can neither dissolve or weaken" (Mbiti, Eschatology, p. 147). Christians of all people, they note, should assert this reality.

The theologians do not all agree, however, on the precise nature of the relationship with ancestors. Some accept the cultic ways as more or less valid, intending to ‘christianize" the underlying concepts. For instance, Jabulani A. Nxumalo, a South African pastor, believes that the cult is essentially an indigenous process for celebrating death and grieving, and thus it presents no theological problems. The customs are but "gestures of respect toward the dead" (‘Christ and the Ancestors in the African World," Journal of Theology for Southern Africa [September 1980], p. 12). And M. Lyunungu goes so far as to include ancestors in his list of saints -- much as the writer of Hebrews included Old Testament heroes, who were also, as he points out, pagans ("Social Approach to the Ritual Activity of Man," Service [2-4, 1975], p. 47) In each case these writers believe that a purified ancestor cult can be baptized into Christian practice without doing violence to Christian belief.

A more prominent approach is to define the relationship with the ancestors in terms of the communion of the saints. From the beginning of the African theology movement, it has been suggested that this Christian doctrine can be revived, revised and given new prominence from within the African context. Western churches have tended to neglect this doctrine, but most of these theologians see the reality confessed by the ancient church – "I believe . . . in the communion of saints" as the fulfillment and Christian expression of Africa’s concept of community, which includes the dead. For this reason, John Taylor asked in 1963, "Is it not time for the church to learn to give the Communion of Saints the centrality which the soul of Africa craves?" (Primal Vision, p. 166).

By defining the communion of saints as "a spiritual fellowship which is based upon union with God in Christ through baptism," theologian Edward Fashole-Luke leaves open the question of whether this holy company includes all ancestors or only confessing Christians ("Veneration and Communion of Saints," in New Testament Christianity for Africa and for the World, edited by M. E. Glasswell and Edward Fashole-Luke [SPCK, 1974], p. 215) This position seems deliberately ambiguous. "We cannot simply say that the African ancestor can be embraced within the framework of the universal Church and included in the Communion of Saints," says Fashole-Luke (p. 216). But the Christian can remember with confidence that "the death of Christ is for the whole world and no one either living or dead is outside the scope of the merits of Christ’s death" (p. 217).

From this perspective, the church leaders readily accept their ancestors into the framework of the church universal. They believe that the old clan or tribal solidarity is fulfilled and universalized in Christ, who is the Ancestor of a worldwide family that is vitally related to all who have died. In this way, the African sense of human wholeness and solidarity is given prominence in Christian doctrine, and any alien individualism is overcome.

As Fashole-Luke and Mbiti suggest, the communion is described best in terms of intercession. Since Christians do not believe that the "living dead" have power to bless or harm, no one suggests that it is correct for Christians to pray to the ancestors (as in the traditional cult) But is it conceivable, they ask, that the relationship to one’s forebears -- which is so intrinsic to African personhood -- should be totally erased by death? Just as one’s parents prayed for their children while they were living, can it not be assumed that they will continue to do so after they die? "The intercession of the departed who are with Christ," Fashole-Luke writes, "is a legitimate consequence of the fellowship in prayer which unites the whole body of Christ" (p. 219).

But what about intercession on behalf of the ancestors -- especially those who were not Christians? Does one pray for them expecting some effect? Nxumalo speaks for many African theologians when he insists that such intercession is a Christian responsibility -- since duties to one’s elders are not changed by death (p. 20). Harry Sawyerr asserts that because intercessory prayer is a two-way exchange, the firm bond that cements us to our ancestors, some ancestors might be saved as an outcome of this intercession (Creative Evangelism: Towards a New Christian Encounter with Africa [Lutterworth, 1968], pp. 95, 137). Fashole-Luke is sure of the same effect and adds that Christians must "recover the practice of the ancient North African Church and pray in faith for the departed, both Christian and non-Christian. This will provide the Africans with that link with their dead which they so much desire" (p. 219).

Affirming this mystical bond with the "living dead" is seen as a particularly appropriate part of the Eucharist, when Christians declare their corporate existence in the body of Christ. With Christ as the bridge that binds the living and the dead, Christians "can pray for their ancestors and plead that the one, all-sufficient sacrifice of Christ may be effective in their case also" (Fashole-Luke, Veneration, p. 217).

By incorporating ancestors into Christian theology, African theologians clearly flirt with danger -- and they know it. But the relationship to ancestors is so basic to the African sense of selfhood and society, and the pastoral problems created by negative and foreign approaches to the issue so widespread and destructive, that theologians feel compelled to attempt such a synthesis. What they are reaching toward may offer a richer corporate understanding of personhood and of church for all Christians. In any case, the issue is crucial for Africa, for as Hans Haselbarth insists, "It is only in the way of a common Christian ancestorship and heritage of faith that the church is going to take root in African soil" ("The Place of Ancestors in a Christian Theology for Africa," Ministry [July 1967], p. 174).


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