A monthly column that reflects on living in the Kingdom of God.
In Acts chapter 17, verses 17 to 34 highlight the apostle Paul visiting and preaching the gospel in Athens. What would that have to do with contemporary discussions in South Africa and the global South on the topic of decolonisation?
While there are probably several more, I will venture to share four principles from this text that speak into a contemporary issue.
As a preamble, the very fact that I would ask the question raises an assumption that Acts 17 does indeed speak into the topic.
I ask the question deliberately, because even among many Christians, the assumption is that the Bible is reserved for “spiritual” things, but silent and dare I say irrelevant on subjects such as these.
We are living in an age where it is an achievement for a sincere believer of Christ to merely think that the Bible has such relevance. Onto four principles I can glean.
1. First things first: who occupies the centre?
Paul was greatly distressed to see the city of Athens was full of idols. Pagan idolatry was very much part of the culture.
Nevertheless, he did not sit back and think this was just the way it is. He was distressed because he knew the truth about the one true God, and longed for others to see the truth about Jesus Christ and the deception of all other gods.
We should ask ourselves: Do we see and interpret the culture through Scripture or do we interpret Scripture through our culture, whether that be Athenian or African?
As Ghanaian theologian Kwame Bediako writes in the Africa Bible commentary: “When light passes through a prism, a rainbow of colours is revealed. Similarly, when our cultures pass through the prism of Scripture, we see them in a new way…We are no longer being defined by our traditions, but are allowing Scripture to interpret those traditions.”
This is vital as we address the topic of decolonisation. Decolonisation has been broadly defined as the act of getting rid of colonisation, or freeing a country from being dependent on another country.
More specifically, a local academic has offered this definition in the context of university curricula: “And what is decolonisation? When it comes to university curricula, this seems to involve replacing works from Europe or the global North with local theorists and African authors. This is meant to prevent African universities from becoming mere extensions of former colonisers.”
The line of reasoning is that as former colonies, we should no longer be “enslaved” and “ndoctrinated” mentally by Eurocentric ideas, but we should be independent and liberated not only politically, but mentally. As a result, we should be Afro-centric in worldview, creating Afro-centric universities and institutions.
Decolonisation has become the Zeitgeist of our age on the university campus. This German word in its literal sense means “Spirit of the Age.”
Every age has these ideas that clamour for centre stage, and in every age we should begin by questioning whether these ideas should have such pride of place in the first place.
The apostle Paul challenges us in Col 2:8 ESV saying: See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.
In other words, as believers, we are called to only hold on to the philosophy that is according to Christ, not anything else, no matter how urgent, appealing or politically correct it sounds.
Applying this to decolonisation, our primary pursuit as Christians should never be “our culture dispelling theirs”, but rather truth dispelling lies.
Without questioning the validity of decolonisation in the first place, several faculties within institutions have thus begun the decolonisation project in earnest, with some students insisting that: The current curriculum dehumanises black students, that “We study all these dead white men who presided over our oppression, and we are made to use their thinking as a standard and as a point of departure,” and that ”Eurocentrism does not serve our interests culturally, socially, economically. It does not resolve the issues of Africa.”
While many students may feel this way because of past or present prejudice, we still need to think about what is being said. What are the consequences of creating a new hegemony of ideas based on feelings of prejudice?
Does an idea lose its value or validity because the proponent was Eurocentric? Who lives like this in the real world?
If it is all about the overthrow of Eurocentrism, why is it that even a founding philosopher of African decolonisation is a lecturer at a university in California and has his ideas primarily expressed in English?
The answer is simple, though politically incorrect: because we have all been positively impacted by ideas that are extrinsic to our nations, many of which are in the West, even if there has been a history of prejudice. (If you are unsure as to why the West has produced many of these ideas, I recommend studying church history.
It had nothing to do with skin colour, but a lot to do with events sparked in 1517 and beyond. But that is for another article).
It stands to reason therefore, that if we and the world over have been positively impacted by these ideas, that they remain worthy of study, even if some or many theorists harboured prejudice.
With all these demands and more, we must ask ourselves what our central point of departure is: Should we be Afrocentric or Eurocentric?
What Acts 17 and the Bible as a whole reveals is neither. We should be Christo-centric and apply that into our context, be it Athenian or African.
Our first question is not is it African, but rather is it Biblical? Is it true?
Secondly, does it lead to human flourishing, regardless of its human agency? Michael Goheen, professor of theology at Trinity Western University aptly reminds those of us who want to change the world what our goal should be, writing: “Social engagement is not first of all to change society–that may happen but it is not the goal. Rather, it is to witness to the Lordship of Christ over all areas of public life and to love our neighbour as we struggle against dehumanizing idolatry.”
From that basis, we can then go on to look for, promote and encourage the flourishing of truth within our context.
2. Learning from our own poets
As Paul is preaching the gospel to the Athenians, he does something that he never did in the synagogues: he quotes from Athens’ own philosophers and poets in bringing them the truth of the gospel.
To do so, Paul would have had to study their philosophy and culture and deem it worthy of his time.
However, it was through the lens of Scripture in following with Colossians 2:8.
There is something redemptive in every culture, and in whatever sphere, we are to ‘exegete’ or study the culture and find that which is redemptive and good .
We do a disservice when we do not listen to, learn from and highlight the philosophers and poets who are trafficking truth in a particular culture.
Dr Tony Evans, was one of the first black graduates of Dallas Theological Seminary. What pained Dr Evans during his studies was how he learnt all about the truths of Scripture but only with examples exclusively taken from white church leaders, knowing full well that there were black church leaders in his experience who were saying and doing similar things, yet were never cited as authorities on the subject.
Nevertheless, having experienced this, fellow pastor John Piper said the following about Tony Evans in an interview about race and the Bible: ‘’Dr. Evans put the Bible as the plumb line not racial preferences as the plumb line in all of our activity with regard to race and ethnicity. So he said things like, quote: Jesus is not calling white to be black or black to be white, but both to be biblical. He said: Biblical truth overrides cultural difference. He said: Adjust your humanity to you faith, not your faith to your humanity. He said, quote: Black is beautiful only when it is biblical. White is right only when it agrees with holy writ.”
As far as possible, we ought to draw from poets and philosophers within that culture, but always on the basis on Scriptural truth and the wider Biblical worldview. Sometimes however, there may not be sources of truth from a particular culture.
What then? In this instance, we ought to revert back to the primary issue: what is truth and what will lead to human flourishing. Surely that is worth our attention, regardless of the ethnicity of the theorist or the culture from which they came.
This calls for tough minds and tender hearts, and is especially difficult to do when we live in a culture that thinks with its feelings.
But the issue of sources doesn’t end there. There is also an assumption that drawing from ‘African’ sources will result in the same decolonised worldview.
What if those non-Western sources disagree with the predominant decolonial narrative being pushed? Will they still be celebrated and promoted?
Will economics departments use the work of Ghanaian economist George Ayittey who details the economic and political descent of most of Africa since gaining independence?
Will they refer to African-American economist Thomas Sowell who attributes the socio-economic crises in Black America to a culture of dependency brought about by state intervention?
Will sociology and theology departments use the work of Afrika Mhlophe in looking at negative aspects of African traditional religion and culture?
As I discovered during my Bachelor of Arts degree, something tells me they won’t.
Similarly, commentators have pointed out the lack of conservative Black American presence at the recently opened Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture.
Noticeably absent is US Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, renowned economist Thomas Sowell, and several other conservative leaders.
Decolonisation is therefore not merely a geographic and ethnic issue, but a worldview issue that is not bound ultimately by geography or ethnicity, but rather by ideas at its very core.
3. The basis of our worth: we are made in his image
Paul conveys another vital truth in Acts 17:26, declaring that: From one man he made every nation of men.
Often, because of the sense of inferiority that many have felt through the colonial experience, we are tempted to prove that we are better than the stereotypical portrayal we see.
There is a place for celebrating pioneers within a previously colonial setting. However, we fall into a trap when we try to prove or validate our existence through achievement past or present.
This was the same trap the Devil laid before Jesus in the wilderness: to do something miraculous to prove He was the son of God.
Here in Acts, Paul in passing conveys a very important truth: that the basis of our worth is all the same, and it comes from the fact that He made us, we are all from one man, and He made every nation.
Our worth therefore comes from being made in His image, not the fact that we are now world class. This frees us to present ourselves authentically, with our strengths and weaknesses. It also frees us to accept ideas from outside our ethnicity, because our identity is not based on achievement, but being made in the image of God.
4. The gospel: a mandate for loving global cultural imperialism!
In Acts 17:30 Paul issues a powerful, disturbing and politically incorrect challenge to the Athenians and the rest of the world, preaching that: In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.
In other words, the one true God, since the revelation of Himself in Jesus Christ, now commands worldwide repentance from every ethnicity.
This entails turning from everything in our cultures that is against the teachings of Christ. This is truly imperialistic, but it is not ethnocentric colonialism. It is the empire or Kingdom of God laying claim to defining the culture of every human heart and every society.
It is based on love, not force of arms or annihilation of culture, and it is exemplified by the “emperor” himself dying for us before we are converted.
Nevertheless, it is the Kingdom of God taking over and bringing change to every culture.
Ancestralism in Africa has to change, abortion of Down’s Syndrome babies in Iceland has to change, materialism the world over has to change! Even Jewish culture had to change to conform with the gospel, exemplified by Peter’s vision and God’s reply to initiate fellowship with Gentiles as fellow believers: “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”
When God’s Kingdom comes it leads to repentance but that doesn’t lead to cultural annihilationism, it leads to Kingdom values while still celebrating the uniqueness and value of each culture.