[notice]A monthly column that reflects on living in the Kingdom of God.[/notice]
The more I read good Christian history and biography, the more convinced I am that we have been robbed. Robbed of the truth that helps us to make sense of the world today, and robbed of the power of the gospel to transform individuals and society. After my wife read a biography of reformer Lord Shaftesbury, I was challenged by how we in the modern church are hardly involved in bringing good news in every area of life beyond the four walls of the church. Last year, I read an excellent biography of David Livingstone by Rob Mackenzie. I say excellent for several reasons. I found it to be a transparent account of this hero’s successes and failures and a fascinating and genuine account of what life was like in Southern Africa before colonialism began in earnest. Most importantly, I found it to be vastly different account of how history in Africa is currently portrayed. The current and politically correct story of Southern Africa goes something like this: Things were fine, then the Whites came, took our land and destroyed our culture, and this is the reason why we are in a mess today. One popular quote from a well known clergyman states… “When the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land. They said “Let us pray.” We closed our eyes. When we opened them we had the Bible and they had the land.” This same meta-narrative of everything being fine and then colonialism came and destroyed everything is brilliantly told in Chinua Achebe’s classic novel Things Fall Apart. I must say that I enjoyed the book when I read it years ago. But as a Christian, I must ask the question: is it true? Does it correspond to what the Bible teaches us to be the source of our problems, and therefore give us light for our redemption as a society?
At this point, you may be thinking: this doesn’t sound very politically correct. What about apartheid? To be sure, apartheid was racially discriminatory and unjust at its core. People groups were dispossessed of their land. Many aspects of the colonial experiment did bring terrible pain, and one only needs to look at the atrocities committed by the King Leopold II in the Belgian Congo.
The problem of sin
But if I accurately read the Bible, and do not superimpose experience onto it to give me the answer I want, I see something else. I see that man everywhere was deeply fallen in sin. I see that societies without a corporate acknowledgment of the one true God were capable of the most horrific acts towards themselves, even apart from colonial occupation. I see that while they are in need of redemption, they are still made in His image and loved by God. For this reason, I could never agree with the modern politically correct version of why we are in the state we are in. In as much as the Roman occupation was not the root cause of Israel’s problem, the same applies in Africa. Things fell apart in Africa, not when colonialism came, but like everywhere else in the world, when Adam fell in sin.
Why the fuss with all this? I make this fuss because the Gospel is not merely about Jesus helping you and me along the way. It is total truth: truth about all of reality. The Gospel therefore provides us with truth about the world’s origin, about why the world is in the mess it is in, and what will bring about its redemption and glorification. The problem is this: if we look to something (or someone) else as the root cause of our problem, we can never fully embrace God’s solution for redemption. To truly embrace Christ, we have to embrace the entirety of His message. As theologian Francis Schaeffer pointed out: “Christianity is not a series of truths in the plural, but rather truth spelled with a capital “T.” Truth about total reality, not just about religious things. Biblical Christianity is Truth concerning total reality – and the intellectual holding of that total Truth and then living in the light of that Truth.” Few traumatic experiences in life can compare to those who experienced the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. Samuel Ajayi Crowther, a former slave, went on to become the first black bishop in West Africa. Ajayi was born in the town of Osogun in Yorubaland in what is now Western Nigeria, in about 1807. When Ajayi was about 13, Osogun was raided and Crowther, captured into slavery, changing hands six times before being sold to Portuguese traders for the transatlantic market. The Portuguese ship on which Ajayi was taken as a slave was intercepted by the British naval squadron in April 1822, and he, like thousands of other uprooted, disorientated people from inland Africa, was put ashore in Sierra Leone. Later he wrote about the following realisation that came with his conversion: “About the third year of my liberation from the slavery of man, I was convinced of another worse state of slavery (my emphasis), namely, that of sin and Satan. It pleased the Lord to open my heart …. I was admitted into the visible Church of Christ here on earth as a soldier to fight manfully under his banner against our spiritual enemies. His life speaks a powerful truth into our situation: that the root cause of our problem is not external evils committed to Africans, but the sin in our own hearts and the world that subsequently creates. Things fell apart not when bad things happened to us, but when we rebelled against God. To amplify this further, an honest account of our history reveals that Africans were also involved in the very atrocities we blame for our condition. Slavery could never have happened without African involvement. Worse still, when former slaves returned to Africa and settled in Liberia, they too engaged in slavery up until recent times.
What does Livingstone’s biography have to do with all of this? It is a first-hand account of the state of Africa without the Gospel, through the eyes of a missionary who loved, lived and died for this continent. And within its pages I found a lot that was similar to the Biblical teaching, that while there are amazing stories of kindness and civility of Africans at that time, there is also the reality of a culture that was desperately in need of salvation and transformation before any colonial boundaries were drawn, not because of their skin, but because of their sin. In the biography, one cannot help but be gripped by the level of man’s violence to his fellow man of similar ethnicity. This is the account of someone who left everything dear and sacrificed an enormous amount to spread the Gospel on this continent. This was not some self-righteous racist bigot. Most importantly, this corresponds to the plain teaching of Scripture. And it is this type of historical writing that you will not find being taught in the modern university, or in popular conversation. And yet it is so vital for our continent, because despite all the political correctness we hear today, such accounts remind us of the truth and help to identify the root of our problem, pointing us in turn to the solution: Jesus Christ who died to save us from our sin as individuals and who also came to re-establish himself as Lord over every area of life.