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Current issue: Vol.1, No. 1 January 2001

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The reconstruction of Africa by theologians

By David Kuria

Since the early 1990s theologians have been looking for new ways to interpret the gospel in Africa, in light of the changing circumstances in the continent. Prominent among the themes that have been suggested is the “Reconstruction Paradigma”. As Dr. Jessy N. K. Mugambi of the University of Nairobi says, this interpretation seeks to elaborate from the scriptures the aspects that portray God and his people re-creating a new world order. Reconstruction Theology then offers the Christian basis for recreating anew the African social economic reality from a scriptural perspective.

Mugambi and others should be given credit for rising to the Gospel challenge of “reading the signs of times” and acting accordingly. Africa truly needs to find its place in the world. This is particularly urgent in the theological debate, as Africa constitutes one of the fastest growing Christian centres in the world.

In their recently published book “Theology of Reconstruction” leading Kenyan theologians put together various areas in which theological interpretation of the scriptures can actually motivate integral development in Africa. They, unlike earlier generation of theologians, are coming up with uniquely African categories for theology, drawing as they do on the contextual African situation.

Discarding the Old Models

Indeed they even accuse the earlier generation of theologians of being western theologians in black skins. For instance Charles Nyamiti of Catholic University of Eastern Africa (CUEA) has been accused of forcing the African situation to fit the western and neo-thomistic categories of thought. Though his starting for theology is uniquely African, namely Jesus Christ as the Ancestor Par-excellence, Nyamiti borrows heavily from the theology of St. Thomas Aquinas - a 14th century Catholic theologian, who has arguably been the torch bearer of Western theology till the middle 20th century.

Nyamiti on the other hand says that theologians of whatever area or era must avoid what he calls “narrow-particularism.' He explains this to mean “intellectual exclusivity”. Which he says cannot be accepted at a time when modern technology has shrank time and space, reducing the world into a village.

Reconstruction theologians however approach pertinent issues, such as food crisis, child abuse, the AIDS pandemic and poverty in a unique and inspiring way.

On the food crisis they use the Biblical basis of passages where God feeds his people in the Old and New Testaments as a proof that God wants people to have enough to feed on. While the Israelites were in the Desert, God gave them enough to eat until there was some left over. The same experience is repeated with Jesus and His disciples, where out of only five loaves and two fish, there was a total of 12 baskets of left over after the disciples had had to their satisfaction.

These Kenyan theologians see the present food crisis as a result of oppressive historical factors, whereby Africans have taken to the growing and eating exotic foods that are less adapted to the local environment, consequently giving less yields or become expensive when grown under irrigation. They advocate on the return to the indigenous foods that God had so generously blessed Africa with. Food crops such as cassava and yams are well adapted to the African climate and thus the need to return to the roots.

On child abuse, an interesting analysis of Gn.1:27 ends in support of artificial family planning methods. According to these authors, Gods command to create and fill the world should be seen in the light of dominion of all the creatures of the world. If we can use technology to control the population of the creatures of the world, they argue, it should be even more desirable with the human population. Lack of this use should be seen as the factor responsible for increasing cases of child abuse in Africa. According to a research conducted by J.K. Muteti on the street children, the majority of child delinquent cases come from Catholic families. The research suggests that this is because the latter do not practice family planning and as such have a large number of children than they are able to cater for.

On the AIDS pandemic, the theologians urge for the need to go beyond the religious boundaries in seeking to control the scourge. They emphasize that the African contextual situation is neither a theocracy, where God himself issues orders on sexual conduct nor is it a Christo-centric enclosure. This then calls for the need to look beyond the conventional understanding of the Christian reality and sexual conduct especially on the use of prophylactics such as condoms.

With the grim reality facing Africa in which about 90% of all the AIDS cases are to be found in Africa, Christian pastors are urged to stop assuming a Christian audience. Reconstruction theology calls for devising of ways in which collaboration with African non-Christian churches can enhance the fight against AIDS. They argue that the latter might indeed be closer to the African God talking through the AIDS phenomenon. The latter are not opposed to the use of Condoms.

Can theologians learn from politicians?

A word of caution is however needed for the reconstruction theologians. The reconstruction protagonists need to be encouraged to avoid the error made by their counter parts in the political field, who apparently hope for quick and immediate answers to their problems. During the early 1990s a lot of hope was ushered in the political arena, because of the introduction of multi-parties and other political changes. Politicians desperately hoped that these changes would help where the Structural Adjustment Programmes had failed. That happened to be wishful thinking as Africa's situation of poverty has not changed much. Now there is this clamour for debt relief, which politicians are pushing for almost with a vengeance.

Even theologians have not been left out. They argue that the jubilee year places an obligation of releasing the poor countries of their debt. Fortunately a study conducted by Oxfam now confirms that such clamour is simplistic. According to the study, debt relief might in fact exacerbate the problem of poverty. Zambia, which now pays $113 millions in form of debt repayments, might in fact end up paying more in social terms if her debts are forgiven. This is because of the requisite economic reforms, which among other things countries are to open up their economies to the global economic players. These however are heavily bent in favour of the foreign owned multinationals, which will all but stifle the local industries and businesses.

Reconstruction theologians do recognize the need to include findings and expert help from other academic disciplines in solving the numerous African problems. Indeed it is this willingness to dialogue and work with other African experts, that these theologians usher in hope for a theology that can truly work for human development. Important questions relating to how the barriers of language and content of the various disciplines will be broken need to be answered.

Other questions relating to how African theology can truly be African and truly Christian too need to be answered. There are some people especially in the Catholic theological circles, who feel that the reconstruction theology is bringing with it aspects of religious relativism and syncretistic practices. Their fears too need to be addressed, if the reconstruction model is to survive the test of time.

David Kuria, a Kenyan layman, holds a degree in theology and he is about to complete his MBA degree at Nairobi University.

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