Recently, there has been a great conversation about Christianity and the African Traditional Religion (ATR). ATR refers to the indigenous religious beliefs that Africans practised before the advent of Christianity and Islam in Africa. There is presently much bitterness towards Christianity, with some pushing the narrative that Christianity is a white man’s religion. The Bible is said to have been written, translated and interpreted to suit the white man’s agenda–to subdue and colonize Africans. This is not correct if you carefully look at the history of Christianity in Africa and see that Africa has contributed to Christianity as opposed to being “overtaken” by colonists.
If we narrow the view of what is happening to Kenya, we see this narrative actively playing out in the Kikuyu culture in Kenya. The Kikuyu council of elders, also called the Kiama kia ma, holds that the Bible was only a tool of deception. They argue that their hospitality, kindness and generosity to the white man led to them losing their traditions and property to embrace the colonialist subduing tool called Christianity. The white man is accused of making Kikuyus put aside their spirituality to embrace the spirituality of the white man. According to the Kikuyu culture, Mugo wa Kibiro prophecied that the Kikuyu were to embrace only the education of the white man and disregard the religion and culture of the white man. This explains why they go to hospitals, seek education, and use technology by the white man. The Kiama kia ma say that the white man is to be viewed as greedy, and everything they do is geared towards amassing African wealth.
Syncretism of ATR and Christianity
Many communities have embraced this same mindset as the Kiama kia ma elders. Many now practise syncretism, which involves a mixture of Christianity and African traditions. For instance, I once visited a church in one part of the country and found some members absent that Sunday as they had gone to offer sacrifices. In a conversation with the Kiama kia ma elders of the Gikuyu community, they confirmed the practice of syncretism. The many who practise syncretism choose the Old Testament and do away with the New Testament. They do this because they believe the Old Testament supports their sacrificial system. Syncretism is established due to fear of rejection if one commits to Christianity fully. Many Africans fear being considered outcasts in their communities. Hence, some have to hide and practise Christianity in secret. Others, however, have neglected everything to do with Christianity. They argue that there is nothing like a Kikuyu who is a Christian.
Is the Truth Relative or Absolute?
We have many traditional belief systems in Africa. Every community has its own system of traditional beliefs. If we operate according to our cultures, truth becomes relative depending on the community we’re from. For example, some communities were cannibals. Therefore, hunting and eating human flesh would be justifiable. Some have oppressed women and do not allow them to thrive; thus, should we ascribe to that and applaud them? In traditional Kikuyu culture, if a woman broke the cooking pot, she was divorced. We may look at some of these examples of traditional culture and think they are backward or foolish, but when we do that, we’re admitting that truth is not relative but apparent. I desire not to bash every African culture because there are some great things in these communities, but we need to see that what is acceptable in one culture may not be welcome in another; hence truth becomes relative. And when Adam and Eve became the determinants of what is wrong and right instead of abiding by God’s instructions, chaos came into the world (Genesis 3:6-7).
Does God approve of all our traditions, or has he set his standards different from ours? Christ rebuked the Pharisees for setting aside God’s word for their traditions (Matthew 15:1-7). He disapproved of Jewish cultures in areas where they defied God’s standard (Matthew 15:1-7). In other words, if Christ judged even Jewish practices, how about our African Traditions? God is the ultimate standard from which all nations, cultures, families, and individuals are judged. That is because God is Holy (1 Peter 1:16), and he is the creator of everything (1 Corinthians 8:6). No nation, culture, family, or individual can claim the same (Romans 3:23). God, therefore, holds the absolute truth about life and how it is to be lived (Psalm 119:160, Jeremiah 23:28). He’s the perfect standard of all truth and the one from who we learn what is right and wrong (Matthew 5:43-48). Ultimately we will all be measured by his truth and standards no matter what our culture and traditions teach us (Revelation 20:12-15).
Would you trust a driver who, when traffic lights turn red, then claims it is green and insists that that is his perception and so it is right? Are you comfortable flying in a plane where the pilot argues that the guide from the tower is a personal opinion and must not be followed? Life has absolutes, including God’s laws which govern our lives.
Misconceptions about Christianity
Is every white person a Christian? I have listened to many Kikuyu Kiama kia ma elders treat every white person as a Christian. One even went further in a TV station to indicate that LGBTQ is a Christian concept since some white people practice and approve of it. However, it is common knowledge that not all white people are Christians, and Christians in the West call the practice sinful, just as Kiama kia ma does. Therefore, equating everything done by white people to have christian origins is misleading.
Also, Kiama kia ma elders treat colonizers and missionaries the same. Colonization efforts sponsored some missionaries to Kenya, and others came simply because of their love of the gospel and other people. For example, the first missionary to Kenya, Johann Ludwig Kraph, arrived in 1844, and then the first colonialist came in 1895 but didn’t establish their government until 1920. Clearly, by those dates alone, you cannot say that missionaries and colonizers had the same mission.
Lastly, Kiama kia ma believes that Christianity originated from the western world. However, white people were recipients of the faith just like Africans; hence it is in general knowledge that Christianity did not originate from the western white person but from brown middle eastern Jews. Yes Jesus was not a white man! On top of this, the Bible has more involvement with Africans than the white people. Consider that the two sons of Joseph, adopted by Jacob, had an African mother (Genesis 41:45); Many Africans were there during the day of Pentecost in Acts 2:5-12; Appolos in 1Cor. 1:12; Simon of Cyrene, who helped Jesus carry the cross (Matthew 27:32). Further, the prophet Zephaniah originated in Africa since his Father was an African and his mother was a Jew. Also, Egypt was highly developed before many other countries in the world, so they were not tricked into Christianity by colonizers, as is commonly believed. In fact, Christianity had existed in Egypt since 33AD, which was way before any colonizers came to Africa. Today, we still have the Coptic church that existed before the colonizers came to Africa.
The scripture shows enough evidence of Africans’ involvement in the early church. In fact, the Jewish culture is closer to Africans than that of white people. As noted in previous articles, Christianity has greater roots in Africa and is more closely related to us than white people.
Christianity has undoubtedly played a significant role in the global culture. Most of the good things embraced by Africans from the West were developed from Biblical principles, for instance, the health system. Abolishment of the slave trade was enforced by Christians who remained faithful to the word of God, such as William Wilberforce. The Bible is against racial segregation, and Christianity firmly brings people from all races together (Galatians 3:28). While cultures discriminate against others and disregard gender equity, the Bible reunites and empowers all genders.
While some African communities insist on their way, the Bible becomes a unifying factor and a source of truth (Psalm 119:160), salvation (Romans 10:9-10), and peace (Matthew 5:9). May we not be misled into throwing away the scriptures and Jesus himself, the only way to eternal life (John 14:6, Acts 4:12), just because there were a few evil colonizers who called themselves “Christians.” May we be found steadfast!