It is STILL going on – I can’t bear it. And now around 800 are dead, including a specifically targeted opposition MP. Africa and Africans have SO MUCH to offer, and indeed teach us Europeans. There is a holism and integration to the ways in which the world and life are understood that have much to challenge us in the west. In fact, I was preaching about precisely this on Sunday night – as part of our annual Partnership Sunday focus.
The sermon title was one of those that had seemed a good idea at the time (i.e. 4 months ago when we had to come up with something for the termcard) but when it came to prep last week seemed a bit of a nightmare: I BELIEVE IN AN UPSETTING CHURCH (from 1Peter 2:9-12). It sort of worked out OK in the end (I hope). But it constantly strikes me that one of the challenges we have in the western church is to build a real sense of community – the problems are exacerbated when it comes to a central London church like All Souls, which draws people from every corner of London within the M25 and some beyond (I know there are issues about that – and those advocates of the small church get sent into paroxysms by the thought). We need a greater sense of inter-dependence and mutuality. As I was saying on Sunday, this can only come about when we recognise our SHARED dependence on God’s mercy. Who am I to look down on anyone else when I know that I am just as much in need of mercy and grace as they are? The ground before the cross is level as we all (whether we are presidents or paupers) come before it on our knees. As CS Lewis once wisely wrote:
Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another, ‘What! You, too? I thought I was the only one.’
But in our middle class, private and protective way, we usually stop there. We usually think OK, I’ve got to accept others – but I’m not going to expose my vulnerabilities or failures. I’m certainly not going to let others help me in the battle with my own selfishness. And this is where 2 fascinating African proverbs rattled in my brain (both from the Ibo in Nigeria). The first is wonderfully absurd:
No one buries himself; if he does, one of his hands will have to be outside the grave!
Then there is this one:
Both hands become clean as each hands washes the other in turn.
We need one another even in our own personal battle with sin. As Proverbs 27:17 puts it:
as iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another
But here’s the irony – and perhaps it is the nature of interdependence. The greater the mutuality, the clearer the boundaries we erect. Could this be why tribalism is such an issue in Africa? For being open and anti-individualistic does create a vulnerability (which is one of our preoccupying fears in the west), with the result that we don’t feel that we can extend it too far (understandably). And so the flip side of Africa’s great positive in terms of community life is tribalism. After years of Kikuyu power in Kenya, other tribes are fed up and marginalised. (See this very helpful tribal map of Kenya from the BBC news site).
How do you correct the imbalance? With the machete. Simplistic, I realise. But this, I fear, is a key factor. It’s what wentso wrong in Rwanda. It’s part of the problem in DRCongo; in Darfur, in Zimbabwe; and my fear is that it is precisely what could rear it its ugly head in Uganda – after years of President Museveni favouring neighbouring tribes in Uganda’s south-west.
True community is incredibly costly – and crossing human boundaries and divides requires considerable effort. We can learn much from Africa about how to be inter-dependent better. We don’t get anywhere near in the west. But what we ALL need to learn from Christ, is that we all alike depend on God’s mercy – which means that no one tribe is ‘better’ than another. Oh that the power of the unifying and purifying work of the cross would do its work amongst those who feel so enraged that they need to kill. Oh that it would shake us up in London so that we are not too proud to learn lessons from others around the world, including those who know how to live as a community. What we mustn’t do is use the violence we see on the news as an excuse for rejecting the need to do this.