Monday, November 28, 2011

Confessions of a Christian Missionary: "The old religion used to hold their life together. Now there is a void."

"What kind of a Christianity emerges
after this kind of a religious change?"

The following long excerpt from a book by an experienced Christian missionary who is also a respected scholar of "missiology", strikes me as essential reading for anyone who wishes to have any hope of understanding the current state of affairs vis-a-vis African Traditional Religion and Christianity in Africa today. It is from Alan Tippett's Introduction to Missiology, pp. 168-174.

I hope that in the not too distant future I will be able to write a more detailed analysis of this remarkable passage from Tippett. In the meantime I offer this very bare bones list to draw the reader's attention to some of the highlights:
  • 1. Tippett's repeated admissions concerning the role of coercion in suppressing non-Christian religions.
  • 2. Tippett's elaborations on the varieties of "oppressive procedure[s] for procuring conversion", including "military action", the taking of hostages, "social pressures", "economic sanctions", "legislation", and so forth.
  • 3. Tippett's admission that such coercive means do not result in genuine conversion of the heart, and the concomitant admission that in such cases "the old religion" remains not only as a "submerged" or "latent" religion, but that "It will be this latent religion that speaks to their deepest feelings."
  • 4. Tippett readily admits that there is a direct parallel between the coercive means employed in the Christianization that took place in the Americas, Asia, and Africa during the 16th-20th centuries and the means employed during the Christianization of Europe.
  • 5. Tippett cannot resist repeating the stereotypical, and thoroughly racist, trope that the ancient religious traditions of non-Europeans are distinguished from Christianity by a prevalence of "[s]uch things as cannibalism, widow strangling, infanticide, patricide, feuding, raiding and sorcery (to name only a few of the customs in mind) ..."
  • 6. Tippett admits that all religions are not equally guilty of the use of coercion to gain converts. He does this in a roundabout way with his assertion that Islam has "possibly the worst record of this kind."
  • 7. Tippett's discussion of "witchcraft" is especially worth careful consideration. In particular, he states, accurately, that the treatment all forms of indigenous (non-Christian) magical practices, including especially healing and other beneficial practices, as intrinsically evil is an "imposition" utterly "foreign" to indigenous African views of magic. His presentation is deeply marred, however, by his own ignorance of the fact that the English word "Witch" is itself quite flexible in its range of meanings and has not, as Tippett implicitly assumes, historically been reserved only for harmful magic.
  • 8. Finally, there is Tippett's admission that he intends what he is saying here as a justification for the sending forth of Protestant missions aimed at Catholic populations, because "any evangelical mission to these persons was without a doubt a mission to animists."
And now without further ado, here is Alan Tippett in his own words, submitted for your approval (the interested reader is also strongly encouraged to study Tippett's 1975 paper on "Christopaganism or Indigenous Christianity"):
[p. 168] We like to think that when people change from animism to Christianity it has been a voluntary and an acceptable decision, but we know that it has not always been so. My history book tells me that Olaf Tryggveson and his fleet put in at the island of Rolandsa and found that the pagan earl had only one fighting ship. Olaf told him of the benefits of becoming Christian. Before the might of the visitor's fleet and the option of baptism [p. 169] or execution, the pagan earl could hardly be called a voluntary convert, especially as the earl's son was taken away as a hostage against the stability of the baptism of the island of Rolandsa. The question of immediate concern to us here is: what kind of Christianity emerges after this kind of religious change?

The religion with possibly the worst record of this kind is Islam, which overran northern Africa na wiped out what remained of early Christianity there. The symbol of the sword was written into their war cry. Many of their methods were most infuriating to the Christians, especially when they kidnapped Christian children and raised them as fanatical Moslem warriors to be turned against their own Christian flesh and blood.

But military action is not the only form of pressure that has been applied for the purposes of securing religious change. Social pressures inside the country and economic sanctions have been used both to prevent secession from the one religion to another and to achieve conversion. This has been so within Christianity in the history of the sects. The geographer, P.W. English, has written a fine volume, which would qualify as history or anthropology as well as geography, City and Village in Iran (1966). In one place he demonstrates how social pressures and economic sanctions were deliberately used by the Moslems to achieve the conversion of the seventh century Zoroastrians (1966:23-24).

Another oppressive procedure for securing conversion is legislation. There was a period of English history, for example, when the fortunes of the country were fluctuating between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, when the changing monarchs and their administrations had a strong disposition to one or the other form of Christianity; when the general public was virtually pushed one way or the other by the legislation. The result was there never was a period of English history more riddled with intrigue. Always the submerged religion refused to die and plotted against the ruling faith. The internal and international politics of the country were mere reflections of the religious forces at work, one trying to rule by legislation and the other trying to resist the legislation by intrigue. For English in the period of the Tudors, the Commonwealth and Stuarts we see the central place of religion in the society; but as there were two religions, one in control and the other submerged, there was no peace.

Now what, we may ask, has this to do with the conversion from animism to Christianity, which is really the subject of this chapter? The story of Christian mission over the last century and this, whether we like it or not, has gone "hand in glove" with the march of colonialism, both the imperial and commercial forms. Frequently we must admit it was deliberately planned this way, the representatives of Government, Commerce and Church, operating together; for example, the Niger Experiment (Walker 1930 [The Romance of the Black River: The Story of the C.M.S. Nigeria Mission]:18). Once a colony was established, the impact of each of those forces was increased many fold. Each of them in its own way bore down on the animistic faith of the inhabitants. The actual acceptance of [ p. 170] the new faith--Christianity--was a voluntary matter, and economic pressures were little used in recent times to effect conversions. But a change from animism is a negative as well as a positive thing, an act of rejection or deprivation as well as the acceptance of a new way, and these do not necessarily have to take place at the same point of time, as we have seen in the case of the demoralization of Hawaii. Such things as cannibalism, widow strangling, infanticide, patricide, feuding, raiding and sorcery (to name only a few of the customs in mind) have all religious significance. To administrator, trader and missionary alike, these were undesirable and disruptive to his program. Each of these foreigners depended on the maintainence of what he called "law and order." What he meant was a kind of law and order which he called civilized. Acutally all these customs operated under law and order, but few of the foreigners saw this. A state of law and ordered was achieved by legislation, and legislation was more concrete, it was written down, and we can now look back at it and study it historically.

Even in the most enlightened colonial administrations, where the claim of freedom of religion has been made, legislation has been disruptive to the aboriginal animism. Thus when cannibalism had to go, the acquisitions of religion's power for facing danger, producing fertility and curing sickness were seriously interfered with; when the widow strangling had to go, the beliefs and provisions for life beyond the grave were all disturbed; when patricide had to go, the continued physical presence of the senile elder interfered with the social rights and controls of the active elder in public life; when feuding had to go, a mechanism of leadership selection was lost to the tribe; and when headhunting had to go, much of the philosophy of mana had to go with it; and when sorcery had to go, society was left with scores of moral and religious problems for which the people had no means of solving. When the system of taboo was legislated against, hygeign declined and body waste was left lying about in the villages. All these religious disturbances have been documented without going outside Melanesia.

I know nothing so disruptive to animist religion and the social life, of which it is the integrator, equal to colonial legislation. The missionaries at least put something in the place of the religion they took away, even if it was so often, alas, a foreign substitute. But legislation was an end in itself. It was a negative approach to life. It needed a gospel to give a positive dimension.

Quite apart from the negative aspect of colonial legislation against animist institutions, it is appalling for the abysmal ignorance it displays of what it legislates against. Nothing shows this up better than the laws of the African colonies against witchcraft. One would surely assume that such a legislator would at least need to know the difference between a witch, a witch doctor, and a witch finder, seeing the legislation will need to deal with them all; and their measure of social guilt or misfortune is certainly [p. 171] not equal. These countries have now their independence and I do not know whether the national legislators have modified these laws or not, but writing in 1958, Parrinder in his book on Witchcraft [full title: Witchcraft: European and African] discussed the Laws and Ordinances of Nigeria, Tanganyika, Uganda and Kenya in an illuminating passage (1958: 126-127). A law stating that "any person who represents himself to be a witch ...." is a foreign and not an African notion. Normally the witch does not profess to be such except under accusation and pressure from the witch finders. No one is a witch by choice. The social penalties are too great. A law which punishes the individual who seeks to preserve society from witchcraft, mistaking him for a sorcerer, is surely to punish the innocent with the guilty. A law covering everything by means of a blanket phrase "occult power and knowledge" is inadequate for definition and dangerous in its scope, open for abuse. The same may be said of a Kenya Ordinance (1928) which covered any person claiming "to exercise supernatural power." A pentecostal type of priest or prophet in any harmless movement or a Christian church could be charged under such a law.

Witchcraft is only one of the many religious problems which have been brought under colonial legislation without a clear understanding of their nature and function; but it is a good example of foreign imposition. It also shows how legislation against witchcraft, without any clear understanding of what the institution is and how it operates, can undermine the religious configuration which is the integrator of the society, in spite of the Colony's boast of freedom of religion.

If the place became a Colony by military conquest, and this was followed immediately by foreign land settlement, the establishment of schools and medical services, the establishment of plantations and the codification of laws (quite apart from the presence or otherwise of a Christian mission), the chances of the survival of the original animism would be remote. Several things could happen. There might be a general demoralization and the people might even die out altogether. The people might modify their animism and settle down to an unhealthy coexistence with the foreigners. Or the people might elect to accept Christianity in a nominal fashion and try to fall into step with the foreigners--and this might be for any of a number of motives. They might consider it politic or prestigious to accept the religion of the foreigner because he is the conqueror, or because he is wealthy or because he has so many amazing things. These are nominal Christians at best. I am not speaking here of genuine conversion movements, with which I will deal under then next heading, and which are classed by themselves because they have an inner dynamic, a self-image and a healthy creativity in spite of the colonial situation.

The nominal Christians and also the modified animist coexisters whose religious change is due in some way to imposed foreign controls, commerce, instructions and legislation, because their manifest religion is [p. 172] formal and "a thing of convenience," will frequently have also a latent religion. It will be this latent religion that speaks to their deepest feelings. In this, one will discover significant elements of the old animism, or at least what the believer things his or her old animism was (because this can recur in a later generation which is not clear about the old religious beliefs and rites). It may be an individual retires surreptitiously to the forest and explores the past. It may be a whole village breaks away openly under some native prophet wh oclaims to have a revelation from the past and to have recovered what the people have lost by accepting the foreign religion.

The old religion used to hold their life together. Now there is a void and the foriegner rules the land. If the current religion is nominal, formal, not dynamic, you can be quite sure that some animism is latent. The term I use is for this is submersion. It does not require much to fan this coal into fire. Normally submerged animism is not organized. It is scattered about in hidden places; but if there are enough of these coals smoldering away, it only takes a single prophet to arise and the organization can emerge with startling rapidity. This kind of outburst has been a feature of the post-war situation in many parts of the world. It would be appropriate at this point, if I had the space, to discuss a nativistic movment out of a second or third generation Christian community, but I refer the reader to Solomon Islands Christianity [a book-length study of published in 1967 by Alan Tippett], where this is dealt with at length. It must suffice here to modify my model to illustrate submersoin, as seen in Figure 14.

[p. 173] There are degrees of submersion of animism in nominal Christianity. It may be very deep, or it may be very shallow--just beneath the Christian veneer. Evangelicals are disposed to speak of this as syncretism or as Christopaganism. Syncretism may be quite manifest, of course, but on investigation one is shocked by the amount of submerged animism which is found.

It is submerged because it is driven underground by military conquest, land alienation, economic pressures and legislation; all of which frequently suggest to the indigene that the foreigners lack sympathy. It is possible for years to become centuries, and for that submerged animism to go on building itself stronger and stronger into the subculture of the nominal Christianity.

For years I used to wonder if an evangelical mission could be regarded as justifiable in a community where the people were already Christian--as in a Spanish colonial location which was strongly Catholic. It was not until I eventually did some research in Mexico and found so much manifest animism that I could hardly recognize the Church as Christian at all. I saw devotees (whose devotion I do not doubt) crossing a cement plaza on their knees to a shrine more Aztec than Christian, while others put paper or cloth under their bloodstained knees to get it charged with power for magical healing purposes; vendors selling magical herbs whose efficacy came from the blessings of the saints rather than any medical property, and this on the steps of the church; worshippers carrying shrines of straw and corn in some way after the manner of an old fertility cult; and a stream of persons one by one kissing away the toe of a stone statue to obtain thereby blessing on their lives and household; and all this done in the name of Christianity.

This I saw in Mexico, and I knew that any evangelical mission to these persons was without a doubt a mission to animists. I saw much the same thing in a rural city in Guatemala. I was speaking about these things to a gathering of Mayan pastors in Guatemala and described a Mexican situation without naming the place. My Mayan friends said they recognized the place from my description, but I had never been the place they thought it was, so I am led to think it is typical.

Such is the nominality of the Christianity that has come in the train of the Spanish military conquest: a Christianity which merely drove the animism underground. I saw a group of Mayan converts in a Guatemalan village. They registered their public confessions by surrendering their wooden crosses to the evangelist. In conversation afterwards I discovered that they were Mayan, not Christian crosses. From the way they viewed and used those symbols I knew they were fetishes--nothing else, however much they appeared to be Catholic and Christian. Other fetishes included a root which seemed to have a face and an ancient pre-Catholic Mayan figurine. Supposedly this was a Catholic Christian; it reality it was submerged animism.

[p. 174] Take, for example, that amazing autobiographical story of Juan the Chamula (1962) which the translator anthropologist, himself a Mexican, insists is the story of a typical person. Here then is a typical Mexican Indian Catholic, emotional and crude in many ways, yet deeply religious, always attending to his "Christian" duties. I read through this book and marked the religious features. The veneer of Christianity of the Catholic type featured the Virgin and the continual patronage of the saints, the use of the symbol of the cross (as much Mayan as Christian), adoration of and making vows at the cross, and the trinitarian formula. These are the features of Catholicism open for animisation. In reality the saints are Mayan deities with Christian names. Many features are quite syncretistic--the ritual and beliefs of the Cult of Saint John, the role of the Savior, the festival performances and processions, a large corpus of mythology, ideas about disease and healing--and although the Christian strands of thought can be detected here and there, they are dominantly animistic. On the other hand, many features of the religious life of this man are completely animist: the attitude to the spirits of the dead, the worship of the sun, the communion with the ancestors, the burial ritual and its religious presuppositions, the association of spirit animals with the sickness and health of human beings, the magic of curing the spillling of libations of liquor, the function of charms, sacred objects and taboos and the means of diagnosis or divination.
A man is sick because his spirit animal in the forest is sick. A curer is brought, and candles, resin, liquor, a rooster and flowers for the curing rite. The curer pours an oblation on the ground and drinks the rest of the liquor. The flowers are put on the altar. After the oblation the curer prays to the Christian God and the Son, the Earth and the Heaven, offers the gifts brought by the sick man, with incense, and prays to the spirit of the Moon and Earth Mother, and while praying wrings the neck of the rooster. At the moment of this sacrifice the sick man suddenly feels free (cf. 88-91).
The old animism has gone, along with its organized priesthood and its pre-Christian structure. Once the Spanish swept over the land it could never be the same again. The Spanish brought their Christian organization with them and the people nominally accepted the new religion. But at heart they were still animist, and, inasmuch as I have myself observed and read, they still are: a case of submersion.

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KatyDid said...

Amazing stuff.
It's amazing how an institution can so easily recognize that what it is doing is ineffective or even destructive and STILL continue to do it.

David said...

It's also interesting that he doesn't see how the Catholic approach of enculturation, which "baptizes" compatible elements of a people's prior religion avoids creating the cultural void that the evangelical approach leaves. The natives embrace the new religion, but their culture remains intact. He fails to see that evangelical Christianity, with its completely individualistic and fundamentalist ethos is actually destructive of culture, because it sees anything that differs from its worldview as being evil.

KatyDid said...

@David: That tendency in Catholicism has led to some odd situations, though.

You have situations like where the Church has moved in, taken local folk heroes as "saints" and then later determined the individuals in quesiotn never existed.

There are also situations like in the Caribbean, where there's been a syncretism (Santeria, Voodoun) where folks religions use catholic imagery. The Church has lived uncomfortably with this for years.

On the other hand... Yeah, although pentacostalism has adapted pretty well to different environments, there's a notable difference between Catholicism and the evangelicals...

Apuleius Platonicus said...

Although I appreciate the very real differences between Catholics and Protestants (not just "evangelicals") with regard to respecting and preserving indigenous cultures, nevertheless in practice they end up working together. It's a kind of "one-two punch". First the Catholics come in and convince people to convert without really renouncing all of their traditional culture. Then either the Protestants, or more militant Catholics, come in and complain that the people are still Heathens and demand that all remaining Pagan elements in the culture be purged. Not only is this what is happening today in Latin American and Africa, but it is also what happened in Europe, where Christianization was at first quite superficial among large parts of the population, but then the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation came along and finished the job.