Gospel in African and other Context

From: Jim’s Journal, August 2003.

The Gospel to Africa in African context as also other contexts.

What is the role of a ‘missionary’? It is to take the Gospel to people. What is the Gospel? It is a Greek word that means ‘good news’. So what then is the ‘good news’ that we take to people in Africa?

In many parts of Africa, the dead are not believed to be absolutely dead. Hence some scholars call them the ‘living-dead’1. They are considered to be still around. Because they have ‘died’, these people in fact have powers and abilities that their living brethren who remain do not have.

These living-dead are considered very important in many parts of Africa. In fact, the whole of life can revolve around seeking to please them. Failure to please them results in problems such as illness, death, drought or infertility.

Many strategies are used to please the living-dead so as to bring good health, long life and prosperity. ‘Witchdoctors’ can be consulted, who have a closer knowledge of the activities of the dead than normal people, and can therefore advise people what they need to do to either please them or deal with the more troublesome ones. Some herbs can counteract the activities of the dead. The living-dead can be consulted for advice on how to do things in life. The living-dead are generally pleased by the more conservative, who do things the way that they ‘used to be done’. Hence people follow many taboos laid down by previous generations so to please them. Special care must be taken at someone’s death to ensure that they are correctly buried and do not get angry and turn around and trouble people. Other things can be done subsequently to someone’s death to please them and send them on their way to the spirit world. If a dead person is angry feasts can be arranged and animals slaughtered to appease them.

Actions that displease the living-dead are known in African languages as ‘sin’. People who have done things that are known to be displeasing to the living-dead live in fear of the anticipated revenge. Should something go wrong then the action that caused the displeasure of the living-dead is sought out and must be cleansed by some means. This cleansing can involve many things, including the fulfilling of certain rituals, the sacrifice of animals, arranging feasts, confession and repentance.

Missionaries are those who take good news into such a situation. African people have long believed in God, but the missionary advocates faith in God. The Christian missionary is aware that God is more powerful than the living-dead. This is not always easy for people to believe, as they constantly see the actions of the living-dead in taking revenge and causing difficulties. Hence it takes considerable strength of conviction for people to believe that God, who is held by many people to be distant and unconcerned, is sufficiently bothered about them to be ready to listen to their problems and intervene in their daily affairs. Also sufficiently powerful to counter the actions of the living-dead!

It is not easy for the great, mighty and holy God to get involved in the affairs of men. The Christian Scriptures show us that God can get very frustrated with men’s wiley ways. It has not been easy for a great and holy God to draw near to men who deceive him and are selfish and greedy. God’s love however was so great that he was ready himself to die so as to overcome those living-dead that so trouble mankind! Jesus is God, who died on the Cross and rose again from the dead!

This is the good news that missionaries take to Africa, and missionaries from Africa to elsewhere in the world, and that has been borne by Christians for many generations. For many African people the good news is that God is concerned and able to save them from the oppressive power of those living-dead who intend evil for them. This is a tremendous relief for them. When people realise this, they move their allegiance from the living-dead to God. This is no quick and easy task. People often repent long and often for those things in their lives that continue to show their adherence to the dictates of their ancestors. When they repent with their hearts, God hears, God forgives, and God gives new life everlasting.

This task of taking the good news to people is incredibly important. It is the only way in which people can be set free from the hold of the living-dead. Once set free, there is an enormous task that follows of living a new way of life according to God’s commands. It is hard for people to believe that God is really so forgiving. When things go wrong it looks as if the living-dead have come back in force and again brought their negative influence into the situation. Hence the work of a missionary is not a temporary thing. The work never ends, as long as people are alive who need an example of a life of faith, and to listen to words from God (especially from the Bible, God’s word).

Once set free in this way from the bonds of evil powers, people are enabled to live fulfilled Godly lives. In practice this requires an ongoing, continuous or daily rededication to the God of the universe, and much time in talking with him in our hearts. Those new believers are challenged to share their new faith and to live closely with others who have also believed in the power of God. This is again no easy task, and requires much dedication.

The Gospel is just as relevant to the (so called) Western world. Some people in the West are deceived into thinking that just because they have all sorts of technology, medicine and money they will not have problems. When they do have problems they think that the technology will save them. In practice technology gives at best a temporary relief. The good news is that God longs for people to turn to him, enter into relationship with him, and gain a peace in their heart that is not only dependent on money and things.

These days there is much talk of Islam. It would seem that the author of the Koran did not like the idea of people being forgiven for what they do wrong. Hence the Koran tells us that Jesus never made it to the cross, but that someone else took his place and was killed instead of him (Koran, sura 4, aya 157-158). According to Muslims Jesus is still alive and walking around somewhere.

It is not only for Muslims, but also for many other people hard to accept that people can be forgiven. Some people prefer a life of being frightened or of shutting their eyes to the truth, to that of trusting that God really can forgive them. The good news that is taken to Africa, to the West, to Muslims and elsewhere is that God can forgive people if they would only accept the truth of the death and coming back to life of his son Jesus.

1. See the writings of John Mbiti.