Christianity Today has a really interesting interview with Ugandan theologian Emmanuel Katongole. We found his reflections on the interaction between church and culture particularly interesting in this age of globalisation and important to consider as we reasserting Anglicans form new partnerships with the Global South.
From Tower-Dwellers to Travelers
Ugandan-born theologian Emmanuel Katongole offers a new paradigm for missions.
Interview by Andy Crouch | posted 7/03/2007
Christian leaders from five war-torn countries of East Africa gathered in Kampala, Uganda, last November to strengthen the church’s witness in the midst of conflict. They were convened by Emmanuel Katongole, a Catholic priest whose biography embodies both ethnic tension and Christian hope. Katongole was born and raised in Uganda, the son of Rwandan parents. His father embraced Christian faith as an adult, and his joyful seriousness about Christianity shaped Katongole, who joined the priesthood and trained as a philosophical theologian in Belgium. Katongole now teaches at Duke Divinity School, where he is co-director, with Chris Rice, of the Center for Reconciliation. He spoke with Andy Crouch about this year’s big question for the Christian Vision Project: What must we learn, and unlearn, to be agents of God’s mission in the world?
You’ve lived on three continents and in four countries, and your parents were from yet another country, Rwanda. How does your story affect your understanding of God’s mission in the world?
Being an immigrant can be a blessing. God’s mission, as I read it in 2 Corinthians 5:17, is new creation. God is reconciling the world to himself. And there is a sense of journey that is connected with that. When, later on, Paul says that “we are ambassadors of God’s reconciliation, God is appealing through us,” he is inviting us into a journey toward a new kind of community. People looking at Christians should be confused. Who are these people? Are they black? Are they white? Are they Americans? Are they Ugandans? In Revelation, John sees people drawn from all languages and tribes and nations: an unprecedented congregation. Living on three continents has deepened my understanding of the church as such a congregation; at the same time, it has heightened my sense of Christian life as a journey and of what it means to live as a pilgrim, a resident alien.
That is reminiscent of the name Christians gave themselves in Acts, “people of the Way.”
That is, the way of Jesus. I also take that to mean people on the way, on pilgrimage. We have settled too easily. Instead of living out that story of journey toward a new creation, we tend to live out the stories of nationality. And then we forget what it means to journey. It’s not difficult to see why we settle, because our nations or tribes or races try to convince us that life can’t get any better than this. They ask us, “Where would you want to go? Why would you want to leave?” This is not just something that happens in a superpower like America. Even small nations like Rwanda, even small tribes, have an America-sized imagination of themselves!
The challenge that Christianity faces in our time is the challenge of tribalism. There’s a church in Rwanda where the baptismal font still stands. But it bears the scars of being hacked by machetes, and the church was littered with thousands of bones of people who were killed. You couldn’t find a more strange and ironic and tragic image than that: a common baptism surrounded by killing in the name of Hutu and Tutsi.
Many of us feel we are beyond that, but the dynamics of national identity remain””even of ecclesial identity. We can be settled in our Catholic power. We can be settled in our Baptist, Episcopalian, Pentecostal, or evangelical identity, and we feel a certain power from that. We think that our mission derives from that power.
The story of the tower of Babel begins with people settled in the land. The tower speaks of strength, power, and stability. It speaks of the ability to stand above the land and survey it. Pilgrims don’t build a tower! In our day, I think what God is doing is exactly what he did for that tower””dispersing people, spreading them out, scattering them. Scattering, the way I read it in Genesis, is a good thing. It is part of God’s purpose for God’s people. It is meant to be good news for both Israel and the nations.
Are specific places and local identities important in a life of pilgrimage?
Absolutely. Pilgrimage actually makes us more aware of localness, because it brings us into contact with specific places and people. People sometimes ask me how “the church in America” should relate to “the church in Rwanda.” But that level of abstraction grows out of a tower-building mentality. There are only specific Americans from specific places with specific gifts and stories; there are only specific Rwandans.
The language of culture actually prevents us from engaging other people. It leads us to see ourselves as permanently separate from them: We have our culture, and they have theirs. It keeps us from allowing others to radically challenge us””that’s just their culture, you see, and it does not have anything to do with our culture.
What would it mean for Christians to have a certain naivetÃ© about all these things called culture? How do we inhabit what we might call tactics instead of strategies? Strategy is the posture of an army, of a nation state, of a business that is able to conduct surveillance of its territory and all others. Tactics, on the other hand, are weapons of the weak, of those who have no place to call their own, who live in a territory that is surveilled and controlled by others.
Isn’t that a waste of our capacity to think strategically?
There are two dominant models of mission in our time. There is the model of mission as aid, which arises out of the great need we see in the world””famine, AIDS, poverty””and also out of a recognition of how much American Christians have. So American Christians go to Africa to help. This can be criticized as giving a person a fish for a day, but if that person is starving, then this model of mission actually does some good. A lot of people are being helped by this kind of mission. But the problem is that from this mission, Christians return to a tower. Their world remains their world, and Africa’s world remains Africa’s world.
Then there is the model of mission as partnership. It arises out of a sense of mutuality and solidarity between churches in the North and the South. So churches develop sister-parish relationships and so forth. The hope is to teach people how to fish, to equip them to do the fishing.
But as far as I can see, the pond in which they fish is still their pond. Christians in America have their own pond. We are still talking about your pond and our pond!
This model also overlooks the difference in power between America and the rest of the world. One gets an impression that because of the numerical strength of Africa’s church, Africans Christians can be equal partners with their Western counterparts. But we cannot pretend that the power of America does not exist. There is a new desire to learn from one another, but how deep does the learning go?