African Churches in Conflict

Church-state relations in Africa have been mutually enabling. Here is how it has worked. African governments on becoming independent forgave the churches their hostility during the nationalist struggle and accorded them religious freedom, as a constitutional right. In return, the churches were expected to stay out of politics and to support national development. Under this formula major conflicts in church-state relations have been avoided.

But now times have changed. In the overwhelming majority of cases, the persons who entered into this agreement are no longer around. Coups have toppled the civilian leadership in most African countries, and a new generation of academically trained theologians is moving into leadership positions in the churches. Tensions between these two groups of new elites--those from Sandhurst, Saint Cy and West Point, and those from Oxford, Union, Strassbourg, and Tubingen--is a source of serious conflict between Church and State in Africa today.

For their part, the political leaders, be they military or civilian, are in a hurry to enlarge the boundaries of state control. Areas like education and health services, which for a long time have been in the private domain of the churches, are being taken over by governments. A few church leaders welcome this, because it releases already overstretched resources for new forms of Christian witness and service; but very many lament the loss of this primary locus of direct evangelization.

In a few countries church leaders have alleged that government takeover of schools is the result of Arab pressures to turn those countries into Muslim states. This fear is at the heart of the church-state conflict in Uganda.

But this is by no means the most important area of conflict. The real conflict arises out of the churches' reassessment of their participation in national development. Since the early '70s, the churches have grown increasingly critical of patterns of development that only widen the gap between rich and poor within African countries.

They hear African leaders, along with other Third World advocates, calling for a new international economic order, which will operate in favor of the world's poorer peoples. But inside their nations the churches are hard pressed to find evidence that any new order will benefit the poorest of the poor, whose lot is worsening daily. This situation has led the churches to begin asking themselves whether their present engagement in African development is not detrimental to the point of being anti-development, i.e., anti-social justice, anti-self reliance and anti-a decent human life for all in society.

These reflections at once place the churches before their prophetic role to be the voice of the voiceless in society. Certain obvious questions follow: What does it mean to believe in and to proclaim God's justice? How should the churches work in order that God's justice is realized in society? How does the Church define itself in the midst of flagrant injustices?

What should be the Church's attitude towards the socio-political and economic ideologies current in Africa? How do Christians deal with the demands of national patriotism and loyalty when they are in conflict with their integrity as persons whose faith commitment is to a jealous and sovereign Lord?

These are not entirely speculative questions. They have to do with the very essence and authenticity of the Christian church. That is why they are the sort of questions that are foremost on the agenda of the All Africa Conference of Churches.

The conference, with headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya, is the leading ecumenical organization in Africa. It brings together 116 churches from the Orthodox, Anglican, Protestant and Independent traditions, and is spread across 34 African countries.

In recent years the conference has become the primary agenda-setter for the churches in Africa. Outside Africa it is regarded as representing the "total voice" of the churches on the continent. Its unequivocal support for the armed struggle being waged by the liberation movements in southern Africa, its vocal protests and denunciations of violations of human rights in Burundi, Equitorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Uganda, Central African Empire and several other independent African nations, and its successful attempts to promote reconciliation and justice in Zaire, Nigeria and the Sudan have all served to enhance the stature and credibility of the African churches before the world.

But the conference is aware that as long as the churches in Africa remain "potted plants," nurtured by ideas, funds and personnel from churches in Europe amd North America, their real relevance to the urgent questions facing Africa and its people will continue to be distorted. This is important because, while governments will readily accept assistance for development channeled through the churches from outside sources, as soon as the churches dare to raise questions about corruption, repression and other evils practised by African governments, these same governments denounce the churches as vestiges of colonialism that need to be discarded.

Consequently, another area of church-state conflict falls within the sphere of cultural revolution in Africa. African nationalism wants to find a religious alternative to Christianity. A few countries are turning to Islam, but the overwhelming preference is for a return to African traditional religions.

The resulting tensions come out looking like a religious conflict. In fact, the conflict is ideological, not religious. The political status quo in Africa, like that in any other part of the world, requires religious legitimation. If the churches threaten to withhold it, one or both of two things happen. Either the more out-spoken church leaders are removed (sometimes by assassination, as in the case of Archbishop Luwum of Uganda) or the political system actively encourages the coming to prominence of a traditional religious cult, such as in Kenya in 1969, Chad in 1974, Equitorial Guinea in 1976, and Madagascar at the present time.

The conference has responded to this challenge by calling for a moratorium on personnel and funds from outside to the churches in Africa. The use of a moratorium is a strategy designed to promote the self-reliance of the churches and, by implication, greater freedom to speak out and act on African issues.

The moratorium strategy also calls upon the churches to become authentically African by incorporating into their theological, liturgical and administrative life-style Africa's own religious traditions. Much of this is already happening in the so-called Independent churches in Africa. It is the missionary-established churches that are being urged to change.

But change does not come easily, especially when religious issues are concerned. And yet it must come, because only a liberated church can accomplish Christ's mission to help build a liberated Africa--an Africa that is free, reconciled and united in its resolve never to be yoked again to any new forms of slavery.

Canon Burgess Carr, general secretary of the All African Conference of Churches on leave this year, is a Fellow at the Center for International Affairs.