ON SOCIAL AND POLITICAL ECUMENISM
The ecumenical movement has done great progress in the sphere of theology and has managed to solve traditional conflicts on Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, on Christian Ministries and the Doctrine of Justification, as shown by “the joint declaration of Justification” signed in Augsburg in 1999, between the Lutheran world federation and the Catholic Church. Unfortunately, these doctrinal progresses are often ignored in pastoral practices of Christian African Churches.
While we are celebrating the five hundred anniversaries of the Reformation movement and the Counter-Reformation (1517-2017), it’s always a pity noticing that some Disciples of Christ in Africa continue acting as if steps towards unity in the faith has never gone further. On the side of Catholics and Protestants as well, there seem to be a sort of “theological indigence and biblical underdevelopment” – to use the words of a Congolese theologian, Kӓ Mana – which enclose them into a doctrinal integrism proper to the epoch of religions’ war at the 16th and 17th centuries.
Because divisions among churches are no longer fundamentally doctrinal, it’s therefore pertinent to see how the confession in the one Lord, one faith and one baptism (Eph 4:5) gathers Christians together to a common commitment to build up more human societies. For this is a great lack in our African countries, both socially disoriented and “overchristianized”. Since the deterioration of the social life in Africa cohabits with Christian spiritual efflorescence which does not have equal in the world, thus, the question of the social implications of Christian faith arises.
I would like to point out three services as forms of social and political ecumenism that I consider needed in our African societies. The thesis supported here is that these services would be a strong Christian life witness in African societies. It will be a matter of alternatively: serving the cause of God; the cause of the Church and the cause of human beings. But before that, a remark seems important. In fact, regarding issues related to poverty, injustice and the challenges which overwhelm the African continent, there is a risk that the churches become agencies of humanitarian help. The latter is basically good. But it blurs the first role of churches: to be witnesses of the history of the encounter between God and humanity, an encounter sealed in the life, the death and the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Serving the cause of God
In the societies where we are living, God is on the lips of everybody. Biblical passages exalting the wonders of God are everywhere: shops, vehicles, cloths… God seems to be an easily sold product according to one’s ability to do a good marketing. For sure, divine omnipresence in Africa recalls the religious sense of African people. But owing to omnipresence, “God ends up hiding God.”
As Christians, we confess that in Jesus Christ, God has come to dwell among us (Jn 1:14). The God of Christians is the One revealed in Jesus Christ (Jn 14: 9). The Son of God is the gate (Jn 10: 7) leading to his Father. If one mistakes on the face of the Son, he mistakes on the face of the Father as well and the relationship with Him is badly affected.
In the Christianity spread in our societies, Christ is often viewed as almighty, healer, caster of demons, miracles doer…True, the Gospel enables us to conceive Jesus in this way. But the same Gospel introduces him to us as very human: who ate with sinners (Lk 15: 1), had friends and collaborators (Jn 11: 11), disputed, argued and confronted with civil and religious authorities of his time (Jn 6: 52); washes the feet of his disciples (Jn 13: 1-18). Furthermore and even worse, the Son of Almighty God experienced the atrocity of death on the cross (Lk 24:20). And all this is in view of our salvation. This is to highlight the importance of Jesus’ humanity in the process of encountering with the God of Christians and his project of love for us.
To ignore the humanity of Jesus Christ in the process of discovering God amounts to make of Christianity a religion of mystery. Such Christianity offers salvation which comes from above, work of Eternal and Almighty God, excluding any human collaboration. Such Christianity can just dehumanize because, it does not make people responsible. It is therefore the problematic of human beings’ collaboration in the work of salvation and the building of God’s kingdom in human history which is at stake when one commits oneself to seeking the face of God through the humanity of his Son. Against a Christianity advertising wonders and miracles and a “cheap grace”; it is good to confront it to a Christianity which seeks Christian’s free consent and human collaboration for the salvation of the world, following the example of Old Testament prophets, the Blessed Virgin Mary (Lk 1:38) and disciples’ vocation stories and mission (Mk 1:16-19; Lk 5: 4-11; 9:1- 6, 23-26).
The God known in Jesus is the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. To serve God’s cause in our societies in dire need of miracles and wonders requires giving up the popular conception of the role of the Holy Spirit. From the perspective of the Gospel, the Holy Spirit cannot be reduced to the power of spiritual healing and the gift of miracles. The Holy Spirit is given to the disciples in order to guide them towards the whole truth (Jn 14: 26; 16:13…). He is the one enabling Christians to call God, Abba, Father of all (Rm 8:15). He is the strength which makes people to speak the language of unity in diversity, a community lifestyle worthy of Christ’s disciples (Ac 2:1-13).
As Christians, we confess the Holy Spirit as Lord who gives life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, who has spoken through the prophets (Creed of Nicaea-Constantinople). The Life given by the Holy Spirit is received as gift and lived as mission, following the example of the first disciples. For the disciples, it is a matter of making use of gifts received from the spirit of the Lord, for the usefulness of all (1Co 12: 7). Since then, signs of the presence of the Holy Spirit in our societies are people who promote life, live for the others and speak the language of love and unity such as Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Bishop Christoph Munzihirwa, Pope Francis… Therefore, to be credible, African ecumenical movement needs to produce people of this caliber in order to testify that living in Spirit frees from death, sin of selfishness, tribalism… (Rm 8: 2).
Serving the cause of the Church
It is within an Africa divided between ethnic groups, rich and poor that Christians are expected to show how they are capable to live in unity and communion. How to make of churches places and spaces where divisions are overcome because of the common listening of the word of God and the new life made possible by Baptism, such is the matter of serving the cause of the Church as one body whose head is Christ (Col 1:18). In fact, due to the fact they live in divided societies, Christians are losing sight of the idea of unity and communion as essential hallmarks of the community of Christ’s disciples. To Christians from diverse origins, Saint Paul didn’t refrain himself from proclaiming that belonging to Christ, dead and resurrected seals their unity and relativises their political, racial and cultural identities (Eph 2:13-19).
To the community of Corinth split in wealthy and poor, at the same time, partaking of one body of Christ, the apostle reminds that the Eucharistic body and the body of the community are intrinsically related to the point that socio-economical divisions within the community threats to transform the Eucharistic practice into occasion of condemnation (1Co 11:17-34). Pauline words are very clear and sharp. Is not the Eucharist, the Last Supper, emptied of its inner meaning when criteria based on ethnic groups still weigh heavily on the acceptance or the refusal of bishops, presidents of Christian assemblies; and then the gulf between rich and poor is accepted as a matter of fact in our Christian communities?
This question is worth asking in this time that we are witnessing to a sort of “Eucharistic consumerism” in churches of Africa. Therefore, to work for the cause of the Church is to make the Church become what she has always been: the community where divisions are overcome, because her members were reconciled by the death and resurrection of her Lord. Before being a matter of unity of all the churches around one pastor, the Pope, as some Catholics think, it is rather to think of communion intra-community. That is unity of life, sharing of joys and pains (Gaudium et Spes, n°1), between all communities of baptized which assemble to listen to the word of God and put it into practice through a life of mutual service.
Effective unity between Churches is still far. With the advent neo-Pentecostal churches which are growing in the continent, one can even consider that the dream of unity is just getting further and further. Nevertheless, Christians cannot forget that it is through their lifestyle that people will know they are Christ’s disciples (Jn 15:12). A social ecumenism should have as a close reaching goal, unity and communion between members of each community. For it is a way of witnessing to Christ (Jn 17: 21).
Serving the cause of human beings
Serving the cause of human beings is part of the core of Christian identity; just because Christians are disciples of Jesus who became man “for” the salvation of humanity. In view of an ecumenism attentive to the social implications of Christian faith, to serve the cause of human beings does not primarily mean to build more schools, hospitals or any other social structures. These structures are already abundant in the churches of Africa. Still remains the fact that their Christian identity seems to be obscured by their assimilation to the surrounding customs. Actually, one may find it hard to distinguish them from social state services where favoritism, corruption, attraction to make profit… are practices commonly admitted. Therefore, making of Christian social structures venues of exemplarity in matter of good management, equity and justice would already be a precious social service for our societies in dire need of virtuous models.
But the primary service coming at the fore front here is that the African bishops’ second synod calls: “a pastoral of intelligence and of reason” which fosters a habit of rational dialogue and of critical analysis within the society and in the Church. Such a pastoral is urgent because said the synod fathers: relying on traditional religions, witchcraft is now undergoing a kind of recrudescence. Fears are back and they pave the way for benumbing subjections. Concerns regarding health, wellbeing, children, whether, protection against evil spirits, prompt people from time to time to resort to some practices of African traditional religions that are contrary to the Christian teaching.
We can therefore understand the success of gurus and traders of miracles that abound in the African continent. E. Messi Metogo also points out that at this time, for many African people there seem to be a giving up of reason and a longing of miracles and wonders which pave the way for magical practice and bad use of prayer and of sacraments. He adds that the proliferation of sects and the rising of popular credulity stream from religious ignorance.
In the perspective outlined above, serving the cause of human beings means serving the best that they possess in themselves, namely, Faith and Reason, these two wings that enable the spirit to rise towards the contemplation of the truth (Pope John Paul II, Fides et Ratio, Between Faith and Reason, n° 1).The wish stated here is not that of a more intellectual African Christianity. It is rather the advent of a Christianity which helps African to be responsible of their destiny. It’s to work out for a Christianity that helps Africans to understand that being saved does not simply mean to go to heaven. Christian salvation reaches humanity by the saving power of God through the death and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Surely, believers will enjoy salvation fully in heaven, but in the present time, it is brought to light in human history by Christians in their living out of the Gospel, in social, economical and political commitments.
 KÄ MANA, « Les Églises indépendantes en mutation », dans Esprit, n°317(8-9/2005), p. 122.
 E. JÜNGEL, God as the Mystery of the World: On the Foundation of the Theology of the Crucified One in the Dispute between Theism and Atheism, Paperback – December 18, 2014.
 E. MESSI METOGO, « « Forgetting the humanity of Jesus », in Concilium, n°1(2006), p. 21.
 W. CAVANAUGH, Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire, Eerdmans, 2008.
 Africae Munus., n°137.
 Africae Munus, n°93.
 E. MESSI METOGO, Dieu peut-il mourir en Afrique ? Essai sur l’indifférence religieuse et l’incroyance en Afrique noire, Paris / Yaoundé, Karthala – UCAC, 1997, p. 205-206.