African Traditional Religion and Christianity

A Letter from Bob and Kristi Rice, serving in South Sudan

Summer 2023

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Dear friends,

Onen, who sits in the front of the class, turned across the classroom to Sarah Jacob during a lively discussion and said to her, “Tell me more. I want to understand what you are saying about your people.” Sarah Jacob proceeded to tell us about the Pojulu of South Sudan, sharing a gripping story about the relationship between “the living” and the “living dead” (the ancestors).

Student Mark Konyi, a member of the Murle tribe, described for us the value of the placenta according to his people. He described how after the birth of a child the placenta is buried in a separate place from where the people live. According to our readings from African theologian John S. Mbiti, the placenta is considered valuable to African peoples because it serves as the “religious link” between child and mother. In different African cultures, the placenta is buried, placed in the river, or used for rituals. According to Mark Konyi, the Murle people bury the placenta in a specific place, and no one is allowed to step on that ground for two years; it is considered a holy place. Moreover, if someone is afflicted with a lightning bug flying into their eye, the only way to be healed is to go to the place where the buried placenta is to receive healing. During another discussion, Baziel, who sits in the very back, asked the million-dollar question, “Are there components of our traditional beliefs that we can keep when we become Christian?”

After taking personal leave for six months last year from Nile Theological College (NTC), it has been a great joy to teach again. I was given the course “Introduction to African Traditional Religion (ATR)” by the academic dean; a course I have wanted to teach since 2019 when I sat in on this course with students at NTC. Along with the eminent African theologian Kwame Bediako, I am convinced that the “theological memory” of a people, that is, their traditional beliefs and religious heritage, is integral to their identity. Thus, without this ‘theological memory’ we have no past, and having no past, our identity is lost, for the “past is also our present” (Bediako 1999: 237). On that note, the question I want my students to wrestle with during their time at NTC is this – “If we do not remember and understand our rich religious heritage, what true and lasting benefit will the Gospel have in terms of speaking with and speaking to our religious and cultural heritage?”

According to John S. Mbiti, in the past, overseas missionaries and African converts to Christianity condemned African Traditional Religion (ATR) outright. However, in Mbiti’s experience, Christianity and ATR have many things in common. A few commonalities include a deep awareness of the unseen world (the spiritual realm), the presence of spiritual beings, the importance of visions and dreams, the availability of spiritual power, belief in God, the need for a mediator, a holistic view of life, and life after death. Because of these commonalities, Christianity finds a welcome home in Africa. Mbiti writes, “ATR and Christianity have become allies, at least unofficially,” one preparing the ground for the other (Mbiti 1991: 189).

Given the tragic legacy of discounting and disregarding ATR, at the beginning of each class period, I say to my students, “May we take a kind, sympathetic, loving look back at our people, to our ancestors, to our forefathers and foremothers. With love and curiosity, may we see to understand how they lived, how they understood themselves, how they understood their world, how they understood their God.” In this course, we are seeking to better understand and appreciate the traditional beliefs and practices of African peoples. To my joy and sheer delight, we have had rich and lively discussions. My hope and prayer are that this course will serve as a foundational course for all theology courses and that our Christian faith will be enriched and strengthened by a greater understanding and appreciation of African Traditional Religion.

A couple of weeks ago I ventured from the comfortable confines where faculty sit and mingle and eat together. In this other space, the “students’ space,” I found myself surrounded by my students. Among them, Baziel stood smiling. My students said to me, “Here is our brother Baziel, the ‘African Mangaten Theologian.’” ‘Mangaten’ means “two mangoes,” and is the name of the locality where Baziel lives here in Juba. Ostensibly what my students were saying to me was, “Baziel is the ‘real deal’; he is a contextual theologian!” Judging from our time together this semester, I could not agree more. I pray that we all become like Baziel, seeking to connect our rich histories and ‘theological memory’ with the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and then enjoying the wild and wonderful ride wherever God takes us!


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