the blessings of africa

An MHP Interview with Keith Burton
These days, Africa is known more for its catastrophes and charities than as a center of early Christianity and a place of legendary kingdoms. Africa has been raped by foreign invasion, beaten by internal wars, and pillaged for its people, its stones, and its land. Desperate eyes wide with want and inflamed by disease have recently nudged the rock and entertainment worlds to answer the whys and hows with what ifs. And that is a gospel response to any suffering. as the temporal hangs on the shreds of the eternal peace to come. Yet, the story of Africa cannot be dismissed or stored away because of contemporary circumstances. It is a history tightly woven into the whole of civilization, from the dawn of cities and technologies to the high noon of religion. And, it is a history, if known in more ready fashion, that seeks to erode any scraps of indifference and bigotry that we might harbor. For, remember that it was a continent wider than the arms of its present footprint and holding testimony not only to Christianity’s growth but also the onset of Muhammad.

In Keith Burton’s new book The Blessings of Africa: The Bible and African Christianity (IVP) we get the meat and potatoes of Africa’s history. I recently asked Dr. Burton a few questions.

MHP: Explain the title, if you would- The Blessing of Africa, the title of the book.

Keith Burton: The Blessing of Africa is really a response to the popular myth about the “Curse of Ham.” Briefly stated, the myth proposes that Black people are perpetually cursed because of Ham’s disrespectful behavior towards his father, Noah, in Genesis 9.

The myth of a cursed Hamitic “race” has its inception in rabbinic literature which uses the biblical passage to explain the racial characteristics of African people. Centuries later, this same passage was used to justify the Euro-American enslavement of Africans. In fact, it is in the context of the trans-Atlantic slave trade that African people were most dehumanized, as their captors justified their actions in the name of Christianity.

Unfortunately, the notion of a “curse” against African peoples has had wide ranging repercussions that affects the way in which people view the place of the African in salvation history. “The Blessing of Africa” is intended to debunk the myth by providing biblical and historical evidence that details the role of the lands and people associated with “Ham” in the writing and preservation of the Bible.

MHP: One of your objectives is to reorder Africa from the origin of the name - a newly formed Roman province - through the expansive use of the term later in the Middle Ages. You also predate the Roman reference and talk about the Land of Ham. If you would, address the significance of these movements.

KB: As I explain in the book, I use the term Africa “rhetorically.” Historically, we know that geographical boundaries are continually shifting. For instance, the land associated with the United States of America today is drastically different than it was 200 years ago, and if the separatists in Canada have their way, that nation would be much smaller in coming decades.

In order to maintain geographical consistency throughout the study, I reconstruct the “land of Ham” which I equate to biblical “Africa.” Again, this is not to say that the ancients referred to this territory with these terms, but it provides a framework in which I develop my thesis. The parameters for the land of Ham are derived from the “Table of Nations” in Genesis 10, which appears to be a literary map reflecting the author’s recollection of the “world” in his day.

In providing a new option for the understanding of “Africa,” I also hope to start a discussion on the power of language in shaping our view of reality. That is why I also make it clear that I am not using the term “Africa” as a synonym to “Black”–this book is not about Blacks and the Bible, but Africans (the descendants of Ham) and the Bible. It is for that very reason that in addition to addressing events in Ethiopia and Egypt, I discuss incidents pertaining to the Bible in Palestine, Saudi Arabia, and other areas of the so called “Middle East.” When the concept of a “land of Ham” is taken seriously, Africa’s biblical history includes such historical events as the birth and growth of Islam, the Crusades and the Arab-Israeli conflict.

MHP: I had not heard before your book (probably my naivety) the theory of Islam as a heretical cult of Islam, thought their early respect for "people of the book" is well noted. Is this theory well established? It seems to be well grounded in your study, but I wondered how radical an idea that is, especially given today's global challenges.

KB: The centrality of Jesus in the Koran and the respect that Muhammad had for the “people of the book” are indisputable and have been discussed by Christian and Muslim scholars alike. However, I have not come across anyone who has come out as strongly as I have with my assertion that Islam began as a Christian “heresy.”

We tend to forget that when Muhammad shared his understanding of biblical revelation, not all Christians adhered to the views of the “orthodox” majority. A significant number of Christians rejected the Trinitarian view of God along with the teaching that Jesus possessed two natures. Further, centuries before Muhammad, there were Christians who were appalled by the view that God was instrumental in giving birth to a son, and taught that Jesus only became the “Son” of God through adoption at his baptism.

The Koranic teaching about Jesus was by no means in the mainstream of medieval Christianity, but had its inception in Christian literature. The myths of Jesus’ miraculous feats in his childhood were first shared in a document known as “The Infancy Gospel of Thomas.” And the teaching that Jesus did not really die on the cross has its inception in Docetism. Further, the phenomenon of the Spirit giving unique messages through prophets already had precedent in North African Donatism.

It appears to me that Muhammad was engaged in an effort to reform Christianity with a simple message of submission to God–a message that avoided the complicated creeds of orthodox Christianity. This uncomplicated message was apparently successful as hundreds and thousands of Christians quickly deserted Chalcedonian Orthodoxy and Coptic Monophytism and embraced Muhammad’s version of biblical faith.

MHP: From Eden to the early church (Alexandria, especially), Africa has played a significant geographic point and a significant theological hotbed. Why then is it forgotten? I guess, can you name the historic meta-narrative episodes that eroded the awareness and respect for such an active piece of the global drama?

KB: It is true that until recent years “Africa” was far from most people’s minds in discussions about the biblical world and Christianity. I see this as the result of the movement of the “center” of Christianity from the lands associated with Ham’s descendants to western Europe.

On one level, the decline of Africa’s “Christian” image is directly related to the rise of Islam. It is true that in the earliest centuries of Christianity it was the land of Ham that provided the majority of the Christian intellectuals (Palestine, Egypt, and North Africa). Where would Christian theology be without Origen, Tertullian, Augustine, Arius, and Athanasius – to name a few? However, with the birth and independence of Islam, the religious nature of the region was transformed and Christianity became more associated with the countries of Europe.

Although a significant percentage of the inhabitants in Muslim lands maintained Christianity, the fact that they lacked political power minimized their impact on the global Christian scene. It soon became “typical” to think of the lands of biblical Africa as “Muslim” juxtaposed to the Christians of Europe. So embedded was the divide that when the Crusades against Islam were executed, the Crusaders made little distinction between Muslims, Jews or Christians when attacking the residents of Palestine and Egypt.

With the popular reception of Christianity in Europe, it did not take long for those responsible for transmitting the faith to immerse it in European culture. This is most evident in mediaeval art in which all the characters of the Bible are portrayed as Europeans. In later centuries, Europe’s cultural influence would also dominate the hymns of the church. This transformed Christianity was marketed to the world via Europe’s imperial quest to colonize the other continents. Since the expansion of the empire was justified in the name of Christian missions, it was only natural for the populations of the newly annexed colonies to assume that Christianity was native to Europe. Even Africans were led to believe that their enslavers were also their saviors as those who chose to embrace Europe’s faith were forced to relinquish their “pagan” names and embrace “Christian” names.

In sum, Africa’s role in the biblical story and development of Christianity has been obscured by the success of Islam coupled with a racist tradition that has been driven by the notion of European supremacy.

MHP: [An aside, perhaps... there seems to be an assumption that the biblical account is accurate when it comes to the players in and around wider Africa. Have you questioned how reliable the Old Testament is in casting, specifically when it comes to people groups and judgments upon them? I ask because it appears that God desired more inclusion and not less but it's often interpreted as us and them.]

KB: I believe the biblical narrative is clear in its portrayal of a God who showed partiality to a specific group of people–namely those who descended from Abraham through Isaac and Jacob. However, when we look at the purpose of God’s selection of a people, it is also evident that even in His selection of a particular group, God had the entire world in mind. In his original revelation to Abraham, he reminded him that through his descendants “all nations” will be blessed. In this sense, God’s “partiality” was not for the purpose of excluding others, but was a paradoxical expression of his impartiality.

Interestingly, even the “chosen” people were integrated with those who did not share the same lineage. At least three of Israel’s tribes were semi-Hamitic (Ephraim, Manasseh, and Judah), and the biblical narrative includes a number of biblical Africans who were a significant part of Israel (e.g. Rahab, Uriah, Hiram, Ebed-Melech).

I have no reason to question the reliability of the Old Testament script. Geo-political realities would mandate violent conflict between a nation of invading settlers and firmly established tribes. Further, archaeology confirms that those at enmity with God’s chosen were steeped in idolatry and other practices that went against God’s revealed will. Of course, for me to even make such a statement is to assume that there was a time when apostate nations were aware of God’s will. It seems to me that the eventual fate of Israel brought on by it’s own apostasy evidences a God who treats all people equally–whether in redemption or judgement.

MHP: I have read and heard much about the re-Christianization of Africa, mainly from within. I am, in fact a graduate of Trinity Divinity School where Tite Tienou is dean, which is monumental in the west, but at seminary we learned that the movement is away from the West and toward Africa... not only in sheer population of Christians, but also the scholars and pastors that are and will contribute to the wider movement. Why now? Why Africa? What do you see "Western" Christians (specifically Americans) doing with this growing phenomenon, other than the occasional Christianity Today article - especially due to the problems of unity period?

KB: The Psalmist prophesies the day when “Envoys will come out of Egypt” and “Ethiopia will quickly extend her hands to God.” (Ps 68:31) I believe that day has come. The foundation of the road to the prophecy’s fulfillment was built with the jagged rocks of European missions which–for the most part–sought to pacify the natives. However, the very Bible that was abused as an instrument of oppression became the vehicle of liberation for millions of Africans who realized that all humans are equal in God’s sight.

In the Bible, colonial Africans found a Christ who could identify with their pain–a liberator who knew how it felt to live under imperial oppression. They were also fascinated by the emancipating God who delivered Israel from slavery and entered into a covenant with his people. Further, they had no problem relating to the stories of the gospels on the societal level, as they experienced the power of exorcism and faith healing, and engaged in other types of spiritual warfare.

While most “Western” Christians have not given much thought to the changing face of Christianity, some “Anglo” church historians have contributed major studies that will hopefully enlighten the masses. These include Philip Jenkins and Andrew Walls who have recognized the resurgence of Christianity in Africa and Asia and speak about its hemispheric movement from the “north” to the “south.” The forthcoming publication by Thomas Oden will also embolden others to tackle a subject that for to long has been taboo.

Having noted the general indifference towards the transformation of twenty-first century Christianity, there are some Christians who have had to come to terms with the reality as a result of church politics. I speak specifically of the current rift in the Anglican communion where some American parishes disturbed by the liberal trends in this country have chosen to come under the jurisdiction of African dioceses. The Catholic Church also has highly placed African Cardinals who could very easily be voted as the next pope.

As we come to terms with this new reality, I think it is important for Western Christians to accept the fact that the various expressions of African Christianity may not resemble “those” that predominate Euro-America. It is also essential for Western theologians to realize that useful theology can be conducted without reference to Barth, Tillich. Niebuhr, Bruce, and other revered “giants” who have shaped modern Euro-American theology.

MHP: Ethiopia. Are there ways that its historical keeping of Christian principles are the guideposts for African Christianity today?

KB: Ethiopia has a proud Christian legacy. Arguably one of the first nations to embrace Christianity as the official state religion, Ethiopia has maintained a strong Christian presence in the face of Islam, paganism and communism. Although organizationally tied to the hip of the Egyptian Coptic Church (until recently), the Ethiopian Church managed to maintain its unique brand of Christianity that strongly resembled its Jewish parent. As recently as the reign of the late Emperor Haile Selassie, the Church still promoted seventh-day Sabbath keeping, circumcision, kosher dietary restrictions, and held on to a liturgy that could very well have been borrowed from the worship of ancient Israel.

A number of the Independent African Christian Churches identify themselves as “Ethiopian” or “Zionist” and practice a more “Jewish” form of Christianity. Among them are Isaiah Shembe’s Nazareth Baptist Church and the Zion Christian Church, to which are aligned millions of members.

I must hasten to add that while Ethiopian Christianity has held on to ancient traditions, I would not recommend it as a “model” for African Christianity. Just like its siblings in the West, the Tewahedo Church has been hijacked by bigoted bishops, political priests and career clergy who have forgotten the essence of the Christian gospel. As I mention in the book, this is most evident in the recent rift between Ethiopia and Eritrea, which not only resulted in the development of two independent states, but saw the church fragmenting into two autonomous denominations. Imagine the message that could have been sent if the Church were more committed to the united Kingdom of God than to earthly government structures?

While I believe that Ethiopia’s historic commitment to biblical truth should be emulated, it is more important that African Christians imbibe the essence of the gospel imperative–empowering love. Bishop Desmond Tutu and President Nelson Mandela showed us how this looks with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in post-Apartheid South Africa, and if African Christianity is going to positively impact the global Christian community, the principle of love must permeate every cell of its growing body.

MHP: Your book has prompted me to wonder what Jesus expected out of his early adherents and whether he imagined his movement reaching the pinnacle of political acceptance that Constantine modeled and was subsequently followed throughout Europe. Isn't the contention with categorizing people and churning war and trade an arm of government? And when Christianity saddles up with government in an official capacity, the "other" people quickly get subjugated under a bigger hand than simply tyranny (or beaten-in democracy, as America is attempting to do in the Middle East). Do you have any thoughts along these lines... ?

KB: As I mentioned earlier, for Christianity to be effective, it cannot be beholden to earthly governments. Constantine’s understanding of the “City of God” (which in many ways parallels the notion of dar al-Islam) politicizes Christianity in a way that robs it of its liberating power. The Christianity of the gospels was apolitical, in the sense that while it acknowledged the authority of earthly governments, it anticipated that all would eventually be superceded by the Kingdom of/from Heaven. Consequently, all who called themselves Christians would understand that their decision refocused their primary patriotic allegiance to an empire that had not yet been established.

Unfortunately, the gospel vision has been obscured by an unhealthy merging of state and church that has resulted in untold atrocities being conducted “in the name of the Lord.” Remember, it was the Catholic Church that sanctioned imperial colonization and slavery under the guise of converting pagans. Further, although no New Testament writer has any interest in the restoration of the land of Israel, it was so called “Christian” nations that partnered together in the “Crusades” against Islam.

Most recently, many evangelical Christians have rallied behind the President’s effort to forcefully convert a section of the globe to a way of living that he defines as “God’s gift to humanity.” While I am in full agreement that God wishes all people to experience freedom and enjoy life more abundantly, I fail to see how current carnal methods have garnered the endorsement of influential “Christian” leaders. As I imply towards the end of the book, God does not desire Christians to win people to his kingdom by violent force, but by compassionate example.

A friend of mine just returned from preaching a sermon series in Rwanda where his translator was a pastor who had lost all of his family in the recent genocide. Those responsible for the death of his family members were fellow pastors from the same denomination–men he had studied, lived and fellowshipped with. Although it is widely known that some of these pastors were involved in the genocide, most of them are still overseeing congregations and maintain good and regular standing in their church. As fate would have it, the pastor who served as translator now has to attend meetings with some of the same colleagues who have caused him so much pain. My friend asked him how he could do it, and he responded with a testimony of God’s grace and forgiveness.

When I think of this living martyr, I wish that all Christians could understand the true cost of discipleship. I wish that all Christians could really learn what it means to trust in God. I wish that all Christians would find the strength to love the “other” with so much conviction that their object of disdain is transformed into a sister or a brother. I wish that all Christians would truly submit to the God who loved the “world” so much that he gave his only Son....


Interview and opening comments by Zach Kincaid.