CHRIST IN OUR MIDST
One often thinks of Christianity as being an institution, a church. But is it? Something within tends to agree because we connect the Christian faith with the great churches, icons, domes, crosses, liturgical rites, music and more. Yet, while these things are associated with Christianity, true Christianity is a message. The message is from Jesus Christ Himself who came to offer Himself through His Crucifixion as the means of Salvation to us. It is a simple and direct message. Every teaching of Jesus reflects this message. Is Christianity a culture? Cultures vary from place to place. Culture has to do with how people relate to their environment; to one another within their own society; how their language reflects their views about life and death, about religion and creation; about good and bad. In a very real sense, Christianity is a culture, but a culture which transcends all others. One might say a culture is a "setting". Christianity can fit into any and all cultural settings.
In Genesis 1:26, "and God said,' Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth." God has made it very clear who and what He has chosen to be formed in his own image. Man … whether he be a Jew, an Arab, a Chinese, a Greek, an African, an Englishman … we are all made in the image and likeness of our Creator. Yet, Jesus did not come as the Son of Man to be born in Africa, or China, or anywhere else other than in Israel. Does this then mean that only the Jews were to be in the likeness and image of the Godhead? No.
Galatians 4:4 "But when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth his son, born of a woman, born under the law. "
Hebrews 2:17,4:15 "Therefore, in all things He had to be made like his brethren, that He might be a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. "For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin".
Christ was born in Palestine and grew up outwardly by reflecting the culture of God's chosen people, the Jews. He had to be in this setting in order to fulfill 1 the prophecies, but, also, so that He was really one of the people.
John 1:45-46. "Philip found Nathaniel and said, "We have found the one whom Moses wrote about in the book of the Law and also the prophet. So He is Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth. And Nathaniel said to him, Can anything good come from Nazareth. Philip said to him' Come and see'."
Jesus lived as others in that time, eating as did they, dressing as them, speaking the language of the Jews of that time. Yet, this did not prevent Him from having association with others. He did not live in the milieu of the elite Pharisees. Jesus was known to many. "Then the woman of Samaria said to him,' How is it that you, being a Jew, ask a drink from me, a Samaritan woman? For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans."
And he was loved by many because he knew no class, no prejudice, only love. "Luke 5:27-29 "After this he went out and saw a tax collector named Levi, sitting at the tax office, and He said to him,' Follow me and he left everything, and rose and followed Him. And Levi made Him a great feast in his house and there was a large company of tax collectors and others sitting at table with them."
Due to the cultural settings in which Jesus represented himself to man, there is a tendency to separate that culture and elevate it above others. True, Jesus spoke to Jews, but also to Samaritans, and to Gentiles and Greeks. Jesus came with a message for all of mankind.
We are called to take up the Cross and to follow Christ. In every aspect of our faith this call remains the same. In Baptism we are called to "put on Christ". Every lesson in the Holy Scripture calls us to imitate Jesus Christ. "Who being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation taking the form of a bond servant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the Cross. Therefore, God highly exalted Him and gave Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Philippians 2:6-11.
Everyone is called to serve Jesus Christ by declaring the Good News of Salvation to all. This in one sense makes everyone a missionary, someone who carries a message, the message of Jesus Christ. One tends to think that Christianity is exclusively European and that its religious tenets, also reflect the European cultures. It is wrongly believed that the two are intertwined and knitted together as one, but this is not the case.
Missionaries long tried to transplant this mix of Christianity and culture in the fertile soil I of Africa, but it often resulted in distortions which did not, truly reflect the faith of Jesus Christ. One needs to have a vision of what an African culture is before one sees how well suited Christianity is for Africans. Many aspects of African culture already have basic values and structures that are receptive to Christ.
Africans were not, and are not, people without faith. Africans have a very powerful belief in God the Creator. The concept of God is not something tied to a structure and to particular dates. The God of the African permeates all aspects of African life and culture. God is seen as the Creator and the One who provides continuity of life. The sun rises, the sun sets, there is birth and there are children, there is the soil, the planting, the harvest. There are the cattle and the nourishment of life. There is death and life beyond death. African traditional values are of justice, honesty, and positive morality. In traditional African societies the rites, the sacrifices, the priesthood, prayers, marriage, the human soul, and life after death are all present. Africans value the sense of the sacred; they have respect for human life; they have a strong sense of community and family spirit. Their vision of life is spiritual in essence. God is the recognized authority over all. Africans commune with God singularly and in groups.
Acts 17:27-28 "So that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us, for in Him we live and move and have our being, as also some of your own poets have said for we are also His offspring'. " The African is ripe for Orthodox Christianity, but in its own understanding of Jesus Christ, not the Graeco-Western image. Much of the indigenous culture is clearly receptive to the culture of Jesus Christ.
The Christian culture is all encompassing. The basis for this expression of culture is Jesus Christ. In the story of the Good Samaritan, while set in Palestine during the time in which Christ lived as the Son of Man, the same message is given, in no matter to which culture it is transcribed. A person of a particular background is the victim of violence by others; someone of a different culture saves his life, out of love for a fellow human regardless of his experience and origin. Christ is pointing out to us that we have responsibility toward one another. Throughout Christ's life among us, he speaks in terms of action and in terms of something which is ongoing. This story of the Good Samaritan presents a powerful moral here in Africa during a time of tribal conflict. If it were considered, the Samaritan ... one of those, the enemy, has cared for one of us, an attitude is changed. Not all who stand in another cultural shade is an enemy. Perhaps, this opens the way for dialogue and reconciliation.
Christ calls for us to follow Him. What He does, we should do, also. How can Christianity be anything else? "To sum up, the missionary is called to follow Christ, to take up His abode with Him, to be sent out by Him into the world, and in this way to share in His destiny, even to the extent of sharing His death."
To be a Christian is to be like Christ and to be like Christ creates the Christian culture. It is being like Christ where we live and where we work. The missionary has the responsibility to carry the message no matter where one is. Laurenti Magesa (Authentic African Christianity: Enculturation of Christ in Africa by Teresa Okure, Paul Van Thiel et all, pg 112) says, "Thus, it must derive to reach people as they are, that is, in their cultural setting and, as it were, let Christ and his Spirit seize, capture and possess them."
Surely, Jesus Christ, Son of the Father, was not born in Palestine to convert the world to the Jewish way of life and being. Historically, He lived in that culture, but His message was universal. One must make this difference, or accept this separation of Christ and the Jewish culture in which He lived. If one wishes to bring Christ's teachings to people of another culture, one must have an understanding to spread the Holy Word unchanged in meaning as Christ meant it, yet acculturated to the hearer of the Good News.
I Timothy 2:4-6 "Who desires all men to be saved and to come to knowledge of truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself a ransom for all to be testified in due time."
One cannot separate Christ from the Christian Culture and the Christian Culture in transcendence to all others. One tends to think Christianity in Africa was contemporary to the age of the earl explorations of the "Dark Continent," by the European Colonial Powers, but it is one of the oldest centers of Christianity in the world. St. Mark, the Evangelist, brought Christ to Africa at the time of the First Pentecost when our faith began. Some of the most outstanding contributors to Orthodox Tradition were Africans: Origen, St Augustine, St. Athanasios, St. Anthony.
In the days of the historical building of the Church, Alexandria was the centerpiece of theological study and growth. Aside from our own Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria there are the Churches of the Coptics and Ethiopians, two thousand years old.
One expects Orthodoxy in Africa to be Greek, but in Kenya alone there are about 80 Black African Orthodox priests who lead all Orthodox parishes, 250 or more. African Orthodoxy exists in West Africa, as well as throughout East Africa.
Of course, one cannot simply implant Orthodoxy into African cultures easily. While there are a good many aspects of indigenous cultures which are ripe for evangelization and incorporation into those cultures, there are also some which are incompatible with Christ and Christianity. The Church has the very important responsibility of identifying the negative aspects which are contradictory and discordant to Orthodox Christianity. This is not an easy task. The Church must have servants who understand the local ways of life and are able to distinguish those attitudes and features which are naturally good, which are just and positive. Some of the negative expressions in African culture (though not in all) are objectionable moral practices, polygamy, discrimination against women, human sacrifice, rejection of twins (in certain cultures).
Obviously, some of these are easily recognizable, yet how must the matters be handled in altering the condition is difficult. Those things which are incompatible must he corrected while good qualities should be retained and used in rendering Christ's teachings into the very center of African life. Christ in African, and other traditions, must uplift the faith and the society. Ephesians 1:9 "And to make all see what is the fellowship of the mystery, which from the beginning of the ages has been hidden in God who created all things through Jesus Christ."
Bringing the Word of Christ to people is best done within the context of the indigenous culture using as much as possible its own values to pass on the teaching. The Family traditions are strong and sound. The family in which one is born is the center of education which eventually prepares one for one's role within the greater community. The family is the center of spirituality and as long as this is maintained it will grow and extend beyond the family into the community.
In African cultures the family is within a greater family which is the community. Community life is a part of one's duty and responsibility and it is a basic right. Everyone has a part in the community. This point reflects back to the concept of Christ vs commandments to love one another and to love God. This then ties all members of the body of Christ into one family, one community.
Evangelization is not something once done. It must be alive and continuing. The faith must be deepened and maintained. The Light we receive through Baptism is constantly in need of care, or it may dim. Christianity must maintain the momentum given by Christ, but it must grow. If a wrong is committed it must be corrected. The one who committed the wrong must repent, but also be forgiven and the wrong removed in the right perspective to allow for the wrongdoer who has repented to be purified and be able to grow in the Light once again.
The faith remains constant in its holiness and purity, but the believer often wavers and even falls. It is the believer who needs to be nurtured, nourished and replenished, not the faith.