African spirituality is unique in its commitment to community
God is in the ties that bind all of creation together, says Father Stan Chu Ilo.
Americans should be better at dealing with ambiguity, diversity, and disagreement, says Father Stan Chu Ilo, a research professor of Catholic studies and African Catholicism at DePaul University in Chicago. Life can embrace both joy and sorrow; two people can disagree and yet love each other deeply.
“I cannot translate conservative or liberal into my native language,” says Ilo, who was born in Nigeria. “If I visit my village, I cannot describe these concepts in Igbo.” He says that his African friends and family can’t relate to the concepts that polarize Americans. “We can disagree, but we don’t have to slam each other. This is community,” he says.
For Ilo the concept of community emerges from a distinctly African spirituality. Everything and everyone is connected; your well-being depends on the well-being of the people around you, as well as that of the trees, the streams, even the rocks. This, for Ilo, is where we find God: in the common threads that bind us together into one common web of relationship and responsibility.
Ilo believes that what ties everything—people, rivers, rocks, trees, and animals—together is God. African Christians see this rich connection between all created things through their faith in Jesus. “Jesus made these connections,” he says. “A relationship with Jesus helps to tighten this web of connectivity so that it doesn’t fall apart.”
What kinds of stories do people in the United States and Europe tell about Africa?
You hear multiple narratives about Africa and Christianity in Africa. Africa has always been a puzzle to people.
In the 15th century, when the Portuguese were exploring Africa, they kept looking for this elusive king called Prester John. They had heard of this marvelous king in Africa. But it was all just a myth.
In the 16th century, a great African king called Mansa Musa stopped in Cairo on his way to pilgrimage in Mecca. He had so much gold and wealth that he crashed the stock markets. The Arabs, too, became fascinated with Africa, saying among themselves, “This king has so much money, 500 slaves, so many wives, and so much wealth.” It was part of why the Arabs decided to cross the Sahara Desert into the African hinterland.
So false myths and stories about Africa are nothing new. Today the stories have changed: I hear people say that people in Africa are very conservative because they are opposed to social issues like same-sex marriage, abortion, or gender issues.
I also hear people say that Africa is the future of the church, since there are so many African priests working in the United States and Canada. The church in Africa is growing at a time when the church here is kind of shrinking.
Some people are very optimistic about the church in Africa because of their strong faith and the exponential growth of the Christian population. But others tell the narrative of the poor church. People see images of hunger, starvation, war, and disease—most recently ebola.
Finally, some people see Africa as where you go to have fun and enjoy Africans’ hospitality and friendship. This summer I traveled with staff and faculty from DePaul on safari. Some of them saw Africa as this beautiful continent and connected with the natural beauty of Africa beyond some of the negative stereotypes.
What do these narratives say about Africa?
There is no one story about Africa. Africa has many ethnic groups in 54 countries. In my home country of Nigeria, for instance, I can’t even talk about a common narrative of Catholicism.
Catholics have interacted with Muslims for close to 200 years in northern Nigeria. This has made the texture of Catholicism there very specific and unique.
If you ask me about the true picture of Africa, I would say it is a multiplicity of human experience held together by a common African spirituality based in the connections between people.
The face of African Catholicism—whether in South Africa, Zambia, Botswana, Uganda, the Central African Republic, or Ghana—is that common thread of the spirituality of the intimate connections of reality.
This spirituality is often expressed in celebration. People celebrate life. They celebrate faith. They celebrate death. They celebrate suffering. Life is governed by a spirituality of intimacy and connection.
Say more about this African spirituality.
Someone has called it the moral tradition of abundant life. What is abundant life? I say it is human and cosmic flourishing, when every reality is intimately connected to every other reality in a harmonious bond. African thinking believes that war, hatred, alienation, injustice, and segregation are all evils that not only diminish both the perpetrators and the victims, but also God.
René Descartes, the French philosopher, said, “Cogito, ergo sum,” or “I think, therefore I am.” But many scholars in African philosophy and theology say it would be more appropriate to say, “I belong to the community, therefore I am. I am loved, therefore I am. I am related to you, therefore we are.”
In Bantu thinking, this is called the “vital principle”; l experience life through my encounter with other humans and cosmic realities. The more I am in harmony with creation, the richer I become and the more life is generated in me. Even stones have a vital principle because they are connected to the whole bondedness of life. Many in Africa refer to this as Ubuntu, “I am, through you” or “we are, through others.”
The I cannot have any meaning outside of the loving embrace of the we. And the we has no meaning if the multiplicity of individuals within that framework are not intimately connected, sharing life, experiences, pain, and suffering.
This doesn’t mean that people don’t have their own individual identities or that you collapse the individual into the anonymity of the commonality of human beings. Rather it’s that your identity is intrinsically connected to that of every other person in a common web of life.
In traditional African society, when a baby is born his or her umbilical cord is buried and a tree is planted on it. This is how African traditional societies calculated people’s age. The tree makes a new ring every year, so if you want to know how old someone is, you go to their tree of life.
We called these ancestral groves, places where these trees of life were planted. They were part of the intimate connection that holds everything together. This is what it means to have a spirituality of abundant life: It is only through connections that we can live fully.
How is Catholicism in Africa informed by African spirituality?
Jesus is a man for the other, a man who makes connections and weaves together various experiences. In John 10:10, he says, “I have come that you may have life and have it in abundance.” This fits well with the African idea of Ubuntu.
In Christ, African traditional ancestral and ethnicity-based faith comes together in the cosmic framework of Christianity. This unity of faith experience—this commitment and religiously grounded experience—is something I find unique to African Christianity. Everything has a religious narrative.
God is present in everything. This isn’t pantheism—it’s not that trees are a god or everything else is a god. Rather it’s more like panentheism, where God works in and through all things. There is a connection between what goes on in the United States and what happens in one village in Africa. When someone is suffering, they are connected to me by that suffering.
I think I would define African Christianity as governed by the celebration of this experience. People are having a deep encounter with Jesus Christ and with the community we call the church.
What can the U.S. church learn from African Catholics?
Catholicism is universal, and it is imperative that the church be a church of diversity.
We have one family trait, and that is Jesus. And that is love, because Jesus is love incarnate in history. According to Ubuntu, we’re all related. So it’s not just that Africans have something to share with people here, it’s also that people here have something to give to Africa.
Raymond Brown is one of the foremost Catholic biblical scholars. He writes about a community of beloved, where everyone feels like the firstborn daughter or son of God. I think this is something that Africans can teach: the sense of community and connection within the often-alienating framework we have imposed even within the church.
I also think people fight too much in the United States. There is a certain joy in living with ambiguity, with complexity. Life here is often cast in this dualistic tendency: you are a Democrat or a Republican, from a blue state or a red state, conservative Catholic or liberal Catholic.
People go to church to meet Jesus in community and the breaking of bread. They don’t go to discuss money or who’s going to win the next election.
People have not learned the creative and transformative grace of conflict. If two people live together, it will only take a day or two to discover bad things about the other. But if they love each other, they have to embrace both the good and the bad.
We need to turn down the volume of tension in our churches. It’s not about who’s conservative or who’s progressive, but about healthy, creative, transformative conversation.
I’m not saying there are no divisions in the church in Africa, but I notice a commitment to community, a natural tendency for people to handle things peacefully.
What is the biggest challenge facing the church in the United States?
Clergy have a problem with dictatorial tendencies. Many priests blame clericalism on bishops, but we also have some local dictators in parishes who will not consult parishioners. We shield themselves and build a façade. We barricade ourselves in the rectory, will not greet our people at the end of Mass, don’t know the names of parishioners.
Henri Nouwen wrote, “We are all wounded healers. We all have a hole in our heart.” And this is true. But going out to the people can be how a priest gets his own healing.
When I was a pastor in Canada, I made a point of knowing my parishioners. Sometimes I would just show up and knock on the door. I told them, “I will come visit you like Jesus said in the Bible, ‘like a thief in the night.’ ”
Many priests don’t want to visit their parishioners, but the church started as a house church. It was family.
The African Catholic bishops said at a 1994 synod that “the church is the family of God.” We need to create that family through hospitality and friendship.
How can U.S. pastors create family among the faithful?
The first thing I learned as a pastor is that you have to listen to people.
The church does not belong to the priest. After the Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI published an encyclical, Ecclesiam suam. In it he says that priests are servants of the people and servants of God. You must come to the parish with a deep sense of humility and a deep sense of serving the people.
You do this by listening so you know where people are hurting. And there are so many people hurting in the church today. People are hurting from the clerical sexual abuse. They’re hurting in their marriage. They feel abandoned by the church.
It’s very important to learn what I call vulnerable mission or the mission of the wounded. This is what Pope Francis is saying: The church is a field hospital.
Then you have to get to know your people. To know their qualities and their pains. Then you become an agent of transformation and an instrument of grace.
That shapes your pastoral ministry. It’s woven into this web of relationships, not just imposed. Just because something worked somewhere else, doesn’t mean it will work everywhere. We need contextual ministry.
I don’t think there’s any institution on earth that has the kinds of gifts we have in our church. But we have failed awfully at using them, especially the gift of laity and the gift of women.
This approach is basically what Jesus did when he created the Beloved Community. Pope John Paul II said in one of his last pastoral letters, “We don’t need to invent a new plan. Jesus already gave us the plan.” The plan is to preach good news to the poor, bring sight to the blind, and liberate those in captivity.
How does Jesus give us a model for how to do this?
Jesus stepped into the chaos of humanity, what the church refers to as descending into hell, and still he rose. This is the reality of vulnerable pastoral ministry.
Vulnerable mission helps people see some part of themselves in the other. That’s what I think Africans offer: the idea that if someone in the community is suffering, the tree is suffering as well. Life is intimately bound; we are all together.
Jesus broke borders and boundaries. There’s an ancient Greek word, syncatabasis. It means divine accommodation. God accommodates God’s self to our nature. If I am LGBT, Jesus is LGBT with me. If I have Down syndrome, Jesus accommodates himself to my Down syndrome. If I am married, Jesus becomes married with me.
That is the reality of the incarnation. Jesus assumes a person’s nature in order to confer upon them the grace to live fully into the vocation to which God has called him or her.
This is the heart of our creed. The mission of God is catholic and universal. We all have multiple identities, but we share a family trait, and that trait is the Trinity. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit means solidarity, mutuality, friendship, participation, and collaboration, all in the service of love.
Almost every pope since Pope Paul VI has raised up the African church as a model for Catholics around the world. What effect has this had on the church in Africa?
I think it was Pope Paul VI who, in 1969, said, “You may and ought to have an African Christianity.” John Paul II said, “Africa is experiencing a new springtime.” Pope Benedict called Africa the church’s “spiritual lungs.” And two years ago Pope Francis said, “Africa always amazes and surprises us. Africa is the spiritual capital of the world.”
Remember the context in which these things were said. The late 1960s, the postcolonial time, was really a time of turmoil in Africa. The idea was that once they got political power back from the colonialists, everything would be OK. But it wasn’t. After independence there were wars and violence and political turmoil.
And then the pope says, “You’re mature enough for your own church. You don’t need missionaries.” This is a deep affirmation.
Pope Paul was the first to canonize Africans in modern times. He canonized the Ugandan martyrs and said at St. Peter’s Basilica, “Africa has come of age.” He gave Africans the sense that we are not outsiders in the church’s divine plan.
St. John Paul II said those things about Africa following the collapse of the eastern and western blocs in the post-Cold War era. Again, Africa was going through a period of convulsion.
I remember those days. We suffered a lot of hunger and starvation. I ate fish maybe once a week in high school. Maybe on Sunday you would get a piece of fish or meat, but not every Sunday. It was terrible.
The IMF and World Bank had imposed austerity measures on Africa. People were suffering. A lot of people flocked to Nigeria, my home country, from the wars in Chad and Sudan. So many people were begging, and there was so much suffering, and hunger, and unease.
And then the pope says, “It’s springtime in Africa.” This spoke to Africans of hope.
I think this is the effect of all the popes’ statements: hope. Hope beyond measure.
Why was Pope Paul’s canonization of Africans such a big deal?
I come from an area that used to be a holding center for slaves. The village next to mine is called Ehuhe, which means “those who miss the way.” That’s where they held slaves.
The negation of African values has been a consistent pattern through the very early days of interaction with the West. Today some Africans still suffer from that cultural alienation. They think things from outside Africa are better. For 300 years African religions were regarded as pagan, barbaric, and inferior.
The pope’s actions rolled back some of this negation of history. Now Africans can start enculturating their own theology.
Most Africans my age, maybe 40 and older, have double names: a Christian name and their own tribal name. I was named after Bishop Stanislaus of Krakow. But I also have my own name, my middle name, Chukwudiebube, which means “God is great and glorious.” It was given to me as thanksgiving to God for saving my life and those of my family after the terrible civil war in Nigeria killed more than a million Igbo people, my ethnicity.
A cousin of mine was named John Bosco. But as children we had never heard anything like that name.
We couldn’t pronounce it, so we called him John Bicycle.
Today, though, we have our own saints. This is a huge deal, especially understanding where Africans are coming from—slavery and colonialism and the demonization of African culture and religion by some missionaries and Western imperialists.
During slavery, some people would say to black Africans, “I baptize you if you have a soul.” People believed that we Africans didn’t have souls. We were said to be cursed sons and daughters of Ham.
Even in the 1970s, I remember saying a prayer in the Catholic Church for the conversion of Africa or for pardon for Africa: “We, the children of Ham, wallowing in the valley of sin until God, through the Church, came to find us.”
Whenever I think of that prayer and what it did to so many Africans of my age, I feel like crying. It is so liberating that through my research, writing, and preaching I am now telling a different story of Africa. I thank God for the popes who have visited Africa and given my people a sense that we belong and that our culture and history is a part of the saving reality God has given the world.
But it’s not that Christianity found Africans. Jesus was already here. He is the Word that was there before history began. Jesus loved this land, and Africa even offered hospitality to Jesus in Egypt when he fled with his family. God was already in Africa, even before the popes told Africans to be proud of their African Christian heritage. The popes’ words roll back this negation of history. This is such an amazing thing.
This article also appears in the September 2017 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 82, No. 9, pages 18–22).
Image: Courtesy of Father Stan Chu Ilo