Clouds of Witnesses: Politics and Protest in Postcolonial Africa

Noll & Nystrom, Clouds of WitnessesIn my first and second posts about Africa in this series blogging through Mark Noll and Carolyn Nystrom’s Clouds of Witnesses: Christian Voices from Africa and Asia (InterVarsity Press), we’ve seen African Christians relating to colonial authorities and Western culture in a variety of ways: Bernard Mizeki, so closely aligned with British Anglican leaders that some later nationalists denounced him as a collaborator; his contemporary John Milembwe, who led a violent uprising against the British in Nyasaland; the enigmatic prophet William Wadé Harris, who supported one European land grab and was arrested and beaten by other European authorities unnerved by the popularity of his revivals; Simeon Nsibambi, whose partnership with an English doctor anchored a remarkable revival in East Africa; and Byang Kato, who studied extensively in Europe and the United States, but wanted to “let African Christians be Christian Africans.”

As we come to the close of this section of Clouds of Witnesses, European colonial power has given way to a an assortment of political regimes—many, like the two we’ll encounter here, guilty of perpetrating systematic injustice against their own citizens. Here again, there will be no single African Christian response: some will agitate for justice at risk to their own lives and liberty; others will work within fallen systems.

First, the Methodist lay leader, Zulu chief, and anti-apartheid activist Albert Luthuli. Born in 1898 in present-day Zimbabwe, ten years later Luthuli moved to rural Natal, South Africa, sent to assist with Seventh-Day Adventist mission work. As a young schoolteacher and principal, he underwent an undescribed conversion experience after encounters with two African ministers and became a lay preacher in the Methodist church. Though graduates of missionary schools were often labeled “Black Englishmen” by nationalists, Luthuli believed that “both Africans and Europeans were affected by the meeting [of their cultures]. Both profited, and both survived enriched” (quoted on p. 53).

In 1935 Luthuli’s teaching career ended when he was voted chief of the Umvoti Mission Reserve. A year later, blacks lost voting rights in the one part of South Africa where they still had them (the Cape); segregation was already law in many cities. The coming to power of the Nationalist Party in 1948 marked the triumph of the apartheid system, as that government banned mixed marriages and public protests against the system, limited travel for blacks, and made it impossible for non-whites to vote, all in the space of three years.

Luthuli Statue in Cape Town
Luthuli Statue in Cape Town - Creative Commons (Erik Stattin)

Meanwhile, the African National Congress (ANC) was torn by division. In 1952, Luthuli, a leader of the non-violent, anti-Communist wing of the organization, was elected the ANC’s secretary-general. Immediately, he was forced to give up his tribal leadership, and endured repeated punishments from the white minority government (including travel bans that limited his preaching, though not his attendance at Communion). After burning his travel pass in protest of the 1960 Sharpeville massacre, an ill Luthuli was arrested, given a suspended sentence, and returned to home detention. (His lawyer: Nelson Mandela.)

He was granted a reprieve from his travel ban in order to visit Oslo, Norway—where he received the Nobel Peace Prize for 1960. Explaining his work, Luthuli said, “To remain neutral in a situation where the laws of the land virtually criticized God for having created men of colour was the sort of thing I could not as a Christian tolerate” (quoted on p. 60). Noll and Nystrom attach particular importance to the Christian doctrine that humans are created in the image of God (Imago Dei, from Gen 1:27) in shaping not only Luthuli’s response to apartheid, but his willingness to partner with political rivals like the Communists and — of most enduring and endearing significance — his refusal to demonize white South Africans, instead treating them pastorally, as sinners in dire need of repentance and redemption.

Luthuli died after an accident in 1967, four years before a military officer named Idi Amin seized power in the East African country of Uganda. By the time Amin was ousted from power (in 1979), perhaps 300,000 Ugandans had died, including an Anglican bishop named Janani Luwum. Born in 1922 to Christian converts among the Acholi tribe, Luwum was a young teacher when he encountered the East African Revival and experienced conversion:

When I was converted, after realizing that my sins were forgiven and the implications of Jesus’ death and resurrection, I was overwhelmed by a sense of joy and peace. I suddenly found myself climbing a tree to tell those in the school compound to repent and turn to Jesus Christ. (quoted on p. 114)

Deciding to abandon his ambition to become (like Luthuli) a tribal chief, Luwum was ordained as an Anglican priest in 1956. But he did not abandon interest in political power; note Noll and Nystrom:

…Luwum differed from… many of the balokole [saved ones] who spoke of the Christian life as a complete separation from the world. Instead, to Luwum Christianity meant the sanctification of power, not its renunciation. During his service as bishop and archbishop he reflected on the difficulties the churches of Uganda encountered because they had opted out of the public and political sphere in order to pursue religious work. Not power abdicated but power purified and used responsibly was the path he pursued to the day of this death. (pp. 114-15)

When Luwum was consecrated bishop of northern Uganda in 1969, the service was held in a stadium instead of a church, at the insistence of Amin’s predecessor as dictator, Milton Obote, who joined his military advisor Amin (a Muslim) in attending the consecration — “a sign of difficulties to come,” foreshadow the authors (who also praise him for his evangelism and attempts to reconcile Anglicans and Roman Catholics).

As the terror of the Amin regime deepened, Luwum issued protests, but especially after becoming the country’s archbishop in 1947, found himself “increasingly called on to negotiate with Amin and his regime. In fact, so frequently did the archbishop and dictator confer that some Anglicans began to accuse Luwum of falling too much under Amin’s influence” (p. 119).

Luwum Statue at Westminster Abbey
Luwum Statue (right) at Westminster Abbey, next to those for two other martyrs: Manche Masemola and Maximilian Kolbe - Creative Commons (Jean-Christophe Benoist)

From 1976 until his death the following year, Luwum became increasingly critical of Amin (e.g., in a Christmas radio address cut off by the government) while continuing to negotiate with the dictator. When confronted by a critic disturbed by the seeming coziness between archbishop and dictator, Luwum responded, “While the opportunity is there, I preach the gospel with all my might, and my conscience is clear before God that I have not sided with the present government, which is utterly self-seeking. I have been threatened many times. Whenever I have the opportunity I have told the President the things the churches disapprove of. God is my witness” (quoted on p. 120). Luwum died in February 1977, ostensibly the result of a car accident but widely believed to have been shot (perhaps by Amin himself).

Among others, Luwum’s death greatly inspired an exiled Anglican lawyer named John Sentamu, who (in his recollection of the event) “resolved to be ordained” on hearing the news. Unable to return to Uganda, he remained in England and in 2002 became the Archbishop of York, second in status only to the Archbishop of Canterbury (with Sentamu rumored to be a possible successor once Rowan Williams retires).

As we reach the end of the seven African profiles in Clouds of Witnesses, it’s interesting to note that:

  • Four of the seven profiled were laity, and only Luwum was ordained in Africa. (Kato and Chilembwe completed their seminary educations in the United States.)
  • Only Luthuli and Nsibambi were born into lives of relative privilege (as sons of tribal leaders). The others came from humble origins and used the teaching profession (and knowledge of English and other languages) as a means of social mobility.
  • None of the seven is female.

And that last factor will change right away in our next installment… As we get to the history of Christians in 19th/20th century India, and meet early leaders like Pandita Ramabai.

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