Recently I was asked to plant a Bible and Theology Institute in Tanzania, East Africa, by a former student of mine who is affiliated with a Reformed Episcopal denomination. He is there now ministering in the “trenches” to people with a great need for Christ and as he stated “an urgent need for proper biblical and theological education.”
He informed me I could create the entire curriculum and would be able to operate the institute independently from his denomination. I would still be held accountable by my affiliations: Board of Advisers for my current ministry and institute, Elders from my ministerial fellowship (NACM), and the World Reformed Fellowship (WRF) of which both I and my ministry are affiliated with. So, it was an attractive offer as I could operate the institute as I see fit, while at the same time have the accountability needed for anyone who is active in ministry.
After much prayer, thought, reflection, study of the area I would be ministering in, and prayer from my pastor and congregation, I have determined that the call to this position is not what God has in store for me. However, while studying the culture of the area and exchanging emails with the minister who invited me to this position, I encountered something I felt the need to share. It’s nothing new, but something I think we, especially in America, need to be reminded of.
Many American Christians seem to exist in a bubble, a bubble of United States culture which causes them to feel the only application of biblical truth is the one they see through their own biased lens. I want to bring attention to this not by examining US culture, but by examining the African culture, Tanzania related culture to be specific. The gist of what I want to present is usually mentally assented to, but as missionaries know all too well, rarely carried out in the actual cultural filtering of biblical truth.
Just as is true in missionary work, and clearly when interpreting Scripture, the culture and audience of the people being reached is of utmost importance in figuring out how to effectively communicate the gospel. The importance of knowing what they believe, why they believe it, how they act, the basics of their language and symbolism, etc., cannot be underestimated.
Origin & Nature of Sin:
In order to teach the proper understanding of the origin and nature of sin in my above example, one would first need to learn how Africans, in particular for this case the different tribes or clans from Tanzania, look at sin and where it originated from.
To start, in traditional African belief the term “sin” doesn’t exist. They don’t use it because it’s a theological term which is unknown to them. The term that is common to their language which most closely matches “sin” would be “evil.” So, if a missionary or preacher wants to effectively share the gospel they would need to use the word “evil” in place of “sin” or, at the very least, give a proper definition of the word “sin” which the people could understand.
Even then, this culture defines evil/sin as anything that is harmful to the community. There is no evil/sin apart from that of violating the well being of the community. So, evil/sin is not even considered unless it violates a set of standards determined by the community. To them, evil is a matter of deeds or actions only. A baby would never be considered as having a corrupt or sinful nature as he or she has yet to begin doing anything “bad,” therefore they are innocent. In fact, the Basukuma people of Tanzania regard babies as angels which in their culture means they are without evil/sin.
Sin & The Individual:
The idea of individualism is foreign to the Basukuma and in African thinking as a whole. Any life lived out apart from community is considered an abomination, witchcraft, and/or sorcery. Africans are extremely communal and living as community is a continual experience. Whatever is accepted or valued by the community is seen as good. Following are some examples to emphasize this point:
- Polygamy in Africa: Polygamy is not only considered normal, it is encouraged as a good practice as it increases the family in a rapid fashion; because in Africa having a large family is highly respected and leads to a good reputation. This practice is restricted only to males. If a married woman is found to have had intercourse outside her marriage the woman, and the man she had sex with, would almost surely be put to death.
- Abuse of One’s Wife/Wives: Believe it or not, beating wives is not forbidden, in fact it is not considered the least bit taboo; it is common among many African tribes. For example, in the Kuria culture (another Tanzanian culture) being beaten by one’s husband is considered an act of expressing love. If a married woman is not beaten by her husband it is seen as a sign of neglect, of not being loved.
- Violence Between Men: In a fight, if one is beaten badly and obtains injuries, they cannot attempt to press any charges or even call the police. The one who loses and gets hurt is expected to take care of himself, heal up, and then seek out the victor and befriend him. Charges are not brought against the one who does the damage in this culture because fighting is simply a way of determining braveness in the community. If the loser does call the police or tries to press charges he is considered weak and a coward, the community insults him by calling him a women and humiliating him. And guess how they handle the one who calls the police or tries to press charges? By violence. Revenge is sought out and usually will include more than just the original victor, but other men in the community as well.
- Theft of Cattle: Stealing among the Masai people of Tanzania is common and acceptable. Stealing cattle from another community is seen as an act of bravery. They don’t even consider it stealing, they see it as taking back what belongs to them. When a young man goes to another community and steals cattle, upon his return his community greets him enthusiastically and congratulates him for his bold and brave act. Another reason this is acceptable is if a young man wants to marry, his father cannot pay the required dowry unless he steals cattle or kills either a lion or lioness. So, theft is encouraged among the Masai and is seen as an action done for the well being of the community and it brings a reputation of bravery to the young men who steal.
- Wife Sharing: Another practice encouraged among the Masai culture is sharing wives. When a married young man is away from his family and another man comes to his home and sees the husband is gone, he may enter the house and have sex with the wife. Before entering he is to place his spear near the door so if the husband returns he will see that someone is with his wife and will not disturb them for that day. The husband is to remain outside until daybreak, or find shelter elsewhere, while the man inside fulfills his desires. And when he returns home he cannot blame the woman or the man for any wrong doing as it is simply the way of life among this community.
The Tutsi people of Rwanda also practice wife sharing for sex. Friends share their wives with each other as a demonstration of their friendship with each other. When a man comes to visit his friend the host lets his wife have intercourse with the guest as a sign of true love toward his friend. Also, it is considered an acceptable act of entertainment for the visiting friend.
- Sexual Purification: Among the Luo people who live in both Kenya and Tanzania, and the Kara and Kerewe people who live in Tanzania, there is a rite that is practiced to purify widows and widowers. This rite is called “kumtakasamfiwa.” When a husband or wife dies, after the burial ceremony has been completed, the widow or widower is required by the community to go out and find another man or woman to have sex with. Whether or not the person they have sex with is married doesn’t married, the rite must take place. These tribes believe if the rite is not carried out that the widow or widower will suffer from mental insanity and can then bring in a curse to the entire clan.
All of the above listed practices are legal in those cultures and are seen as proper and beneficial to their entire communities.
One last thing of note regarding communities in Africa; the African view of community is not limited to those alive in a given community. It also includes the world of spirits. When one goes against the community it not only offends the community but it offends the community of spirits as well.
Ancestors are viewed as the living dead in the sense that they are still living, although not visible with human eyes, and deal with the affairs of the community by contacting the living and solving their daily problems or issues. They also believe these “living dead” bless the community when they are pleased and satisfied and punish the community whenever they are offended.*
What’s the Point?
The point of all this, at least my point, is that numerous Christians in our country wear blinders. We think ministry and outreach must be done our way or the highway. This is particularly evident in online venues, discussion groups, blogs, and many other forums where self proclaimed ministers, discernment ministries, apologists, and the like, sit comfortably behind their keyboards without getting actively involved in anything. They criticize the smallest of non essential issues while so many places in the world are in dire need of spiritual direction and desperately need the Word of God.
In this short paper I addressed one tiny topic of one tiny area that needs to be culturally understood in order to effectively minister to the people there. These things need to be understood, not compromised but understood, in order for these people groups to even comprehend the Truth we have to show them. If we ignore culture, if we ignore their current beliefs, if we ignore their behavior, if we ignore the differences in language and definitions and simply tell them what they should and should not do, what they should and should not believe, we will not be effective in our witness.
The same is true for us in the United States. We must understand those who actively oppose, and those who simply believe differently, than us. Learning what they believe, why they believe it, etc., goes a long way in developing effective ways to interact and witness to them.
Morality is not relative, this is true. God is not silent on this issue. He has set an ultimate standard on which he will judge every culture; the Bible is of course that standard. It is the ultimate standard which will judge every culture and it has universal ethical principles to guide every person. But in the same breath, to teach that standard, to teach those principles, understanding who it is you are addressing and the cultural norms of where they reside are of vital importance in being effective in this endeavor.
*Information for this section compiled and adapted from “Imputation of Sin: Did All Mankind Fall in Adam’s First Transgression?” by Rev. Elisha Ndema (Doctoral Dissertation, pp. 9-14, May 2015).