During my thirty hour journey from Entebbe to Huntsville this week, I had plenty of time to reflect on my most recent African experience. In addition to assessing the educational and residential needs of orphans in Kampala, I was one of two main speakers for a vibrant prayer conference in Masaka. The theme for the week was “Prayer is the Key to Disarming the Religious Spirit and Destroying Satanic Strongholds.” Conference organizer, Pastor Godfrey Mulonde, envisioned a gathering that would be a catalyst for revival not only in Masaka, but throughout Uganda, the rest of Africa and ultimately to the “uttermost parts of the world.”
Nominally Catholic, Masaka was chosen as the place for the conference because of the many people who are still beguiled by witchcraft and other superstitions. I was amazed to see the gullible faithful praying to the enshrined tomb of Monseigneur Aloysio Ngobya, a Catholic priest who has been dead for over a decade. I was also asked to pray for several people who claimed to be demon possessed and heard testimonies from those who had been delivered. As I wondered about the “permanence” of these deliverances, I was assured by the intriguing testimony of thirteen year old Peter. An anointed young man with an exceptional gift of communication, Peter relayed the exciting story of his own family’s miraculous transition from the kingdom of Satan into the kingdom of God. Now several years later, his father serves as an evangelist!
As I reflected on these uplifting highlights of my sojourn in Uganda, my melancholic mind was interrupted by prophetic prompts that awakened historic memories. The memories were both vivid and disturbing. Some stemmed from Sabbath School mission stories where my initial perceptions of Africa were formed by stories of Satanism, spirit possession and cannibalism. These weekly windows into the land of my ancestors helped to form a fearful picture of the “dark” continent that would be helplessly lost had it not been for their light skinned saviors.
These European saviors were so committed to their task of enlightening the African, that they even extended their mission to the African diaspora. I clearly remember the towering Englishman who visited my childhood church in London at the height of the Black Power era of the seventies. In solidarity with her ethnic siblings in the United States, my mother had been trying hard to form an Afro out of silkened hair that betrayed her mixed race heritage. Her motives were challenged one Saturday night in the second floor sanctuary of the Croydon Church as the authoritative missionary shared a slide presentation featuring big-haired, bare-breasted African women lost in an apparent frenzy. In chilling tones, this bearer of “light” ended with a passionate appeal for the black members of the church to shun the “demonic” Afro. I don’t believe my mother went up for that altar call....
My experience was not unique. Children of every ethnicity all over the Adventist world were being indoctrinated by a system shaped by White supremacist ideology. The famed Bible Story series by “Uncle Arthur” was filled with pictorial depictions of the biblical world that would have made Nathan Forrest, Joseph Smith, Herbert Armstrong and Adolph Hitler very proud. Somehow, the creative geniuses of Russell Harlan and Harry Anderson had been captivated by the segregationist policies of Jim Crow America as they depicted biblical, angelic and heavenly worlds dominated by Europeans. Sadly, the prejudiced practice was so pervasive that few even thought about the long term implications of propagating racist myths.
I wish these were just childhood memories. However, even with the increasing number of voices touting cultural awareness, many unfortunate realities remain. To be fair, there have been attempts to be inclusive in some of the youth publications, but even the “neutralized” depictions of Jesus continue to convey the caricatured qualities of Leonardo da Vinci’s medieval hippy. Every week, in Sabbath schools across the globe, millions of children are reminded that although the global church has browned the seat of power still bears the stamp of the American imperialist era from which it was modeled.
Sadly, there is little indication that the powers that be are even thinking about remedying the ailment. Seven years ago I was one of two ministers who supervised students in Jamaican evangelism sponsored by Share Him (then Global Evangelism). For a brief moment, I thought that somebody in a position of authority had finally gotten the message when I saw that the PowerPoint disks were labeled “Contextualized for Africa.” My joy quickly turned to pain as I perused the presentations and saw that the only Africanizations were stereotypical symbols of destitution and underdevelopment. Of course, I refused to use these slides and voiced my protest to Share Him–all the time knowing that I was speaking to the wind.
Setting the Record Straight
As I contemplate the racist propaganda of Eurocentric missionaries and church leaders, I feel compelled to confront the conniving strategies of the salacious Satan. Somehow, he has succeeded in his divisive quest to malign and diminish an entire continent “in the name of Jesus.” With rote automation, the story of a reprobate continent saved by white missionaries is repeated with uncritical certainty.
Unfortunately, those who convey these distortions are the very ones who need to be saved from their pitiful ignorance. With just a little research, they would discover that centuries before England, France or Germany embraced Christianity, the Axumite kingdom of Ethiopia had made it a state religion, and the majority of global Christians resided in the North African territories. They would learn about the steady stable of African theologians that wrestled with doctrinal and canonical issues in the formative days of Christianity: Augustine, Origen, Tertullian, Didymus, Athanasius, Arius, Cyprian, and Pachomius, among others.
More importantly, those who are serious about undoing the ecclesiastical injustices of the past will start to see the centrality of Africa to the biblical story. They will move beyond fixating on the non-existent “curse of Ham,” as they see a story of blessing that is almost exclusively shaped in the lands associated with Ham’s sons–lands that establish the geographical and cultural setting of scripture from Genesis to the middle of Acts; lands upon which the Savior of humanity Himself was birthed, nurtured, heard, followed and executed.
It has been twelve years since I first visited the land of Ham. I still remember the fury-flushed face of the Ashkenazi Jewish tour guide who was not prepared for the answer I gave to his question, “Have you ever been to Africa?” Without hesitation I responded, “I am in Africa right now.” By that time, I had long reasoned that although the unwitting recipient of an oft misunderstood curse, Canaan was as much a son of Ham as Egypt, Ethiopia and Put. With this knowledge, my excursion took on an entirely new dimension as I followed the footsteps of Jesus and considered the centrality of biblical Africa to the story of universal salvation.
My African story has been further enriched by my latest pilgrimage to Uganda. As I ventured to the source of the River Nile in Jinja, my thoughts were led to the story of the four Edenic rivers in Genesis 2. If the Nile is indeed among the four rivers, could I have been standing on the very location where God Himself planted a garden for the common parents of humanity? As the probable place of creation, should our understanding of “Holy Land” extend to the Ugandan region of Ham’s territory? When I share the accounts of demonic encounters and the undeniable manifestation of God’s Spirit, is my African story complete if I don’t remind my audience that the Spirit of God has been moving on this part of the globe from the days of creation–millennia before the European missionaries arrived? This is my African story; I hope you can also claim it as yours.
Keith Augustus Burton is Executive Director of Life emPowerment Ministries. In his critically acclaimed book, The Blessing of Africa: The Bible and African Christianity (InterVarsity Press, 2007), he demonstrates the centrality of Africa to the biblical story from creation to the twenty-first century.