The Pain Possibilities of Africa

I am coming to the end of a week in Burundi in Eastern Africa. I don’t know how many times I have been to Africa in the last 6 years. It is probably approaching twenty. I do know that I have been to eleven different countries from Egypt to South Africa. Without fail I am struck by the extreme contrasts one finds in Africa. It doesn’t matter which country I visit, or what leaders or everyday folk I speak with, the story is the same. This is a continent of incredible beauty and massive ugliness, abundant resources and crippling poverty, gracious hospitality and violent division, widespread Christianity and rampant paganism, sacrificial generosity and selfish corruption beyond measure. It is not unusual in the least to one minute be in awe of the natural beauty of Africa and the next be heartbroken at the ugliness of civil war and genocide that often overtakes parts of Africa. I regularly meet people who are eager to serve a guest and give the best of what they have but also hear unending tales of politicians and other leaders who stuff their pockets to overflowing, siphoning off foreign aid meant for their people, only to put it in off shore bank accounts.

More than once I have been asked what the answer is to the problems of Africa. My answer is the same time and again. Everything depends on leadership, and for Africa to realize its true potential everything depends of leadership from the church. As I see it, only an African Church that has leaders who live the radical faith of a follower of Christ, can begin to point the way out of the current state of affairs. With corruption being at the heart of economic problems in Africa, there is a desperate need for leaders in the church to first live above that corruption themselves and then be in a position to model and call for a new way of doing business. But if pastors can be bought off by politicians then they lose their credibility and their power to bring about change. Pastors and other church leaders must become servant leaders, serving others as Jesus did, not living as the chief who expects others to serve him. That kind of servant leadership then gives them the standing to be able to call other leaders, business, academic, and political, to also be servants of the people.

On a more corporate level, pastors need to begin to work together and not care who gets credit, or benefit from the work. The division among pastors in Africa is epidemic. I suspect that some of it is left over from the days of colonial missionaries who did not always cooperate with one another. But there has been fifty years of independence in most of Africa and it is time for Africans to work together, along with the rest of the Body of Christ around the world, so that together we can do more. The need for schools, hospitals, businesses that provide jobs and job training are beyond what any one or a few churches can do. But if pastors begin to set aside their own ego and pride and fear, then maybe, just maybe, they will be able to provide leadership that results in a partnership and synergy that really does begin to tackle the problems of Africa on a large-scale.

I realize that I am writing this as a westerner, and a white American to be specific. As such there are some who will immediately discount what I have to say or even react against it. I can live with that, in the hope that there are some, both in the west and in Africa, who will read this first with eyes of faith and not eyes of culture and colonialism. What I would hope is that what any follower of Christ says will be taken on its merits by any other follower of Christ and not cast aside because of cultural or ethnic bias. You see, we followers of Christ need each other. We are brothers and sisters in Christ first, and then somewhere further down the list of importance we are American or Burundian or Egyptian, or Kenyan, or white or black or any of the other distinctions we use to separate one from another. We need to see those distinctions not as things that divide us, but as blessings that together make us more than we could ever be apart from one another. That is the lesson of 1st Corinthians 12. We are all different by the will of God and those differences should make us stronger and more dependent on one another, not weaker and divided from one another.

I look for the day when Christian leaders, not only in Africa, but from every continent will rise above division and self-promotion and instead live for the sake of others and work together for the Glory of God.

The Inherent Problem With Politicians

I was doing some research for a class I teach on the Book of Genesis when I came across this very provocative comment by John Calvin. His insight into the inherent problem with human politicians is as relevant for our day as it was his 500 years ago.

“It is a very common disease, that men of rank and great authority, while making all things subservient to their own private ends, feign themselves to be considerate for the common good, and pretend a desire for the public advantage” John Calvin

In reading that quote I was brought back to the biography of John Adams by David McCullough. Adams comes off, as do many of the other founders of The United States, as a man who was more concerned with the public good than he was with his own place of fame or fortune. Adams was so concerned about principle over popularity that he very ably served as the defense attorney for the British soldiers who were accused in the Boston Massacre. When confronted as to why he, such a staunch revolutionary would so vehemently defend British soldiers in court, Adams was clear that the rule of law was paramount and superseded his own feelings and popularity and these men deserved a fair and honest trial with the best lawyer they could get. Adams attitude was not unique among the founders of the United States. The case could be made that for many of the founders, public service was in fact a sacrifice. There were no massive pensions that set them up for life. There were no astronomical book deals that cushioned their wallets when they got out of office, or even while they where in office. This is not a Republican or Democrat issue as the wealthiest members of congress are evenly divided between the two parties and book deals know of no party boundaries. It seems that many in office today have lost sight of it being public service and not personal kingdom building.

This has got me thinking of the book Thomas Hobbes wrote titled, Leviathan. In it he essentially argues for the benevolent dictator over any other form of government. He does so for a very simple reason. Such a person has no need of the acclaim of the masses, no need of the funding of special interest groups, no need of pleasing others. If they are already independently wealthy and secure, they are free to do what is best in principle for the good of the greatest number of the public. Given the deadlock in the American Democratic process these days, one begins to wonder if Hobbes wasn’t on to something and Calvin understood the root issue. The root problem is that people, even the most sincere sounding of politicians, are prone to look out for their own interests and desires before those of the general public. Just look at how much discussion goes on that points to getting re-elected as the reason a politician takes a certain stance. It’s not about what’s right, it’s about what get’s or keeps on in office. In the worst of cases they dupe the public into believing that they are all for the common man or woman and do so by hiding the true motives of their actions. 

I have often wondered why anyone would want to be President of the United States, at least in these days. It is a thankless job that ages you faster than anything I can think of and you are subject to powers and events well out of your control. Think of Jimmy Carter and the Iran Hostage Crisis. What is it that such leaders have as a need that drives them to seek high office? If Calvin is right, for many of them it is their own agenda for what they want out of life. It may be financial gain. It may be fame and significance. It may be the power the office is perceived to wield. It is well known that from the time he was a boy Bill Clinton aspired to be president. was it because as a boy he had a vision for how to make the country right, or was it because as a boy he was enamored with fame and adulation?

Early on in his political career Ronald Reagan was dismissed as being nothing more than an actor. How could you trust him and know when he was being honest or acting? Well let’s never confuse Ronald Reagan with Laurence Olivier or Humphrey Bogart. He wasn’t that great an actor. But what he did have was a life that already achieved fame, wealth, and stature. He didn’t need to be president in order to fill some inner, unspoken, personal agenda. Like him or not, Reagan seemed to want to be president in order to make the world a better place according to his world-view and it really didn’t matter to him what people thought. He had already made his reputation and fortune.

So what does all this have to do with Provocative Christian Living? Simply this, Jesus is the ultimate non-political, benevolent dictator. It is called the Kingdom of God, not the Democracy of God. Jesus has no need to make a name for Himself. His name is already above every other name. He has no need to gather riches to himself. The world and all that is in it belongs to Him. He is the opposite of what Calvin warned against. There is no hidden agenda with Jesus. He came to serve, suffer, die, and be risen and ascended on your behalf. He really was only concerned with the benefit His life could have for others. That included bringing ultimate glory to His Father and making salvation in this life and the next possible for you and me.

This should also be an important reminder for Christians who engage in the public square. You cannot be there for your own agenda. You must be there, as Jesus was, for the benefit of others. Sometimes that means taking an unpopular stand because it is the right thing to do. Deciding an issue based on public opinion polls is as sensible as flipping a coin to decide your position. You just never know which way the coin, or public, will flip. Acting on principle, sound judgment, and keeping your own self-interests at bay it the only way to be Christ-like in the public square.