West African Spirituality

(Kyra Riley) #1

Would anyone be able to share a Christian response/defense to West African Spirituality (orishas, ancestoral worship, etc.)?

I have noticed that many in the African American community (and Black Diaspora in general) have left Christianity to “find their roots” in West African Spirituality. I know many in my friend group and family that have done so. I have not been able to find any material on a Christian response to this matter in order to evangelize to those in my circle.

Would anyone be able to share a few points that identify the futility of ancestoral and orisha worship?

Thank you!

(SeanO) #2

@kyraolivia93 Thank you for the question. Here are a few points you may find helpful. The Lord Jesus grant you wisdom as you reach out to your community and open their eyes to His glory and grace.

I think one Scriptural point that can be helpful is that God has a plan for the nations and has been working through history to draw all people to Himself.

Acts 17:26-27 - From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. 27 God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us.

Galatians 4:3-4 - So also, when we were underage, we were in slavery under the elemental spiritual forces of the world. 4 But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, 5 to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship.

Early Christianity and Africa

One important point is that Africa played an important role in the history of Christianity from its earliest days. Even just checking out the Wikipedia article on the topic this point becomes very powerful.

Christianity in Africa began in Egypt in the middle of the 1st century. By the end of the 2nd century it had reached the region around Carthage. Important Africans who influenced the early development of Christianity include Tertullian, Perpetua, Felicity, Clement of Alexandria, Origen of Alexandria, Cyprian, Athanasius and Augustine of Hippo. In the 4th century the Aksumite empire was Christianized, the Nubiankingdoms of Nobatia, Makuria and Alodia followed two centuries later.

Ancestor Worship

I’ve linked an article below that shows the struggle that goes on within the African context. I think the conclusion is that it is important to recognize that our spirits do not cease to exist upon death and that through Christ we still have a connection with our ancestors. Although it is not appropriate to believe that ancestors have mystical powers or can intercede for us in a way that only God can.

Thus, a widespread “dichotomy of the soul” has grown up, in which believers assent to orthodox Christian belief and join in the denunciations of the ancestor rites, but privately retain their loyalty to the tradition – especially in times of serious misfortune or death. South Africa’s new archbishop, Desmond Tutu, once lamented: “I, though a third-generation Christian, knowing only urban life with a father who was headmaster of an Anglican primary school, feel this division within my own soul” (“The Ancestor Cult and Its Influence on Ethical Issues,” Ministry [July 1969], pp. 103-4)

African theologians are the first to admit that this agenda is extremely delicate. Biblical evidence concerning relations with the dead is scant, and the issue certainly has not been of major interest among Western theologians. Church leaders also agree that some traditional notions about ancestors cannot be accepted by Christians. For instance, Christians cannot accept the view that ancestors have power over living family members, and they must emphatically deny that deaths are caused by ancestors. And divination, a primary preoccupation of the ancestral cult, is entirely unacceptable.

But what about intercession on behalf of the ancestors – especially those who were not Christians? Does one pray for them expecting some effect? Nxumalo speaks for many African theologians when he insists that such intercession is a Christian responsibility – since duties to one’s elders are not changed by death (p. 20). Harry Sawyerr asserts that because intercessory prayer is a two-way exchange, the firm bond that cements us to our ancestors, some ancestors might be saved as an outcome of this intercession ( Creative Evangelism: Towards a New Christian Encounter with Africa [Lutterworth, 1968], pp. 95, 137). Fashole-Luke is sure of the same effect and adds that Christians must “recover the practice of the ancient North African Church and pray in faith for the departed, both Christian and non-Christian. This will provide the Africans with that link with their dead which they so much desire” (p. 219).

Affirming this mystical bond with the “living dead” is seen as a particularly appropriate part of the Eucharist, when Christians declare their corporate existence in the body of Christ. With Christ as the bridge that binds the living and the dead, Christians “can pray for their ancestors and plead that the one, all-sufficient sacrifice of Christ may be effective in their case also” (Fashole-Luke, Veneration, p. 217).


How All Religion Points to Jesus

Jesus claimed to be the Way to God - the great sacrifice that all religions hinted at and pointed to… C. S. Lewis is famous for saying that all myths were really only faint echoes of the one true myth of Jesus Christ - the God who died and rose again. African religions then, as much as any other religion, had echoes of the one great true myth in its sacrificial system and belief in a personal deity.

“Christians and Pagans had much more in common with each other than either has with a post-Christian. The gap between those who worship different gods is not so wide as that between those who worship and those who do not. . . .” C. S. Lewis

Arguably, because of the transcendence of the great supreme deity and the institution of appeasing sacrifices, it would have been rudimentary for the West African mind to comprehend the functional role of Christ and his atoning sacrifice once and for all because in many ways West African spirituality shares foundational beliefs with Christianity.

Relevant Threads in Connect

(Kyra Riley) #3

Wow, this is great! Thank you so much!

(Bill Brander) #4

Kyra, as I live in East London which is largely isiXhosa the topic of ancestral worship interests me. The other word “orisha” I’ll have to google. But to kick off.
I asked one of my tutors [a Methodist presbyter] about this, and his reply was along the lines of; ‘What do you do when you visit the grave of your parents? Do you speak to them?’ Which I had to admit I did/do. He asked me if that was not a form of ancestor worship? Uhm…
He added that his tribe view the speaking to their ancestors as similar to speaking to Jesus. They ask their ancestors to intercede for them in the heavenly realms.
This is a touchy topic here. So I will be interested in what come out here.
Thanks for raising a topical topic.
Blessed Christmas

(SeanO) #5

@kyraolivia93 Glad it was helpful :slight_smile: Feel free to ask more questions / keep the discussion going. I definitely found reading up on this a bit more interesting. I used to work at a Korean Church and some of the members there had families who participated in forms of ancestor worship. They generally did not participate because they saw it as idol worship. I thought the article from religion online made an interesting point about Christ Himself being the link between the living and the dead via the resurrection. This point seems like a very Biblical way to resolve that tension.

I Cor 15:51-58 - Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed— 52 in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. 53 For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. 54 When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”

55 “Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?”

56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

58 Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.

I Thess 4:13-18 - Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. 14 For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. 15 According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. 18 Therefore encourage one another with these words.

(C Rhodes) #6

Often it feels as if American culture also hangs on the fringes of ancestral worship. Do you notice how many messages are posted in the Facebook environment that are specific messages directed at the dearly departed? Even when its a favorite celebrity, we will say RIP to whomever. I have to wonder about an afterlife that needs a Facebook presence. I have instructed my family to avoid going on Facebook and sending me love messages. They can trust I am not stopping to read any social media messages. Got too much to do, to see, to experience when I leave here. Perhaps the real culprit is in the failure to understand the temporal nature of our world. We seem to view it as the only, instead of the launch pin into eternity.

(SeanO) #7

@billbrander @cer7 Do you guys think that giving messages to departed loved ones or visiting the grave of our parents and speaking to them is worship or simply a way of trying to process the loss of a loved one? I think if the person thought that the dead could actually hear them, that might be closer to ancestor worship. But if they are just speaking to their dead relative as a way of processing their grief while believing the person is gone, that seems less like ancestor worship than a method of grieving.

(C Rhodes) #8

@SeanO. Merry Christmas! I think we absorb all loss in that manner. I remember as a kid when my parent’s separated and we were sent to my grandmother’s. In grief, for about a month, I would climb the highest hill facing my old home as the sun set, and tears would quietly flow. I grieved my loss. But it did not become my traditional response. It was the best I could do at that age.

I think you are correct we begin in that manner, but time, circumstances, and spiritual maturity will equip you with more positive ways to absorb grief. When we observe that in others we admire such strength. But I think that growth comes naturally to the people of GOD because our grief is filled with hope. 1 Thessalonians 4:13.

There is a choice we must make, perhaps, on each occasion. A place of trust. Do we believe GOD’s Word? Do we trust the heart of GOD concerning our frailty? Are we confident that love is always present and transcends our pain? Do we accept that CHRIST took the sting from death when He rose? The power of death was forever changed in the Ressurection of JESUS. When He returns death will be swallowed up. 1 Corinthians 15:54 & 56. The last enemy to be destroyed. 1 Corinthians 15:26.

Or do we settle for traditional means of coping? Ways that appear to be more about being seen and perceived as extraordinary? Then actually about coping. Those questions for my own perspective is what leads me to wonder if we don’t practice some form of ancestor worship, or perhaps our own form of reality tv?

(Warner Joseph Miller) #9

Hey there, @kyraolivia93!!! Happy (belated) Christmas!! Thanks so much for being apart of the Connect community! Your question is truly appreciated. I think the insights given thus far have been great. If you haven’t already done so, also check out resources from RZIM collaborator, Lisa Fields’ Jude 3 Project or Pastors Jerome Gay and/or Eric Mason. There are others but those in particular really delve into what’s broadly known as “Urban Apologetics” – engaging issues of religion, race, justice, and culture from a biblical perspective. Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics (OCCA) alum, Abasiano Udofa actually presents specifically on the topic of West African Religions on a ‘The Jude 3 Project’ podcast: https://youtu.be/YXZ_3V3luzo

Specifically, with regard to your question, from my experience and interactions with either people who subscribe to or who’ve at some point formally subscribed to West African spirituality or indigenous religions, the one constant has usually been a longing and search for identity in some form. Having feelings of “forced disconnect” or “disconnect under duress” with regard to culture, heritage, history, language and even land because of the American slave trade, many have turned to the spirituality of their African/indigenous ancestors AND/OR a spirituality/philosophy that affirms and celebrates their ethnicity, culture, heritage and even skin color. Although, I don’t necessarily agree with their final resolve, admittedly I do understand why they believe that that is where they must go – especially from the perspective many have in which they contend that their culture, language, history, land, etc had been forcibly taken from their ancestors by people groups under the guise of Christianity. I get it. I do. (Note: part of understanding how to answer a question is correctly understanding/discerning why, where and the context from which the question originates from.)

The pastor of my church fellowship was at one time a member of the Black nationalist group, the Nation of Islam under the leadership of Elijah Muhammad. Obviously, he’s long since left the group and his story is quite extraordinary on how he came to a saving relationship with Jesus Christ. When retelling about his motivations for joining the Nation of Islam he says that as a Black male child of the 60’s; coming of age during the Civil Rights movement in America where there was much social, political, racial and cultural upheaval, that existence of a group or organization that celebrated and affirmed who he was as a Black man (or any person of African decent); his history; his culture and even his skin color was very appealing and captivating. Again, especially during a time where many African-American people were blantantly told or shown that they were less-than just because of their skin color, culture, etc. However, my pastor goes on to say that although he found acceptance, affirmation, discipline and identity within the Nation of Islam…he did NOT find God. And although he didn’t fully know it at the time, it was God Who he was ultimately searching for.

And that is the equation. With the risk of engaging in reductionist generalities, I would maintain that many of the people who say they are looking for God or truth - especially the ones actively rejecting Christianity for African or other indigenous spirituality – are, in fact, really searching for identity; connection with their history and affirmation/celebration of their culture and ethnos. Rightly or wrongly, this is especially true for the Black American given the history.

Having that understanding, hopefully, you may better grasp how to approach giving a thoughtful, truthful, grace-filled answer. I hope this helps some and further adds to the good insight you’ve been given so far. In His grip…grace and peace!!

(Bill Brander) #10

Uhm… good question… why do I speak aloud to my grandparents at their graves? They have been there a long time. So why do I say “Hello.” I really don’t know.
Maybe I should ask my friend who is a practicing physiologist, how she sees it. (But I won’t see her for three weeks - it’s holiday season in SA.)
Stay blessed

(SeanO) #11

@billbrander That would be interesting to know. I feel like there should be a distinction between worship and grieving.

(Kyra Riley) #12

Thank you for your response, Warner! The anecdote about your pastor is very helpful. I need to meditate on this insight a bit more, but I am beginning to get a clearer picture on how to approach this topic with someone.

Happy New Year!