Monday, December 15, 2014

Cyprien Melibi: "The Gospel is a message that is absolutely adaptable to all cultures"

by Jesús Bastante (English translation by Rebel Girl)
Religión Digital
December 7, 2014

Cyprien Melibi is an African theologian who has been living in Spain a long time and working for the recognition of the way of doing Church from Africa that is unknown or viewed very prejudicially. Now he has published Grito africano ["African cry"] through which "we are trying to make known a different Africa, not the one of poverty, death and ebola" but "the one of hope and joy -- the positive Africa."

The Africa that is crying out, like your book, Grito africano por el derecho a existir, published by La Colección Diáspora, Religious Studies. Tell us a bit: What cry?"

First I want to share the enthusiasm and joy I feel because when I finished writing the book in June, I concluded by saying, "Africa, hope intact." And in Burkina Fasso we have just witnessed a resolution of a political crisis through a conensus of citizens, of forces, of the nation without resorting to any outside experts and what I'm suggesting in this book is exactly that -- that we are heading towards the African way of assuming its responsibilities. So first of all, before beginning this "cry," I want to start from that because it's something unprecedented in history -- that the people in the street oust a president, the military regains power and reacts peacefully and passes it on to a civilian.

Tell us about the book.

The book is a cry. Who's crying? It's the African who is suffering, the African who has been exploited for many centuries -- first he was subjected to slavery, then to colonization, then to post-colonization. It's the African who dreams of living well, being well, finding opportunities in his country and being able to travel normally to other countries. It's an African who is young for the most part but without a future, who is crying and he's crying out of hope and despair, he's crying out of pain and suffering. And where does this cry come from? It's a cry from the South, and you have to understand clearly that the problem of Africa is the problem of knowing how to empathize with us, that we're fed up with speeches, with being told how to do things when what we need is people who will put themselves in our place and try to understand.

Becoming African to build that Africa and also that theology of the Church in Africa, which has the ability and the role of building development and the Kingdom. What is this theology that's crying out in Africa, in which you've had theologian John Marcela as a teacher?

I think theology must basically be liberation theology because that way it can add to the freedom movement that is essential for every people. I know of no people in history that has freed itself without being committed. For me, it's key that theology participate in this liberation movement. That being said, I think that theology and religion in general must Africanize Christianity.

In Africa or all over the world?

No, no. In the context of Africa, because I think the Gospel is a message that's absolutely adaptable to all cultures, and the problem we've had for a long time is that we've tried to Christianize Africa and not Africanize Christianity...They're two very different things.

Can we talk about one Africa? Because we're talking about Africa as if it were one country but it's a heavily populated continent with many differences.

Yes, there are many cultural differences and normally one should speak of African cultures because there are various very distinct cultures. But in recent history we can observe that Sub-Saharan Africa has had common elements throughout its history and those elements have been common from slavery to post-colonization. This gives rise to a social context where the issues can be treated in almost the same manner. So when we're talking about the social problems in Africa, in this part of the continent almost the same realities are observed. I also want to mention that in Africa currently (it's one of the things I wanted to underscore in this book) there's a rise in awareness of being African and assuming our responsibilities. And in many environments -- intellectual, political and economic -- this awareness is important to emphasize that on this continent there are people who want to work for us to get out of this situation.

That's why when we're talking about liberation in Africa, whether at the political, economic, or theological level, there are three keys or important levels. I express the first one in the book the following way: "Take your hands off Africa." It's important for the people who are oppressing Africa to let us solve our problems, that they let us benefit from our resources. The second element or key is that it's impossible to make someone happy despite themselves. I can't come and say to you "Jesus [Bastante], this is what you need to be happy" and for it to be something in which you don't participate...That's one of the problems that has led us to this situation -- many things are conceived with a Western mentality and it's thought they should be applied intact in Africa. The third and final level I express with an African proverb that says, "And what if the fool got smart?", that is, that our homeland isn't stupid. They've done so many things to us -- they've exploited us, they're doing so many things to us, that we ought to become aware, to say this has to stop. Those are the three levels or keys for Africa.

On the book flap you've written: "We Christians of Africa don't want our Church to be complicit or collaborating with the executioners -- white or black -- of the African people, nor do we want a Christianity that is the opiate of the African people. We want our Church to assume its noble role of liberating the inner energy of the African." Is the African Church complicit?

The Church in Africa has mainly had two periods -- the mission period -- evangelization through the Europeans who gave what they had (I admire those people who went as if it were an adventure without knowing what would happen to them, some died of malaria, but they went generously to transmit European 19th century Christianity) and they transmitted it their way, with many positive things and negative ones too... I think the time to criticize this has passed), and the current period, since 1969 when Pope Paul VI came to Africa to tell Africans "you are now your own missionaries." From then on, the African Church entered a new phase -- a phase that belongs to us. And here I must lament that the African Church continues to be under the tutelage of the Western Church, and I don't know why it doesn't want to grow up, it doesn't want to assume its responsibility.

Now we have a Pope who isn't from Europe, who's from the South. Just as there's been a change here, do you notice this opportunity, this "spring" we were talking about in Africa?

You remember that a year ago when the Pope was being elected, I came through here and we were analyzing and talking about if this one was the Pope who was to come to Africa? I've come from Africa and just observed it and it's as if Francis' "spring" never got there because over there you don't experience what's currently happening in Rome, the fright the Pope is giving some of the more powerful sectors. And I don't understand why this is and I'm concerned because it isn't noted, you can't perceive it in Africa. And it's because the African Church has a very powerful ecclesial dynamism since bishops or pastors are immersed in their ministry, with full churches, and I don't know if they even have time to read the Pope's messages.

The Church in various African countries is having an important influence -- not just the missionaries but also the Church itself in its configuration, like in Southern Sudan, in Nigeria, where they are suffering a lot but go on working with their own identity...Is there a need for a papal trip or do you think we're talking about something else?

I've said it from the beginning -- this Pope has to really take an interest. Because John Paul II left us a lot but this Pope with his personal sensitivity and charisma, I think he would gain by going to Africa to be able to see the situation, not just from Rome. I'm sure that if Pope Francis were to organize a trip to Africa with his style, we would gain a lot. I participated in Benedict XVI's 2009 trip to Cameroon. He came in the "popemobile" and traveled a week earlier in a special private plane, etc...If Francis were to get rid of those things to come be in communion with the life of these people, I think the whole Church would gain a lot, and we're waiting for him over there -- I'm expecting much from this Pope and I'm praying for him a lot. I wish him a fruitful ministry in the Holy See. The African Church is crying here, hoping for a Good Samaritan to come down from Jerusalem to Jericho to learn about the one who's on the side of the road after having been attacked by bandits, who are the same ones as always, the same ones who are always exploiting Africa.

Let's hope that this "African cry" you talk about in your book will be a reality that can also be cried out by other voices.

Yes, it's what I think is important -- that the issue of Africa is an issue of shared responsibility by Africans and the rest of the world. We can't say that now Africa has to solve it -- Africans by themselves -- just as we also can't say that the colonizers have to solve it alone. It's an issue of shared responsibility. I want to end by quoting Frantz Fanon, one of the great negritude thinkers, who said "Each generation must discover its mission, fulfill it or betray it." This generation of Africans and the rest of the world must understand the Africa mission from every level and competency and how to fulfill it or betray it. And history will tell us how we've performed.

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