In northern Cameroon, many people keep a jar representing their ancestors in a prominent place in the household.
The ‘pra‘ indicates the continuing life of those who have gone before—the deceased members of the family and the wider community whose lives are still being expressed in and through the living.
When people in Cameroon converted to Christianity, Christian clerics called on converts to shatter their pras as an expression of faith. The missionaries did not associate reverence for ancestors with Christianity, and many regarded the practice as a superstition that should be left behind.
But some Cameroonians wondered—could we be Christians without their ancestors?
Christian observers with then quiz, does the reverence of deceased ancestors has a place within Christianity? Should African Christians revere their ancestors and even use their own cultural heritage in forming their Christian identity?
Well, the gate-keepers of a new form of indigenous Christianity called the African Theology argues that the practice can enlarge our understanding of the communion of saints and of the body of Christ through time. It can challenge the individualistic approach of Western Christianity by recognizing the corporate nature of salvation.
The Christian case for reverencing ancestors has been forcefully made by two theologians, Kwame Bediako, Ghanaian Presbyterian and Jean-Marc Ela, a Catholic from Cameroon.
Bediako knows about the revering of ancestors by the practice of his own people, the Akan. For the Akan, ancestors act as binding agents within and between communities, living and dead. In their tradition, ancestors are those whose lives shape the moral community of those who come after them. After death, they go to the house of God, where they continue to act: they reward the upright, punish wrongdoers, assist with harvests, and assure the continuity of the people by bestowing children.
Bediako recognizes that these ancestors were believed by the Akan to have special powers to affect harvests and fertility. He suggests that these powers have been disarmed by Jesus, but their positive dimensions remain.
Following imagery from Pauline epistles, he sees Jesus entering the realm of ancestors to make it his own. Not unlike Jesus’ role in a Christus Victor version of the atonement, Jesus defeats their power to terrorize while summing up and embodying their positive powers. Ancestors lose their mediating functions—or more precisely, any mediating function they now have is realized through their participation in Jesus’ salvific work. Instead of mediating the divine by way of bringing harvests or children, ancestors are now in union with Christ and participate in mediating Christ’s gifts of salvation and grace.
According to Bediako, these ancestors passed along teachings similar to Jesus long before the gospel was proclaimed among the Akan and thereby laid the groundwork for the eventual reception of the gospel. Jesus has transfigured the ancestors’ virtues, turning them into the path that led to himself. By entering and redeeming the realm of ancestors, Jesus becomes the chief ancestor—the chief mediator who links the realms of God and of humanity. Jesus sums up not only the ancestors of the Akan but all human ancestors.
Jean-Marc Ela argues that Christians regard ancestors as members of the communion of saints. Like Bediako, he sees ancestors as those who pave the way for the gospel and are thereby part of God’s salvific work. In fact, for Ela, the practice of reverencing ancestors is latent within the logic of Christian doctrine.
As Ela points out, Vatican II acknowledged that
“those who have not yet received the fullness of revelation and faith are to no lesser degree a part of the church, but in a way that is not historically visible.”
And the church on All Saints’ Day prays for those who “searched for God uprightly” and who were taken into Jesus’ embrace through his descent among the dead (1 Pet. 3:19–20). These affirmations proclaim that God’s work extends beyond the explicit channels of the church. In the vision in Revelation about the gathering of a “great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes” (Rev. 7:9), Ela would include his ancestors and the great African sages whose presence he regards as an element in his own Christian faith.
Catholic mission efforts often transferred the role of revered ancestors onto existing saints. Ela says that move did an injustice to ancestors. Instead of imposing Western saints on Christians in Africa, the church should simply recognize African ancestors as members of Christ’s body.
For both theologians, ancestors play a role similar to that of revered figures in the Old Testament without displacing them or the role of the covenant people of Israel. Bediako notes how figures like Jacob were means of God’s work through both their virtues and flaws. Ela compares ancestors with the Old Testament prophets who did not fear speaking truth amid political corruption and violence. Ancestors were those who stood alongside the vulnerable and marginalized.
However, they postulated that the reverencing of ancestors is not to be confused with the worship of ancestors, according to them. Reverence is simply an act of ascribing worth. People reverence all sorts of things, from elders to colleagues to government officials or national symbols. There are various levels of ascribing worth: some realities get only a passing acknowledgement, and some are acknowledged in ritual acts. Worship is given solely to God. Ascribing worth to ancestors simply recognizes their role in one’s faith and their status as members of Christ’s mystical body.
So yes, this pretty much sums it up on African Theology. As Christians what do you think about this? Do you think Africans should contextualize their Christian worship, or is it not just a leeway of distorting the ‘standard’ Christian faith?
Resources: Christian Century
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