I was struck today by a piece in the London Times by columnist and self-professed atheist Matthew Parris. Parris believes that God may be the answer to the host of problems facing Africa. “Missionaries, not aid money,” Parris writes, “are the solution to Africa’s biggest problem–the crushing passivity of the people’s mindset.”
For Parris, religion, particularly Protestantism, liberates. He writes:
We had friends who were missionaries, and as a child I stayed often with them; I also stayed, alone with my little brother, in a traditional rural African village. In the city we had working for us Africans who had converted and were strong believers. The Christians were always different. Far from having cowed or confined its converts, their faith appeared to have liberated and relaxed them. There was a liveliness, a curiosity, an engagement with the world – a directness in their dealings with others – that seemed to be missing in traditional African life. They stood tall.
Parris challenges the notion, apparently popular among “Western academic sociologists,” that the African tribal situation is generally “good” for the African people. Here is his dissent:
I observe that tribal belief is no more peaceable than ours; and that it suppresses individuality. People think collectively; first in terms of the community, extended family and tribe. This rural-traditional mindset feeds into the “big man” and gangster politics of the African city: the exaggerated respect for a swaggering leader, and the (literal) inability to understand the whole idea of loyal opposition.
Once again, Protestantism is the way to counter such tribalism:
Christianity, post-Reformation and post-Luther, with its teaching of a direct, personal, two-way link between the individual and God, unmediated by the collective, and unsubordinate to any other human being, smashes straight through the philosophical/spiritual framework I’ve just described. It offers something to hold on to to those anxious to cast off a crushing tribal groupthink. That is why and how it liberates.
As a student of religion in the United States I am often critical of the so-called “liberating” power of American Protestantism. The Protestant emphasis on individualism, liberty, and freedom has always been connected to political and cultural values that we might call “American,” but they can also be taken to unhealthy extremes that lead to materialism, self-interest, and the undermining of authentic community. In this context, as I argued indirectly in The Way of Improvement Leads Home, tribalism or local attachment or “place” may offer an alternative moral vision to the Protestant, cosmopolitan, universal, individualistic, ambitious idea of “America.”
I am no expert on Africa or its tribal system, and I am probably going out on a limb here, but I am inclined to say that when it comes to Africa I would withdraw this harsh critique of Protestant individualism If Parris is correct, tribalism in Africa has led to tyranny. In this sense, the liberating power of the message of Protestant missionaries may be the answer in Africa in the same way that John Paul II’s Catholicism, a brand of Catholicism that was also critical of American individualism and consumer capitalism, was partly responsible for the fall of communist tyranny in Poland and other parts of Eastern Europe.