My Doctor of Ministry travel seminary to South Africa was a large experience. One of the largest this boy from northeastern Kentucky has ever had. I knew when I was gearing up to leave that I was heading to a nation that was not unlike my own. Well meaning friends would say, “Is South Africa a ‘developed’ nation?” and “Will you be in danger from political unrest?” and “What kind of food will you have?” and “Don’t drink the water!” Underneath all of these well-intentioned comments were assumptions about Africa that have been bred into our American consciousness for over a century. Assumptions about black faces wearing tribal paint living tribal lives in the deserts and grasslands of a place that has been largely untouched by the inventions of the Industrial Revolution. These ideas have been pushed on us in the 20th and 21st centuries by every US entity from the National Geographic (who in recent years published an apology for the misrepresentations) to the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention (who are probably multiple decades from apologizing for the misrepresentations). While we did spend one day in the back of a big green open-air truck doing a safari, we spent the rest of our 14 days in South Africa in beautiful cities full of natural beauty, wonderful food, and the 3rd cleanest drinking water in the world. South Africa is not without its issues—but then show me a place that can’t say that.
I write this month to dispel the myth of African tribalism in 2020. One of the readings assigned me by my professor is a collection of essays by a powerful anti-Apartheid, pro-Black South African thinker, writer, and activist. Steve Biko writes in one of his essays explaining the effects of colonization on South Africa: “No longer was reference made to African culture, it became barbarism. Africa was the ‘dark continent.’ Religious practices and customs were referred to as superstition. The history of African Society was reduced to tribal battles and internecine wars. There was no conscious migration by people from one place of abode to another. No, it was always flight from one tyrant who wanted to defeat the tribe not for any positive reason but merely to wipe them out of the face of this earth.” In another of his essays, Biko notes that that image of Africa was then cauterized and presented for decades and centuries with no attention given to any development through time. Development through time is all we focus on in our Western histories of the West, but when it comes to Africa, we both distort and freeze the image in the past.
Why, preacher, write about this in The Pinnacle? Shouldn’t your article here be about theology and spiritual practice—something to help me grow in my faith? My response to the latter question is yes, and to the former is “This article is about theology and spiritual practice.” Just as our Appalachian Immersion ministry is about challenging false and disempowering myths about Appalachian peoples, this article is about challenging false and disempowering myths about African peoples. Because as Genesis 1 makes clear: all people bear the image of God. And so long as we deny—even subconsciously—someone their God-given image, we deny that we can learn from them and grow from knowing them as equals. This article is about theology and spiritual growth. It reminds us that we don’t have a corner on life or faith. It reminds us that there are brilliant theologians doing excellent theology and courageous pastors doing bold pastoral ministry and deeply committed church people doing life-changing church work in Johannesburg and Cape Town and all the rest of South Africa. Places that in many, many ways, looked a lot like home to me.