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At the end of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s great novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the escaped slave George Harris, after achieving a university education in Europe, announces his decision to leave the white man’s countries, where he can expect at best to be only tolerated. His plan is to settle with his family in Liberia, where he can devote his energy and intelligence to building a distinctively African Christian civilization as an example to the world both of liberation and forgiveness. George explained his vision to Mrs. Stowe’s millions of nineteenth-century readers in a vivid prophecy of Africa’s destiny, which I will quote:
I trust that the development of Africa is to be essentially a Christian one. If not a dominant and commanding race, Africans are, at least, an affectionate, magnanimous, and forgiving one. Having been called in the furnace of injustice and oppression, they need to bind closer to their hearts that sublime doctrine of love and forgiveness through which alone they are to conquer, which it is to be their mission to spread over the continent of Africa.
That kind of prophecy, if anyone knew of it, would have seemed far from reality during the twentieth century, in a materialist intellectual climate, when Mrs. Stowe’s classic was no longer read, and Christianity seemed to be in retreat in Africa and elsewhere. Since 1945, the news from post-colonial Africa has featured mainly war, tyranny, corruption, and social chaos. Intellectuals and bureaucrats looked to technology rather than Christianity to solve the world’s problems.
The development, or attempted development, of Africa was not Christian, nor was it successful in materialist terms. At the end of the twentieth century, the policy question that was debated in religious and political circles was whether the developed nations should formally forgive the uncollectable loans that were made and wasted while economists and diplomats were under the illusion that borrowed money and technology would bring development to Africa. Obviously, the paradigm guiding expert thinking about development was leaving something important out of consideration. From our limited vantage point at the beginning of the twenty-first century, it may seem that Africans are destined always to be victims and never leaders, much less conquerors. We should be careful not to come to judgment too soon, however, because at the beginning of the third millennium after Christ, the world is changing rapidly in a direction that is making George Harris’s prophecy seem more realistic.
The Christian faith is growing rapidly around the world, more rapidly even than Islam, and it is growing everywhere except in what were formerly thought to be its home territories in Europe and North America. Christianity is no longer primarily the property of white men and women living in Europe and North America; nor is its health and activity in Africa today mainly the responsibility of adventurous missionaries. As documented in The Next Christendom by Philip Jenkins, Christianity’s center of gravity is shifting radically to the south and east. It is already accurate to say that a majority of the world’s Christians, and the most faithful Christian witnesses, are to be found either in Africa and South America, or in Asian countries like China and Korea.
This geographical shift of faith, which will only grow more pronounced in the current century, is one of those major news stories that receive little media attention at present, because our most influential journalists live in closed communities of materialist prejudice, which protect them from learning that what seems important to them is not necessarily what seems important to the rest of the world. Whether noticed or not, the new and growing centers of Christian faith are thriving on their own resources, and are even beginning to send missionaries to the spiritually and morally confused nations of the north and west that have squandered their spiritual inheritance. In these unprecedented times of religious fluidity and Christian growth, it becomes possible that Africans will take a position of spiritual leadership not only in their own continent but in the world.
I was recently reminded of the importance of this new geography of religion when pondering the symbolic significance of the reception at Georgetown University’s commencement ceremony in May of the Nigerian cardinal, Francis Arinze, who presides over the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue at the Vatican and whose name frequently comes up in speculation about the election of the next pope.
According to reports of the Georgetown incident, Cardinal Arinze offended Georgetown’s liberals when he referred disapprovingly in his commencement address to the negative effect on the family of contraception, abortion, infanticide, homosexuality, and euthanasia. These comments, especially the reference to homosexuality, inspired some students and faculty to walk out of the ceremony and produced continuing protests from the dominant factions of the Georgetown community, who evidently consider that it is for them to teach faith and morals to the cardinal, rather than for him to teach these subjects to them.
The symbolism of the event, including the protest, captivated my imagination. The last time a pope was chosen, it was a bold and marvelously appropriate step to choose a man from a Catholic country suffering under Communist oppression. This first Polish pope soon played a major role in liberating his own country and eventually in bringing a welcome end to the Soviet empire. In the very different conditions of today, it would be another bold and marvelously appropriate step to select an African pope, especially so if the man were a cardinal whose special expertise is in Christian-Islamic dialogue. Such a pope could make a fresh start in imposing much-needed discipline on wayward bishops and in calling Catholics and the rest of us back to the basic principles of family morality, which we often seem to have forgotten. If all that were to happen, I think it would not be many years before the climate even at Georgetown University took a sharp turn towards sanity and orthodoxy.
It is not difficult to imagine a comparable Protestant scenario. The twenty-first century’s Billy Graham, for example, might be an immensely charismatic and yet humble man from South America or China, or from Africa. Now that Christian faith is truly worldwide, it is both inevitable and desirable that due recognition be given to leaders from those geographic areas where the greatest numbers of the world’s faithful Christians are going to be living. Of course, it will be uncomfortable at first for those of us in the world’s most powerful country to acknowledge such new leadership, but we will get used to it, just as huge audiences around the world learned to come to Christ through the North Carolina charm of Billy Graham. The growth of an international Christian community of nations does not imply a century of religious conflict. On the contrary, such a community is more likely to produce peace and understanding than is continued reliance upon the deadlocked power politics of the United Nations—that fatally flawed product of mid-twentieth century utopianism.