Saturday, January 03, 2009


It was good to see Dennis and Sheila Eaton, home from Malawi this Christmas. I have known Dennis and Sheila for 30 years and played a part in bringing them together as a couple. Dennis was until recently on the staff as minister for pastoral care at our church but last year they were sent as missionaries to Malawi, to one of the poorest parts of one of the poorest countries in Africa. It was interesting therefore to read this article in the Times by Matthew Parris. I shall quote large sections of it.

"travelling in Malawi refreshed another belief, too: one I've been trying to banish all my life, but an observation I've been unable to avoid since my African childhood. It confounds my ideological beliefs, stubbornly refuses to fit my world view, and has embarrassed my growing belief that there is no God."

"Now a confirmed atheist, I've become convinced of the enormous contribution that Christian evangelism makes in Africa: sharply distinct from the work of secular NGOs, government projects and international aid efforts. These alone will not do. Education and training alone will not do. In Africa Christianity changes people's hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good."

"I used to avoid this truth by applauding - as you can - the practical work of mission churches in Africa. It's a pity, I would say, that salvation is part of the package, but Christians black and white, working in Africa, do heal the sick, do teach people to read and write; and only the severest kind of secularist could see a mission hospital or school and say the world would be better without it. I would allow that if faith was needed to motivate missionaries to help, then, fine: but what counted was the help, not the faith."

"But this doesn't fit the facts. Faith does more than support the missionary; it is also transferred to his flock. This is the effect that matters so immensely, and which I cannot help observing."

He then relates his childhood in Africa, traveling as a young man in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa.

"Whenever we entered a territory worked by missionaries, we had to acknowledge that something changed in the faces of the people we passed and spoke to: something in their eyes, the way they approached you direct, man-to-man, without looking down or away. They had not become more deferential towards strangers - in some ways less so - but more open."

"This time in Malawi it was the same. I met no missionaries. You do not encounter missionaries in the lobbies of expensive hotels discussing development strategy documents, as you do with the big NGOs. But instead I noticed that a handful of the most impressive African members of the Pump Aid team (largely from Zimbabwe) were, privately, strong Christians. “Privately” because the charity is entirely secular and I never heard any of its team so much as mention religion while working in the villages. But I picked up the Christian references in our conversations. One, I saw, was studying a devotional textbook in the car. One, on Sunday, went off to church at dawn for a two-hour service."

"It would suit me to believe that their honesty, diligence and optimism in their work was unconnected with personal faith. Their work was secular, but surely affected by what they were. What they were was, in turn, influenced by a conception of man's place in the Universe that Christianity had taught."

He goes on about the state of Africa today, about how fashionable it is to laud the 'tribal value system' that is native to the continent and to condemn the white man's interference and imposition of his own culture on the Africa.

"I don't follow this. 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. Anxiety - fear of evil spirits, of ancestors, of nature and the wild, of a tribal hierarchy, of quite everyday things - strikes deep into the whole structure of rural African thought. Every man has his place and, call it fear or respect, a great weight grinds down the individual spirit, stunting curiosity. People won't take the initiative, won't take things into their own hands or on their own shoulders."

"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 philosphical/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."

He concludes: "Those who want Africa to walk tall amid 21st-century global competition must not kid themselves that providing the material means or even the knowhow that accompanies what we call development will make the change. A whole belief system must first be supplanted. And I'm afraid it has to be supplanted by another. Removing Christian evangelism from the African equation may leave the continent at the mercy of a malign fusion of Nike, the witch doctor, the mobile phone and the machete."

Shortly before Christmas I was supposed to appear on a local radio station called Hope FM. I was to be interviewed by Alan Clarredge. He is the man who services our water softener. Wearing another hat he pastors a small evangelical church, but his training is as a water engineer. Any money he makes is recycled into his trips to Africa to bring water to barren villages. He knows the former Central African Federation well (Zimbabwe, Zambia and Malawi - before that, Southern and Northern Rhodesia and Nyassaland). He also knows Robert Mugabe as he serviced the kidney dialysis machine of his late wife. She was a devout Christian and he says, "Kept Robert in check". Without that influence Zimbabwe has become Hell.

The Matthew Parris piece has attracted 227 comments, overwhelmingly supportive. One struck a chord with me, "Then why, of why are you still an atheist? Truth is truth - for the African, for me, for you and for the whole world. God's truth liberates - Frees us to worship our Creator, acknowledging that He alone is worthy of our trust. He alone gives purpose to life! . Insightful article - thanks!"

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