Believing in the Global South
by Philip Jenkins
Copyright (c) 2006 First Things (December 2006).
Though prophecy rarely lends itself to empirical verification, one exception might be an observation of St. Vincent de Paul’s,
writing about the year 1640. This was one of the grimmest periods of European history, the most desperate days of the Thirty Years’ War. In those awful days, Vincent noted that Jesus promised that his Church would last until the end of time, but he never mentioned Europe. The Church of the future, Vincent said, would be the Church of South America, of Africa, of China and Japan. Although we might argue about the inclusion of Japan in that list, St. Vincent’s basic point remains sound and prophetic.
Christianity, a religion that was born in Africa and Asia, has in our lifetimes decided to go home. Our traditional concept of the Christian world as a predominantly white and Euro-American world-of western Christianity, in fact-is no longer the norm. Christianity should enjoy a worldwide boom in the coming decades, but the vast majority of believers will be neither white nor European nor Euro-American. According to the statistical tables produced by the respected Center for the Study of Global Christianity, some 2.1 billion Christians were alive in 2005, about one-third of the planetary population. The largest single bloc, some 531 million people, is still to be found in Europe. Latin America, though, is already close behind with 511 million, Africa has 389 million, and 344 million Asians profess Christianity. North America claims about 226 million believers. Now, we need not accept these figures in precise detail, and I personally believe that the Asian figures are too high. Even so, a large share of the Christian world is already located in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Just as striking are the long-term trends. The number of African Christians is growing at around 2.36 percent annually, which would lead us to project a doubling of the continent’s
Christian population in less than thirty years.
If we extrapolate these figures to the year 2025, the southern predominance becomes still more marked. Assuming no great gains or losses through conversion, then there would be around 2.6 billion Christians, of whom 595 million would live in Africa, 623 million in Latin America, and 498 million in Asia. Europe, with 513 million, would have slipped to third place. Africa and Latin America would thus be in competition for the title of most Christian continent. By 2050, Christianity will be chiefly the religion of Africa and the African diaspora. By then, there will be about three billion Christians in the world, and the proportion of those who will be white and non-Latino will be between one-fifth and one-sixth the total. If we project the largest Christian populations by 2050, the United States will still be at the head of the list, followed by Brazil, Mexico, the Philippines, Nigeria, the Congo, Ethiopia, and China. And even in the United States, many of the Christians will be of Hispanic, Asian, and African origin. By that point, one-third of all Americans will have Latino or Asian roots-roots that will be overwhelmingly Christian. This does not include those Americans of African origin, people who are either African Americans or of more recent African stock. Some figures cry out for special notice. Look, for instance, at the story of Christian growth in Africa. In 1900, Africa had 10 million Christians representing about 10 percent of the population; by 2000, this figure had grown to 360 million, representing about half the population. Quantitatively, this may well be the largest shift in religious affiliation that has ever occurred, anywhere. If we focus on the Catholic population alone, Africa had 1.9 million Catholics in 1900, but by 2000 the continent’s Catholic population had risen to 130 million, representing a gross increase of 6,708 percent. And yet another figure for the Catholic world should give us pause. In 2000, there were more Catholic baptisms in the Philippines than in France, Spain, Italy, and Poland combined. By 2025, approximately 60 percent of
Catholics around the world will probably live in Africa and Latin
America alone-not counting the Philippines, China, or India-and the proportion should reach two-thirds before 2050. At that point, European and Euro-American Catholics will be a small fragment of a church dominated by Filipinos, Mexicans, Brazilians, Nigerians, and ?Congolese.
If we were just noting the story of an ethnic and geographic shift, that would be an interesting story in its own right, but one of limited significance. Far more important, though, is the change in belief and practice in the growing churches of the Global South. Part of the change is founded in social and economic realities. At least for the foreseeable future, members of a southern-dominated church are likely to be among the poorer people on the planet, in marked contrast to the older western-dominated world.
For this reason, some western Christians have since the 1960s expected that the religion of their Third World brethren would be fervently liberal, activist, and even revolutionary, the model represented by liberation theology. In this view, the new Christianity would chiefly be concerned with pulling down the mighty from their seats, through political action or even armed struggle. All too often, though, these hopes have proved illusory. Frequently, the liberationist voices emanating from the Third World proved to derive from clerics trained in Europe and North America, and their ideas won only limited local appeal. Southern Christians would not avoid political activism, but they would become involved strictly on their own terms. While many espoused political liberation, they made it inseparable from deliverance from supernatural evil. The two terms are indeed related linguistically and often appear together in biblical texts, but the juxtaposition of the two thought-worlds of liberation and deliverance seems as baffling for many Euro-Americans as it is natural for Christians in the Global South.
Of course, we must be careful about generalizations concerning the vast and diverse world of southern Christianities, and I stress
the plural. There is no single southern Christianity, any more than there is such a thing as European or North American Christianity: Each of these terms involves numerous components, some strongly at odds with the others.
Yet we can reasonably say that many Global South Christians are more conservative in terms of both beliefs and moral teaching than are the mainstream churches of the Global North, and this is especially true in Africa. The churches that have made most dramatic progress in the Global South have been either Catholic (of a traditionalist and fideistic kind) or evangelical and Pentecostal Protestant sects. Membership in Pentecostal and independent churches already runs into the hundreds of millions, and congregations are located in precisely the regions of fastest population growth. Within a few decades, such denominations will represent a far-larger segment of global Chris- tianity and just conceivably a majority. These newer churches preach deep personal faith and communal orthodoxy, mysticism, and puritanism, all founded on clear scriptural authority. They preach messages that, to a westerner, appear simplistically charismatic, visionary, and apocalyptic. In this thought-world, prophecy is an everyday reality, while faith healing, exorcism, and dream-visions are all fundamental parts of religious sensibility. For better or worse, the dominant churches of the future could have much in common with those of medieval or early modern European times. As recently as a decade ago, North-South differences made little impact on the consciousness of most American Christians. What has changed this most radically, perhaps, has been the sharp split within the Episcopal Church (ECUSA) and the wider Anglican Communion, chiefly over issues of gender and sexuality. The story has been often told. The prime detonator was the Episcopal decision in 2003 to approve the ordination of Gene Robinson, a noncelibate homosexual, to the diocese of New Hampshire, a decision that infuriated the thriving Anglican churches of Africa. Since that
time, North-South conflicts have intensified. Under the leadership of the Nigerian church (some 20 million strong), an alliance of conservative Global South churches has flatly accused the Americans and British of departing far from biblical principles: “The unscriptural innovations of North American and some western provinces on issues of human sexuality undermine the basic message of redemption and the power of the Cross to transform lives. These departures are a symptom of a deeper problem, which is the diminution of the authority of Holy Scripture.”
Schism within the communion now seems likely. In the strong words of one conservative English bishop, Michael Nazir-Ali, “Nobody wants a split, but if you think you have virtually two religions in a single church, something has got to give sometime.” To describe the two sides as constituting separate
religions, rather than different perspectives on one common Christian faith, is a significant departure. Rowan Williams further shocked American liberals when he suggested creating a two-tier system within the Anglican Communion, in which churches like ECUSA that followed practices rejected by the wider communion would possess only associate rather than full membership. Yet even this response to ECUSA was not enough for the Nigerians, who urged that a “cancerous lump in the body
should be excised if it has defied every known cure.” In the words of Kenyan archbishop Benjamin Nzimbi, “Our understanding of the Bible is different from them. We are two different churches.”
For many Americans, and not just liberals, the Anglican feud suggests a grim and even frightening future for Christianity, a sign perhaps that the shift in global numbers means the inevitable triumph of a kind of fundamentalist faith deeply imbued with superstition. Underlying this vision is a grave doubt about the religious substance of the Christianity emerging from Africa or Asia: Is it really Christianity or, in effect, a survival of older animism, complete with tribal sexual codes? At an
Episcopal gathering in 2002, one gay activist condemned African conservatives for “monkeying around” in the church: “All I have to say to these bishops is: Go back to the jungle where you came from!” Sober academics seek other reasons for the charismatic nature of much religion in the Global South. Why, for instance, do these churches so emphasize healing, visions, and prophecy? Perhaps, one might suggest, they are rather too much in contact with their pre-Christian roots, with traditional worlds of healing or magic or shamanism.
I suggest a different interpretation. Whatever we think of specific moral or political questions at issue between Global North and South, the critical difference concerns attitudes to authority, and any acquaintance with African or Asian Christianity soon indicates the pervasive importance of the Bible and of biblical stories. The Bible has found a congenial home among
communities who identify with the social and economic realities it portrays, no less than among the political environments in which Christians find themselves. Cultures that readily identify with biblical worldviews find it easier to read the Bible not just as historical fact but also as relevant instruction for daily conduct. Attitudes to the Old Testament provide a good example. For many American Christians, it is obvious that the stories of the ancient Hebrew world arise from an utterly different social and economic setting of limited practical relevance to a modern society. In contrast, it is precisely the Old Testament world that speaks in contemporary tones to many African and Asian Christians. “If present day Africans still find it difficult to be at home with the Old Testament, they might need to watch out to see if they have not lost their Africanness in one way or the other,” writes Madipoane Masenya, a feminist liberal theologian
from South Africa. Could a comparable observation conceivably be made of contemporary Europeans or North Americans? Cultural affinities with the biblical world lead African and Asian Christians to see the Old Testament as their story, their book. In
Africa particularly, Christians have long been excited by the obvious cultural parallels that exist between their own societies and those of the Hebrew Old Testament. In much of Africa, social events frequently involve some kind of sacrifice or libation, as do celebrations of key events in the ceremonial year.
In the New Testament, the Letter to the Hebrews and the Book of Revelation seem especially relevant. For modern Africans, as for the original audience of Revelation, writes Fidon Mwombeki, a Tanzanian Lutheran leader, “[t]he dead are still living in the other world, and they influence the life of those in this world.” He discusses the exalted picture of God and the common belief that the future can be seen through visions, dreams, and revelations. Moreover, he writes: “the dominant symbols of the lamb, the throne, the blood, and the animals are common in African religious symbolism. The sacrificial blood, as well as innocent human blood crying from the ground (Rev. 6:10), corresponds to present-day African beliefs. No one in Africa can expect to get away with shedding innocent blood. At the same time, the lamb as the animal of sacrifice slaughtered for the sins of humanity is a dominant symbol both in Revelation and in African beliefs.” Evangelical religion with a central notion of
being saved in the blood has exercised immense appeal in modern Africa. Perhaps the greatest African hymn is
“Tukutendereza Yesu,” the song of the blood of the lamb. When observers complain that revivals and healing crusades make little explicit reference to evangelical theology, that is partly because pastors can reasonably assume their hearers will already know so many of these doctrines. A sacrificial society is uniquely equipped to understand theories of atonement, which can never have more than metaphorical power in a culture such as our own. It is one thing to sing of sacrifice, to hymn the power in the blood; it is quite another to have seen and smelled the event take place. How many American evangelicals have had such an experience? The more time one spends with southern Christians, reading the
Bible through their eyes, the harder it is to see the Bible as simply a historical text. And the more immediately one understands the biblical world, the easier it becomes to accept the authority of the text. In the words of another very liberal theologian, Kenya’s Musimbi Kanyoro, “Those cultures which are far removed from biblical culture risk reading the Bible as fiction.”
Particularly appealing are the parables, in which Jesus incorporated so many observations of contemporary conditions. Across Africa and Asia, millions of modern readers have been on roads where a traveler is likely to be robbed and left for dead, without much hope of intervention by official agencies. They understand accounts of streets teeming with the sick. They know that a poor woman who loses a tiny sum of money would search frantically for coins that could allow her children to eat that night. In many countries, readers appreciate the picture of the capricious rich man, who offers hospitality on one occasion but on another day demands payment of exorbitant debts and obligations, and who must not on any account be offended. On occasion, the social background of the Global South allows readers to see dimensions of the text that have been largely lost in a postindustrial world. Like Europeans in bygone centuries, many modern Africans and Asians read biblical tales of plague and famine as powerfully contemporary. Perhaps only hungry eyes can appreciate just how thoroughly images of food and feasting, eating and starving, pervade both Testaments. Throughout the Bible, being filled with food is for most people an unusual prospect, as was true for most societies before the eighteenth century, including those of western Europe. In Luke’s
Magnificat, Mary celebrates a radical vision of a society in which God will fill the hungry while sending the rich away empty. When the prodigal son comes home, driven by famine, he is given a banquet complete with fatted calf.
Encountering such visions of plenty has an immeasurably greater
impact in a society that knows hunger than in a western community where the most prominent food-related story of recent years was an alleged obesity epidemic. The spirit of the biblical world is movingly summarized by the contemporary grace said by rural Chinese Christians: “Today’s food is not easy to come by. God gives it to us. After we eat it, we will not be sick. God protects us so that we can have the next meal. He protects us so everything is prosperous and we have peace. All our family members, from young to old, need the protection from God.”
Nor can most African or Asian readers be complacent about the easy availability of water. The numerous biblical passages about plentiful water mean a great deal in nations that can only dream of such a luxury. Such readers share the amazed expectation of the Samaritan woman at the well, when Jesus promises her a reliable source of living water. Within a few years, perhaps half the world’s people will live in countries that are lacking sufficient
One of the most harrowing stories of the whole Bible occurs in Elisha’s time, when a woman begs the king to enforce the agreement she had made with her neighbor in response to the raging famine. First they would eat the son of one woman, then the son of another, but the other woman was reneging on the deal. Would the king not grant her justice, by ordering the second act of cannibalism? However grotesque the story, millions of modern readers can understand the desperation that lies at its center. They know that, while men can sometimes flee a famine-stricken area, women remain behind with the children. How many American churches have ever heard sermons on this particular text?
Food shortages form the subject of modern Christian hymns and writings. Ghanaian poet Afua Kuma declares:
The famine has become severe. Let us go and tell Jesus! He
is the one who When he raises his hands Gives even our
enemies their share And our brothers bring head pans To
carry the food away.
The radicalism can hardly be appreciated in societies that do not know famine: Not only does God grant food in time of hunger, but he even pours blessings on our enemies.
The prevalence of hunger and natural disaster helps explain the enormous popularity in Christian Africa and Asia of the Book of Ruth, a tale of a society devastated by famine, in which women survive by depending on each other and on trusted kin. In the American context, the book attracts some interest from feminist scholars, while Ruth’s plea to Naomi, “entreat me not to leave thee,” is included in blessing rites for same-sex couples. In the
Global South, the book’s interest lies in how the various characters faithfully fulfill their obligations to each other and their relatives. What the North reads in moral or individualistic terms remains for the South social and communal.
Particularly appealing in Global South churches are the wisdom texts, such as Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, but also the New Testament’s Epistle of James. Wisdom literature is popular, in
part, because of its profound sense of the transience of life. One of the most-used sermon texts in Africa is James 4:14: “Ye know not what shall be on the morrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapor, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away.” Echoes of this text often resurface in paraphrased form. In the Sudan, which for some forty years has suffered repeated civil wars and the vicious persecution of non-Muslims, one Christian chorus teaches the grim truth that “[y]ou are here
today but tomorrow you’ll be here no more. Our only hope is Jesus Christ, so receive him now.” In the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami, sermons in south and east Asian churches made great use of James. If there is a single critical marker distinguishing the Christianity of the modern West from the New Testament world, it is the basic belief in the supernatural character of evil, which is manifested equally in sickness, repression, wickedness, and compulsiveness. The North-South divide is not absolute, and