Every teacher knows that the best learning comes from their students. Take these two parabolic cautionary tales that were shared with me by one of my students this week…
Every pastor and priest in Tanzania practices their ministry in the shadow of the country’s colonial past. The Christianity that was brought to this part of the world was very much part of what Yoder calls the ‘Constantinian shift’, the embrace of the Way of Jesus Christ by the imperial power of Rome that saw faith and empire thereafter mutually reinforcing meta-narratives. When the colonists shared that faith with the peoples of Tanzania as it today is known, there was a widespread conviction that they were liberating the indigenous population from traditional African understandings of the world that held back those peoples’ hopes for betterment and progress. The white man’s burden was to carry out their ‘civilizing mission’ to make Christian the peoples of even the ‘darkest’ reaches of Africa. The African’s burden was to accept such ‘enlightenment’ as the rescue that it was purported to be.
The first parabolic tale is of a Tanzanian priest whose parish was in a village area of the country and who lived very much still within that colonial paradigm, equating the Church with power over the people in his cure. Sunday by Sunday, this priest had become increasingly frustrated that attendance in his church was shrinking. It seemed to him that the respect that was due him by virtue of his office in the Church was not being recognized by the local population. One Sunday, when the attendance was particularly low, his frustration turned to anger and he took a cane that he had in his house and went out to the village. He had heard that in years gone by one of his white predecessors had the practice of beating villagers who did not come to church so as to dissuade them of the demon of sloth that had taken hold of them. Our Tanzanian friend felt that it was time to restore the clergy to their proper place of prestige in the community and so took up the colonist’s cane to make the case for him. At first, people were surprised, then shocked, and then outraged, eventually seizing his cane and turning it on the hapless pastor. ‘That time is over’, one of the villagers was heard to have said, and in that moment, the village made a second shift away from Constantine’s Christianity and its colonial mindset, to a postcolonial space that the Church would now have to navigate its life of ministry within.
It is a shame that our first man of the cloth had not been given the opportunity to learn from the second. This priest also faced the situation of a much-emptied church on a Sunday morning. Being a man of more gentle persuasion, his first inclination was not to the cane but to conversation. He began to move about the church building, asking people if they knew where everyone else was. At first, people were unsure what to tell the priest, perhaps out of respect for his sensitivities, until at last one of them shared that there was an important dance taking place in one of the villages which was part of the indigenous traditional African religious practice of the local area. Following a few moments of careful consideration, and who knows, the odd prayer or two, he announced to the congregation who had gathered that there would be no service in the church that day but that people would be welcome to join him at the village for the dance. With that, he left, and on arriving at the village he joined the dancing with vigor. Finally, when the dance was over and all of the rites had finished, he announced loudly that he was glad to have been able to join the people in their celebration and that he would now be holding a service under a nearby tree for all those who would like to join him. Needless to say, the service was crowded.
When my students and I reflected on these two tales of the Tanzanian church, we wondered out loud what it meant to dance that day. We explored how whilst the second priest’s joining of the villagers festival looked like the postcolonial Church in action, it can also be the case that the people of the Church can hanker for the golden days of the Church gone by, both fearful of the impact of indigenous religious practices on the integrity of the Christian faith and nostalgic for the more elevated place their clergy once enjoyed in society. It is easy with western eyes to dismiss the hesitance of local people to embrace the new postcolonial paradigm as a failure to take the Tanzanian church were it rightly belongs, yet if people from the west examine their own lives they will notice that we share with our Tanzanian brothers and sisters a propensity unwittingly to return ourselves to ‘Egypt’.
When the freed Hebrew slaves made their sojourn through the desert, it was not long before they complained to Moses about the conditions they found themselves in, which proved to be only a short jump of reasoning to the outlandish statement that it would have been better for them to be back in their slavery in Egypt. Who longs to return to that which has chained them? The answer to that is of course, all of us. As Paul laments, I do that very thing which my heart longs not to do. How many alcoholics, how many people who have chronic problems with self-deceit or avarice find themselves returned to the very spot they had sworn never to go back to? How many ardent dieters will spend a month losing ten pounds only to blow it all on one chocolate cake splurge? Egypt is always behind us, and there is a strange comfort in those chains, a familiarity of burden that somehow feels that it could be an improvement on the arduous task of battling that which has bound us fast to sin, as Wesley’s hymn puts it.
At the end of our first week here in Dodoma we are beginning to recognize that each day carries its own lesson and each encounter its own opportunity for me to see my own Egypts. Yet these lessons are not learned alone, for in the slowed tempo of Africa there is the time and space to be able to catch a glimpse of that dancing Savior whose steps are always with us on the way out of Egypt, each time we find ourselves there. It is perhaps what sabbaticals are for – to learn how to dance.