Religion and Historical Change




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(Seth Mokitimi Methodist Seminary, Pietermaritzburg, 17 May 2013)

The new President and Principal of Seth Mokitimi Methodist Seminary, The Rev. Dr. H. Mvume Dandala, has asked me to address you on the topic: “The Task of the Church in the Transformation of Society.” The letter of invitation goes on to make a specific request: “We would hope that you might seek to help us answer the vexing question of why the colonial church working in partnership with the colonial governments was so successful in changing the fibre of African society, yet the church working in the context of a politically liberated society, with a democratically elected government feels inadequate to help bring the required relevant transformation.”

This is, indeed, an awesome challenge to any speaker or scholar. The question we should ask is: what factors and social processes prepared the ground of African society for the development and sprouting of the seeds of Christianity, resulting in Christianity becoming a religious force in the African population? We know the Biblical parable of the man who threw seeds on the surface of the earth, hoping for a good harvest.

The message in the parable is that certain environments, certain climates, certain soils and regions of the earth, certain intensities of the sun, are unfavorable to the development and sprouting of the seeds for crops, plants, and fruits, and that a selection of these factors are favorable to the development and sprouting of seeds for crops, plants, and fruits. Another relevant verse is the one that tells, quite truthfully, that there is a time for everything: the message here is that there is a time for joy, and a time for sorrow; a time for birth and a time for death; a time to be a child, and a time to be an adult, and a time for old age. We can go on listing the poles and their opposites, the antipodes of life, according to the real rhythm of life in nature and human life.

Rev. Dr. Dandala requested me to attempt an answer to this question: “…why the colonial church working in partnership with the colonial governments was so successful in changing the fibre of African society…”

Ladies and Gentlemen, there is a striking parallel, and similarity, between the role of the Christian Church in creating the new Western culture that followed the collapse of the Roman Empire, on the one hand, and the role of the Christian Church in “changing the fibre of African society” during the Colonial era, on the other hand.

Christianity did not originate in the West, or in Europe. It came to Europe from Africa and the Middle East. The great Catholic historian, Christopher Dawson, wrote: “The religion which was destined to conquer the Roman Empire and to become permanently identified with the life of the West was indeed of purely oriental origin and had no roots in the European past or in the tradition of classical civilization.” (Dawson, Christopher, The Making of Europe, Meridian, 1956, p. 42)

It was the missionary activities of the pioneers of the new religion named after “Christ”, who founded within the crumbling Roman Empire the cells of the new religion, the Christian communities; it was these cells of the new religion, which began as mere dots on the European landscape of the Roman Empire, which developed, grew, and became the care-giver, the comforter, teacher, protector, and food-provider when the Empire met its death, when violence, destruction, disorder, chaos, and incredible physical and spiritual cruelty visited the masses of human beings in the European regions of the Empire.

Not only was there incredible physical, bodily, material destruction and disintegration; physical, bodily, material destruction and disintegration were equally matched by incredible spiritual and mental disorientation, destruction, and disintegration. E. R. Dodds small volume, Pagan and Christian in an Age of Anxiety, (1965, 1970) succinctly treats this huge topic.

It is also important, in an age largely conditioned by Western racism and degradation of African culture and African people, to stress the African contribution to the emergence and early development of European Christianity. We must be aware that during entire Antiquity Africa, Asia, and the Middle East were more advanced in science, technology, philosophical thought, and literature, than Europe, particularly Western Europe. The anomaly of the Roman Empire is that its head, the city of Rome, was, on its own, backward, but was ruling over vast colonies in Africa and the Middle East which were more developed than Rome herself.

The anomaly would be similar to, if you can imagine it, Pietermaritzburg today being the Headquarters of a vast empire stretching from Southern Africa to the entire industrial Western and Central Europe and North America. Over a century ago, the great Belgian historian, Franz Cumont, warned that we must not assume that all superiority in the Roman Empire rested in Rome: “…it is in the Orient, especially in those countries of `old civilization,’ that we must look for industry and riches, for technical abilities and artistic productions, as well as for intelligence and science…while the other countries of Europe were hardly out of barbarism; Asia Minor, Egypt and Syria gathered the rich harvests Roman peace made possible…They excelled in every profession except that of arms…Viewed from this standpoint the history of the empire during the first three centuries may be summarized as a `peaceful infiltration ‘ of the Orient into the Occident.” (Cumont, Franz, Oriental Religions in Roman Paganism, Dover Publications, 1956, pp. 2-3)

The struggle against Roman despotism, against slavery and impoverishment, in Africa and the Middle East, took, among others, religious forms, giving rise to many religious sects seeking and preaching salvation from existing misery, oppression, cruelty, and torment. Christianity was one of these religious sects, which emerged originally as a reform movement within Judaism. There was intense struggle and competition among these sects. It was amidst this intense struggle that the followers of “Christ” were cast out, were banned from preaching in Jewish temples, and the leaders left the Temple and took the path of converting Gentiles (Enslin, Morton Scott, Christian Beginnings, Parts I and II, Harper and Row, 1938, 1956, pp. 179-181; Parkes, James, The Conflict of the Church and the Synagogue: A Study in the Origins of Antisemitism, Atheneum, 1969).

It was from these origins in Africa and the Middle East, that the new religion of “Christians” came into Europe. Christianity was brought into Europe by Africans and the Middle Easterners. The noted Oxford historian, Hugh Trevor-Roper, wrote: “Like so much in the Roman Empire, their model is not Italian, not even European, but eastern…We naturally think of the Empire founded by Augustus as the Roman Empire. It was Roman arms which conquered it; the Caesars, who founded its institutions, were Roman; and Rome was its capital. But in fact Rome was not its natural centre of gravity. The wealth which sustained it came largely from Asia and Africa…Africa supplied the city of Rome with two-thirds of its corn. It was the conquest of Egypt which enabled Augustus to establish the Empire…The great school of technology, the great library of learning were in Alexandria…The great westerners –Tertullian, Apuleius, Augustine- came from Africa” (Trevor-Roper, Hugh, The Rise of Christian Europe, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1965, pp. 46-47). The Early Fathers of the Church, who established Latin prose as the language of the Catholic Church, were Africans.

We now come to the crucial institution and historical process which established European Christianity and European civilization from the collapse of the Roman Empire to the end of the Middle Ages, i. e., the Monastic Movement. Dawson tells us: “…it was through monasticism that religion exercised a direct formative influence on the whole cultural development of these centuries.” (Dawson, Religion and the Rise of Western Culture, Sheed and Ward, 1950, p. 47) The Monastic Movement, which resulted in the founding of monasteries all over Europe, originated in Africa.

The Monastic Movement was the cell out of which emerged the new Western Culture which became dominant between the fall of the Roman Empire and the end of the Middle Ages: “It was born in the African desert as a protest against the whole tradition of the classical culture of the Greek and the Roman world. It stood for the absolute renunciation of everything the ancient world had prized –not only pleasure and wealth and honour, but family life and citizenship and society…Its founders and models were the terrible ascetics of Nitria and the Thebaid who passed their lives in ceaseless prayer and fasting and in an almost physical struggle with the powers of darkness…The fame and influence of the new movement reached their height at the very moment when Rome…was falling a victim to the barbarians. It was in that generation that leaders of Roman society…made their pilgrimages to the Egyptian and Syrian deserts and initiated a literary propaganda in favour of the new movement which had enormous success throughout the Latin West and the Byzantine East” (Dawson, Religion and the Rise of Western Culture, pp. 48-49).

We must now come to the main point. We must ask and answer the main question: what social-historical factors made the soil of the European region of the Roman Empire fertile and appropriate, enabling the small cells of Christian communities to grow and eventually become a powerful religious force in Europe? What social-historical factors made the soil of what is now South Africa fertile and appropriate for Christianity to take root and become a powerful religious force in the region?

Three decisive events occurred in both historical sites:
1. There was, first, the collapse of the foundations of local family authority. Before the rise and triumph of Christianity, religious authority rested with the head of the family, and that head was the eldest male. All others, younger males, and females, were subordinate to that Head. We are talking here about authority relations, which does not necessarily imply dictatorship or tyranny. Religious rites were performed within the family, led by the male head of the family. It is striking that the “priest”, from outside, who came with Christianity, who took the place of the Family Head in religious rituals, was given the same title which is held by the family head: “Father”, “Padre”, “Baba”.
2. There was, second, the collapse of the foundations of local Deities or Divines. Humankind, worldwide, was polytheist before the triumph of industrialization. The idea of one God was an idea that was held and practiced faithfully by a minority of people. “Thy shall have no other God besides Me”…is a struggle that runs throughout the Bible. The masses of people were always polytheist. There were always many localized deities, in the lakes, in the seas, in the mountains, in the hills, in the great rocks, in the forests, in the rain, in thunder, in lightning, in the wind, in the soil, etc. Paul Lafargue put the matter thus: “It is a matter of historical fact that the idea of one sole and universal God…which through the centuries lived only in the brains of a few thinkers, did not become a current idea until capitalist civilization appeared.” (Lafargue, Paul, The Evolution of Property: Social and Philosophical Studies, New Park Publications, 1975, p. 128)
3. The third factor is the collapse of the long-existing State due to savage military attack, wanton violence, material destruction, and murder without due institutional, cultural process. The development and crystallization of the State after the weakening of long-standing family authority, and undermining of the family head as the religious head, meant that the Head of the State became the religious head; that leads to the deification of the supreme Leader of the State. This was the case particularly before the emergence of modern electoral democracy in which the Leader is elected.

“Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu” –“A Human Being is a human being through other human beings.” This is the profoundest definition of a Human Being, the profoundest philosophy of a Human Being, expressed in all languages of the entire Universe from the beginning of human history to eternity.

A human being is healthy as a human being when she/she has healthy relations with other human beings. There are two aspects to `health’ – (a) physical, and (b) spiritual/mental. There are requirements for physical health, which ultimately determine life or death; there are also requirements for spiritual/mental health. The physical and the spiritual/mental are interrelated (see Fromm, Erich, The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, Fawcett Publications, 1973, pp. 246-299).

Relations with other human beings exist within the context of a Community/Society.

Relations within the Community/Society are the shell within which the human being is contained, nourished, protected, and enriched, much as the Shell of an egg contains, nourishes, protects, and enriches the contents of the egg. Religious forces, Divine Beings, are part of relations within the Community/Society; Religious forces, Divine Beings, add sacredness to the Shell which contains, nourishes, protects, and enriches the human beings therein.

The Family/Kinship group in early history, together with Religious/Divine forces within the Family/Kinship group, were the Shell that contained, nourished, protected, and enriched the human beings therein. The localized Divine forces, in the lakes, rivers, seas, forests, mountains, hills, in huge rocks, in the sky, in thunder and lightening, in rain and wind, in the sun, stars, moon, and planets, played their roles in interaction with the Family/Kinship Divines.
As stated earlier, the emergence and crystallization of the State in history resulted in the deification of the State, and the leader of the State became a Divine Force (ancient Egypt, China, Maya, Inca, Rome, Zulu, etc.). The State before industrial society became a Shell holding the people together not just physically BUT ALSO SPIRITUALLY/MENTALLY.

Now and then, in historical periods, the Shell holding people together cracks and breaks, and the contents within the egg splatter out. This is not only physical violence and injury, but also deep spiritual/mental violence and injury. When this happens, there arises an economic/social crisis as well as a Religious Crisis.

It is during these times that new religious movements, new prophets, new saviors, new religions, emerge. Such was the situation during the age of the fall of the Roman Empire, when Christianity emerged and triumphed: “In that age religion was the only power that remained unaffected by the collapse of civilization, by the loss of faith in social institutions and cultural traditions and by the loss of hope in life.” (Dawson, Religion and the Rise of Western Culture, p. 19)

The new religious teaching said that the collapse of the Empire amidst unspeakable violence, suffering, misery, cruelty, senseless killings of human beings, and destruction of human buildings and fields, were part of Divine Judgment; the teachers of the new religion promised imminent divine salvation for believers, converts, and the faithful: “This stern doctrine came with peculiar force to the declining civilization of the post-Roman world –a world in which war and famine and slavery and torture were the unavoidable facts of daily experience, where the weak could hardly survive, and the strong died young in battle…`What is there,’ asks St. Gregory, `to please us in this world? Everywhere we see sorrow and lamentation. The cities and towns are destroyed, the fields are laid waste and the land returns to solitude. No peasant is left to till the fields, there are few inhabitants left in the cities, and yet even these scanty remnants of humanity are still subject to ceaseless sufferings…Some are led away captive, others are mutilated and still more slain before our eyes. What is there then to please us in this world? If we still love such a world as this, it is plain that we love not pleasure but misery.’” (Dawson, op. cit., pp. 34-35)

Amidst such bodily and spiritual/mental torment, pains, cruelties, anguish, and senseless destruction of human life, material constructions, and institutions, many people developed the urge to jump out of this world, physically or spiritually and mentally, or both bodily and spiritually; the psychology of disconnecting with the material world developed; the alienation from, or hatred of, the life of this world, alienation from, or hatred of, the human body, of sexual relations, of children, and of human passions, the suppression of sex, of the spontaneity of passions, became a marked feature of the new religion, of people’s personalities, and of modern culture as shaped by the new religion.

What is also a marked feature of Christianity, what is decisive in its orientation and philosophy, is its individualism: as opposed to collectivist tribal/kinship-based communities, where safety, protection, and nourishment were for the entire Family or Community, salvation in Christianity is for the individual. It targeted the single individuals who had been splattered and thrown helpless and lost on the floor, grounds, valleys and streets, as the Shell of the egg holding the human community cracked and broke, throwing its contents scattered hither and thither. Even when believers, as a multitude, are gathered together in a hall, or under a tree, or inside a large tent, the message is still to the single individual, who, in turn, responds as an individual, and makes a commitment to the Savior, or to God, as an individual. Christianity arose amidst the disintegration of the Human Community; its struggle and aim was not to restore the Human Community; it struggled and aimed at picking up, comforting, nourishing, and saving, the broken pieces of the Community (Weber, Max, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism; Dodds, E. R., Pagan and Christian in an Age of Anxiety; Engels, Frederick, “On the History of Early Christianity”, in Marx and Engels, On Religion, Schocken Books, 1964, pp. 316-347;Lawrence, D. H., The Apocalypse, and Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious, and Fantasia of the Unconscious).


Let us now turn our attention to the introduction and triumph of Christianity in South Africa. I stated earlier that Christianity did not originate in Europe; that the earliest Christian communities were in the Middle East and in Africa, and that, in fact, it was Africans and Middle Easterners who brought Christianity to Europe. The key Early Fathers of the Church were all Africans; and the Monastic Movement, which played the most crucial part in spreading Christianity in the West, was of African origin.

The Middle East and a large part of North Africa were part of the Roman Empire; these regions were very advanced economically, technologically, scientifically, and culturally, compared to the city of Rome and to the European regions of the Empire. Christianity in the Middle East and North Africa was one of the religions that emerged as a by-product of the liberation struggle of these regions against Roman domination and colonialism. The most vibrant Christian community during the days of the Roman Empire was in North Africa, in Egypt and Tunisia (Frend, W. H., The Donatist Church, Oxford University Press, 1952; Brown, Peter, Augustine of Hippo, London, 1967; Brown, Peter, Religion and Society in the Age of Saint Augustine, London, 1971). Indeed, North Africa, particularly Alexandria, remained for centuries the site of the most daring, incisive, original thinking in Christianity and Judaism.

It was the rise and triumph of Islam, in the 7th-8th centuries, A. D., which wiped Christianity and Judaism off the map of North Africa. Christianity then became confined to Europe.

With European Colonialism over Africa, Christianity was then re-introduced into Africa by Europeans. Christianity now appears as a European religion —Alas! It was Christianity that came to Africa heavily laden with, and shaped by, European racism and poison against Africa, African culture, and African people.

What is it that enabled Christianity to strike root and triumph in South Africa?

First, we must be clear about the fact that African communities and societies in what is now South Africa had their own philosophy of life, within which were contained their religious beliefs and practices. Almost all these communities/societies were still organized around Gentile/Tribal/Family ties. The State was still at an elementary stage of development; this elementary State structure was still a mere extension of the Gentile/Tribal/Family principle which regulated relations and the structure of the Community. The Political Head did not yet have the power and authority to over-rule, or cancel out, the Gentile/Tribal/Family principle.

It was the State founded by King Shaka, heading the Zulu Kingdom, which crossed the boundaries of the Gentile/Tribal/Family principle/structure. King Shaka founded a Nation, the Zulu Nation, which was multi-ethnic, containing, besides the Zulu ethnic community, communities/groups/individuals who were non-Zulu. King Shaka gave birth, within Southern Africa, to the concept of “citizenship”, to citizenship of the Zulu Nation.

In principle, policy, thought, and behaviour, King Shaka went beyond the boundaries of Gentile/Tribal/Ethnic/Family structure, just as Shakespeare’s `England’, headed by a particular Family/Ethnic dynasty, was beyond the Gentile/Tribal/Ethnic/Family structure; just as Czarist Russia, headed by a particular Family/Ethnic dynasty, was beyond the Gentile/Tribal/Ethnic/Family structure. King Shaka founded a Zulu National Army, which fought for, and protected, the interests of the Zulu Nation; an Army which at times he used to eliminate leaders of particular communities that he viewed as his enemies. That is a Litmus Test for the existence of the State.
In religious terms, the formation and crystallization of the State in pre-industrial ages resulted in the deification of the Leader of the State. The Leader of the State is portrayed in super-human terms: “iZulu eli Phezulu”, “iSilo”, “Umlomo ongathethi manga!”, “INdlovukazi”, etc. In historical times, anyone who was to be regarded and treated as higher than a mere mortal, e. g., a Bishop, a Pope, a King, a Queen, etc., was treated/anointed with magical herbal mixtures which were to give `magical’ powers to that person, to add powers of Divine forces to that person. This is the process of deification, which magically transformed the person installed.

Let us remember the theory of the “Divine Right” to rule in the history of England. The Ruler was considered to be a “Holy” person: The Pharaoh in Ancient Egypt, the Emperor in Ancient China, Emperor in Rome were regarded as holy persons. This deification of the Leader had a tremendous impact on the psychology, minds, personalities, and moral compass of ordinary people and subjects. It also undoubtedly had a tremendous impact on the personality and spiritual powers of the installed/anointed person. Just as it was thought enough for an ill person to touch Christ’s garment to get a magical cure, so English parents during Samuel Johnson’s time thought it enough for their ill children to touch the King or Queen’s garment to experience a magical cure.

Through the rituals performed during the installation of the Ruler, which included the application to the person chosen of mysterious medicinal oils, herbal mixtures, smoke and steam, the Ruler acquired Divine powers. He/She became the first power in the religious sphere of life. Divine power and the power of the State were invested in one person.

An accident of history occurred in Rome during the last period of the Roman Empire, which abolished the monopoly of Divine power and State power in the Being of one person. The collapse and disintegration of the Roman State created a huge vacuum in society. The leaders of the Christian Church, above all the Bishop, filled the vacuum. The Church, through the Bishop, largely fulfilled the functions of the collapsed State.

As Rome had been the capital of the Roman Empire, so Rome became the capital of the Christian Church, and the Bishop of Rome became the Head of the entire Church. When the new State of Barbarian conquerors emerged strong, they found a competitor on the scene, the Church, in the person of the Bishop. There was now a situation of Dual Power: Religious power and Political Power were vested in separate Beings (Dawson, Religion and the Rise of Western Culture, pp. 11-19). This struggle and contest lasted for centuries until the rise and triumph of capitalism.

Let us continue our narration about the Divine powers of the Ruler of the State in pre-industrial societies. The King/Queen in pre-industrial society was accompanied all the time by the profoundest, most gifted Medicine specialist: I am talking here about original medicine, not about contemporary medicine made of chemicals by the chemical industry. This the origin of the practice in modern societies, where the President/Premier of the country is always followed by a medical doctor and medical staff.

Medicine in pre-industrial societies was part and parcel of the religious beliefs of society. Medicine, Religion, and Political Power in pre-industrial society were interrelated components of one package. That is the reason, then, that Europeans were not content with only conquering and destroying the African State; they had to simultaneously begin a vicious war to destroy African Religion, and, most viciously still, to destroy African Medicine. African Medicine was declared to be Witchcraft, and one of the first acts of legislation prohibited, made criminal, the practice of `Witchcraft’. African Medicine and African Religion were the twin pillars of the African State. European power over Africans could not be secure without the simultaneous destruction of the African State, African Medicine, and African Religion.

What was the major historical event which prepared the ground for the entrance and triumph of Christianity in South Africa?

The major historical force was the conquest of the African Kingdoms by Europe as an imperialist and colonizing force.

What we are talking about here is the loss of independence, dignity, and self-rule, by the African people within those Kingdoms. Independence, dignity, and self-rule are the most important components of the feeling of well-being in a community/society, the loss of which is soon followed by the loss of control over the land, livestock, rivers, forests and other economic resources.

When members of a community/society lose their independence, their self-rule, and their dignity, they become stripped, naked, spiritually, psychologically, and mentally. It is here that the full truth of “You cannot live by bread alone” is revealed.

Independence, self-rule, and dignity, the pillars of which are the Elders within the Family and Community, the Age-Grade system, the Traditional political system, and the Monarchic Leader of the State (UBukhosi), were the SHELL I spoke about earlier, which contained, protected, nourished, and enriched, the members of the community, much as the shell of the egg contains, protects, nourishes, and enriches the contents of the egg.

The conquest of the African Kingdoms by European governments, the conquest of African Kingdoms within what now is South Africa, had the impact of a major, piercing TRAUMA in the psyche and mind of African people –and TRAUMA it was indeed, in the psychiatric sense, and remains TRAUMA, indeed, up to our time. This was the case particularly in those regions, such as KwaZulu, where the State had reached a high level of development and crystallization.

The Shell holding African people together, spiritually, mentally, socially, economically, politically, and culturally, was broken and shattered by European conquest. This had the force comparable in its impact on the psyche and mind to the shattering of the mind and psyche of Ancient Romans by the invasion of the Barbarians.
The mind and psyche of many African people were stripped of all sense of spiritual security and comfort, their world was turned upside down, the world they occupied seemed very disjointed, seemed very doubtful as a real home for them. Much as it happened to Ancient Romans, a longing arose within these Africans for another and better world.

As in Ancient Rome, as in the violent, misery- and murder-filled post-Roman world, the seeds carried and sown by Christian missionaries thus found a fertile soil for the Christian Gospel, for the teachings on Sin and the Sinful world, for the teaching on Heaven and Hell, for the consolation and comfort offered by the Christian Gospel.

Still, Christianity did not conquer all of Africa, and not all of South Africa. A large part of Africa was conquered by Islam. A large segment of the African population still follows and practices Traditional African Religion. Here in South Africa, Christianity is still not followed and practiced by the majority of African people. There is still the distinction of “Amakholwa” as a distinct segment of the population of the country, coexisting with another segment which is not Christian. (Vilakazi, Absolom, Zulu Transformations, University of Natal Press, 1965; also Vilakazi, Mthethwa, Mpanza, Shembe: The Revitalization of African Society, Skotaville Press, 1986)

A historian who is careful with facts has written the following about the second half of the 19th century: “Missionary enterprises in Zululand was intense but conspicuous for its lack of success. The Africans living on the mission stations were usually brought into the kingdom from other communities by the missionaries who found it extremely difficult to prise the Zulu from their way of life” (Guy, Jeff, The Destruction of the Zulu Kingdom, Ravan Press, 1982, p. 15)

It was the new elite of African society who were immediately Christian, those who had gone through the socialization and educational process in Christian Mission schools inside the country as well as abroad.

If the truth be told, Christian missionaries were part of the baggage that came into African society with European conquest. If, originally, they did not carry arms and fire against Africans, as soldiers in the battlefield, and the Commanders of the army, did, they were in homesteads as the wives of the soldiers and Commanders who did the killing and maiming of Africans: the wives did not directly do the killing, they may even have complained about the cruelty and sin committed, they may even have bandaged, hidden, and comforted the wounded Africans, as many wives did, but they bore a moral responsibility for the crime. It was the rare wife, indeed, who, like John Brown in the US, took up rifles and fired at the colonizers and slave-holders (DuBois, W. E. B., John Brown, International Publishers, 1909, 1972; Majeke, Nosipho, The Role of Missionaries in Conquest, APDUSA, 1952).

It is important to realize, though, that the situation of “dual power”, the Colonial State, on one side, and the Church, on the other, also existed in the colonies, as it existed in Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire. As an institution, the Christian Church was, indeed, part of the baggage that came with European conquest and colonialism. Christian missionaries were, indeed, members of European Christian civilization. However, as colonialism became consolidated, the position of the Christian clergy became ambivalent. The clergy were divided. Let us remember Martin Luther King Jr.’s statement in the 1960s, that 11o’clock Sunday was the most segregated hour in the United States, as the churches were racially segregated, and the White Churches practiced racial discrimination; in other words, the Christian Churches were in Sin.

Yet some individual Christian clergy opposed segregation, waged a struggle against it, and some lost their lives in the struggle. The clergy in the Middle Ages were divided between the High clergy, on one hand, linked to the feudal powers, and the lower clergy, on the other hand, linked to the oppressed serfs below. Indeed, the lower clergy often played a significant role in the leadership of the revolutionary uprisings of the Middle Ages, almost all of which were rural revolts.

It was the same in the colonies. While the Church, as an organization, was largely conservative, there were individual Christian clergy who indirectly or directly supported the struggle against colonialism and racism. As in the case of Revolutionary Priests in Latin America, who took up arms and joined the revolutionary struggle, so there were individual European Christian clergy who supported the revolutionary struggle, and some who actually fought arms in hand. The climax of this split of the Christian Church, of the Church with two heads and two hearts, was the great debate within the Church as an organization, which led to the decision of the World Council of Churches to support the Armed Struggle in South Africa.

Christianity had power behind it: the new White Colonial State was Christian; the new White-controlled economy was managed by Christians; schools, high schools, tertiary institutions were managed by Christians; the Judiciary and Police, who enforced and protected the new social order, were Christian. The African elite were Christian.

Christianity during and after colonial times did not transform the entirety of African society; it did not change the “fibre” of African society. It merely created the `modernized’ part of South Africa. It changed official South Africa; it changed urban South Africa; it changed the institutional infrastructure of White-ruled South Africa, including those institutions in the country managed by the African elite.

Christian civilization within South Africa is reminiscent of classical civilization of Antiquity –and the pattern remains the same until the triumph of capitalist industrial society in the 19th century. One historian has written: “One should always remember that classical civilization was the civilization of a fragile veneer: only one man in ten lived in a civilized town” (Brown, Peter, The World of Late Antiquity, Thames and Hudson, 1971, p. 84)

Up to 1994, the larger bulk of South Africa, the greater bulk of the African population, remained rural, underdeveloped, poor, non-industrial, `functionally illiterate,’ and non-Christian. That is the reason that ordinary African people in rural South Africa say that “Freedom has not arrived where we are.” This is similar to the extent of Christianity in Europe before mass industrialization in the 19th and 20th centuries. Writing about Christianity in the Carolingian Empire, a noted historian wrote: “Knowledge of Christianity itself was available only to the few. The majority of priests were not deeply touched by it…The lower clergy, who belonged socially to the servants, to the broad mass of the middle and the lower classes, were quite distinct from the higher clergy…The life of the lower clergy was not only parallel to, but actually was part of the life lived by the lay poor” (Fichtenau, Heinrich, The Carolingian Empire: The Age of Charlemagne, Harper Torchbooks, 1964, p. 156)

It is striking, by the way, how pre-industrial rural people in Europe created a synthesis between their own age-old religious beliefs in ancestors (as do Africans), with Christianity. As the German historian continues: “Perhaps the enormous appeal which the worship of relics made to the people in this time of crisis was due, in part, to the fact that in an age devoid of saints, people desired the bodily presence of the saints of earlier ages. The religious mood of the people needed saints. When there were none, it created them. There was little reason for worshipping men like Alcuin…during their life lifetime. But no sooner were they buried than legends began to circulate. They were alleged to have performed miracles, and in the place where they had worked and lived they were considered blessed…” (Ibid., pp. 170-171)

The historian also mentions that the ordinary rural person of the Dark Ages did not believe that one could address God or Christ directly, but had to talk to the interceder (the saint), who would then relay the request to the Supreme Being. In what sense is this different in essentials from African religious beliefs regarding ancestors?

At the lower levels of African society, the conquered Africans did respond to the disorientation, suffering, and racism brought about by colonialism and capitalism; as splattered, injured, individuals cast out by the shattered SHELL of African society, they absorbed from the new Christian Gospel what suited their needs, and proceeded to form Independent African Churches. I have in mind Churches like Isonto lama Nazaretha (Shembe), the ZCC, and Zionist Congregations. (Vilakazi, Absolom, Mthethwa, Bongani, Mpanza, Mthembeni, Shembe: The Revitalization of African Society, Skotaville, 1986; “Umbiko Wokuqala weLanga laseNatal NgeBandla lakwaShembe”, Ilanga, Ephreli 7, 2003, p. 13).

Within the conventional Christian orbit, some of the dispossessed, oppressed working people in urban areas fell in the embrace of the Methodist and Baptist churches. This was true also of Africans held in slavery in the US. Why? Deep down, the Human Being is a collective being: “Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu”. “A Human Being is a human being through other human beings”. The great African-American scholar, E. Franklin Frazier, explaining the success of Methodist and Baptist preaching among the slaves, wrote as follows:

“When Methodists and Baptists began their revivals in the South, large numbers of Negroes were immediately attracted to this type of religious worship…Why did the Negro slaves respond so enthusiastically to the proselyting efforts of the Methodists and Baptists?…We are on sounder ground when we note first that the Baptist and Methodist preachers, who lacked the education of the ministers of the Anglican church, appealed to the poor and the ignorant and the outcast. In the crowds that attended the revivals and camp meetings there were numbers of Negroes who found in the fiery message of salvation a hope and a prospect of escape from their earthly woes…the slaves who had been torn from their homeland and kinsmen and friends and whose cultural heritage was lost, were isolated and broken men…In the emotionalism of the camp meetings and revivals some social solidarity, even if temporary, was achieved, and they were drawn into a union with their fellow men (Frazier, E. Franklin, The Negro Church in America, Schocken Books, 1966, pp. 8-9) More or less applies to Wesleyan Methodism in England (Thompson, E. P., The Making of the English Working Class, Vintage Books, 1963, pp. 38-54).

I must also stress that when the Shell containing, protecting, nourishing, and enriching members of the Community has been broken and shattered, and the contents splattered on the ground, like the splattered contents of the shattered shell of an egg, the sector of Humankind most immediately and sensitively responsive to this shattering of community and spiritual life are women.

In all periods of history during which the social structure and the Community are shattered, the first sphere to feel and experience the shattering is the Family, men-women relations, spiritual integrity, and Humanism, and women respond to this shattering earlier than men.
During this period of the shattering of the Community, some loosening of relations between men and women occur, and women tend to take the lead in agitating and arguing for major changes. The French Revolution, as well as the Russian Revolution, began as Bread riots, and women were in the lead, as people directly concerned with feeding the family. We are likely to find that to be true in other major revolutions in history.

The conversion of families to Christianity in Ancient Rome as well as in South Africa was largely initiated by women. Women became the powerful base of the new religion. Even in modern history, women take children with them to Church, while men remain at home. Women saints played a prominent role in the Christianization of Europe.

Even here in South Africa, African women play a prominent role in providing the steam which drives forward the vehicle of Christianity, even though the drivers of the vehicle are mostly men. In Traditional African society the most spiritually and metaphysically portent moments of life, Birth and Death, are handled by women. Only women are that deep.

In a series of articles which appeared in the media this past February, I have strongly argued that our society is seriously disjointed, economically, culturally, linguistically, and politically. I add here that the society is also seriously disjointed in religious terms. We must set this society and our culture right.

The beginning is initiating the African Agricultural Revolution and implementing Rural Development. This means mobilizing the culture, wisdom and resources of rural I strongly urge that the Church should play a leading role in that Programme-of-action.

It is then that we shall be able to create a new wholesome society. What does “wholesome” mean in this respect? It means we should attempt to do and accomplish something unique in the history of the last 3000 years, namely to allow rural culture, rural creativity, rural philosophy, and African Religion to be as much of a participant in creating the new society as urban culture, urban creativity, urban philosophy, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism.

The assimilation of a major aspect of human culture into any society has throughout history meant first the naturalization of that aspect of culture into the receiving society; it means adapting the culture being adapted to local conditions and the newcomer culture speaking the local idiom.

In the early history of Christianity, there was a lot of cross-pollination between Christian thought and Pagan thought, between Christian practices and Pagan practices. A lot of thoughts and practices from Paganism were adopted by Christianity; for example, December 25th was originally a Pagan holiday which was adopted by Christianity (Cumont, Franz, Oriental Religions in Roman Paganism).

Cross-pollination has been the rule in the development of all human culture and of science, just as the cross-pollination of genes has been the rule in the development of the Human species.

The racism of European colonialism and imperialism imposed aanomalous, self-crippling path: European culture and Christianity put themselves in a sealed container; European culture and Christianity in Africa refused to cross-pollinate with African culture and African religion. Apartheid has been in force in the sphere of culture and religion from the very beginning of European colonialism and imperialism in Africa, particularly in the English colonies.
This has seriously harmed European personalities as well as African personalities. There has been no cross-pollination in the making of the European personality. If racism had not erected barriers within colonial society as well as in the minds and emotions of Europeans and Africans, the European personality would be a synthesis of African culture and European culture, of European Christianity and African Religion. The European personality, deprived of this cross-fertilization of influences and cultures, has been restricted in its growth and development, has been impoverished. Deep down in their psyches, Whites and Africans are still strangers to one another.

The mere fact that Whites, in their overwhelming majority, cannot speak and read African languages, is an index of their impoverishment as personalities (Vilakazi, Herbert, “A Fugue Waiting to be Played”, The Star, May 31, 2011, p. 10).

The African personality has also been severely harmed. One of the laws of history and development relates to change and continuity. Yes, there is change in history, in societies, in languages, in human culture, in human personalities, and in nature. However, change does not totally erase or eliminate the past: the past continues to live, modified, in the changed conditions. Change coexists with continuity of aspects of the past. Christianity violated this principle of change and continuity. Christian missionaries and European civilization wanted to erase out of existence all African cultural features in the Christian convert.

When we went to school, we had to use Christian names; the Christian community was separated from ordinary non-Christian Africans. Here in KwaZulu, the late Albert Luthuli was made a Chief of Amakholwa, i. e., of African Christian converts. The African who joined the process of development and modernization had to achieve the impossible, to `jump’ out of and beyond his/her own shadow. The human personality is a product of the past; yet the African Christian had to jump out of and beyond that past. You had to reject, to erase, the past inside your being, and replace it with the Christian model. The African Christian who went to excesses in implementing and adopting this model, the African who went to excess in repressing the African past within himself/herself, created a psychiatric problem parallel to the excessive suppression of the sexual instinct in Freudian psychoanalysis (Freud, Sigmund, The Ego and the Id, Norton, 1965). Christianity, in those African converts who went to excess in adopting the Christian model, created the psychiatric condition of a split personality. In the process of creating a new society and new personalities, we still have to deal with this problem.

In ending, let me deal with a problem which still weighs heavily and oppressively on the African mind, namely, the connection between the European conquest of Africa, Traditional African Religion, and African Medicine.

In conquering the African State, and in the determination to crush African Monarchies out of existence, Europeans discovered that the African State did not stand alone, that the pillars of this State are African Religion and African Medicine. Therefore, waging a war against the African State was not enough for European rule to be secure; they had to wage an equally ruthless war against African Religion and African Medicine.

We all know the saying: “the first casualty of every war is the truth.” Therefore, deliberate, vicious lies were fabricated about African Medicine and African Religion. I repeat: the African State did not stand alone. Its pillars were African Medicine and African Religion. Therefore, to destroy and dismantle the African State, the European State and civilization had to destroy, dismantle, and discredit African Religion and African Medicine!

This act of destruction and dismantling was very effective because it had enormous power behind it: As I have already said: the State is Christian; the Judiciary and Police are Christian; the White-controlled economy is managed by Christians; the educational institutions are managed by Christians; the mass media is managed by Christians; and the African Elite is Christian!
Even though this is a thin veneer at the top of society, the masses of African people below, as the masses of rural people in the Roman Empire, in the Dark Ages, and in the Middle Ages, count for nothing!

The vicious lie about African Medicine and African Religion penetrated from the top to the bottom of society. Listen to this statement on medicine in the USA by two top notch American scientists: “One of the most well regarded voices representing the medical community, the Journal of the American Medical Association, included a recent article by Barbara Starfield, M. D., stating that physician error, medication error and adverse events from drugs or surgery kill 225,400 people per year. That makes our health care system the third leading cause of death in the United States, behind only cancer and heart disease” ( Campbell, T. Colin and Campbell, Thomas M., The China Study, Benbella Books, 2006, p. 15)

Did you get that? Approximately 225,400 US people die every year due to mistake and ignorance and harmful practices of US professional Health-care givers –doctors, nurses, clinics, hospitals, and pharmacies. If that is so in the advanced USA, we are allowed to suspect that the proportion of people who die from such errors and ignorance in South Africa is much higher than in the USA.

Yet, as a `Christian civilization’ we do not talk about that. Masses of African people are being constantly warned to stay away from African medicine!

The worst, most dismaying, most painful, most ironic fact is that many Independent Christian churches attended by ordinary Africans warn in the most terrifying words that the followers of these churches must not touch and use African Medicine, because African Medicine is the work of the Devil; and that they must only pray and talk to Christ and God, and never talk to their ancestors, because that is also the work of the Devil. Tens of thousands of African people have been so traumatized in mind and spirit that they would rather die than use African Medicine, even if they can be cured; and they would rather die than talk ritually to their Ancestors. This is what the self-hatred instilled in Africans by European/Christian civilization has done to Africans.

This is PAIN.

In his affecting poem, Valley of a Thousand Hills (Knox Publishing Co., Durban) about the region now called Botha’s Hill, KwaNyuswa, not far from here, our great Poet Herbert Dhlomo wrote, at the end:
Creator who created sights so fair,
Create again!
But leave out pain…
A world of Love and Truth, divinely fair.

For pain and sin our weary eyes have seen,
Yet these have failed to change our hearts
As would thy god-like sweeter arts.
Create therefore again,
O Lord, but let now reign
The Beauty that this day my eyes have seen.



About Professor Herbert W. Vilakazi

Professor Herbert Vilakazi was born at Nongoma, KwaZulu/Natal, South Africa. He received his tertiary education at Columbia University, and at the New School For Social Research, both in New York City, USA. He has taught sociology and other social sciences at various tertiary institutions in and around New York City (City College of City University, Essex County College in Newark, Livingstone College, and State University of New York). He has also taught at the University of Transkei (now Walter Sisulu University), University of the Witwatersrand, University of Cape Town, and University of Zululand. He served as Deputy-Chairperson of the Independent Electoral Commission from 1998 to 2004. He has also served as Special Advisor to the Premier of KwaZulu/Natal (2005-2007). He is Chairperson of Vilakazi Development Strategies.
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One Response to Religion and Historical Change

  1. Sbusiso Xaba says:

    This is a very interesting document from Prof. Vilakazi. It challenged my thinking about factors that influence transformation or revolution in society (beyond the religious question).

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