Friday, March 20, 2009

Hope and Common Sense From An African Archbishop

Archbishop John Onaiyekan of Abuja, Nigeria

The following is part of a much longer article posted by John Allen at the National Catholic Reporter. In this section John writes about Archbishop John Onaiyekan of Nigeria and gives the Archbishop's views of how the affluent West should work with Africa. His take is very very interesting.

While in Cameroon, I had the opportunity to reconnect with an old friend: Archbishop John Onaiyekan of Abuja, Nigeria, former president of the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar, and one of the most articulate and forceful leaders of the African church. Among other things, Onaiyekan was a principal force behind the working paper for the upcoming Synod for Africa presented by the pope on Thursday.

We spoke of many things, but here I'll pass along the most striking element of our conversation.
Repeatedly, I pressed Onaiyekan to get concrete about what the West ought to do for Africa. Should we lower trade barriers, for example, or restructure the International Monetary Fund, or perhaps stop signing deals to exploit natural resources with authoritarian governments? It was obvious Onaiyekan was reluctant to be drawn onto that ground, though I knew from previous conversations that he favors all of the above. Finally, I simply asked: "What's the problem?"

"The problem is the way you phrased the question," he said. "You asked how the West can ‘help' Africa. We're not interested in ‘help' in that sense, meaning that we are exclusively the receivers of your generosity. We're interested in a new kind of relationship, in which all of us, as equals, work out the right way forward." (I found this statement very interesting given the Church's definition of women as receivers of the love and beneficence of men.)

The most important thing the West can do, Onaiyekan stressed, is not giving increased development aid or more trade, but what he called a "change of mentality" -- including, he said, a change of mentality within the church. (As in away from patriarchy and notions of superiority based on rank, power, and unearned privilege?)

"Let me give you an example," he said. "I arrive in Cologne as the Archbishop of Abuja, and I want to meet the Archbishop of Cologne. The question I ask myself is, ‘Am I going to meet a brother archbishop?' Theoretically, theologically, of course I am. We are both successors of the apostles, we are both in charge of a whole group of Christ's faithful. But when I arrive in Cologne, I have to pass through the whole bureaucracy of the archdiocese before I can get an appointment to see the archbishop, if you are lucky enough to get one. That already confuses the whole situation. Even if the archbishop of Cologne wanted to relate to me as a brother, he has to make an extra effort." (Yes, he has to come down from his exalted perch and meet you, you can't meet him.)

Too often, Onaiyekan argued, church leaders in the West tend to look at developing countries as problems to be solved, rather than as partners in a search for solutions. He was also clear that the mentality he's describing is a two-way street; one can find it, he said, among some African prelates. (Strikes me that this is also how the teaching authority views the reality of the laity--as problems to be solved, not partners in the solutions.)

"Some of my colleagues go all over the place talking in a very subdued tone, painting a picture of a poor Africa that is totally helpless," Onaiyekan said. "They tell long stories of woe and the need to help us, and sometimes they may even exaggerate how bad things are in order to squeeze out a bit of water from the stony hearts of those to whom they are talking." (I've seen my share of victimized women do this as well.)

"I have never believed in that, never," he said, emphasizing and drawing out the word "never." He said his refusal to come hat in hand "has caused me a bit of problems here and there, but I believe it's also won me respect."

Onaiyekan's vision of how church leaders in the United States and in Europe should think about Africa is this: "It would be natural for the bishops of the Western world to be concerned about what's happening in the poorer countries, and to listen to the link between their affluence and our poverty. There is a link, and it is the job of the church all over the world to see how we can do something about this anomaly. But we must do this as brothers and sisters in one church, not as patrons in the West confronting objects of charity." (This is absolutely true if the real spiritual gifts of Africa and Latin America are to be incorporated in the Church.)


Archbishop Onaiyekan is on to something here when it comes to the developing world. As long as the affluent West treats Africa and other developing nations as if they are merely receptors of our generosity, we are a huge part of the problem.

I found the Archbishop's point of view very profound. Why wouldn't the West keep oligarchs in power when the West may very well see that form of male dominance as the only way to bring any order to societies they see as weak, effeminate, and chaotic. The trouble is Western Colonialism had a great deal to do with making Africa weak and chaotic. It seems to me Africa labors under a double whammy when it comes to Western eyes, racism and notions of subservience rooted in archetypal gender roles.

In another article John Allen gives the salient talking points for the upcoming African synod to be held this October. Although apparently couched in spiritual language, it is first and foremost a social justice agenda:

Human rights and democracy
“Globalization,” which, the working paper asserts, “is tending to marginalize Africa.”
The family
The dignity of women, and contemporary threats to that dignity – including “problems of inheritance and rites of widowhood, sexual mutilation, forced marriages and polygamy.”
Ethnocentrism, xenophobia and tribal and regional conflict
Low prices for indigenous products, difficult obtaining credit for small and micro-businesses, a lack of infrastructure and decent roads, growing unemployment, and the phenomenon of “wage slavery”
Urbanization and the depopulation of rural areas
Growing crime
Exploitation of natural resources for the benefit of elites
Climate change and the environment
The financial crisis and international economic structures
Violence and war, and the arms trade
The death penalty, torture, and delays in the justice system
Witchcraft and superstitious forms of religion
Support for farm workers and opposition to genetically modified organisms) (GMOs

None of the above mentions Latin Masses, defending clericalism, the gay threat to world peace, or separates abortion out as the core issue from which all other issues will be solved. In fact, when it comes to women, it's not even mentioned. It almost looks like a list which could have been compiled by Pax Christi and it seems to be fully rooted in the Gospels.

Benedict has stated that the Continent of Africa holds out hope for the world and for the Church. With leaders like Archbishop Onaiyekan and those that compiled the African Synod position paper, these leaders seem to have a very different vision of Church mission. Very different from our own bishops Morlino, Maritino, Chaput et al. I think this time I agree with Benedict as I see no hope coming from the American Episcopacy.

I also agree with Benedict when he exuberantly stated that perhaps the African Church could come up with it's own theological academy, equal to the Alexandrian school which gave the Church Clement and Origin. My only question is would he then silence that school, which like Liberation theology, would be born in levels of social injustice and poverty very similar to Central America.

Somehow I suspect if Benedict thinks it would be a school of theology dedicated to upholding traditional family values because Africa has it's issues with misogyny and homophobia, he may find himself disappointed. Only affluent societies and their third world Episcopal lackeys have the time and money to expound on these issues.

In the meantime Archbishop Onaiyekan and other African bishops are seeing with clear eyes and speaking with real understanding. Here's another taste of Archbishop Onaiyekan's nuanced thinking relative to some of out bishops: (this is an excerpt from another John Allen article during the Synod in October on the Bible. The original seems to have been lost when the National Catholic Reporter switched formats.)

While American bishops are usually circumspect about declaring their electoral preferences, at least one African prelate currently attending the Synod of Bishops in Rome feels no such scruples. Archbishop John Onaiyekan of Abuja, Nigeria, said today he would “obviously” vote for Barak Obama if he could cast a ballot on Nov. 4.

Known as a strong advocate for social justice, Onaiyekan said Obama’s pro-choice record wouldn’t stop him from voting for the Democrat.

“The fact that you oppose abortion doesn’t necessarily mean that you are pro-life,” Onaiyekan said in an interview with NCR. “You can be anti-abortion and still be killing people by the millions through war, through poverty, and so on.”

A past president of the African bishops’ conference, Onaiyekan is widely seen as a spokesperson for Catholicism in Africa. During the synod, he was tapped to deliver a continental report on behalf of the African bishops.

Onaiyekan said the election of an African-American president would have positive repercussions for America’s image in the developing world.

“It would mean that for the first time, we would begin to think that the Americans are really serious in the things they say, about freedom, equality, and all that,” he said. “For a long time, we’ve been feeling that you don’t really mean it, that they’re just words.”

Onaiyekan said he’s aware that many American Catholics have reservations about Obama because of his stand on abortion, but he looks at it differently.

“Of course I believe that abortion is wrong, that it’s killing innocent life,” he said. “I also believe, however, that those who are against abortion should be consistent.

“If my choice is between a person who makes room for abortion, but who is really pro-life in terms of justice in the world, peace in the world, I will prefer him to somebody who doesn’t support abortion but who is driving millions of people in the world to death,” Onaiyekan said.

“It’s a whole package, and you never get a politician who will please you in everything,” he said. “You always have to pick and choose.”

1 comment:

  1. It really is an interesting article, and there are many valid points made, but we must remember the most important teaching of the US Bishops:


    I wonder how long it will be before Archbishop John Onaiyekan is denied communion, censured and excommunicated for his heresy (vocal support of Obama)?