Dyron Daughrity is assistant professor of religion at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif. He teaches world Christianity and history and has traveled around the world, observing the shift in Christianity from the West to the Global South — Latin America, Africa and southern Asia.
His new book, “The Changing World of Christianity — The Global History of a Borderless Religion
,” chronicles that shift and goes region by region (and country by country) detailing the history and growth of the Christian faith.
In an interview with The Christian Chronicle
, Daughrity answered questions in response to “Tolerance and Tension: Islam and Christianity in Sub-Saharan Africa
,” a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life.
Researchers compiled data from more than 25,000 face-to-face interviews conducted in 19 countries of sub-Saharan Africa.
The majority of respondents said they see freedom of religion as a good thing. Christians and Muslims said they hold favorable views of each other and consider each other tolerant, honest and respectful of women.
Summaries of the report’s findings, questions and Daughrity’s responses follow. According to the Pew study, Christianity and Islam, for the most part, coexist. Members of both faiths tend to see each other as fair and tolerant. Most believe that Africans should be allowed to practice their faiths freely. However, more than 40 percent of Christians surveyed in most African nations said they consider Muslims to be violent. What are your thoughts on this? Have you seen evidence of coexistence or is there tension? How do members of Churches of Christ tend to feel about their Muslim neighbors?
Africa is today bearing the fruit of a century of concentrated Christian missions.
The great Yale historian Kenneth Scott Latourette referred to the years 1800 to 1914 as “the Great Century.” While missions to Africa certainly continue, there is arguably a greater need for Africans to evangelize the West than for Westerners to evangelize Africa.
The Christianization of sub-Saharan Africa has, largely, been accomplished. Africa is today 47 percent Christian. It is important to point out that Islam claims 40 percent of Africa, but the vast majority of Africa’s Muslims are in the north. Thus, there are many nations on the belt of Africa that are Islamic in the north, Christian in the south, and conflicts periodically occur. Some of those conflicts can be brutal.
One of my graduate students, Corey Williams, just completed his thesis research. He went to Nigeria to study Islamic-Christian relations. He was shocked by the fact that Christians actually believe Muslims to be violent. In his research, he found around 75 percent of Christians in Nigeria believe Muslims are “inherently violent.” His research was based on surveys and personal interviews in the south and in the north.
In other words, there is tension. This should not eclipse the fact that Nigeria has 150 million people, and they get along most of the time. However, when there are problems, they can be horrific. In March of 2010, about 500 Christians were butchered in one day near the city of Jos, Nigeria, showing the sensitivity of the situation.
But let us not overstate the case. While there are massacres that happen now and then, the majority of Africa’s population manage to live their lives in relative peaceful coexistence.
Church of Christ members in Africa tend to share the larger perspectives of their African Christian neighbors. We must point out that sub-Saharan Africa is almost entirely Christian, and that is where the Churches of Christ are located. Thus the potential for conflict is low. Where you have problems is on the belt of Africa — where there are populations that are more or less evenly split. These are the danger zones. Substantial numbers of people — especially in Nigeria and Rwanda — see religious conflict as a very big problem in their countries, the Pew study found. The degrees of concern about religious conflict tracts closely with the degree of concern about ethnic conflict. Do you see conflicts in Africa as religious, tribal or both? How can the church help to end such conflicts?
Religious conflict in Africa has many tributaries. Of course the situation in Rwanda is the most obvious example, where Hutus slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Tutsis in 1994.
It is important to point out that the genocide in Rwanda had little to do with religion, however. It was about tribalism. Rwanda is largely a Christian country — around 78 percent of the population is Christian (evenly split between Catholic and Protestant). Clearly, that conflict was based on tribal loyalty.
There are other major sources of conflict in Africa as well, such as politics and access to natural resources. However, the most important source of conflict in Africa would probably have to be religion. If one looks at the Pew Research map of Africa, it is easy to see that the top half is solidly green (Muslim) while the southern half is clearly blue (Christian). The closer you get to the fault line the more likely you are to see conflict.
The African Churches of Christ, like other Christian groups, will have to craft unique responses to the challenges as they arise. Churches of Christ located near the beltline will need to teach their members rudimentary aspects of Islam so that their members will know what not to do.
For example, Muslims are very defensive when it comes to Muhammad. They take grave offense when Christians take the name or personage of Muhammad in vain. Christians should be aware of that and avoid the topic of Muhammad unless in a safe setting.
As the world saw in Denmark in 2005, Muslims are easily roused to anger when their prophet is somehow derided or denigrated.
In many ways, Christians will not be able to control the conflicts significantly. The Islamic revivals that we have seen globally since the 1979 Iranian revolution have significantly impacted the shape of Islam in the world today. Many Muslims have been impacted by these developments and the tempering will have to be done by Muslims for Muslims.
Globally, Islam is at a crossroads. Will it be a reactionary religion of violence or will it be a religion of peace? Many Muslims give lip service by saying “Islam is a religion of peace,” but this position is untenable.
If Islam truly wants to be a religion of peace, its leaders will need to step up and clearly advocate peace. In some places this is happening in fact. I’m afraid it is exceptional, however. Neither Islam nor Christianity is growing significantly at the expense of the other faith, the Pew study found. There’s evidence that the explosive growth for both faiths in the past century is slowing. Most people in Africa have committed to Christianity or Islam, meaning that the pool of potential converts outside those faiths has decreased. Do you agree? If this statement is true, does that mean that the only way either faith will continue to grow in Africa in the next century is at the expense of the other faith? Could this fuel future conflicts?
Currently, Africa is 47 percent Christian, 40 percent Islamic, and 12 percent indigenous religions. It is a fact that conversions will continue to slow down.
The heyday of Christian and Islamic missions is over. There are, however, around 120 million Africans who are members of indigenous religions. These are the people who will be the focus for missions in the coming years.
It is possible for Christians to evangelize north Africans, but it is relatively rare. Not many missionaries choose to spend their careers in Morocco (99 percent Islamic), Libya (97 percent Islamic), or Algeria (98 percent Islamic). It is simply too difficult to convert people. Generally, missionary societies will choose to take the path of a higher success rate. And this means evangelizing members of indigenous religions.
In addition, what missionary would want to imperil his family’s life? There are consequences in the Islamic world when Christians attempt to convert the people. Under Sharia law, it is very conceivable that a Christian missionary could expect the death penalty if convicted. Or, he would have to face a mob, which could be worse than a Sharia court. While most Africans support democracy, most also want a government that is based on their own faith, the Pew study found. Most Christians said they favor making the Bible the basis of civil law. Most Muslims said they would like to enshrine sharia, or Islamic law. How do members of Churches of Christ in Africa feel about this? Could this fuel future conflicts in sub-Saharan Africa?
It is common for Christians to long for a biblical model of government and Muslims to long for Sharia law. There are many reasons for this. Faith and politics are not neatly separated in Africa. There is a very different history than in the West. Africans are religious.
It is important to point out that there are virtually no atheists in Africa (0.06 percent). People believe in God and they believe the best society follows God’s rules. However, people disagree on the crucial issue of God’s will.
There is also the highly important issue of role models in Africa. Africans venerate ancestors in a way unknown in the West. They look to role models to help them determine how they should think and live. And for African Muslims, Muhammad is the ultimate role model.
This is important because Muhammad and Jesus were two very different people, thus this translates into two very different role models. Muhammad was a war hero. He had many wives. He was a political ruler. Jesus never fought in a battle, never had children, and never had to establish a government. Thus, African veneration for the two most important ancestors varies a great deal. According to the Pew study, in most sub-Saharan African countries, 3 in 10 people said they have experienced a divine healing, witnessed a demon exorcism or experienced a direct revelation from God. About one-quarter of all Christians in Ethiopia, Ghana, Liberia and Nigeria are Pentecostal. Most subscribe to the “prosperity gospel” — the belief that faith will result in rewards, usually financial, in this life. Many Africans mix elements of their traditional beliefs with their Christian faith. Do you see evidence of this? How does this trend affect Churches of Christ, which tend not to emphasize miraculous healings or demon possession? Are Churches of Christ losing members to charismatic groups?
African Christians, without exception, believe in the direct power of the supernatural in their lives. We tend to forget that the rest of the world never passed through an “Enlightenment.” The net effect of the Enlightenment was that people no longer felt the need to explain things through intensely religious categories.
For example, rarely do Westerners refer to people as “demon-possessed.” In the West, we tend to describe people as “mentally disturbed.” Africans have no problem speaking of demons or of demon possession.
In the West, it is becoming increasingly rare to hear a sermon about hell or about Satan and his armies of demons. In Africa, this is all very different. Many believe in witches, angels, exorcism and healings.
Africans truly believe in the world of the Bible. I have heard Africans say that they truly believe that what is in the Bible is actually the case today. In other words, the miracles of the Bible are true. They still go on. And the power of Jesus Christ can actually be accessed by people today.
Africans relate to the world of the Bible. When they read Acts they see their own world. For Westerners, this is different. We tend to see the world of the Bible as a pre-Enlightenment world. We tend to think scientifically about things. The Enlightenment radically affected our worldview.
Thus, one could argue that Africans share a more biblical worldview simply due to the fact that they believe that what they read in the Bible is still applicable today. In most African countries, 50 percent or more of the respondents said they believe Christ will return during their lifetime. In general, Africans also tended to be more optimistic about the future than people in other countries who were surveyed in previous studies. Is this the case in Africa’s Churches of Christ? What evidence do you see supporting (or refuting) this statement? How does this make Churches of Christ in Africa different from those in the Western world (U.S., Canada, Europe)?
Again, the Bible teaches that “Jesus is coming soon.” Westerners have become a little jaded on this issue. Africans still take the Bible at face value.
I think African Churches of Christ would be less eschatological than the AICs (African Indigenous Churches). However, as Africans continue to shape the Churches of Christ in a more African direction, they will likely become more eschatological.
The Euro-American influence is still residual in Africa. However, there is little reason to think that African Christianity will move in a more European direction. All the evidence points to Africans shaping their Restoration heritage in their own cultural likeness.
We tend to forget that Alexander Campbell was very much a Scots-Irish man. His ideas and ways of thinking were quintessentially Scots-Irish. While many of his ideas are timeless, some of them will certainly dissipate as African culture take the Restoration heritage as its own. In his book, “Communicating Christ in Animistic Contexts,” former missionary Gailyn Van Rheenen deals with some of the issues mentioned above. Africa is a realm of power, and conversion often involves a “power encounter” such as Elijah’s showdown with 450 prophets of Baal in the Old Testament. “In animistic settings power is at the very center of a people’s worldview and cannot be neglected,” Van Rheenen writes. “Conversion must be more than an assent to high religious perspectives. It must be a rejection of traditional powers within such contexts and an acceptance of the sovereignty of God.” Do you agree? As Africa becomes more Christian and Muslim and less animistic, does this still apply? In your opinion, are Churches of Christ in Africa equipped to help people reject traditional powers and accept the sovereignty of God? If not, why? If so, how?
I definitely agree. Historically, the small-scale tribal religions cannot stand up to the major religions. Over half of the world’s population today is either Christian or Islamic. About 33 percent of the world is Christian and about 21 percent of the world is Islamic. Each year, more and more tribal peoples convert to one of these two mammoth faiths.
The local, indigenous religions will increasingly become a cultural fossil. However, as these people convert to the world’s top two religious traditions, they will add to the conversation. They will play a role in shaping the two major religions.
Thus, as Christians gain new converts in the jungles and remote regions of Africa, these people will no doubt have a part in shaping Christianity to suit their particular contexts.
Yes indeed the Churches of Christ are up to the task. This is why the Churches of Christ have grown in Africa. However, we must point out that the African Churches of Christ might begin to look more “African” in the decades ahead. In the year 2050, a Church of Christ member from Texas might have a hard time recognizing a Church of Christ congregation in the Congo!
Similarly, Churches of Christ in America have changed throughout the years. The American Churches of Christ that came out of Cane Ridge would probably be surprised if they walked into one of our large Churches of Christ in Tennessee or Oklahoma!
But in all seriousness, as Christianity changes globally, there are some things that remain: 1) Jesus Christ is Lord; 2) Salvation is found in no other name; and 3) Jesus calls us to go and make disciples.
These are things that we as Church of Christ members are committed to, and it matters not whether one is from North America or South Africa. These are the essentials that unite us as one body.