Many in the world view Christianity as a Western religion. But even as its center of gravity shifts to the African continent, few are aware the degree to which Africa shaped the Christian mind.
Even in Africa this lesson can be missed, but the Anglican Global South made sure its delegates return home to their provinces with a proper perspective.
“Our stories shape us and how we see the world,” said Dr. Michael Glerup of Yale University and executive director of the Center for Early African Christianity. “The Global South is not new, it was the first reality of the early church.”
Glerup opened with the emphasis Cardinal Schonborn of Vienna has been trying to drive home to Europe: Christianity provides the legacy of civilization to a Western culture that has largely forgotten its roots. But Glerup demonstrated to delegates that these roots stretch back even further to African.
There were five early centers of African Christianity, he said, in Egypt, Carthage, Libya, Ethiopia, and Nubia. And in three particular principles, he demonstrated their sons were the first to teach Europe its eventual values.
Maurice of Luxor served in the Roman Theban Legion, fighting near Geneva. Martyred for refusing to sacrifice to the gods, he and his Christian unit also defied the command to kill innocent civilians. “Our oath to you will be of no value, if we deny our first oath to God,” Maurice told his commander, and with his words and example he taught Europe the principle of moral integrity. It was not until the 16th century that his popular portraits were changed from dark to white skin.
St. Pachomius, also from Luxor, was a pagan when visited in prison by local Christians who came to his aid. Upon his release he became a Christian, and eventually founded community-based monasticism providing compassionate service to all. Cyprian of Carthage would further cement the principle of a universal human family, teaching Christians suffering plague to tend even to the sick of their former persecutors.
The Berber Tertullian is well known among theologians as the first to coin the term ‘Trinity’ and was ahead of his time in teaching what would eventually become formulated as Orthodox Christianity. Less known was his teaching, “It is not part of religion, to compel religion; it is an act of free will.” He and fellow Berber Lactantius, the tutor of Constantine’s children, helped teach Europe the oft-neglected but esteemed principle of freedom of conscience.
Glerup’s lectures were sandwiched between two Bible studies led by senior leaders in the Global South. Archbishop Ng Moon Hing of Southeast Asia spoke on the church and the challenge of unity, while Archbishop Stanley Ntagali of Uganda spoke on the church and the challenge of false teaching.
Disunity has been a hallmark of both human and church history, Hing said, and neither theocracy nor democracy has a good track record in overcoming it. Paul’s ethic in Ephesians 2, however, establishes a new pattern in which a Christian is to be simultaneously a responsible citizen of God’s kingdom, and a faithful member of God’s household.
“Pray we can still be a family,” Hing said, “even if a diseased member must be quarantined for a time.”
The disease is connected to false teaching, said Ntagali, but like the corruption rampant in many parts of the Global South, this is a symptom rather than the disease itself.
It is secularism that has become the dominant philosophy of the world, he said, with God no longer at the center. This allows some to claim the Christian name while not following Christ, while others claim the grace of God as a license to do what they want.
Unfortunately, those who follow such false teachings disconnect themselves from the will of God in heaven. What is necessary is discernment in the patterns of the world, being transformed by the renewing of the mind. In this, Ntagali urged delegates, the Global South must be united.
If it is, if the early African heritage is recovered, perhaps again they can help shape the Christian mind, worldwide.