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October, 2009:

Fundamentalism and Gospel Cannot Coexist

There are pages in the Bible that could have come out of an African traditional tale. The social and cultural context and the personality of the protagonists could easily be understood by any African, even an illiterate one, with no need for explanation.
While this familiarity provides an opportunity, it also poses a risk because the immediate apparent understanding could dupe the listener into thinking that he has grasped the deeper message, while in fact he merely feels at home, identifying with the behavior and attitudes of the actors but missing the deeper meaning.
Could this empathy between African culture and the Biblical world be one of the reasons why Christianity has caught on so fast in Africa, and a reason for the proliferation of so many churches inspired by the Bible?
The number and variety of Christian churches in Africa is actually bewildering. On the main road to Riruta Satellite, the Nairobi area where I live, there are now 37 signposts of Christian churches or sects within a driving length of two kilometers. There are also an uncountable number that do not have enough money to put out a sign, or just meet in the open, gathered around a table with a portable loudspeaker. Some others operate on an improvised stage where a preacher and a lively choir, usually enriched by a prosperous bevy of female dancers, propose something in between a religious rite and a show.
I use the words Christian and church or sect in italics because it is sometime difficult to classify the teaching and the actions of such groups. Is a preacher who proclaims that riches are a sign of God’s blessing – and incites his audience to give him money because they will certainly receive a hundred times more – still a Christian? What about the other preachers who speak of Jesus as a healer who can guarantee a cure for any sickness in exchange for a ritual practice? Is a group of people who exclude those who do not belong to a certain ethnic community, or those who are circumcised, still a church?
Students of the sociology of religion have tried to group these churches into different categories. Thus we speak of African Instituted Churches (churches founded in Africa to answer to specific African spiritual needs), Historical Churches (the Catholic Church and the churches born in Europe during the Reformation), Evangelicals, Pentecostals, Gospel of Prosperity, Healing Churches and so on. But this categorization is really a minefield, first of all because some terms like sect have acquired a derogatory connotation, and secondly because sometimes the teachings, the tradition, the way of praying and the cultures of the different groups intersect and overlap in a way that make it impossible to fit a particular group in a neat, clear category.
Is this amazing growth in number an answer to genuine needs? Is it the work of the Spirit of God, or the manifest of a destructive spirit of confusion and competition?
Personally, I do not pre-judge anybody; I prefer to approach the single members of all churches – and all religions – as people who are honestly and sincerely in search of God, until their actions prove me the contrary. I know that I have much to learn about the devotion and dedication of many non-Catholics to God. Some of their practices are exemplary: the courage with which they preach on the streets, the material support they give to their own congregations, and their knowledge of the Bible. Yet over the years I have also encountered many unchristian practices.
Abdul is a teenager who grew up in the streets of Kibera, his family being too poor to feed him, let alone send him to school. He is Nubian, tall, strong, intelligent and shy. In spite of his past he has absorbed a strong sense of identity and respect for tradition, and this has most probably been a key element helping him to keep his sanity.
Abdul tells me, “Father, my tribe is Muslim, and so is my family. I am attracted by Jesus, but I do not accept the way the staff in the Christian home where I live push me to become a Christian, on any occasion, some threatening me with expulsion if I do not bend to their will. It scares me.”
A small investigation reveals that he is telling the truth, the strong Pentecostal background of the institution being the problem.
I tell Abdul that one can only follow Jesus in freedom. He should make his own decision, should continue to be open to God who loves and guides him without bending to any force, be it the tradition or the insensitive teachers. Yet his case is an example of unacceptable practices by fundamentalist Christians, practices that can in fact cause rejection and hatred.
Does it even make sense to speak of fundamentalist Christianity? If a church practices intolerance, discrimination, violence and alienation, it betrays the teaching of Jesus and cannot be a Christian Church.
Jesus is present where there is tolerance, respect, forgiveness, self-sacrifice, compassion and love. In other words, to be Christian, a church – and the individual person – must respect the basic theological principle of the Incarnation, becoming present among people with the same attitudes as Jesus while presenting Him as the model human person in the integrity of His teaching, His historical existence and His present role in the life of the Church.
It is the Jesus of freedom, the one who forgives the adulteress before she asks for forgiveness, the one who suffers violence and reacts only with love and the one who involves his disciples in the suffering and in the poverty of their contemporaries. The one who says, “If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself, take up his cross and follow me.”
A Jesus who promotes interior freedom, nonviolence, inclusive forgiveness and unbound love. I am aware that sometimes even my own church, which I love, does not measure up to the Jesus we believe in, yet He is our model and inspiration. He is the Jesus whose presence can be felt in the pages of Pope Benedict XVI’s recent encyclical, Caritas in Veritate.
To the contrary, fundamentalists of all religions love regulations, rules and laws because these provide a simple answer to the difficult questions and choices posed by real life. There are those who say “Jesus is my personal saviour,” but their actions make you suspect that there is nothing personal in their relationship with Jesus.
Jesus is a standardized image, a list of norms and rules to obey, not a live person to be loved in all his complexity.
And on the other side, if it is enough to pray during fixed times of the day, or to avoid certain foods and certain drinks, or to give a percentage of my salary to my pastor in order to feel in peace with God, then why face the much more difficult task of looking for Him out there in the world, in the turbulent economic, social and cultural life that is boiling all around us?
Thus, fundamentalism of any kind isolates us and distorts our relationship with the Son of Man, who proclaimed the heart of his message in the Sermon on the Mount – nothing could be further from fundamentalism – and from life and from history, in the ultimate instance making us irrelevant to our world.

Pillole – Pills

Koinonia websites, see a list to the left, are getting richer in news and also in short videos. See for instance the one of The Invisible Cities. We hope to be able to continue regularly this updating job.

Instead I have to admit that I have no time to join social networks like Facebook. I continuously receive invitations to join, but I have decided to cancel them even without answering, since just answering in the negative but in a personal way would occupy quite a lot of my time and energy. Please do not take offense!

A person who has visited me a year ago writes: Do not be afraid! Peace of mind and happiness are close to you. It is in the eyes of your children. When you go back every evening in Kivuli, and they run to meet you, and to accompany you upstairs, their eyes speak of filial love, thankfulness, confidence. It is in them hat you have to find he peace and happiness to continue, in their eyes.

I have always taught that to hide behind anonymity is one of the most stupid and dastard things that a person could do. Recently anonymous emails and sms have played an important role in my life, but especially in the lives of the youngsters who have refused to testify against me and have received for weeks and weeks threatening anonymous messages. To the contrary I have appreciated those who at least had the courage to criticize and maybe to accuse me falsely, but openly, in public.
I have asked to a friend journalist his opinion about publishing an anonymous and very negative comment to this blog. His answer: “Those who do anonymous accusations are worms, they do not deserve the satisfaction of a public answer. Now there are people who use the web like in the past they were using the walls of public latrines”. Agreed!

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