MEDITATIONS FROM MALAWI
‘Be on your guard, stay awake; you never know when the time will come.’ But perceptions of time vary with the culture. In western society we are encouraged to plan ahead, to be at least one step in front of time, to forestall its possible depredations. Recognizing that life is a chapter of accidents we insure against the unforeseen, securing ourselves against whatever the future may choose to throw in our direction. Whereas in Africa the issue is not tomorrow or the next day, but survival today; for indeed, ‘each day has troubles enough of its own’. Any longer term perspective is of secondary concern.
So the challenge of the Advent message is relative to the context in which it is heard. In the west it is necessary to wake up to the realization that we cannot insulate ourselves from the impact of God’s future, whatever that may be. He has plans which may be very different from our own; so to stress our own security may be to exclude God from our lives. At any time he may come to thwart our ambitions, if we are not alert to his deep purposes. Therefore we must learn to live closer to him day by day, taking perhaps less ‘thought for the morrow’.
In Africa, however, the longer view is needed: the sense that God created the world, and we human beings within it, to grow towards fruition; the awareness that God’s intentions mature little by little, a process in which each of us has a vital part to play; the commitment to pray for God’s coming kingdom ‘on earth as it is in heaven’. Where westerners need the radical challenge of Christian alternatives, Africans need a dimension of hope that will encourage them against all odds to go on trusting a God whose love is stronger than death.
‘He was not the light, but was sent to bear witness to the light.’ Many times it is stressed in the Gospels that John the Baptist was not himself the Christ; his role was rather to prepare the way for one greater than himself. This is a word for those of us who are Christian leaders. When a new priest arrives in a parish, perhaps there are some who see him as their saviour, the one who will revive their fortunes. Perhaps the priest himself cherishes a messianic role? Or can this be true of some bishops? Does Rowan Williams see himself as once George Carey did, God’s chosen one to re-evangelize a nation? Hopefully, the triumphalism of the past decade will now subside, and more Biblical concepts of the Christ will re-emerge: the lowly one, born in a stable, buried in a tomb, whose kingdom ‘is not of this world’.
In the missionary context too, triumphalism is out of place. Indeed, for good reason the phrase ‘mission partner’ is my current designation. Today in Africa expatriate workers receive a warm welcome, because they are perceived as able to access resources – funds, skills, and supplies. There has always been a possibility for missionaries to be seen as gods; Paul and Barnabas were once addressed in this fashion, but they were firm in insisting upon a humbler role. In practice today, this can sometimes mean denying people’s hopes and expectations – not, of course, refusing to share resources with them, but when necessary focusing upon the greater gifts and blessings that belong to our Christian calling.
Here in Zomba it would be easy to get sidetracked from my role as a teacher and a mentor for ordinands into becoming an administrator, fundraiser, or relief organizer. People’s practical needs are very great, and the disparity between my advantages and those of the average Malawian is evident every day. Nevertheless, the Church’s prime task here is to address the underlying beliefs and attitudes which can nullify even the best efforts of those who work to promote people’s welfare. What use, for example, are condoms in an AIDS crisis if they encourage more widespread promiscuity and the breakdown of family life? How far can vocational training succeed if it is bedevilled by people’s jealousy of others’ progress? At a time of rapid social change, many feel threatened and afraid: the spectacle of apparently omni-competent outsiders alleviating their plight does not address the underlying needs. At root, each one deserves more, that is, knowledge of the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ: the one ‘who though he was rich became poor for our sakes’, to heal us, forgive us, and uplift us. All a missionary can really hope to do is to witness to that liberating compassion
‘We have seen his star in the east, and have come to worship him.’ Symbolically the magi represent the nations of the world, and by medieval times the tradition had grown that one of the kings must be portrayed as an African. What gifts does he then offer to our Lord? This is not a question that has always been asked, since for some it was axiomatic that any society located beyond the bounds of Christendom was pagan in character. Seen in that light their task was to eradicate whatever was contrary to the Gospel, rather than to build upon the work God might have done before their own arrival.
Now that the days of Christendom are over, a revaluation becomes possible. Part of the missionary task in the west is to ask searching questions about our own society, and the ways it has reverted into paganism. If a Christian critique could once be applied to African culture, should it not now be applied as stringently to Britain and America? But again, perhaps in the past what was overlooked in Africa were some of its existing spiritual strengths, already gifted there by God. Maybe today, in the face of moral decay at home, we can appreciate better what Africa has to bring before the Lord.
Here, briefly, are a couple of suggestions. Malawi advertises itself as ‘the warm heart of Africa’, and this is an indication both of the friendliness of the people, but also of their joy and resilience. Even in times of disaster or crippling hardship, this is notable in their worship, which has a vitality sometimes lacking in more affluent settings. In these difficult days, when death is stalking the land, with nearly a million children now orphaned, it is hard to imagine how Britain could cope with such a situation. But a second characteristic is helping to see Malawi through; namely, the strong sense of family. Of course, the social fabric is under immense strain, but without the support of the extended family, caring for both young and old in their need, it would collapse altogether. Neither characteristic was a missionary import, but it may well be that, baptised into Christ’s service, they are gifts that should now be exported elsewhere!
Rodney Schofield Teaches at Zomba Theological College, Malawi.