Theories of African Christian Ethics
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Published: Mon, 19 Feb 2018
Before I begin, let me first suggest to you the overall task of Christian Ethics. If I speak about ethics, I speak about “Who we are, how we are to perceive our world and how we are to live in this world”. This is the main crux of Christian Ethics. In this assignment I would like to demonstrate a working knowledge of African, Western and African Christian Ethics. I will also look at the differences between selected ethical theories.
Explain Western Ethics and evaluate the effect it has on our understanding of ethics. Underscore both the positives and negatives it has brought about in ethical thinking.
According to Barnhill (2009) the Western tradition has four major approaches to ethics:
“The first two listed (Utilitarian Ethics and Deontological Ethics) are modern developments and they dominate modern philosophy. He says that Virtue ethics is as old as Plato and is making a bit of a come-back. Natural law ethics is relatively popular among environmental ethicists”.
After reading his Environmental studies, I have come to realise the following:
This study speaks about goodness and badness. We can identify happiness with the good and sees virtue as a major part of happiness. We can explain that happiness and virtue should be detached. If we look at virtue it relates to good will, a good will is good in every circumstance and is absolute or unconditional good. It grows when you act for the sake of duty. A human action is morally good and is done for the sake of duty. Western Ethics shows us that an action can be motivated by duty and has moral worth. Not because of the results it achieved, but for satisfying a formal principle. The principle of performing one’s duty, whatever it may be. People have impulses and desires and that is why the moral law appears to us as a law that we must obey. This impulses and desires is our only source for moral judgement. This is our free will. Our free will can create a moral law and we will obey it. The human mind is able to know what is good and evil. To have value judgement is born from inside of us. This is called your conscience. Most people recognize that man is free to make his or her moral decisions. On the other hand, all the things that we do wrong come from our human desires. Men and women should follow the will of God. Use the will of God to make certain decisions in life. There is a universal moral law, the knowledge to free ourselves from human desires. We are free to make good and sound moral judgements. In the approach of care and the community, too much Western Ethics has given individuals the right to think about themselves. We must build love and compassionate relationships among people. The full theory of ethics would have to accommodate all four aspects of Western ethics. One way to sometimes approach Western ethics and the influence it has on ethics is based on four aspects like rights, goods, virtues and our relationship with each other. We must look at the following questions like:
- Do our actions violate another person’s rights?
- We must try to achieve good in life.
- Look at our integrity.
- Care for each other.
Ethics and even Western Ethics can never be static and with Western Ethics there are certain frameworks and principles. We don’t know whether Western Ethic has a future, but it really and most definitely do have a past. We can see that the patterns of the Western moral personality will continue to surface and really have to be dealt with, either through painful reflection or painful restructuring (Kunhiyop, 2004:29).
Define in your own words Contemporary African Ethics. Highlight its important characteristics.
Kigongo (nd) says that Contemporary African Ethics is a combination of African ethical tradition and European ethical tradition.
What better way to describe Contemporary African Ethics than the word Ubuntu. Ubuntu means that people are people because of other people. In Africa nobody can survive alone, we need each other to survive. I think that we are all searching and suggesting new directions which to follow in pursuit of African values. We can say that the foundation of African ethics is definitely a humanistic worldview. Everything about the community is seen to exist not just in the here and now, but also in the past, through those who have already gone and also in the future, those who have yet to come. It is the past that influence the present and the present the future. Why, we ask, has this worldview, with the emphasis on respect for all mankind, support and responsibility not travel through the whole world yet?
You remember in the second paragraph I spoke about Ubuntu. Well, I can say that this worldview is expressed by the very society that lives according to it. If the community follows Contemporary African Ethics, they are living testimonies to their worldview. This worldview is worth reviving and respect for another, especially a stranger, is well known to communities in the south of the Sahara. With them a visitor was to be welcomed and feted, not suspected and resisted like in some of our communities (Kunhiyop, 2004:23-27).
Africa is currently looking at a new future when it comes to African Ethics. Africa believes that its own worldview has so much potential and contemporary messages to give. Africa does not have all the above on record, but the culture itself speaks of enrichment and value. Definitely African values can be included in everything in life, for example in institutions of higher learning. The world needs more Contemporary African Ethics (Kunhiyop, 2004:13).
Identify the key aspects of African Christian Ethics.
I hear what Okolo (nd) says:
“First, the African may well count himself fortunate to be blessed with such a basically sound and enduring religious and moral tradition. But this does not at all mean that the Christian religion based on Christ’s love ethic constitutes a mere superficial dimension in his moral life. The Christian religion means for the African fundamental changes in many of his cultural values and options such that a real conversion is required for him to be a Christian in the authentic meaning of the term and in its ethical implication”.
I think that the African society is in a moral crisis. The African are having an identity crisis and have shifted away from their value system. Their moral values they gave away for other value systems. In a sense the first aspects is the fact that they have betrayed the African value system by analyzing it with the socio-economic and political implications that are taken from all the different value systems. The second aspect for me is the fact that Africans are now abandoning their value system by trying to embrace other systems, namely liberalism and utilitarianism. The consequence of this above mentioned shift is that the African will no longer be known by what he is, but by what he has acquired by different means. The African have lost the sense of “Who am I” and this created the moral crisis in South Africa. If we look at virtue ethics, I think it could help us to redeem the African value system as well as every individual in South Africa. Virtue ethics is intended to provide a society in which people can live a meaningful life. There is a general agreement amongst the African people that the African cannot be defined except in the closeness of the community. We can see the closeness of relationship between the individual and the social nature of the African. The African system is not concerned with material issues; it is concerned primarily with human beings in their relationship with one another. It is like that, the community means that the community alone can constitute the context, their social and cultural space. Africans needs to find freedom and responsibility in themselves and also in other people in South Africa.
Whether African Christian Ethics will start a different socio-economic and political arrangement remains a question that needs to be explored in-depth.
- Barnhill D L 2007. Four Traditional Western Approaches to Ethics. Online article: http://www.uwosh.edu/faculty_staff/barnhill/ES_375/ethics.html, 07/01/2009.
- Kunhiyop S W 2004. African Christian Ethics. United States of America: Hippo Books.
- Kigongo J K n.d. The Relevance of African Ethics To Contemporary African Society. Online article: http://www.crvp.org/book/Series02/II-8/chapter_ii.htm, 13/01/2009.
- Okolo C B n.d. The African Experience of Christian Values: Dimensions of The Problematic. Online article: http://www.crvp.org/book/Series02/II-3/chapter_xi.htm, 13/01/2009.
The Bible is an expression of God’s will to us and possesses the right supremely to define what we are to believe and how we are to conduct ourselves. In the book African Christian Ethics Samuel W. Kunhiyop gives us guidelines in biblical Christianity for Africa. Although Samuel Kunhiyop’s book does not deal exclusively with the role of the Bible, I will review his book to get to the core. We know that everything stays the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. To review a great Theologian like Samuel W. Kunhiyop, I don’t think it is for me to comment on the way he wrote his book.
Write a critical book review of the course textbook: Samuel Kunhiyop (2004), African Christian Ethics.
In the introduction Samuel describes the need for writing this book:
“Christian ethics is often regarded the same as Western ethics, but they are really not the same. The two have become confused because Western missionaries did not bring a true and honest gospel but one that is different from the true gospel. Students who should be studying African Christian ethics are too often busy with the wrong ethical theories coming from the West. What should be taught in African theological colleges is an ethics that is African, biblical and Christian. That is what this book seeks to give to its reader” (Kunhiyop, 2004:8-10).
We can find a lot of information on African Christian Ethics through the internet and there is a lot of information for Western churches to use. Hippo books are so popular that they are used by many publishers and are well known throughout the world. Some of the publishers like Zondervan and African publishing houses also make use of Hippo books. Hippo books create an environment for the learner or student to get acquainted with all sections of Theology. Hippo books have got information and theories of many of scholars who share their knowledge and experience with us. Hippo books have got a vision to help with the growth in all African churches so they can see their culture from an evangelical perspective. Hippo books also published African Christian Ethics which I am about to review (Davy, 2010).
Samuel Waje Kunhiyop was previously the Professor of Theology and Ethics at ECWA Theological Seminary. He holds a Bachelor of Theology, Masters of Theology and PhD at Trinity International University, Illinois. Samuel Waje Kunhiyop was ordained by the Evangelical Church of West Africa as a minister. Currently he is one of the heads of the Postgraduate School at the South African Theological Seminary (Kunhiyop, 2004:4-5).
The need for an interpretation of Christianity and all its aspects from an African point of view was necessary. One such aspect is the question of Christian ethics and how it is affected by Africa and its enormous cultural variety. Samuel identified the need to explore and explain the many questions that arose around the issue of African Christian ethics. According to Kunhiyop he started in his life seeking to find all information and truths about African Christianity. He studies for 8 years in Nigeria for his undergraduate theological training and another 7 years in the United States for his graduate theological training. In 1993 he went back to Nigeria and has been teaching now there for 11 years. Samuel is a great teacher of the Bible, Theology, Ethics and Philosophy. In 1994 he was teaching to a group of students and after finishing with them he asked the students “What did you learn from this course”? One of the students stood up and answered with the words “nothing”. Samuel was stunned and because of that answer, he started to investigate and wanted to seek for the right answers. He realised that the information he gave through to the students did not pertain to them and their culture. He knew that he needed to do more for the students for them to succeed in life (Kunhiyop, 2004:8-9).
If I can mention that it was very difficult to find the book in the library and Protea Bookshop gave an indication that it would take 10 weeks if I order the book. The book had to come from Kenya.
When we look at the life of Samuel Waje Kunhiyop, we can see a Christian who believes in Jesus Christ as his personal Saviour. Although he did most of his studies overseas, he was born and raised in Africa. He wanted to help and assist African Christians struggling with their own situations and problems. He recognized that Africans, and even more so, African Christians, needed guidance in relation to the interpretation of their everyday personal problems within an ethical frame of reference (Kunhiyop, 2004:9).
At first I didn’t know what to make of the book African Christian Ethics. The book seemed extremely difficult to read, interpret and understand. Why might that be, I asked myself. Then I came to a conclusion. It was because I knew nothing about the Africans and their unique, intricate and diverse cultures. The only knowledge I have is about my own culture and roots. In Ethical Foundation: Section one Samuel Waje Kunhiyop explains what African morality and the African culture consists of (Kunhiyop, 2004:11). It is wonderful to read about my fellow African inhabitants within their interesting context. The songs they love to sing and the stories they love to tell. Then suddenly, the way of the African opens up to you and you begin to understand everything. The style in which the book has been written became much easier to read and interpret. As soon as I caught the drift of things, I enjoyed reading the book immensely. Samuel Waje Kunhiyop has done a lot of research to get to the truth. He also incorporated Biblical content to support his findings and to better explain the interpretation of these findings from a Christian point of view.
At work my responsibilities include informing the soldiers about HIV and AIDS. With the knowledge that I gained from Samuel’s book I can now understand the African soldier better. It also helped me in building better relationships with the soldiers, as I better comprehend their training of thought and understanding of Christianity. Samuel Waje Kunhiyop, through this book, opened up the eyes of many people, scholars and foreigners, although I think there is many more to explore and more information to gain. In South Africa a lot of African people are still confused and do not have identity. I can see that when I work with the youth in South Africa. The youth are lacking the strong morals and values they need to become better human beings in their communities and societies. The content of this book is magnificent and I would definitely encourage other individuals to read it and apply it to future situations with the African cultures.
Let us explore the content of the book in detail to grasp the crux of what Samuel Waje Kunhiyop want to explain to us. I believe Kunhiyop’s work is excellent and I want to give him all the credit for this book.
The book is divided into two sections, section one: Ethical Foundations, Chapter one, two and three deals with the theory of ethics, while section two: Contemporary Ethical Issues, Chapter four to thirteen discusses practical issues. Issues that is so relevant that we can apply it in our daily lives. The issues are grouped in the following order, as given in the Table of content: Political Issues, Religious Issues, Medical Issues, Welfare Issues, Financial Issues, Witchcraft Issues, AIDS Issues, Marriage Issues, Sexual Issues and Reproductive Technologies. Each chapter begins with a general introduction followed by the chapters dealing with the specific issues in that area. Samuel does not go into a detailed debate regarding War, rather, he looks at the wars and conflicts in Africa and then examines the Bible to find an answer (Kunhiyop, 2004:2).
Starting with Contemporary African ethics, we can see that the African society does believe in God as the highest order and as the sole creator of earth and mankind. Secondly they stand under the authority of spirits and ancestors who are the leaders and instructors of good and evil. The distinct differences between morality and ethics are not acknowledged as they experience it as one with their religion. These assumptions are only written on paper as there is no documentary proof of the history or origin thereof. The growing up and teaching or learning through the elderly and community by word of mouth is their reference in life. Most important is the tribe, community and family rules for belonging and not to be a single individual with his or her own set of rules and regulations. Believing in the spirits and the ancestors justifies certain actions as long as you don’t get caught and therefore has a deterrent effect on your family or community. They also believe that you must keep the spirits happy in order to be blessed and not to be cursed in life. Mostly the interaction between family (grandfathers, grandmothers, fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, cousins, nieces and nephews) and the community (neighbors, friends, etc.) is a vital link to the forming of the African cultural inheritance (Kunhiyop, 2004:11-28).
Secondly, while Western ethics were founded and applied by numerous leaders of the Enlightenment eras, it had different positive as well as negative impacts on society. One example that has a negative impact on the biblical views of the religious community is the “privacy” factor where a woman has the sole right to apply abortion if she wishes to. Furthermore I do believe that technology is good for anybody except where it is applied have a negative result to humanity (Kunhiyop, 2004:29-46).
The reading and understanding of African Christian Ethics was very difficult. Samuel makes mention of many authors and in text citing. The English language he used in Chapter three to point out his facts is confusing as to get the history facts straight. What I do understand from this Chapter is that Samuel writes that Christian theology is the backbone of African Christian ethics and that it will be useless if the Scriptures are not part of the guidance to the rules of African Christian ethics. The Black African Christian has a rule of ethics whereby their ancestors are always consulted and is a part and parcel of their decision making. Therefore in their ethics within certain issues they leave out God in certain other issues they consult Him. He explains that African ethics is deeply rooted in the soul and that it becomes personal, influencing the mind, heart, body and spirit of a person. If a family member has got an issue, that issue will affect the immediate family, as well as their distant relatives. It will influence those who are living and those who are dead, but still interested in the affairs of the living. To understand the community is to understand African ethics. This is a critical tool and must be used when studying African ethics. These ethics are developed in interaction with the past, the present and the future, nothing or nobody can be excluded. God, the spirits of the departed, the ancestors and good and evil will always have an enormous influence on the morality of the people. Why, because they are African and full of culture. Although the Bible does not support the doctrines of demons, evil spirits and witchcraft, many Christians are unaware of what the Bible teaches on the subject. Christians believe the Bible also serves as an authoritative moral influence, thus in Africa there is no such thing as an ethical system that has no practical and religious implications. There will always be principles or rules that guide behaviour. These principles or rules are intertwined with practices of ethics and work nicely together (Kunhiyop, 2004:47-70).
Samuel takes into account all the factors that are historically tied to the given topic and describes each problem in detail. In each problem he looks for a Biblical perspective on the issue, usually asking what the Old Testament says and what the New Testament says. This he does by also including the church’s response and the separate African church’s response before drawing an overall final conclusion. This method which he is using is effective because it keeps the Western reader aware of the differences between the West and Africa approach to ethical problems. The Western and traditional African understanding of ethics has affected the ethical thinking of Christians. We need to change our perspective of the church because the church is constantly growing and becoming stronger in other parts of the world. To conclude his thoughts Kunhiyop offers an outline for decision making. He based this outline on five important principles: God is the ultimate model of morality. The Scriptures provide the only authority in matters of morality. Every aspect of life is subject to the laws of the Scriptures. The scriptures must be properly interpreted and the community of faith can provide support, responsibility and accountability. The world provides the boundaries in which we live out this morality and ethics (Kunhiyop, 2004).
I really don’t see any difference between Western Christian Ethics and African Christian Ethics. Kunhiyop’s point is actually what is underlying these ethics. Understanding the different world views on Christian ethics paves the way for Western churches to be influenced by and to have a greater influence on the African churches and their day to day functions. It is important for Christianity to overcome the barriers of culture and language. We are after all loved by Christ regardless of ethnicity and the limitations of the human race. I regard it important to note that even though the ethical values between the Western civilization and the African cultures are similar, the traditions within the set framework of each group changes the interpretation and thus also the outcome of the ethical concepts. It is in this idea that the key to unlocking Samuel’s thinking process lies. He understands, having been exposed to both African and Western culture, that these differences, however subtle some may be, have an immense impact on the eventual interpretation of a person’s set of ethical values. Christian ethics cannot be separated from its religious foundation. The important thing is that God requires something of man and that He stands ready to reward the obedience and punish violation. God has something to do with the very meaning of obligation. This book explains these issues well. The Western world is now faced with a choice: are we going to utilize the tools that will enable us to bridge the gap between two very different civilizations or are we going to sit back and do nothing? With the right understanding of Africans and how they interpret ethical values we can incorporate a set of Christian ethical values that will, without a doubt, benefit both parties (Kunhiyop, 2004).
The churches need to understand and interpret African Christian Ethics for them to survive in their communities. Let us think about this and understand where Kunhiyop comes from.
- Davy T J 2010. HippoBooks African Evangelical Imprint. Online article: http://bibleandmission.wordpress.com/2010/01/19/hippobooks-african-evangelical-imprint/, 15/01/2009.
- Kunhiyop S W 2004. African Christian Ethics. United States of America: Hippo Books.
Must Christians become involved in politics? In Romans 13:1-7 God is proclaiming that the government belongs to Him. God also tells us that we must follow the government of the day. Let us now try and establish a link between the church and the state.
Evaluate the practical value and effectiveness of the four factors of change in the church and state relations.
Bishop Desmond Tutu exclaimed,
“Now I am going back to the church to do the real business of the church and leave politics to those well qualified to do it” (Kumalo, 2009).
When Nelson Mandela became the new president of South Africa that was then that there was an active democratic development in South Africa. Bishop Buthelezi also made the same statement on his farewell function. If we look at the church leaders we can see that most of these prominent leaders came from the political milieu and then go over to the church. On the other hand the other side of the coin is also true, church leaders sometimes also join departments and commissions. We don’t know if what the two theologians above said, made the church to withdraw from politics, but they do make us to think about the church and their leaders in South Africa.
The Sociological Factor
It is true that Muslim politicians go to the Muslim community for their votes. In the Christian community the Christian politicians will go to the Christian community for their votes. The recent call by General Muhammadu Buhari from Nigeria that Muslims should vote only for Muslim candidates in the forthcoming elections in 2003 has generated a lot of controversy. It is important to understand why this is the case. The morality issue of Buhari could be defended from the point of view of his fundamental right. In other words, he has the freedom and fundamental right to take any position on any issue. The changing relationship between religious groups and the state opens up new challenges and new possibilities. More and more people of different religious groups are getting intertwined and use each other to accomplish goals (Kofarmata, 2009).
The Economic Factor
God has not called Christians just to work in the church, but however he has called us to get involved with all the economical issues in the world. In any case, God is in us and not just in the church. The gifts of the Holy Spirit that God has bestowed upon us and the calling from God, means getting involved in identifying the causes of poverty. We can address these problems and help the needy with the support of God. This means that it is not only the responsibility of the government, but a responsibility of the church. Christianity also means getting involved in politics so that the people can have a better life. Christians must try to create and provide on the job training for other people also encouraging them to find jobs. The African church specifically must get involved in politics and government. The church needs to educate their people so that everybody can make positive contributions to our country and government (Kunhiyop, 2004:74).
The Religious Factor
According to McCain (2008) the last two decades of the twentieth century have been known by for great explosion of Christian activity and Christian growth.
Kunhiyop (2004:74) said:
“During the 1970’s it was not uncommon to hear Christians, especially Christian youth, praying for the nation, which was believed to be under the forces of darkness. All night prayer meetings, fasting and prayers for the nation were common in the church and parachurch organisations such as the one mentioned above”.
I want to say that the above is true, but the opposite is also true and if we as Christians don’t wake up, we are going to miss the opportunity to have an influence in politics. People all over the world still think that religion in politics is a negative and harmful issue that needs to be avoided. We really need to change the way people are thinking and acting in our country. We need to have transformation in our religion, having some objective value that can guide us. If we look at our political leaders when they speak, we must be able to say they are right or wrong, not from a political perspective, but from a religious perspective. The scriptures that we use must be “not white or black”, but the scriptures of the Holy Word of God. It is the absence of religion in politics that creates this huge gap in our society. We really have to be critical in this analysis. What are we going to do as a nation? Can a nation return to God? I think the question is, can we as a nation rise above our racial and discrimination issues and form one church? If black and white churches unite and stand together, the prayer and fasting for our nation will come back. The youth in this country will stand together and fight for religion and not for politics (MCain, 2008).
Distinguish between the concepts ‘state’, ‘government’, ‘politics’ and ‘church’.
A State is a self-governing political driven place. A state has territory which has internationally recognised boundaries and sometimes there can be quarrels over boundaries. A state has got the following in it:
- People that are staying and living there permanently.
- A strong or weak economic structure.
- A government that must supply things like police services and public services.
- A state can enter into relations with other states.
A state is a nation? Where there is a state there is a nation? Governments can change but a state can stay static and not change for a very long time. Most of the States have sovereignty over their countries so that other states can’t interfere. In Somalia this very same thing happened due to civil war. Somalia was part of the internal strife and because it had little authority outside Afghanistan, Somalia collapsed (Global Policy, nd).
A government can be seen as a body within the community or an organisation that makes and enforce the laws, rules and regulations. A government is committed to the promotion and protection of human rights and human dignity. They are there to establish a society based on democratic values and social justice. The government must lay the foundation for a democratic and open society which is based on the will of people and where every citizen is equally protected by law. They definitely have to improve the quality of life of all the people supporting the government of that day. It is necessary to construct a culture of peace and replacing a culture of violence and disregard for human life. For me, this is what a government must consist of (Kunhiyop, 2004:77).
Politics is a need for the general public to have a representative in places other than the ordinary home or workplace. Candidates make themselves available to be elected through votes so that they can represent the people in different public and government organisations (Wikipedia, 2010).
A church is a Christian religious organisation made up of a congregation, its members and clergy. The religious body is organised with constitutions and laws so that the church can function well. Churches often belong to a broader tradition within the Christian religion, like the Dutch Reformed church, sharing in a sense a history, culture and doctrinal rules with other church (Davies, 2009).
Renwick and Harman (1958) said the following with regards to the church:
“Here we see the fulfillment of our Lord’s words that, although His kingdom was like a grain of mustard seed, it would yet become a great tree sheltering the birds of the air (Luke 13:19). The small and apparently weak church became a mighty organisation known throughout the earth. Its history shows its moral grandeur; it shows, too, certain defects arising from human weakness and the love of worldly pomp and power contrary to the spirit of the Master. We
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