Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Christ as Ancestor in the African Perspective: An Illustrative Reading of Colossians 1:15-20

In every culture, people have co-opted terms to describe the manner in which to best represent Christ. To the Jewish mind in the first century, he was seen to fulfill offices from the nation’s covenantal past—titles such as prophet, priest, and king. No single term adequately described the totality of Jesus, so the combination was used to try and convey the totality of who Jesus was and how the church was to understand his life and mission. For those living in the Western world, the role of Jesus is inherited through centuries of debate concerning his divinity and centrality to the Christian message. The titles which the church bestows upon him, Christ or Lord, have lost significant meaning because they have become synonymous with Jesus himself due to frequent usage. These terms have a rich meaning and, in their original context, conveyed a dramatic connotation. In contexts where terms have become stagnant or have no frame of reference, existing terms must be utilized

This essay will examine an African perspective on the role of Jesus, that of ancestor, and demonstrate this understanding through the illustration of Colossians 1:15-20. The goal of this exercise is to understand how a non-Biblical title for Jesus may communicate truth about his position among his people.

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.

Titles such as “firstborn over all creation” place Jesus in a category of universal ancestor, as all of humanity descends from him. Examining the Lukan genealogy reinforces this notion, as the author draws the physical lineage of Jesus back to the creation of the first man (Dietrich 2002:61). The significance of the firstborn also conveys a place of prominence among other ancestors. As the elder brother of other ancestors, he has the role of spiritual authority, community mediator, and protector of the clan (Pope-Levison 1992:102-3). This understanding places him as the representative of God to the world.

For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

In addition to having an eminent relationship to creation, the text continues (in verses 16 and 17) to describe his action in creation, stating that “by him all things were created…all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together”. While other texts will convey the pre-existence of Christ, the understanding of ancestor places him as an integral part of the spiritual reality, not only as an originator, but as one that represents the meaning for creation and the unity of all things (“in heaven or on earth, visible and invisible”) He becomes the key to understanding the meaning of creation and the community’s relationship within it.

The African worldview does not categorize the world in terms of Western dichotomies of natural and spiritual, but rather views all of creation—near and far as well as past, present, and future—as belonging to the continuation of a common spirit. This spirit-world includes the presence of ancestors and distinguishes significance for future descendents. (Pope-Levison 1992:94)

And he is the head of the body, the church…

To continue the thought of the previous section, as Christ holds all things together, he also holds together the church. Jesus as ancestor establishes him as the head of the community which descends from him. In this instance, it is not his physical descendents, but those who have followed after him in faith through a new covenant with God. Nyamiti notes that the traditional (read Western) approach to Christology has focused entirely upon the person of Jesus and not the connection between him and the church. He writes that they have “paid almost exclusive attention to the Head, but not to the whole of Christ, Head and members” (Nyamiti 1984:48, in Tennent 2007:126). Ancestor Christology frames the church as the continuation in the spirit-power of Christ expressed in the community which has followed him. The person of Jesus is thus the defining and formative personality which the community is seeking to replicate in their life together.

The significance of recognizing Jesus as a common ancestor can also begin to address cultural and ethnic tensions that exist within the African context. Broad differences between different regions of the continent as well as differences due to nationalism, tribalism, and ethnic prejudice can begin to be addressed by the local church when it frames its existence in originating from the same source. This invites participants into a new and larger tribal affiliation which supersedes the former distinctions that divided them. This terminology also reinforces the right that the African church has to belong to the global church, as they can trace their roots back to Jesus himself, rather than trace their faith through the missionary efforts of Westerners. In speaking to their Nana Yesu, or Ancestor Jesus, the imagery in the collective mind of the church is reiterated that Jesus can speak to the African heart without Western translation (Bediako 1998:110).

…he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have supremacy.

A reading of the gospels will reveal that life after death is not unique to Jesus. Before the resurrection of Jesus, there is described the raising of Jairus’ daughter (Mt. 9:23-26; Mk. 5:38-42; Lk. 8:49-55), Lazarus at Bethany (Jn. 11:43-44), and a crowd of saints at the time of Jesus’ death (Mt. 27-52-53). Again, for Jesus to be the firstborn does not necessitate chronological position, but designates importance. In the question of Jesus’ relationship as ancestor to other cultural and spiritual ancestors, his position as firstborn establishes his authority over them. He has become the “proto-ancestor” who more fully illuminates what the traditional ancestors sought to convey.

To understand Christ as “firstborn among the dead” in the ancestral sense affirms his continued presence within the practical life of his descendents. He is not relegated to an ethereal existence, but inhabits the tangible life of the community as he directs its life and provides a template for what it means to live a faithful life. Not all physical ancestors receive this distinction, but as they are established as prominent ancestors, they possess this spirit. “An ancestor’s ‘re-instatement establishes his continued relevance for his society, not as a ghost, but as a regulative force for the social relations and activities that persist as a deposit, so to speak, of his life and career’” (Bediako 1997:219).

For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all thing, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

Ancestor Christology also takes seriously the role that Jesus has as the mediator through whom God acts through in relation to creation. God, in his supremacy, cannot directly approach the lesser levels of creation, nor can humanity interact directly with the Supreme Being. Jesus as ancestor inhabits what has been termed a “second tier” between the two groups and represents each to the other (Tennent 2007: 123). This ancestor earns this capacity by living a life that deserves veneration. As Bediako writes, “…Christ, by virtue of his Incarnation, death, resurrection and ascension into the realm of spirit-power, can rightly be designated, in African terms, as Ancestor, indeed Supreme Ancestor”(1997:217). To view Christ as ancestor reminds his descendents of his continued relevance for interpreting life and provides the example of what it looks like to fully live the life that is purposed for creation.

In beginning to examine the manner in which ancestor can be a term to communicate the role of Jesus and his relationship to the church, we affirm the need for the gospel message to be translatable to differing contexts. These local theologies can more adequately form the minds of the local church because they inhabit existing worldviews. This essay has taken a broad look at a general concept pervasive in much of African traditional culture, although every context will present possible templates upon which to present an image of Christ that is understood by the minds and hearts of the people. From this place of resemblance, the uniqueness of Christ can begin to be expressed in a contextually appropriate manner.


Bediako, Kwame. 1997. Christianity in Africa: The Renewal of a Non-Western Religion. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.

_____. 1998. “The Doctrine of Christ and the Significance of Vernacular Theology” International Bulletin of Missionary Research. 22, no. 3 (July 1998): 110.

Dietrich, Walter and Ulrich Luz. 2002. The Bible in a World Context. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdman’s Publishing.

Nyamiti, Charles. 1984. Christ as Our Ancestor: Christology from an African Perspective. Gweru, Zim.: Mambo Publishing.

Pope-Levison, Priscilla and John Levison. 1992. Jesus in Global Contexts. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Finding a Place Among the Displaced: An Image of a Vulnerable Jesus

The four gospels contained in the New Testament offer very little information related to the early life of Jesus. This is understandable, as the purpose of these documents is not to provide biographical writing (in the contemporary sense) but to communicate the message and ministry of Jesus, with special emphasis on the significance of his death and resurrection. What material we do possess of Jesus maturing life relates either to the events surrounding his birth (Matthew 1:1-2:12; Luke 2:1-40) or an instance of Jesus’ appearance among the scholars in the temple (Luke 2:41-52). One other aspect of the early life of Jesus is regularly lost among these more memorable stories, the account of his family’s escape to Egypt. With a casual reading, it is easy to overlook the significance of the latter half of Matthew 2. This event in his life, however, may prove especially poignant for a growing number of Christians who see themselves reflected in the situation thrust upon the holy family.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees, there are an estimated 10.5 million people considered refugee or stateless in 2009. Additionally, 4.7 million people are registered as refugees under the jurisdiction of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (“Refugee Figures” Accessed 1/30/2010). This number dramatically rises when it expands to include those displaced within the borders of their nation or those lacking accessibility to responsible government. For reasons that vary from economic, religious, political, tribal, or legal, a sizable portion of the world would consider themselves to be without a home. The absence of land-rights, abuses of indigenous people groups, economic disparity, and existing social structures contribute to the context which presents displacement as the preferred option for survival.
Gutiérrez has defined poverty as being “socially insignificant due to ethnic, cultural, gender, and/or economic factors” (2009:323). Refugees and displaced people easily fall within these parameters, as they have been removed from significant aspects of their life and livelihood. The response of the West has been to establish consolidated shelter to provide the basic necessities of life. E.J. Choge, writing the definition for Refugees in the Dictionary of Mission Theology writes, “life for refugees in the camps is very dismal. They depend on handouts from these huge organizations. They suffer every kind of alienation and deprivation, including loss of homeland, loved ones, and sometimes even life” (2007:331).

To recognize the tremendous vulnerability of Jesus and his family should serve as a reminder of this reality that is experienced throughout the world. In these contexts, God is not absent or aloof, but has demonstrated the depth to which his incarnation in Christ extends. For the evangelist and pastor among the poor, this text illustrates a shared experience between Christ and them. God himself is not unaware of the difficulty inherent in being torn from family, nation, and livelihood due to political oppression. Facing the pressure of Herod’s impending mass infanticide, Joseph discerns God’s message to resettle in a foreign land. Joseph is equally unsure about returning to the region even when he learns that Herod has died. To construct a timeline utilizing Luke 2:42 as a chronological point would picture the formative years of Jesus spent fleeing to Egypt, settling in an immigrant community, uprooting, emigrating back to Judea, and then re-settling in another ethnically diverse immigrant community in Nazareth before turning twelve.

Further pushing the point, the Matthean author identifies this event in the life of Jesus with the words of Hosea, “out of Egypt I have called my son”. This reference frames Jesus in line with the character of Moses (similarly spared from the mass infanticide of a despotic ruler) who led the people of God from captivity in Egypt to the Promised Land. This connection is not lost on those similarly seeking freedom from oppressive circumstances. God’s action in the exodus is considered normative for those who have developed a theology of Liberation in response to contextualizing theology to their contemporary circumstances. With this perspective, “usually the marginalized or oppressed group relates itself to the Israelites in their achievement of freedom from bondage in Egypt and their resulting autonomy” (Tate 2008: 315-6).

For the displaced person, reading this account in the gospel presents an image of Christ that would have understood their poverty. De La Torre imagines that Jesus felt similarly to him as his family was also forcibly emigrated for political reasons. This reading closes the gap between the idealized message of the gospel and the situation in which they find themselves. Because the displaced can identify with Jesus in his poverty, there is the possibility for them to identify with the message of his ministry and meaning of his death and resurrection. The Christian life is not reserved for the triumphant in the world, but for those who are longing for God to provide rescue from their vulnerability. “To understand Jesus from the social location of the poor is to create sacred space where the marginalized can grapple with their spiritual need to reconcile their God with their struggle for justice and dignity” (De La Torre, 2003: 109).

The attention to this aspect of Jesus’ life also affirms the worth of the world’s poor, both within themselves and for those in relation with them. “In addition, solidarity with the poor also sets forth a fundamental demand: the recognition of the full human dignity of the poor and their situation as daughters and sons of God.” (Gutiérrez 2009: 325). The consistent mind cannot allow for the degradation of a person due to their economic status while simultaneously esteeming Christ. This is made more explicit in Jesus’ parable in Matthew 25, but the image in Matthew 2 should graphically demonstrate that it is not a stretch to imagine Jesus in need as a stranger needing shelter, clothes, and food. This is also true for how those experiencing poverty due to displacement view themselves. They are not forgotten or ignored by God, but uniquely similar to the character presented in the incarnation. “Because he experienced the cultural bias of being from the margins of society, oppressed and poor people, including those of color, are able to find solidarity with their God” (De La Torre, 2003: 111).

For the Western church which lives in luxury relative to the poverty of instability experienced globally, as well as the privileged stable surrounded by poverty, this reading of scripture is necessary to convey an element of discipleship missing to the interpreters that would identify Christ’s path with upward social mobility. Texts such as Philippians 3:20, 1 Peter 2:11, and a myriad of first covenant instructions on how to welcome the stranger take on an added reality when considered alongside the lived experience of millions of people around the world.

Choge speaks of this group of Christians when she writes that they “do not understand their own true identity as refugees and pilgrims, otherwise they would be ready to respond to refugees more positively. … They are vulnerable people and this is the reason behind God’s concern and clear biblical instruction on how we should treat strangers and refugees” (Choge 2007:331). Beginning with the unexpected notion of God choosing to live among people in such poverty forces the global Church to take seriously the value of these households in God’s perspective and the values that ought to guide the people of God in relating to a world in need.

“Refugee Figures.” United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees. Accessed 1/30/2010.

Choge, EJ. 2007. “Refugees” in Dictionary of Mission Theology.

De La Torre, Miguel. 2003. Reading the Bible from the Margins. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.

Gutiérrez, Gustavo (Robert Lassalle-Klein, trs.). 2009. The Option For the Poor Arises from Faith in Christ in Theological Studies 70 no 2 Je 2009, p 317-326.

Tate, Randolph. 2008. Biblical Interpretation. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishing.