Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Tag Archives: Africa

The Visible and Invisible Poor

I believe we in North America have a problem in the way we see the poor. We are acutely aware of the poor people in Africa and Asia and believe it is up to us to do something to relieve their poverty. We are blind to the existence of poverty in our own countries, because our countries are rich and there is no excuse for anyone to be poor.

Isn’t pride the principal motivator in both cases? We think ourselves better people than those who are poor; as if it was our superior wisdom that caused us to be born in prosperous countries and stable homes.

We send enormous amounts of used clothing, mosquito nets and other goodies to Africa and pat ourselves on the back for our kindness. It is not kindness – these are poisoned gifts that take jobs away from those in Africa who would be fully capable of manufacturing them.

Some years ago there was a surplus of rice in the USA. The government decided that they could help US farmers and the poor people of Haiti by donating the rice to Haiti. It did help US farmers, but before the free rice came there were farmers in Haiti growing rice and plants to process the rice. Those people all lost their livelihoods.

Our supposed generosity is a display of contempt for people in those countries; we are telling them that you are inferior people, incapable of providing for your own needs. Does that sound harsh? Aren’t we just trying to help? We may think we are helping, but we need to step back and look at the gap between our supposedly noble intentions and the damage our gifts are causing. There are voices in Africa telling us, “For God’s sake stop helping us!” We should listen to them.

Contempt is a harsh word, but isn’t that what is really behind our thinking about poor people in North America? Have they truly had the same opportunities as those who are most prosperous? The same respect, the same educational and employment opportunities?

There are many factors that can’t simply be brushed aside. There are the lingering effects of slavery in the USA, the white race riots in the Red Summer of 1919 when white mobs in two dozen US cities rampaged through black neighbourhoods, vandalizing and looting businesses and homes owned by black people, the Detroit riot of 1943 when several black people were offered supervisory jobs in the Packard plant and many other incidents. My father and his brothers grew up in the USA. Anything they ever said about black people indicated that in their minds the inferiority of black people was an unquestioned fact.

In Canada, the residential schools for indigenous people, with supposedly benevolent intentions, undermined the family structures of those people. That brings me to the principal cause of poverty in North America – the lack of fathers. Most young people who get into trouble, most members of street gangs, most petty criminals, most prostitutes, most of the poor people, have not had a father who loved and cared for them, who gave them a sense of security at home.

A friend of ours in Montreal 25 years ago, grew up in Beirut during the Lebanese cic=vil war that lasted from 1975 to 1992. Almost all the buildings in Beirut showed some damage fro the bombs and shooting. Her father, a retired military officer, told his sons that if they enlisted in the army he would not allow them into the house. He did not want to bring the turmoil outside into his home. His sons obeyed their father’s wishes. Our friend told us that whatever the strife around them, she always felt safe and secure at home.

If all men could give their families that level of security, that would go a long way to eliminate the disorders and dysfunctions of our time,.including poverty. If you have grown up with a father like that, thank God for him. And don’t despise those who live in poverty because they have not had the same opportunity.

Francophone Anabaptists

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We may think of the Anabaptist faith as having originated among people who spoke German and Dutch. But before them most Anabaptists spoke French. Does that have any significance for us today?

Most of the original explorers and settlers of New France were Protestants. The Roman Catholic Church in France soon moved to prevent further Protestant emigration to New France and the sending of Protestant pastors. For hundreds of years, most Quebeckers have considered Catholicism as essential to their identity.

The Roman Catholic Church of Québec claimed to be the only defender of the French language, saying that if someone left this faith he would also abandon the French language. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy, as the church controlled schools, hospitals, and warned members not to employ a Protestant or buy from a Protestant-owned business.

Times have changed. Almost all denominations known in the rest of Canada are now established in Quebec, including the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite. Yet even in the 21st century, most Quebeckers consider other Christian denominations to be foreign intruders, even though only 6% of them regularly attend Roman Catholic services.

This historic dominance of the Roman Catholic church creates a dilemma in sharing the gospel in the French-speaking world. French is spoken and taught on every continent and virtually every country, but the penetration of the gospel remains much lower than in the English-speaking world. Interest in the gospel is growing; evangelical revival is happening in France; evangelical churches are growing rapidly in many French-speaking African countries.

However, evangelical Protestantism is not the faith once delivered to the saints. That statement may shock some readers, but Protestantism was originally a diluted version of the Anabaptist faith, created by people who feared persecution, and therefore made compromises with the civil authorities. The original Protestant settlers in Québec came from those areas of France where Anabaptists once thrived, but had been persecuted into oblivion.

We want to share the unadulterated old faith with the French-speaking world. To do this, we have to overcome their prejudice that it is a recent invention by North American Anglophones. We must not give the impression that people have to learn English to understand our faith and that the only reliable source documents are written in English. For those of us whose mother tongue is English, we can easily give that impression without realizing we are doing it.

Nine hundred years ago Anabaptist congregations, known as Albigenses and Waldenses, existed across the south of France and in the Alpine valleys France, Italy and Switzerland. Some writings from that period have survived and they teach the same faith that we hold today. The old French needs updating to be read today. I have tried to do that on my French blog, as I feel we should familiarize ourselves with this legacy and make it available to others in the French-speaking world.

Some early Mennonite leaders in the Low Countries spoke French as well as Dutch, such as Dietrich Philips, Jacques le Chandelier, Jacques d’Auchy and others. A book of their writings was published in French in 1626. This book could be a valuable resource for showing the antiquity of our faith, if it was updated to language more accessible to today’s readers.

Many languages are tools to maintain ethnic or tribal identity. French has been used in that way in the past, but now serves more as a bridge between ethnic groups. This is why so many people are learning it as a second language. It is reported that 100 million people are currently learning French.

There are French-speaking people all around us, but they slip below the radar of those who do not recognize French when they hear it spoken. There are eleven million people in the United States who speak French, as many as in Canada. There are 750,000 in western Canada.

The Church of God in Christ, Mennonite is present in seven French-speaking African countries. There are also French-speaking members in Haiti and Quebec and interest in France. We are working hard to make more French literature available, for church members and for those who are seeking. We are developing a presence on the internet, the most effective means of evangelism in the 21st Century.

Africa rising

What picture comes to your mind when you think of Africa? A remote village of mud huts with scantily clad people scratching their subsistence from the soil with hand tools? Or modern cities with skyscrapers, factories, hospitals and universities?

Both scenarios exist, but far more people live in the cities. Nigeria is the largest country in Africa, with the largest population. There are 20,000 millionaires in Nigeria nd 20 billionaires.

The wealthiest man in Nigeria is Aliko Dangote with interests in the manufacture of cement, sugar and petroleum products. The fourth wealthiest person in Nigeria is Folorunsho Alakija, a lady who started out as a fashion designer and now also has investments in the oil industry. She has created a foundation to help widows and orphans through scholarships and business grants.

Nigeria has one of the world’s highest rates of university graduation. Emigrants from Nigeria are among the most successful immigrants in Canada, the USA and the UK.
I believe it was at least 10 years ago that someone said that the heartland of evangelical Christianity is now in Africa, not North America. Nigerian churches see North America and Europe as mission fields. In Saskatoon, our nearest city, there are five or six congregations of the Redeemed Christian Church of God, including one French-language congregation. There is also a congregation of the Deeper Christian Life Bible Church. The Anglican churches in Africa, Asia and Latin America have severed all ties with the Anglican Church of Canada and the Episcopal Church in the USA and are now guiding the establishment of a new Anglican movement in North America that is more true to the Bible, especially in the area of morality.

What is true of Nigeria is also true of other African countries in varying degrees. It is true that there is still much poverty in some places, but economic growth rates are astounding.

There are acts of terrorism in various places by hard line Islamists. I have no prophetic vision of how this is all going to play out in coming years, but I wonder if these acts might not a last ditch attempt to hold back the tide that they see sweeping over Africa.

Is it time to take a fresh look at Africa and African people? The evidence shows that these black-skinned people are in no way inferior to white-skinned people. We are equals, in intellect, in faith, in management ability, and we should respect each other as equals.
International aid has done more to hold Africa back than to help it move forward. Emergency aid in time of disaster is always in place, but it would probably be best to have it administered by local people as much as possible. Sending used clothing and mosquito nets may give us a worm glow, but does it undercut the local production of those goods?

Surely it’s time to revamp our selection of mission hymns. The idea of carrying the gospel to “every dark land” has always given a skewed idea of mission work; we need to find better ways to describe the practice of being ambassadors for Christ. The call to proclaim the faith once delivered to the saints and to make disciples in all the world has not expired. But we render ourselves unfit for the task if some illusion of superiority still lingers in the way we relate to others.

Why charity is not what it used to be

The Greek word agape was used often by the New Testament writers. In the AV (KJV) Bible it is translated 86 times as love and 27 times as charity. In the Louis Segond French translation it is translated 60 times as amour and 55 times as charité. 

Agape, as used in the New Testament, is the quality of love that should be the defining characteristic of every genuine Christian. It is a pure, unselfish love that is known by the actions that it prompts. It is used to describe God’s love to mankind, our love to God, our love for our brethren and our love for our neighbour.

Agape is not an impulse prompted by feelings, emotions or natural inclinations; it may in fact be quite the opposite of our natural inclination. It desires the welfare of all and seeks opportunity to do good.

In French, the Petit Robert dictionary defines charité as:
1. the theological virtue in Christianity which consists of the love of God and of our neighbour for God’s sake;
2. love of our fellow man;
3. good works for the poor;
4. kindness.

This correlates very well with the Greek word agape and I suspect that 400 years ago charity still meant pretty much the same in English. Over time charity has been debased to to where it is now commonly understood only as giving help to the poor. Unfortunately, this often seems to carry the idea that the one receiving the help is inferior to the one who is giving.

Here is the current English definition of charity from the Canadian Oxford dictionary:
1. a) a voluntary giving to those in need; b) help or money so given;
2. a) an institution or organization for helping those in need; b) non-profit organization;
3. a) kindness, benevolence; b) balance in judging others; c) love of one’s fellow humans.

There is not much evidence of agape in such a definition. Perhaps that is why even our concept of charitable giving seems to have gone askew. 1 Corinthians 13:4 says “charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up.” 1 Corinthians 8:1 says “knowledge puffeth up, but charity edifieth,” and Romans 12:9 says “let charity be without hypocrisy,” (following the wording in the Louis Segond translation). In other words, the goal of charity should be to edify, or build up, the one receiving, not to allow the one giving to puff up with pride.

A few years ago some celebrities got the idea of raising money to eliminate malaria in Africa. The use of their names allowed large sums of money to be raised to buy mosquito nets to be sent to all countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

How has it worked? A few days ago I googled “mosquito nets for Africa” and came up with a long list of sites boasting of how many hundred million nets had been sent to Africa and how malaria would soon be vanquished. At the bottom of the list there was a news article from the Los Angeles Times which noted that many of those nets were not being used for their intended purpose. Some were poorly designed, some had mesh that was too tight for free air movement. Some folks had found that they made good room dividers, but many were simply stuck in a corner somewhere and not used.

I have also heard of instances where farmers have laid these nets out on the ground and spread their crops on them to dry and of local officials who try to supplement their incomes by selling these nets rather than giving them out free of charge.

But that is not the worst part. Dambisa Moyo, in her book Dead Aid, Why Aid is Not Working and How There is a Better Way for Africa, speaks of local African manufacturers of mosquito nets who have been forced out of business by the distribution of free nets, leaving labourers and their extended families without an income. In a few years the free nets will need to be replaced, the celebrities will have turned their attention elsewhere and there will be no locally made nets available.

It begins to look like this whole enterprise has had the effect of making the donors feel good about helping the poor people of Africa, while in fact the poor people of Africa are worse off than they were before the help came.

This is far too often the case. In reality the supposed charity has a decidedly uncharitable effect. It sounds like just one more case of Rudyard Kipling’s White Man’s Burden gone seriously awry.

 

Why learn French?

The World Almanac says that there are only 70 million French-speaking people in the world. That’s not very significant, why should I bother learning it?

Not so fast! If you look closely, the World Almanac is giving the estimated number of people for whom French is their mother tongue (even at that it is questionable, but I will get to that later). Beside that number is the number of countries in which French is spoken by a significant number of people. That number is 60, making French the second most widely spoken language in the world, after English.

More realistic estimates of the number of people who speak French vary somewhat, Wikipedia says 340 million. At present there are about equal numbers of French-speaking people in Europe and in Africa, but that is rapidly changing. As education becomes more and more accessible to the people of the francophone countries of Africa, French is rapidly replacing tribal languages. Thus estimates which assume that all Africans have tribal languages as their mother tongue are becoming less and less realistic. It is estimated that by 2050 there could be 500 million, or more, French-speaking people in Africa alone.

The numbers of people who know French in some other countries may surprise you: more than 10 million in both Germany and the UK, almost 3 million in Egypt, more than 2 million in the USA, around half a million in each of Viet Nam, Cambodia and Thailand, and so on.

There are more than 10 million French-speaking people in Canada, it is one of our official languages. Many parents, even here in Saskatchewan, are sending their children to French immersion schools because they believe that knowing both French and English will be a tremendous asset for their children.

There are many rural communities scattered across Saskatchewan that were settled by French-speaking people from Québec, France and Belgium. (Even from the USA; my grandparents were born in upstate New York and my grandmother spoke French. Unfortunately, that knowledge of French skipped a generation — my father only learned a few words from his mother.) French is dying out in some of those communities, but not all.

Many French-speaking people have migrated to the cities where their numbers have been augmented by French-speaking immigrants. There is a francophone school division that operates schools in a few small towns and most of our cities. Young families are maintaining the language. When I overhear people speaking French in Saskatoon they are almost always from the younger generation. Many immigrants who have neither English nor French as their mother tongue want their children to be fluent in both languages.

With a burgeoning francophone population in the world, the opportunities for mission outreach are also increasing. We here in Canada are ideally placed to learn French to meet that need. The internet gives us access to Christian reading material in French plus opportunities to learn about the culture of other countries. I am a member of the French proofreading committee of our church, so I will suggest a website that contains some of the tracts that we have worked on:  http://gospeltract.ca/fr/index.php

No place to hide

A young man from Africa once made the following comment in a letter:

“God can see a little black ant on a black rock, at the back of a cave, in the middle of the night, when the sky is overcast.”

Thoughtless generosity

The rain began July 19, 1996 over the semi-mountainous terrain surrounding the Kenogami basin in Québec and continued for three days, dropping enough water to fill the Kenogami reservoir one and a half times.  Unfortunately, it was nearly full to begin with.  Torrents of water flowed over the dam and into the cities of Chicoutimi and La Baie.  Homes and businesses were washed out into the bay, two children died when a mudslide buried them in their downstairs bedroom, 14,000 people were evacuated to the homes of relatives or to temporary shelters.

People across Canada donated food and containers of used clothing and trucking companies delivered them free of charge.  I was in La Baie for a few days and saw the results.  People here are not poor.  There are good paying jobs in the aluminum smelters, forest products plants and the Canadian Forces air base.  Bottled water and food items were welcome and quickly distributed.  But, Oh, the clothing!  It appeared that people had gathered up their worn out clothes and sent them to La Baie.  A theatre was used as a triage centre and the sorting operation provided a diversion from the devastation outside.  I doubt if any of the clothing was ever used in the area, except perhaps as rags.  The crowning moment came when some ladies called my attention to a dozen brand-new ladies shoes they had unearthed from a container — all for the left foot!  Their mates never did show up.  Some kind hearted folks even sent Bibles — English Bibles.  This is a French-speaking area and few people can read English.

The local people were more amused than offended by this strange generosity.  But I began to wonder how much good is really done by our charitable donations.

There are 85,600 registered charities in Canada.  Some lose their charitable status each year because of irregularities, usually because the funds collected were used for personal purposes. Some more sinister operations have been uncovered, such as the financing of terrorist activities in other countries.

The average charity spends 33% of its total income on fund raising activities and another 8% on administration.  Doesn’t it warm your heart to know that 40% of the money you donate to a charity is going to pay the salary of the person who made that annoying phone call requesting the donation?

The Canadian Cancer Society spends large amounts of money advocating for the reduction, or elimination, of pesticide use.  Yet its website states that there is no proven link between pesticide use and cancer.  Do they feel that well publicized anti pesticide advocacy brings in more funds from alarmed citizens?

The Canadian Diabetes Association gets a large part of its income from collecting used clothing and selling it to Value Village (which is a business, not a charitable organization).  At least that clothing remains in Canada.

These charities are doing useful work that probably wouldn’t happen otherwise.  When it comes to international relief organizations there is cause for a lot more skepticism.

In Toronto there is serious competition in gathering used clothing.  Much of it is sold to distributors in third world countries, who resell the clothes below the price of locally made clothes, causing the loss of thousands of jobs.  All the companies putting up used clothing bins in Toronto claim that the proceeds are going to charity, but the amount going to charity is very small.  Drivers picking up used clothing from the bins can make up to $100,000.00 per year.

James Mikwati of Kenya says: “For God’s sake, please stop the aid!”  He says the countries that have received the most aid are the ones in the worst shape.  Economist Dambisa Moyo of Zambia has written a book, “Dead Aid: Why Aid is Not Working and How There’s A Better Way for Africa” in which she argues that long term aid programs undermine African agriculture, business and governments.  One little example is an African maker of mosquito nets that was put out of business because some Hollywood star issued a plea to send mosquito nets to Africa.

In an article in The East African Rasna Warah tells how governments come to depend on food aid and neglect agricultural policy.  This creates an artificial economy based on the distribution of food aid.  Much money flows to government officials to grease the wheels of the distribution system and to local militias to protect the convoys.

Faith-based organizations like World Vision and Compassion are using donors’ money in efficient and effective ways with the least detrimental side effects.

The Church of God in Christ, Mennonite,  to which I belong, does low-profile, small-scale aid projects in thirty countries through Christian Service International and Humanitarian Services International (for countries that will not allow an organization with Christian in its name to operate in their country).  Fund-raising costs: 0.  Administration costs: 1%.  There are thousands of broken down wells all over Africa.  Teams are at work in several countries repairing those wells, and teaching the local people how to maintain them.  There are sanitation projects in rural communities, supplies and equipment is provided to hospitals, eye and harelip surgeries are funded, and so on.  The goal is that these projects will empower the local people, rather than make them dependent on aid.

Does the Bible say black skin is a curse?

The short answer is no.  What follows here is a very abbreviated version of the longer answer.

The book of Genesis tells of curses on Cain and Canaan.  In ancient Jewish folklore the curse on Cain was linked with slavery and the curse on Canaan, somehow transferred to his father Ham,  with a black skin.  Eventually this mythology was picked up by Islamic people and the two concepts merged to justify the enslavement of black people.  There is no evidence in Egyptian, Greek or Roman history of skin colour having any bearing on social status.

The development of sugar and cotton plantations in the New World in the seventeenth century created a need for a cheap labour force and this folklore was seized upon as providing some pretense of Biblical justification for the use of African slaves.

Both Catholic and Protestant colonies used African slaves.  However, in Catholic territories the slaves were regarded as people entitled to the ministrations of the Church and could be freed by their owners, or purchase their own freedom.  Protestants could not in good conscience own a fellow human being, so developed the curse mythology further to convince themselves that these black-skinned creatures were a sub-human species without a soul.  Thus, black slaves in Protestant countries were often treated as livestock, excluded from worship services and husband, wife and children often separated and sold to different owners.

Slave traders and plantation owners were among the more prominent church members in England and America.  Church leaders, preachers and Bible commentators were complicit in propagating this sub-human view of black people.

What does the Bible really say?  Cain and his descendants were enterprising people, building cities, owning flocks, forging things from brass and iron, musicians . . . no indication of them being slaves or a lower class of people.

In chapter nine of Genesis it is repeated three times that Canaan was cursed, not Ham.  Later passages speak of the immorality of the Canaanite cites of Sodom and Gommorha and their destruction.  Later yet, the Israelites were commanded to destroy the Canaanites because of their idolatry, which included child sacrifices.

Another son of Ham was named Cush, meaning “burned black by the sun.”  His descendants are referred to as Ethiopians, usually referring to their skin colour rather than their country of origin.  The Bible gives no hint of a curse on Cush, or on anyone because of the colour of his skin.

The Bible records one instance of prejudice based on skin colour.  In Numbers 12:1, Miriam and Aaron found fault with Moses because of his “Ethiopian” wife.  Moses’ wife was Zipporah, a Midianite, probably several shades darker in colour than the Hebrews.  God’s response was to punish Miriam with leprosy, causing the colour to drain from her skin, leaving her a very pale-faced woman.  She was banished from the camp until she repented and got a little colour back into her cheeks.  This is not a sign that a white skin is a curse from God, just dramatic evidence of God’s repudiation of prejudice based on skin colour.

In Acts 17:26, the Apostle Paul, speaking to the Athenians who believed themselves to be distinct and superior to all other peoples of the world, said: “(God) hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth.”  There is only one human race.

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