A Malawian Christian Theology of Wealth and Poverty

Article excerpt

Africa today has a large presence in world Christianity. In 2010 an amazing 494.6 million believers, or 22 percent of all Christians, resided in Africa. (1) Philip Jenkins and others have documented the shift of the numerical center of Christianity into the Global South. (2) Yet, despite these gains, the many theological voices of African Christianity are not well heard in the rest of the world. America and Europe continue to dominate Christian scholarship, broadcasting, the Internet, and publishing, even though these activities are expanding in Africa.

The people of America and Europe rarely read or hear the theological thinking of Africans. I suspect that some may have a very negative stereotype, thinking, "Do Africans living in a village even do theology at all?" The answer, as this article seeks to demonstrate, is a resounding "Yes." Andrew Walls is correct when he speaks of the "immense theological activity" in the "great theological laboratory" of Africa. (3) The reason for this intense theological activity is that African Christians, like all other believers, seek meaning for the major issues they face every day.

Paul Hiebert wrote of "the right and responsibility of the church in each culture and historical setting to interpret and apply the Scriptures in its own context," and African Christians are indeed performing that task. (4) But African believers do not do theology only for themselves. Even though the continent is underrepresented in the media, African believers, because of their large presence in world Christianity, are increasingly doing Christian theology for the whole world. The theological face that Christianity presents to the world is increasingly a set of beliefs, practices, and lifestyles filtered through the multiple cultural perspectives of Africa. Hiebert discussed the challenges of theological pluralism and the need to develop a "supracultural theology" through a "metatheological process" that reaches a "consensus on theological absolutes." (5) The metatheological process enables Christian communities to learn from each other and hold each other accountable. African Christians and Western Christians thus need dialogue that is characterized by mutuality and collegiality for the sake of our shared global mission.

This article seeks to give voice to the theological reflections of a small group of Malawian Christians on the meaning of wealth and poverty, an issue about which they are well qualified to speak. (6) As I dialogued with the group, it became clear that, first, being a "theologian of the church pew" does not necessarily mean being a shallow thinker. On the contrary, my interviews confirmed that people lacking theological education and in some cases having very little formal education can think profoundly. I think the group compares rather favorably with their ecclesial siblings in a typical North American church. Second, these believers grappled with some of the same deep issues as the greatest theologians, albeit without having the formal language and categories to use. In some ways, not being formal theologians helped the group to do better theology because they did not feel obliged to solve all of the ambiguities of human existence, or to force issues into prefabricated theological solution boxes. Yet I do not want to idealize the group, for their level of education also imposed limits on them.

The research group lived in underdeveloped, rural northern Malawi, a nation ranked by the United Nations as one of the ten poorest in the world. By coincidence, the research took place at a time when the chronic poverty and underdevelopment of the area had become acute. A series of crop failures caused by drought, overcultivation, and lack of fertilizer had produced several years of serious food shortages.

The group included four men and four women, divided equally by educational attainment. (7) The less educated were subsistence farmers, and the more educated were employed. …