Calling the Church to Account: African Women and Liberation

Article excerpt

Saying that God is male does not make the male God.

Because Christianity succeeded in establishing a European image of womanhood in Africa due to the fact that their first converts were slaves, outcasts and servants, a people without status in the community, the true embodiments of the African image had no chance to influence the new faith and the new system.(1)

There is a myth in Christian circles that the church brought liberation to the African woman. Indeed, this is a myth, a claim glibly made and difficult to illustrate with concrete or continuing examples. Yet, what actual difference has Christianity made for women, other than its attempt to foist the image of a European middle-class housewife on an Africa that had no middle class that earned salaries or lived on investments? The system of wages created by Westernization has produced an elite, a class that serves and upholds Western Christian attitudes, and a church that continues to mirror pre-1914 Europe. For many Christians, this description of Western churches is hard to stomach, but it is a view shared by many African Christians who see and experience Africa's present predicament of religious, political, economic and social chaos.

The way Western churches that have been implanted in Africa look at women mirrors their Euro-American predecessors. As transplants that have never firmly taken root, they have not yet grown free of the attitudes of their "mother churches", nor have they been able to cope with reforms that have taken or are taking place in those churches. Issues such as the ordination of clergy and ecumenism are prime examples, as is their firm attachment to nineteenth-century evangelical theology. Faced with the vastly complicated, hydra-headed challenges of living in today's world, Africa finds little sustenance in the continuing importation of uncritical forms of Christianity with answers that were neatly packaged in another part of the world. These churches, which most often take the form of patriarchal hierarchies, accept the material services of women but do not listen to their voices, seek their leadership or welcome their initiatives. One African spokeswoman has said: "It is an indictment on the Euro-Christian world that African church women have no significance in the church."(2)

My criticism of African churches is made to challenge them to work towards redeeming Christianity from its image as a force that coerces women into accepting roles that hamper the free and full expression of their humanity. As with class and race, on issues of gender discrimination, the church seems to align itself with forces that question the true humanity of "the other" and, at times, seems actually to find ways of justifying the oppression or marginalization of "the other". Although nineteenth-century missionary theology has been revised or discarded in most areas of the world, the Western churches in Africa continue to disseminate neo-orthodox theology from pulpit and podium, in academic journals and religious tracts. This continued dependence on Euro-American modes and hopes is no substitute for working out our own salvation as Christians who have a particular culture and history.

Women and scripture

In African churches, it is not unusual to hear reminders of what "the Bible says" about women.(3) African churches, with their many variations, have not produced a body of official dogmatics hewn from the African context; however, they have developed a theology of folktalk on what God requires of women. Instead of promoting a new style of life appropriate to a people who are living with God "who has made all things new", the church in Africa continues to use the Hebrew scriptures and the epistles of St Paul to reinforce the norms of traditional religion and culture. In the same way that the folktalk of Akan proverbs delineates cultural norms for women, so the theology of "the Bible says" defines accepted norms for African Christian women. …