Heathenization of Christianity in African Society

By Akande, S. T. Ola. | USA TODAY, May 1998 | Go to article overview

Heathenization of Christianity in African Society


Akande, S. T. Ola., USA TODAY


African Society is unique, characterized by a family relationship in which each member sees himself or herself as bound up inextricably with the customs and practices of the tribe and his or her ancestors. Since this kind of affinity is the result of a blood tie, the fortunes of one family member automatically are regarded as the fortunes of other members, whether they live close by or far away. Conversely, the tragedies of the family are shared mutually by all members. Marriages are not regarded as between a bride and groom, but one family to the other.

Customs, tribal or ethnic practices, and the regular observance of religious rites and sacrifices were handed down by the ancestral fathers, who not only kept them alive in their own day, but made sure the practices -- the rites and sacrifices -- were preserved and passed on to their children. They, in turn, were expected to pass them on to subsequent generations. For instance, my uncle, before he became a Christian, used to tell me when I was a boy that the red stone that stood outside our ancestral home was a focal object of worship by his father and great-grandfather. This stone, which to them was a visible representation of Satan, was called Esu by the Yoruba ethnic group of Nigeria and was believed to possess the power that could prevent a calamity from befalling any member of our family.

The Satan stone, bequeathed to each succeeding generation in our extended family with all the rites that accompanied its worship, still can be seen in family shrines in certain areas of Nigeria and other African towns and villages. However, since every one in our family had become a Christian, no one took any notice of this stone, and it eventually was washed away by a flood. The stone probably has been washed up at a place not very far away from our ancestral home, but no one in our family ever again will pay it any more attention. Yet, in homes where there still are those who have not accepted Jesus as Lord, it is not uncommon to see older men and women worshiping these gods with a devotion that one can not find even in the Christian religion.

Before Christianization, Africans were expected to participate in all the heathen rites of their families. For example, they had to eat a portion of the food sacrificed to the family god or the various gods that were the objects of worship by the members of their family. These including the gods of thunder, iron, fertility the river, etc. They also were required by custom and the wishes of the (heathen) elders to carry out certain rites of passage associated with child naming, marriage, and funeral ceremonies of departed members of the family.

The pre-Christian Africans who were loyal members of the tribe, society, and family did not see anything repugnant in these practices. They were part of the common rounds of everyday living and the religious dimensions of the community that he or she belonged to by birth. Sacrifices to idols were accepted in that society, and there was nothing to be ashamed of about participating actively in such practices.

Even though the Africans believed in one Supreme Ruler who had the whole world in his hands, they still felt they must protect themselves against physical misfortunes, illness, calamities, accidents, and untimely deaths. All of these, it was believed, could be caused by wicked men or spirits or even by ancestors if they were not placated satisfactory. So, they attempted to ensure their safety by consulting divines, sorcerers, those who cast lots, oracles, and/or voodoo practitioners. These were men (and sometimes women) who, by their own manipulations, were able to make these powers speak for good or evil. They provided ready-made inexpensive remedies to their customers that assured victory over their enemies in the form of talismans, amulets black rings, magic recipes, and incantations.

Membership in secret societies, although rather exclusive, was accepted, rather than condemned, as part of the African religious way of life. …

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