Christians and religions of African matrix: escaping demonization (and racism)

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By Paulo Cruz

“So then, as for eating things sacrificed to idols, we know that the idol is nothing in the world and that there is no other God but one. For though some are called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as there are many gods and many lords), yet for us, there is one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and for whom we live; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things, and we through him.” (1 Corinthians 8:4-6)

As the faithful reader of this column knows, I am a Christian, Protestant, believer, evangelical, whatever.

I have lived with evangelicals for more than 20 years, I am a scholar (I used to be more so) of theology, and I have a Master’s degree in the Science of Religion.

, Christians and religions of African matrix: escaping demonization (and racism)
Orixás (orishas) at Dique do Tororó, in Salvador, Bahia (Photo internet reproduction)

Therefore, I have a place to speak if that is the case.

I also have in my favor that I have always been a Christian, very attentive to the theological orthodoxy of Christianity, and, for a long time, I was an applied apologist.

My approach to philosophy even came about through my theological deepening when I realized that, as Aristotle says, in the scale of importance, although theology has excellence, the other theoretical sciences are more necessary to man (Metaphysics, 983a).

Since my conversion, I have been fully convinced that Christianity is an exclusivist religion, that is, Jesus Christ is the only way, truth and life (John 14:6); the only way to go from that to a better one is through confession of sins, repentance and the declaration that Christ is the only and sufficient lord and savior.

That’s it; there is no talking.

It is also common knowledge that every Christian must go “into all the world” and preach “the gospel to every creature. With this conviction, it is selfish and sinful not to want everyone to be redeemed and no one to be left behind. Proselytism, in this sense, is an act of love and mercy.

If you are a Christian and want others to be one too, evangelize in a way that does not drive people away rather than bringing them together; being impertinent does little to help.

But how to proceed in a world full of religions, which even see Christianity as just one more?

How do you convince your relative who has found refuge and is welcome in, let’s say, Buddhism, that he should abandon his religion and follow Christ?

How can I preach my absolutist belief in a completely relativized world?

Well, if you are a Christian, you should fight, ask the Holy Spirit for strategy and discernment – yes, we believe in a triune God – and do it in a way that does not drive people away instead of bringing them closer; and, if I can say one thing with certainty, it is that being impertinent does not help much.

But my intention here, in this short article, is not to give you evangelization tips nor to convince you, the reader who does not believe, of the truth of my faith. My purpose is another, more specific one.

This week a fact in the news brought to mind a reflection that has long plagued me.

A copy of the children’s book Amoras, by rapper Emicida – which, according to the description on Amazon, has the objective of, “through its text and illustrations by Aldo Fabrini”, showing “the importance of recognizing ourselves in the world and being proud of who we are – from childhood and forever” – was, according to the G1 portal, “vandalized” by the mother of a student in a school in Salvador.

The book, which “was indicated as a suggestion of didactic works for the project Ciranda Literária” of the school Clubinho das Letras, was all annotated by the mother, who reacted to the content that exalts the black culture and Yoruba mythology.

The mother, upon seeing an illustration of what would be a deity of this pantheon, immediately said that such deities are not gods; they are “fallen angels”; or, upon seeing the description of the African continent as the “cradle of humanity”, where “the human race began”, she wrote in the margin of the page that “this information is false”, and added:

“True information about the human race is written in the book of Genesis, from the 1st to the 9th and 10th chapters. These ideologies with African origins are based on anti-Christian religions (it is blasphemy against the living God), aka the Creator”, among other remarks.

In other words, the mother, concerned about the content of the book, decided to write down her criticisms and send the book, which she bought, to the school – as I understand it, the purchase is made by the parents, but the book stays at the school for the students’ use.

Another parent, when picking up the book, informed the school. But the woman defended herself, saying that she bought “the book suggested by the school because she thought that only racial issues would be covered.

However, she found that the book also talked about religion, a subject that, according to her, the school had informed her would not be covered this year.

As the book did not cover Christianity, she decided to write the biblical passages by hand so that, in this way, the parents of the students could read, if they wanted to, different versions for their children”.

In my view, the mother’s concern is legitimate, but I believe there is confusion, even the result of other kinds of confusion and prejudices. Let’s see:

Whenever I have to deal with mythology in my high school philosophy classes, I include African mythology in the conversation; I read Yoruba and Bantu myths along with the more common Greek and Norse.

The students obviously find the names strange, but I explain that if they don’t find Odin and Zeus strange, they shouldn’t find Oxalá and Exú strange.

Why? Simply because all peoples, all over the planet, have mythologies.

Myth, according to Mircea Eliade in The Sacred and the Profane, “tells a sacred story, that is, a primordial event that took place at the beginning of Time, ab initio,” and “describes the diverse and sometimes dramatic irruptions of the sacred in the world.

These are origin narratives that human beings have created to explain “how reality came into existence, be it the total reality, the Cosmos, or just a fragment: an island, a plant species, a human institution.

Religions looked at coldly are nothing more than ritualizing and dogmatizing myths.

This is not an easy reflection for those used to thinking of Christianity as the true religion to the detriment of all others and of the Bible as a text that must be read, in its entirety, in a literal way.

For an ordinary Christian to say that there is something mythical in Christianity – or even in the Old Testament – is blasphemous.

However, in a brief way that I don’t intend to go into here, I join such brilliant minds as J.R.R. Tolkien, a Catholic, and C.S. Lewis, a Protestant, in the absolutely brilliant idea that Christ is the myth that became fact.

Lewis argues, in the essay Myth that became fact, present in his masterpiece “God in the dock”:

“Myth is the mountain from which come all the different rivers that become truth down here in the valley; in ‘hac valle abstractionis’. Or, if you prefer, myth is the isthmus that connects the peninsular world of thought with the vast continent to which we really belong. It is not, like truth, abstract; nor is it, like direct experience, linked to the specific.”

He adds:

“Now, just as myth transcends thought, so the incarnation transcends myth. The core of Christianity is a myth that is also a fact. The old myth of the god who dies, without ceasing to be a myth, descends from the sky of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens – on a specific date, in a specific place, followed by definable historical consequences. We go from a Balder, or an Osiris, who dies nobody knows where or when, to a historical Person crucified (everything is in order) under Pontius Pilate. By becoming fact, he does not cease to be a myth; that is the miracle.”

Christian exclusivism must be balanced by the idea that all religions, as religions, are legitimate, are manifestations of faith, and attempts to understand reality

The reader who is not a Christian need not agree with me, but the Christian should at least think for a moment.

This solves several problems and opens up a gigantic range of understanding of the historical-religious similarities that we know.

For example, Osiris is a god who dies and resurrects; the biblical flood is similar to what occurs in the Gilgamesh Epic; the sacrifices of all archaic religions point to the final solution in Christ.

Or even the well-known “Melchizedek factor,” the idea that God planted the seed of the gospel in the world’s most diverse cultures.

Now, notice, attentive reader: if we cannot ask for this level of understanding from a mother, we must admit that catechesis and Sunday schools fail badly in not bringing this approach to be discussed among their faithful. We sin by ignorance – as always.

But there is still a specific point that I want to address: the demonization of religions of the African matrix, which prevents their distinction from African mythologies.

The background is obviously racist, the fruit of slavery and colonial catechization.

If we look closely, the Vikings incorporated deities, and nobody finds them strange.

In the same way, no one finds the Oracle of Delphi or the Socratic “daimon” strange.

Yes, for no more Greeks are worshipping Aphrodite, nor Norse clamoring to Thor.

But the fact that there are, even today, religions of African origin linked to African mythologies confuses and makes understanding too difficult.

From a philosophical perspective, mythologies’ universality links gods with similar characteristics.

For example, the African Exu is nothing more than the correspondent of the Norse Loki; that is, they are shrewd, witty, and sometimes deceitful deities.

In possession of this knowledge, even if I disagree with it, I understand that things are not so simple and should not be reduced to angels and demons.

Christian exclusivism must be balanced by the idea that all religions, as religions, are legitimate, are manifestations of faith and attempts to understand reality.

Discussions about their practices and doctrines can and should be debated and confronted with what we believe to be the true truth, but under no circumstances should they be reduced to evil stuff, for to the extent that all things that are not of God are evil, we should not enjoy Greek mythology, nor Norse mythology, nor watch Marvel movies, and spend our days watching The Passion of the Christ and The Chosen – if it is not heresy to portray Jesus in audiovisuals.

But I reiterate, speaking to my own: even if we believe as we do, even if there is no room for any relativization – even in the face of our human, flawed, miserable condition – of religions, our function, as Christians, is to be light, which enlightens, and salt, which tempers and preserves; not obscurantists (who prevent light) nor bitter or sour, difficult to digest.

Think about what Christ would do and how He would proceed.

If we abandon the veterotestamentary logic of laws and wars and look at the Master’s attitude, we will see that the only time He was, in fact, angry was against His own – the Jews, whom He even called the children of the Devil.

He did not go to torment the other religions (and there were many).

He was firm in announcing the Kingdom, but He was compassionate with men.

Our proselytizing cannot be done by the sword, by hatred, but by sitting at the table with everyone and sharing God’s love and mercy – as Paul did in the Greek Areopagus.

Our kingdom is not of this world; we do not adhere to ideologies. We love, that’s it.

Back to the mother in question, filling a book with reductionist notes is the stupidest way to dispute its contents.

That she would take the concern to the school and argue the points of conflict; it is valid.

But if violence is the refuge of the ignorant, we Christians, disobeying Christ’s command (Mt 10:16), have sinned greatly.

And in summary, what we must understand is that: the complexity of the relationship between Christianity and religions of the African matrix must:

1. take into consideration the effects of racism; and

2. overcome fundamentalist superficiality.

Knowledge and compassion are the formulae, the only ones.

May He grow and we diminish, always.

With information from Gazeta do Povo

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