Alexander’s comment: my quest today, Ramon Mayo, wrote this article to highlight the African-ness of the church fathers and mother. Ramon is an author, speaker, and Vineyard youth pastor in Chicago, IL. He has recently published Reclaiming Diversity: Destroying the Myth of the White Man’s Religion, available on Amazon as an ebook or print book.
One of the things people find surprising is that Christianity can be called an African Traditional religion. And why not? It’s been on the continent for at least 2,000 years. If you don’t believe me all you have to do is look at the African-ness of many of the early church fathers. They were African men raised on African soil with African ways of preaching teaching and living out the gospel.
A majority of the early church fathers are from Egypt and North Africa. Much of what we consider to be historic orthodox doctrine originated and was hammered out in Africa. In fact, most of the Western conception of faith finds its origins on the continent. If we want to learn what living out the kingdom of God looks like it behooves us to look at the lives of these men and women.
Genetic vs cultural inheritance
When we think of African-ness we usually think of skin color and facial features. There is no way to definitively say whether the church fathers shared the typical genetic type of what we normally would think of as African today. The truth is then, as well as now, Africa was home to a variety of people with diverse physical characteristics.
At the same time one of the leftover legacies of white supremacy is to always cast heroes of the faith as European or with European characteristics. This should give us pause to think. Why not imagine them as African with darker skin and typical African features?
Even still, African-ness is more than just genetics. It is also culture. It is also a sense of belonging and identity. And it can be a used by God as a source of definitive theology for the whole church of Jesus Christ as seen in the church fathers. I will comment on three of them.
What lessons can we learn from them?
Augustine was the son of a Roman soldier and a woman from an African Berber tribe. At some point after his conversion, he became the Bishop of Hippo in North Africa. The question remains that if Augustine was born and raised on African soil and had African parentage, why is he depicted as a white man in every visual portrayal?
You might say, wait. Augustine was in North Africa, and those people don’t look anything like the people in sub- Saharan Africa. But here’s the problem: “North Africa” is a recent invention. Africa is Africa. What we know of today as North Africa was in Roman times considered just…Africa.
The tribes in the interior were known as barbarians (etymologically related to Berber) and they were not considered Europeans or Romans. This makes Augustine an “other.” And for him to have such a significant influence on the course of Christianity upends our idea of Christianity’s Western dominance. Although Augustine was a part of the Roman Empire, he was also an “other” within the same empire.
Augustine died in AD 430, but his legacy would live on through the Catholic Church. He left an indelible stamp on Western theology and philosophy and his ideas still hold sway today in both religious and secular arenas. In his lifetime, he would see his beloved Hippo ransacked by barbarians, but he knew this wasn’t the end.
Hippo and the empire were not his home. In his book The City of God he outlined how there were two kingdoms: the Earthly City or the City of Man and the City of God or the New Jerusalem. Even though he was a native African and a Bishop in a major city within the Roman Empire, he longed for the New Jerusalem.
Athanasius came from a not so prominent family line. In fact, he says he was found as an orphan on the beach. There is also the reference to him being called “the black dwarf”.
From these descriptions of his background and appearance we can make a safe guess to his biological appearance and cultural background. Athanasius was not from the urban upper class of Egypt but from the rural areas populated by darker skinned peoples even as it is now today.
Athanasius never sought the spotlight. He was a deacon, and then in the midst of the controversy about the deity of Christ, he became a bishop. He was exiled for his convictions numerous times by different Roman emperors.
He wasn’t out for fame or political power. He owned his beliefs even though he was exiled a total of five times. And if he didn’t stick to his guns, we wouldn’t have the Christian faith as we know it.
He stood against a group of bishops who sided with the idea of there being a time when the Son of God was not; i.e. had no pre-existence. Athanasius wouldn’t hear it. This was heresy. During the time of this controversy, he wrote a book on Christology. On the Incarnation is a magnificent treatise outlining why and how the Son of God had to be the mediator between God and Creation. His greatest contribution was his creedal proposal which became known as the Athanasian creed.
Athanasius’ final time of exile found him living with the monks in Upper Egypt (that’s actually south of Egypt. We tend to think north is up because that’s where we live, but the Egyptians had it the other way around). This retreat and welcome also serves to underscore he was more at home with the darker skinned peoples of the area and truly belonged to the indigenous people of the continent.
Cyprian was bishop of Carthage. You may know Carthage from stories about Hannibal and the Punic wars. Carthage was a city in the region of modern-day Tunisia.
Now it’s nothing more than ruins, but back in its day it was the main city of the larger Roman colony of Africa. So Cyprian was an African, and it would be a disservice not to refer to him as such. He was more than likely related to modern-day Berbers.
He was born and raised on African soil, and he lived and worked among Africans. Africa has every right to claim him. Cyprian was a Church man; he lived and breathed and died for the Church. One of the most famous quotes about our relationship to the Church comes from him: “No one can have God for his Father who has not the Church for his mother.”
When you consider the fact that Cyprian was an African, you can start to wrap your mind around his theology and his ecclesiology. Cyprian was about community. He embodied the Ubuntu philosophy.
What is Ubuntu philosophy? It is a Bantu or southern African way of thinking which can be summed up in the phrase, “I am because we are.” This is in clear opposition to the Western mindset of “I think therefore I am,” or the more recent Western consumer mindset, “I shop therefore I am.” Whatever his genetic or ethnic makeup, Cyprian definitely had this African take on things.
Regardless of their genetic or physical characteristics the church fathers listed above are gifts from Africa to the world through their significant theological contributions. The lessons they teach with their lives on steadfast conviction, spiritual longing, and the value of community are kingdom values for such a time as this. In these days and times an exploration of the origins of our faith are necessary and much of the richness of those origins are found on the continent of Africa.