Blaming The Africans: Cultural Imperialism And The Meeting Of The Primates

African Anglicans who oppose changing the Communion’s teaching on sexuality may not know that their views violate a central tenet of progressive thought.

The Christian definition of justice (even as it pertains to marriage) will be communally discerned in the large arc of history. Our discernment will take place cross-culturally. It will be soaked in prayer and empowered by the Spirit. This definition of justice will arise from attending to what the Spirit is saying today, but we will also listen to what the Spirit has said to the Church in the past and to our brothers and sisters around the globe today. Most of all, we will give our obedience to what we believe to be a faithful reading of the canonical books of the Old and New Testament.


Sally Struthers was the first to introduce me to Africa. She told me that while 70 cents would garner me a coke, that same two quarters and four nickels could feed an African. My next memory of Africa comes from watching the rise and fall of that famed warrior Shaka Zulu. In the movie,  his story ended in a doomed war against colonialist invaders. These two images, Africa as starving and in need of American salvation and Africa as primitive and violent, shaped my initial view of “the dark continent.” I wished that I could say that time has changed the way that Africa is presented in the West, but recently my seven-year-old son came home from school and asked me whether Africa had cities.

Memories of this paternalistic and monochrome view of Africa returned as I observed the response of some members of the Episcopal Church to the recent meeting of the Primates. I have listened as we lambasted “the Africans” as if they form one country that spoke one language and shared one view of the world: apparently uninformed bigotry. We have pretended that they are not a multi-cultural continent with the same mix of good and bad that is indicative of all societies. I must say this as plainly as possible: If Korea, Japan, India, and China shared a similar view on human sexuality would we blame –implicitly and explicitly – Asian culture? Would we speak about them as a monolith? Would we assume that they are unthinking and “behind” America and the West? This smacks of cultural imperialism. It is cultural imperialism.

Western Anglican media coverage of Africa often follows a familiar pattern. The coverage of non-Western Anglicans usually focuses on economic development, especially the work of Western companion dioceses in the third world. The subtle message is clear: theology is for the west; the Global South receives our aid. Thus, when the Anglican Communion does gather to discuss issues of theology and Africans repeat the official teaching of the Communion and the teaching of the vast majority of Christians everywhere, they are rebuked for taking the focus away from the common mission (of African economic development) that unites the Communion. We seem to be confused as to how those Africans would dare do this after we have spent the last thirty years congratulating ourselves for granting the aid that we have made the basis of our common life. We cannot understand why they would be so divisive and on the wrong side of our definition of justice.

African Anglicans who oppose changing the Communion’s teaching on sexuality may not know that their views violate a central tenet of progressive thought. Their opposition challenges what appears to be the canonical interpretation of the black experience in the Episcopal Church in the United States.  This definition unites the experiences of the descendants of the slaves, women, those stigmatized for their sexuality orientation, and now Muslims into a single narrative of oppression and freedom. The primary work of the church in our day is to locate and free those who are oppressed in the name of love and acceptance.

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