An astounding, must-read column from one of my favourite commentators, Matthew Parris: As an atheist, I truly believe Africa needs God.
Parris grew up in what is now Malawi, and returned there recently. He went to see the work of Pump Aid, a secular charity which helps rural communities maintain clean water supplies. Parris writes that seeing this work “inspired me, renewing my flagging faith in development charities”. However, that’s not all he saw in Malawi:
Travelling in Malawi refreshed another belief, too: one I’ve been trying to banish all my life, but an observation I’ve been unable to avoid since my African childhood. It confounds my ideological beliefs, stubbornly refuses to fit my world view, and has embarrassed my growing belief that there is no God.
This “belief” is Parris’ conviction about “the enormous contribution that Christian evangelism makes in Africa”. As he writes, this contribution is over and above the work of “secular NGOs, government projects and international aid efforts”:
These alone will not do. Education and training alone will not do. In Africa Christianity changes people’s hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good.
He used to explain this away by saying that what made the difference was the good works that were motivated by missionaries’ faith, not the faith itself. However, having lived as a boy among both rural communities in Africa (where traditional beliefs remained strong) and in cities where many Africans had converted to Christianity, Parris had observed for himself the change that the Christian faith had made for those converts:
The Christians were always different. Far from having cowed or confined its converts, their faith appeared to have liberated and relaxed them. There was a liveliness, a curiosity, an engagement with the world – a directness in their dealings with others – that seemed to be missing in traditional African life. They stood tall.
He saw a similar change when travelling as a young man from Algeria to Kenya:
Whenever we entered a territory worked by missionaries, we had to acknowledge that something changed in the faces of the people we passed and spoke to: something in their eyes, the way they approached you direct, man-to-man, without looking down or away. They had not become more deferential towards strangers – in some ways less so – but more open.
Even among those working for the avowedly secular Pump Aid were those who “were, privately, strong Christians”, and Parris attributes their “honesty, diligence and optimism” to what Christianity had taught them about “man’s place in the Universe”.
Parris argues that Christianity “smashes straight through” the “crushing tribal groupthink” of traditional religion, liberating those who would otherwise live under the subordinating fear “of evil spirits, of ancestors, of nature and the wild, of a tribal hierarchy” – or of the “big man” of urban Africa’s “gangster politics”.
In Parris’ view, for Africa to “walk tall amid 21st-century global competition”, it needs more than material development. “A whole belief system must be supplanted … by another”, he writes, before concluding:
Removing Christian evangelism from the African equation may leave the continent at the mercy of a malign fusion of Nike, the witch doctor, the mobile phone and the machete.
Overall, a remarkable article. One criticism that could be made (and indeed that is made in a comment on the website) is that Parris is being patronising, encouraging Africans in a belief he regards as delusory, on the grounds it will be helpful for them.
I think this is unfair, given Parris’ evident love and respect for Africa and its people. Parris deserves credit for his willingness to speak with integrity, to “call the thing what it is”, even when this is inconvenient for his own personal beliefs . (Christians could learn a thing or two from him here.) And I’m allowed to hope that his observations on the positive effects of Christianity in Africa would lead him to reassess his own rejection of Christ.