Monday, December 13, 2010

African Vision of Jesus as Healer

By Pamela Urfer

European missionaries to Africa in the 19th century, influenced by the Enlightenment, brought with them a materialistic view of illness. For them, everything could be explained by natural causes. They knew that diseases were caused by germs, not demons or the ill-wishes of others. Yes, there were demons at work in the world, but only to steal souls from God.

The natives they encountered had a different view of the world which the missionaries declared to be mistaken. The natives believed in the reality of malevolent powers at work in the community. And, so, even though they went to church in the morning, they would visit the shamans secretly after dark.

Their hearts and souls were divided because they knew that illness was more than just an accident. They knew that it signifies a disruption in the physical, mental, social and spiritual environment. It is a calamity that not only strikes a particular individual but also indicates a disruption of social relationships. Ultimately, for them, illness is a communal concern.

As Africa moved into the 20th century, germ theory found wider acceptance. But not necessarily at the expense of belief in supernatural causes. AIDS is a primary example. AIDS is community disruption at its height. It kills one or both parents, orphans the children, overburdens the grand-parents, deprives the village of its wage-earners, and robs the nation of a generation.

Yes, AIDS is spread by a sexually transmitted virus. We all know that now. But why is it so widespread? Who is most vulnerable? Who is most responsible? What societal disruptions have led to this disaster? And how can we go about fixing it? These are the questions that must be asked and answered if the disease is to be controlled. And these are the questions that Africans at putting to the Church.

Jean-Marc Ela, a Cameroonian Roman Catholic theologian, insists that in Africa sickness is inseparable from the spirit world and healing must be addressed within this symbolic universe. “In Black Africa, the world of the Night or of the Invisible is perhaps the privileged place in which we must understand the good news of the descent of Jesus into hell (I Pet.3) in order to announce liberation to the African menaced by occult powers.”

For the sake of believers, the church must find a way to replace the tribal healer with the power of Christ. The image of Jesus as Healer prevailing over evil powers features prominently among the African Initiated Churches. But this view is not shared by all African churches. As John Pobee, a Ghanaian Anglican, points out, “The churches founded by missionary bodies in Europe and America have been reluctant, if not unwilling, to accept this healing and exorcism by the power of the Spirit, especially if it is through Africans.”

To counter this, Jesus must be allowed supremacy over every form of evil operating in the universe, whether physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, social, or in any other sphere of life. He must be seen as the one who defeats all that is life-negating instead of life-affirming.

This is not a huge step for Africans accustomed to dealing with fetish priests already operating in the realm of the spiritual. As Ghanaian Catholic George Hagan says, “The association is already there in the minds of our people. If you have come to say that Christ is a Redeemer, and yet a redeemer who did not have the power to heal, it would have sounded very odd in the ears of an African.” But he heals not only of the physical body. As healer, Christ not only comes to heal but to counsel, to show us the way to live, to bring fullness into our lives. Jesus Christ embodies everything.

Sometimes the Christian ministers must damp down the people’s unrealistic expectations. Bishop Palmer-Buckle relates his experience of parishioners coming to him and expecting instantaneous, miraculous cures, some of whom are “shattered” when he not only prays with them but advises them to go to the hospital.

The healings that do occur are, according to Ela, not merely proofs of Jesus’ divinity, but rather they reveal the inauguration of a new age, the fulfillment of messianic hope in the presence of god’s kingdom in the world. Instead of furthering the tendency of some forms of mission Christianity that have condoned present suffering in hopes of future bliss in heaven, Ela takes a strongly liberationist approach, depicting Jesus healing ministry as an indication that he is the Messiah announced by the prophets and awaited by the poor and oppressed.

Ela challenges Christians to examine the roots of sickness in the unjust organizations of African societies, and to live the gospel by totally restructuring the living conditions within those societies. After all, there are so many ways Jesus can heal. As Kiarie says, “He can touch you, he can put mud or saliva on your eyes, he can command the spirits. By his word, he can even heal at a distance, like this Roman soldier, “You just go, your son is healed.” He can even speak to forces, so he is a real miracleworker.” A popular Swahili song played on the radio: “Nataka uguzo – uguzo wa Yesu.” ‘I want to be touched, to be touched by Jesus.’

Certainly, further reflection and action is needed concerning the liberating dimension of the gospel in relation to health issues, such as corrupt health systems, the AIDS pandemic, the lack of potable water, the scandalous proliferation of preventable diseases, and politically induced famine. As John Mbiti says, “The greatest need among African peoples is to see, to know, and to experience Jesus Christ as the victor over the powers and forces from which Africa knows no means of deliverance.”

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