Born from Lament

The Theology and Politics of Hope in Africa

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Emmanuel Katongole
  • Grand Rapids, MI: 
    Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
    , April
     2017.
     314 pages.
     $30.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780802874344.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

To properly understand Born from Lament, one must place it within the context of Emmanuel Katongole’s previous work. From his pathbreaking A Future for Africa (University of Scranton Press, 2005) to his recent The Sacrifice of Africa (Eerdmans, 2011), the goal of Katongole’s theological work has been to seek an alternative to the violent politics that characterize the contemporary African nation-state. His arguments have centered around the difference the Christian faith can make in bringing about this alternative. In A Future for Africa, he argued that Christian social ethics in Africa is often focused on making recommendations about how Christians may transform the nation-state without realizing that nation-states in Africa are operating under a different narrative than that of the Christian faith. To bring about fruitful changes in Africa, he opined, Christian social ethics must be rooted in a Christian vision of peace rather than the violent narrative that grounds the nation-state in Africa. He intensified this argument in The Sacrifice of Africa when he insisted that the colonial background of the nation-state in Africa constructed nation-states to operate only through violence. Thus, the wars, corruption, tribalism, and all other forms of what we see as “dysfunctions” in the operation of African nation-states are simply following the violent script and narrative colonialism laid down for Africa. He however went further to provide vignettes of how Christian social ethics may provide an alternative to this violent script by telling the stories of some African Christians who are working for change. These vignettes include the work of Bishop Paride Taban, who challenges “tribal” politics in Sudan (now South Sudan) through the foundation of a peace village in which people from different tribal backgrounds find a place, and that of Maggy Barankitse in Burundi, who created Maison Shalom to fight tribal politics and encourage forgiveness in the wake of the genocides in Rwanda and Burundi. These are concrete Christian examples of how the toxic politics of violence in the nation-state may be counteracted and a promising future for Africa envisioned.

 Born from Lament may be seen as an updated version of The Sacrifice of Africa because in it Katongole continues to give further vignettes of Christian actions that interrupt the violent politics of the nation-state, especially in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, and Uganda. An updated version of the story of Maggy Barankitse appears here (228-42). However, Katongole grounds these narratives in the theological frameworks of lament and hope and the theoretical base of portraiture. According to Katongole, the Christians he profiles have been led to develop an alternative vision of life through the experience of lament, a biblical and theological category that describes the life of a people in the depths of pain and sorrow, out of which hope is born. Engaging biblical texts that emphasize lament, such as Lamentations, the Psalms of Lament, Jeremiah, some New Testament texts, and indigenous expressions of lament, Katongole argues that lament makes possible new epistemological and theological visions. He repeatedly quotes from one of those he profiles, Bishop Christopher Munzihirwa: “There are things that can be seen only with the eyes that have cried” (164). The eyes that have cried see God and creation differently from the eyes that have not. The God of lament is the God of the cross, the God whose power is made manifest in weakness, who suffers alongside those who are in the “valley of the shadow of death,” as the Psalmist puts it (Ps. 23:4, KJV). This leads Katongole to a christology that focuses on the cross and an ecclesiology that sees martyrdom as the locus for the interpretation of the resurrection. Katongole therefore faults African Christian theology for not taking lament seriously, thus leading to the “loss of lament” and a diminished possibility of developing a Christian political theology in which hope issues from lament (179-86). He uses the method of portraiture to capture the blend of his ethnography of lament in East Africa and the narrative theology that describes lament as the foundation of Christian hope (33-38). Katongole links the hope that is born of lament to the work of peacebuilding, which he sees as an activity that takes place not only when crisis is over but rather during crisis. All those he profiles develop new, peaceful visions of life during profound pain.

Katongole’s portrayal of an alternative vision of peace which the Christian faith provides in the context of the violent politics of the nation-state continues to be one of his significant contributions to African theology. Perhaps he is right that African theology has been too reticent in pointing out the salutary alternative visions of peaceful life that some Christians in the continent are cultivating. However, his claim that there has been a loss of lament in African theology is not an adequate description of the African Christian theological scene. Lament is at the heart of the theologies of inculturation, Black liberation theology in South Africa, the theology of reconstruction, and African women’s theology: the lament of the various forms of loss many have suffered and continue to suffer on the continent. Lament is also central to Coptic theology, which is suffering bloody persecution today. Even neo-Pentecostal and Charismatic theology, which is often linked to a health and wealth gospel, is also rooted in lament. The prayer vigils held in many churches throughout the continent can only be understood within this context. However, the God many have come to embrace in this context is not only a suffering or crucified God but a God who has the power to bring about transformation in individual and societal life. This God is not only the God of African indigenous religions, as Katongole suggests (120-21), but also the God of the Bible who is known to have done deeds of power, including raising his Son, Jesus Christ, from the dead. This notwithstanding, Born from Lament provides significant ethnographic, biblical, and theological material that may enhance peacebuilding around the world.

About the Reviewer(s): 

David Tonghou Ngong is Associate Professor of Religion and Theology at Stillman College, Tuscaloosa, Alabama.  Ngong is originally from Cameroon.

Date of Review: 
January 15, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Emmanuel Katongole is associate professor of theology and peace studies at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana, and a Catholic priest of the Archdiocese of Kampala, Uganda. His other books include The Sacrifice of Africa: A Political Theology for Africa and Mirror to the Church: Resurrecting Faith after Genocide in Rwanda.

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