Imitating Christ in Magwi

An Anthological Theology

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Todd D. Whitmore
T&T Clark Studies in Social Ethics, Ethnography and Theology
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Publishing
    , January
     2019.
     400 pages.
     $44.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780567684172.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

With the shift of the center of Christianity from the global North to the global South, scholars such as Andrew Walls and Philip Jenkins have long noted that global South Christianity, especially African Christianity, may significantly impact how the religion is practiced in the West. Todd D. Whitmore’s Imitating Christ in Magwi is a theological example of how African Christianity may impact how the religion is practiced in the West. It is therefore fitting that the book appropriates the anthropological method of ethnography, a method implicated in the otherizing of Africa and Africans, to show how one way of practicing Christianity in an African context may interrogate how the religion is practiced in the West. The ethnographic research for the book was done in Magwi, a warzone in the Acholi region of northern Uganda and South Sudan. This warzone is characterized by camps for Internally Displaced People (IDP), many of whom are served by some Roman Catholic priests and the Little Sisters of Mary Immaculate of Gulu.

Whitmore argues that the Acholi worldview which animates how these priests and sisters practice their faith may throw significant light on how the faith should be practiced in the West, especially in the context of the academy.  The central theory around which the book is organized is mimesis, the non-identical repetition of the life and teaching of a model in different times and contexts. The mimesis engaged in the book is gospel mimesis or the imitation of Christ (114-119). The war and Acholi spiritual imagination that shape how these priests and sisters perform gospel mimesis in northern Uganda is said to be a more proximate context for the imitation of Christ than the West. The capacity for gospel mimesis which the priests and sisters display, the book argues, has especially been lost in a Western academic and Christian setting such as the University of Notre Dame (34) where the author works.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           

A critical contribution of this text is its turning of the spotlight on the transformation of the theologian and the academy. The theologian should not only observe the world and comment about it from the comfort of the ivory tower (the academy), the author seems to suggest, but should get involved in the lives of the people about whom they write, with the aim of transforming themselves (the theologians) and the academy in the direction of risky gospel mimesis. The mimetic process which the author identifies – attention, discernment, commitment, and return – are all moments the author personally goes through in the process of fieldwork, and these moments mark the method of anthropological theology. Describing the ethnographic method in which the ethnographer is detached from the lives of those being studied as a form of “colonial extraction” (22), Whitmore calls for an anthropological theology in which the desire to practice gospel mimesis leads the ethnographer/theologian to become involved in the lives of those being studied, working with them to surmount the crisis they are experiencing rather than observing their struggles only as a spectator. It is for this reason that the ethnographer should not only be a participant-observer who studies a particular context (attention) and analyzes their findings (discernment), but one who also gets involved in the daily struggles of the people being studied, working with them to overcome what ails them (commitment), and then coming back home to interrogate relevant practices based on the ethnographer’s encounters in the field (the return).

Going through this process in the course of fieldwork, Whitmore  is transformed from what he sees as a Western disenchanted worldview that is risk-averse in its performance of the Christian faith to an Acholi-enchanted worldview that takes significant risks in the process of imitating Christ. Therefore, the author realized that he was participating in an imperial project under which the Acholi have suffered for a long time and to which Catholic missionaries, especially those of the Comboni mission who brought Catholicism to the Acholi, have played complex roles. Challenged by how priests and sisters were putting their lives on the line in service to others in a context of war, Whitmore writes that he noticed that the people among whom he worked wanted him to become an ally not by giving up his whiteness and power but rather by using that power to advocate for them (164-182). Advocating for the Acholi, however, led him to become at odds with his academic institution in the United States, the University of Notre Dame, which, even though a Christian institution, focuses on “university expansion and risk aversion” rather than the imitation of Christ (288-299).

This is a rich text that not only interrogates the question of method in theology and anthropology but also theologizes in an anthropological key. The author’s understanding of anthropology as needing to encompass commitment on the part of the ethnographer has long been controversial in the discipline but his vision of theology as involving the interrogation and transformation of the theologian and academy is sorely needed in our time. Even more, there have recently been calls for the theological and anthropological divide to be bridged in African studies (Karen Lauterbach and Mika Vähäkangas, eds., Faith in African Lived Christianity: Bridging Anthropological and Theological Perspectives, Brill, 2019). Whitmore’s book shows one significant way such bridge-building may take shape. However, the book’s use of mimesis as a theoretical trope may reify some versions of African Christianity (Christianity done in the context of war). Also, the author’s failure to cite a single African theologian, especially those doing similar work in the same region of the continent, such as Emmanuel Katongole, marginalizes the work of African theologians. These omissions should not detract from the book’s insightful challenge to both anthropology and theology.

About the Reviewer(s): 

David Tonghou Ngong is Associate Professor of Religion and Theology at Stillman College.

Date of Review: 
December 11, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Todd D. Whitmore is Associate Professor of Theology and Concurrent Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Notre Dame.

Comments

Todd Whitmore

A Response to David Tonghou Ngong

Todd Whitmore, University of Notre Dame

I want to thank Professor David Tonghou Ngong for his careful reading of my book, Imitating Christ in Magwi: An Anthropological Theology.  Because the book works on multiple levels, both methodological and substantive, I am sure that it is not an easy text to summarize or review, yet Professor Ngong has done an admirable job of doing just that.  He notes how my ethnographic method gives rise to the substantive observation that a particular understanding of imitating Christ animates the lives of nuns, priests, and catechists in the Acholi region of Uganda and South Sudan, and provided them with the wherewithal to carry out extraordinary works of mercy during the Lord’s Resistance Army conflict there.

The two critiques that Professor Ngong makes, however, can be misleading, so it is important to respond to them.  The first is that “the book’s use of mimesis as a theoretical trope may reify some versions of African Christianity.”  I understand the danger here.  In a discipline that is as abstract as theology usually is, the risk of concepts reifying reality is always present.  It is important to note, therefore, that my use of the academic term “mimesis,” arose out of first observing the practice of the imitation of Christ (their terms) among Acholi Catholics, and only then asking what academic concepts can help interpret what is going on.  In the actual research process, this latter theoretical step came only after extended time on the ground with the Acholi – that is, after the fieldwork (see pp. 27-28).  Like I write in the book, when I think about the method that I call “anthropological theology, ”I think of it simply as the appropriation of ethnographic methods to raise theological questions” (27-28). 

A sign of the constant danger of reification in the discipline of theology is the fact that I have had theology graduate students from different programs tell me that they now want to do “mimetic” anthropology.  What I tell them is to first do the fieldwork and see what themes might arise out of that rather than impose a concept of mimesis on the work from the start.  It may well be that “mimesis” is not a good conceptualization of what is going on.  For example, in my current fieldwork, I work as a Certified Addiction Recovery Coach for persons with opioid and methamphetamine addictions in northern Indiana.  They don’t view themselves as imitating Christ, and I certainly do not want to imitate them in their habits.  I will simply have to wait to see what themes, theological and otherwise, arise from the field, and work with those.

The danger of reification of reality through conceptualization of it is precisely why I wrote an appendix in the book where I limn the historically specific dynamics that led to the academic discipline of “theology” being so abstract rather than concrete and particular, and therefore being prone to reifying the concepts it develops.  The whole thrust of my book is to move in the opposite direction.

Speaking of the academic discipline of theology leads to considering Professor Ngong’s second critique, my “failure to cite a single African theologian.”  This critique assumes particular understandings of “theologian” and “African” that are important to unpack.  The primary theologians in my texts are the priests, nuns, and catechists of northern Uganda and South Sudan.  To learn from them, I spent a year-and-a-half on the ground with them over a period of eight years, gathering over three hundred hours of formal interviews in addition to the countless conversations we had together.  The nuns, the Little Sisters of Mary Immaculate of Gulu, gave me full access to their chapter documents, themselves theological texts.  The lynchpin chapter of the book is that on the Little Sisters and their theological understanding of imitating Christ.  To set this cloud of witnesses aside as somehow not being “theologians” seems to suggest a Euro-centered understanding of theology as an academic discipline that arose out of the “schools” in France in the twelfth century, an understanding that still hobbles what we call “theology” today.  The way in which Professor Ngong states that I fail to cite African theologians therefore suggests that I fail to cite specifically academic African theologians, many and perhaps most of whom, like himself, received their graduate training in the United States or Europe. 

Professor Ngong’s comment prompted me to go back to the text, and made me realize that I fail to cite any academic theologians, African or otherwise, except to criticize them for how they give in to reifying abstractness (for instance, John Milbank).  The primary and virtually sole theological text for the book consists of the synoptic gospels.  To the extent that I discuss theologians and New Testament scholars here, I do so by criticizing them, in light of the theologies of the Acholi Catholics, for their inadequacy in interpreting the gospels.  In the appendix to the book, I argue that theology begins its process of excessive abstraction as early as Paul, so I am not surprised, in hindsight, that I find little in any contemporary theology that is helpful in illuminating specifically what it looks like to imitate Christ.

The second problematic term is that of “African.”  Professor Ngong is active in writing for the website, “Africa is a Country, Not the Continent with 55 Countries” (https://africasacountry.com/about).  Also, his (very good) recent book, A New History of African Christian Thought: From Cape to Cairo (Routledge, 2017), makes the case for a broad understanding of African Christianity.  There is a danger here, though, and that is that the idea of “Africa” in the modern period was first of all a colonial one, made official in the 1885 General Act of the Berlin Conference, wherein European countries divvied up what they called “Africa” into “countries” that crisscrossed the complex of ethnic regions of the continent.  To be sure, there are arguments for a pan-Africanism, but the danger of citing a lack of African theologians is that of making it appear, despite intentions, that the various peoples of Africa are fungible.  At a panel on my book at the most recent AAR annual meeting, Professor Simeon Ilesanmi, instead of citing a lack of African theologians, suggested another way that I could expand my range, and that is by going to a different specific setting, this time in Nigeria, to do fieldwork.  He wrote that my “personal and financial investments in the rehabilitation of [the Acholi people’s] scarred dignity, not only justify the characterization of this book as a model of embodied scholarship, but also expose the artificiality of the boundary we commonly draw between the so-called emic and etic perspectives. As an African scholar of Nigerian origin, I could not resist issuing an invitation, or if you will, a plea, to Todd Whitmore that he has to imitate himself by conducting a similar research in any region of Nigeria, a country whose profile of religiosity and political conflict unfortunately imitates the region that constitutes the focus of the present study.”  In other words, instead of pointing out that I failed to cite Western-educated scholars of broadly African origin, Professor Ilesanmi calls for more ethnographic work that draws out the lived theologies of particular communities.

Professor Ngong is certainly right that my ongoing work can be enriched by engagement with Western-educated academic theologians of African origin (I have learned from reading his work, including his review, and look forward to further conversation with him).  He names Emmanuel Katongole in particular.  Professor Katongole and I are colleagues at the University of Notre Dame, and are in conversation.  He was working out his idea of “portraiture” while I was writing my book, but was too early in the process for me to include in my writing.  We have mused about the possibility of team teaching.  In the meantime, on a panel at Notre Dame on my book, Professor Katongole, like Professor Ilesanmi, did not mention any lack of citations of African academic theologians, but rather pointed to the intense and intensive fieldwork – extended time on the ground, learning the local dialects – as a model for theology.  In the future, the writings I engage with in thinking through any fieldwork will depend less on any general identity and more on specific attributes of a writer’s locality and writing.  In Imitating Christ in Magwi, I do engage African intellectuals (such as Frantz Fanon) and, more specifically, Acholi intellectuals (such as Olara Otunnu and Milton Allimadi).  In the meantime, my primary source for theological reflection will remain the people whom I meet, get to know, and sometimes love in the course of fieldwork.

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