Africa isn't called the Dark Continent for nothing. That title dates back hundreds of years, referring in part to a vast and unexplored geography. Known but unknown from ancient times, Africa remains sullen and seething while the rest of the world moves forward. What ails Africa? There's an abiding resistance that colonialism doesn't entirely account for (though colonial history plays a part). Nor does race. But looking at its history, all the way up to today, one could almost believe the continent is cursed.
Since her European overlords departed, Africa gains stability in one area only to collapse in another. Last year Kenya erupted; now the Congo. Slaughter continues in Darfur and the deterioration of Zimbabwe, which could get no worse, nonetheless gets worse. Africa fatigue infects the world, manifested in the mechanical forking-over of money, most of which slithers on well-greased tracks into the hands of dictators.
Two days after Christmas, a commentary appeared in the London Times Online by Matthew Parris (see WORLD, Jan. 17), a regular columnist and an urbane surveyor of the contemporary scene. Parris was raised in Africa and had just returned from a visit to his home state of Malawi. He came to the opinion page with an uncomfortable conclusion, stated in his title: "As an atheist, I am truly convinced that Africa needs God."
Moreover, Africa doesn't just need God-Africa needs Christ, and the transformation of the Holy Spirit. Parris has seen it too many times to doubt: Faith in Christ sets captives free. "Anxiety-fear of evil spirits, of ancestors, of nature and the wild, or a tribal hierarchy, or quite everyday things-strikes deep into the whole structure of rural African thought. Every man has his place and, call it fear or respect, a great weight grinds down the individual spirit, stunting curiosity." The African Christians he knows are much more open, friendly, courageous than the non-Christians. They try new options, they cross tribal lines. They recognize evil and resist it.
Reaction to the article in the Times comment section was voluminous, and about equally split between agreement and skepticism. Most readers with African roots or experience seconded Parris' conclusion. Objections were predictable: Africa doesn't need more "superstitious nonsense," having more than enough of the homegrown variety. Africa needs education, fair trade, contraception! Yes, "those who don't have education need religion to guide them," but Christianity is at best a "halfway house" for benighted natives to get up to speed before pressing on to modernity; funny how "Christianity carries with it, probably as a historical accident, the values of the European rennaisance [sic] and enlightenment," but if not curtailed, "religion is likely to increase passivity, leaving the corrupt free to take more." And oh yes, do we really need to revive the "white man's burden"?
In a key scene of Hotel Rwanda, Paul Rusesabagina and his driver Gregory turn inadvertently, at night, onto a road that they gradually discover is strewn with corpses. "Why do these things happen?" Paul cries. Gregory answers, not too profoundly, that hatred has somehow broken loose. The unspoken question is, Why hatred?
The real question is, Why love?
We know by now where human nature often ends up: A wrong turn down a dark road, and suddenly we're bumping over bodies in a late-model van. Africa is where chaos consistently chooses to rule these days, and the reason for that is too complicated for me. But Africa is the world, in that the veneer of civilization is thin everywhere, and what is not vigorously upheld will inevitably slide. Even hatred doesn't last because it takes energy; once vented, it lapses into less muscular vices like resentment, covetousness, sloth, indifference-all of which are scarcely unknown in "the West."
"Africa does need God," wrote one respondent. "Unfortunately, I think God has given up on Africa." God does not give up. And we, who know that transforming power Matthew Parris can only talk about, must not give up. Why love? Because He first loved us.
If you have a question or comment for Janie Cheaney, send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.