Posted by: Catherine Weston | March 20, 2009

A gap in our thinking

Street near Mandela Park Church, Khayelitsha

Street near Mandela Park Church, Khayelitsha

It is the grape harvest here. A little stall selling table grapes has appeared at the roadside opposite our flat, so the other day we bought a cardboard tray piled with several bunches of sweet green grapes for R25 (under £2).

We took some with us to share at the young adults group at Mandela Park Church in Khayelitsha where Richard had been invited to speak. There were a lot of jokes about the grapes coming all the way from England, which led to friendly banter about how much fruit we poor Brits have to import from abroad – a lot of it grown near here!

The topic chosen for the Bible study was one close to our hearts: how do you distinguish what is core gospel truth from what is simply cultural? The passage was 1 Corinthians 9. What grew out of it was a lively discussion about what Xhosa Christian men should do about manhood initiation customs which are such an important rite of passage for them.

To become a man in their culture you return to your home village (many have come from rural Eastern Cape Province to find work in Cape Town). There you are circumcised, a goat is sacrificed for the ancestors, you get some instruction on being a man (some brandy drinking seems to be involved!) and get a new suit of clothes. At least, that’s the gist of what we gathered from the discussion. It seems that it’s impossible to do any of this without rituals involving ancestor worship. Even if you are circumcised at the local hospital, without the other rites you are not considered to be a man. And if you are not a man then you cannot be involved in the community discussions and decision making; you cannot teach other men either, because you are still only a boy. If a Christian young man shuns the ceremonies because it conflicts with worshipping Jesus alone (which it does) he has no recognised place in the adult community. This is a very real concern for one of the young men in our group who had not taken part. How can he tell them about Jesus if no one will listen to a boy?

We were very heartened by our time with this group – here were a bunch of young men really wanting to follow Jesus wholeheartedly, live by the Bible and grapple with what it teaches. Some African churches, it seems, allow for a certain compromise with traditional practices. But at what point does flexibility over culture become syncretism? These young men were pretty clear that the Xhosa manhood initiation, as traditionally practiced, was a step too far.

What we learned in our meeting underlined what we had recently discussed in our Mission & Culture class about a gap in Western thinking. We no longer have any categories in our theology for talking about ancestors and the spirit world – yet they are a very real part of life in much of the world. That means that materials on Christian discipleship written in the West offer no help for some of the most important issues that people from other cultures face. This is true for international students too! We are all the more convinced that one of the most important things we do is to ensure the discipleship we do in Friends International is geared to help with such issues.


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