Blaming the Africans: Cultural Imperialism and the Meeting of the Primates

Eliud Wabukala_5

Sally Struthers was the first to introduce me to Africa. She told me that while 70 cents would garner me a coke, that same two quarters and four nickels could feed an African. My next memory of Africa comes from watching the rise and fall of that famed warrior Shaka Zulu. In the movie,  his story ended in a doomed war against colonialist invaders. These two images, Africa as starving and in need of American salvation and Africa as primitive and violent, shaped my initial view of “the dark continent.” I wished that I could say that time has changed the way that Africa is presented in the West, but recently my seven-year-old son came home from school and asked me whether Africa had cities.

Memories of this paternalistic and monochrome view of Africa returned as I observed the response of some members of the Episcopal Church to the recent meeting of the Primates. I have listened as we lambasted “the Africans” as if they form one country that spoke one language and shared one view of the world: apparently uninformed bigotry.[1] We have pretended that they are not a multi-cultural continent with the same mix of good and bad that is indicative of all societies. I must say this as plainly as possible: If Korea, Japan, India, and China shared a similar view on human sexuality would we blame –implicitly and explicitly – Asian culture? Would we speak about them as a monolith? Would we assume that they are unthinking and “behind” America and the West? This smacks of cultural imperialism. It is cultural imperialism.

Western Anglican media coverage of Africa often follows a familiar pattern. The coverage of non-Western Anglicans usually focuses on economic development, especially the work of Western companion dioceses in the third world. The subtle message is clear: theology is for the west; the Global South receives our aid. Thus, when the Anglican Communion does gather to discuss issues of theology and Africans repeat the official teaching of the Communion and the teaching of the vast majority of Christians everywhere, they are rebuked for taking the focus away from the common mission (of African economic development) that unites the Communion. We seem to be confused as to how those Africans would dare do this after we  have spent the last thirty years congratulating ourselves for granting the aid that we have made the basis of our common life. We cannot understand why they would be so divisive and on the wrong side of our definition of justice.

African Anglicans who oppose changing the Communion’s teaching on sexuality may not know that their views violate a central tenet of progressive thought. Their opposition challenges what appears to be the canonical interpretation of the black experience in the Episcopal Church in the United States.  This definition unites the experiences of the descendants of the slaves, women, those stigmatized for their sexuality orientation, and now Muslims into a single narrative of oppression and freedom. The primary work of the church in our day is to locate and free those who are oppressed in the name of love and acceptance.[2]

It is fair to say that the African-American experience, in particular, is paradigmatic in this narrative. Presiding Bishop Curry himself referred to this idea in his response to the Primates’ decision. He said:

I stand before you as your brother. I stand before you as a descendant of African slaves, stolen from their native land, enslaved in a bitter bondage, and then even after emancipation, segregated and excluded in church and society. And this conjures that up again, and brings pain.

Every last word in that statement is true, but his application of that truth is contested. In linking the struggle of African-Americans to the present day issues surrounding human sexuality, Presiding Bishop Curry taps into a stream of the African-American Christian tradition that makes just this connection. But Presiding Bishop Curry will no doubt recognize that this particular interpretation is not the only interpretation of the African-American Christian experience. His, in fact, is probably the minority position. This does not make it false, but it should be acknowledged that the vast majority of black Christians read our history differently. For example, three of the largest African-American churches in the United States: the African-Methodist Episcopal Church, AME-Zion,  and COGIC combine an emphasis on social activism with a traditional view on marriage. Yes, there was oppression, and  we must continue to fight it in its many forms. However, most of us do not place scripture’s call for justice in opposition to what we believe those same scriptures have to say about marriage and the family.

Pointing out the views of other African-American Christians does not make this side right, but it does make it problematic to dismiss all those who disagree with the changes advocated by the Episcopal Church.  We can only advance this claim by assuming that the entire Christian world apart from especially enlightened portions of the West is simply uninformed. I am asking for understanding and the ability to think the best about one another.  More to the point, it is one thing for Bishop Curry to articulate his interpretation of the black experience, it is quite another for white progressives to confidently adopt this posture and rely on it to criticize black people who disagree with them. That is not your story, you do not own it. There is no canonical interpretation of the black experience that progressives can use to berate Africans or African-Americans who disagree with them.

The Christian definition of justice (even as it pertains to marriage) will be communally discerned in the long arc of history. Our discernment will take place cross-culturally. It will be soaked in prayer and empowered by the Spirit. This definition of justice will arise from attending to what the Spirit is saying today, but we will also listen to what the Spirit has said to the Church in the past and to our brothers and sisters around the globe today. Most of all, we will give our obedience to what we believe to be a faithful reading of the canonical books of the Old and New Testament. This is the Anglican way and we will not be shamed into believing otherwise.


[1] The common assertion that all of African Anglicanism wants to lock up homosexuals is slander. Homosexuality should not be criminalized and Christians should oppose any such laws. I am glad that the recent statement out of the primates meeting says as much. However, before we go about lauding the laws in America, I would point out that the late term abortion is legal in this country. Secondly, African-Americans have their own historic and ongoing critiques of their treatment at the hands of the American legal system.

[2] There is some truth in this idea. Our common imago dei means that it is sub-Christian to mistreat, abuse, or denigrate any person. Nonetheless, the affirmation of same-sex marriage in the church does not follow from the protection of the human rights of homosexuals any more than the affirmation of the teachings of Islam follows from the belief that the rights of Muslims should be protected and treated with respect.


Published by Dr. Esau McCaulley

Esau McCaulley is Assistant Professor of New Testament at Wheaton College in Wheaton, IL. His research and writing focuses on Pauline theology and the intersection of race, Christian identity, and the pursuit of social justice. He is also a priest in the Anglican Church in North America where he serves as Provincial Director for Leadership Development, which involves oversight of the recruitment and formation of clergy and lay leaders. He is one of the creators of Call and Response ministries, an organization committed to hosting conferences and creating resources for Black and Multi-Ethnic churches.

25 thoughts on “Blaming the Africans: Cultural Imperialism and the Meeting of the Primates

  1. Caleb, I am sorry I never got around to getting back to you. I thought that your comment was a bit too long and probably deserved to be a separate article in its own right. Feel feel to write it up as such and then link it here.


  2. I am an African in the fullest sense of the word. My genealogy includes aboriginal Khoisan and two groups of settlers in Southern Africa, namely European and Indian. I have spent most of my life on the Southern tip of the African continent, and am now living in the USA, but return each year to teach and visit with family and church.
    Mr. McCaulley’s article reflects a patronizing, sympathetic response, critical of outsiders who give aid to needy African countries. Africans generally are not empowered by handouts or encouraged to participate in shaping personal destiny. Of course, there will always be prejudicial, defamatory criticisms by aid workers. But connecting the giving of aid with the issue of sexuality at the Primates meeting is a giant leap that has led to a wrong conclusion in the article.
    In the matter of the Primates meeting, the issue of homosexuality and marriage, Mr. McCaulley is dead wrong by implying that an imperial culture from the outside is imposing itself on Africans. This is the criticism, of those from the outside, including Africans, who want to smokescreen what, is actually going down in Africa.
    Africans have always had its unique understanding of marriage. The wisdom of African society on how it has traditionally viewed marriage has been largely determined by concerns for the health and survival of the total African community. Polygamy and homosexuality, has always been a normal practice on the African continent. These practices in relationships, once publicly and openly celebrated, have now gone underground because of two waves of outside imperial culture, washing upon African shores. The first wave was from Europe with its Western and Eastern Christianisms. The second wave was American Evangelical Fundamentalism with its ideology of Biblicism.
    Spreading like herpes, Evangelical, Fundamentalism is now cultural to most African Christians. Mr. McCaulley wrongly blames people from the outside for this kind of imperial culture. This phenomenon, with its prejudices, is now native to the African Continent. One can say that it is now genetic to the African soul. It is Africans converted to the beliefs of Evangelical Fundamentalism, who are enslaving LGBT people on the African continent. One cannot blame foreigners.
    This is why the Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry is so right in connecting the pain of LGBT people on the African Continent with the unbroken chain of pain of African slavery in the world. In the Primates Meeting, he has proven to be martyr and saint for the gospel of the way of the unconditional love of Jesus.
    GAFCON, a mainly clerical, anti-intellectual, lobby group, established for the control of Lambeth Conference and the Anglican Consultative Council, is trying to lead lay African Christians, in a movement to keep the LGBT community in bondage on the African Continent.
    The Episcopal Church is proclaiming by word of unconditional love and deed, freedom from bondage, captivity and the punishment of LGBT persons. Its success depends on whether people keep in the Anglican gene pool of study and conversation, a way foreign to GAFCON.
    Reverend Errol Narain


    1. Thank you for your reply. It is always nice to have people take the time to engage your work. As to your points as I understand them: I would point out that I did not say that giving aid in itself was wrong. I spoke about Anglican media coverage of aid. I said this coverage of aid to the neglect of African theological points of view is the problem, not the aid itself. You did not actually respond to this point.

      Second, I explicitly said that I understood Presiding Bishop Curry’s decision to link sexuality issues to slavery, but this link is a not made by most Black Christians in America. I said that he holds the minority position within the black christian tradition. This is a fact given that most American Black demoninations disagree with this link. I am not sure why pointing this out is offensive or patronizing. What I criticised was the wholesale adoption of this narrative by others as if that is the only interpretation of the African-American Christian tradition.

      Third, I said that African Anglicans repeat the teaching of the Anglican Communion when the affirm the traditional view on marriage. You did not address this point.

      Finally, I am still surprised that many believe that the only way for someone to disagree with a progressive view of marriage is by outside influence. Is it possible that African Anglicans are convinced by their reading of scripture and tradition? Are the Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox and the black church in America all influenced by “evangelical fundamentalism?” The final questions are not rhetorical


  3. Am I the only one who finds the wording of the title to be a little jarring? I realize the word primate is being used in the sense of religious leader, but since it also has the sense of “order of mammals to which humans, monkeys, and apes belong” and since most of the world believes humans evolved from primates in Africa, and since European cultural imperialists thought for a long time that Africans were a less-evolved species of human, when I first read the title it sounded like the article was going to be racist propaganda.


  4. Thank you for saying this. I was stunned as I read some comments in response to the Primates meeting, particularly from the “Cultural Marxist” side, that “the Africans” were being blamed for just about everything that didn’t cooperate with egalitarian constructs.


  5. I have to answer your question about referring to cultures as monoliths. I say yes you would refer to that group as Asian, just as you would a group of European countries as European, Middle Eastern countries as Middle Eastern, South American Countries as South American and so on. The only reason that it is “wrong” to group African countries that think the same as African is that we are taught that we should have guilt about ever thinking of people from Africa as what they actually are and that is African. Yes there are separate countries, political systems, beliefs, and more differences; but it is not wrong to see the similarities. Similarities are what bind all humans together. I am in no way saying that this should be used to discriminate, because discrimination is wrong. I am however saying we should celebrate both similarities and differences.


  6. “I must say this as plainly as possible: If Korea, Japan, India, and China shared a similar view on human sexuality would we blame –implicitly and explicitly – Asian culture? Would we speak about them as a monolith?”

    Empirically? The answer to both questions is, sadly, “yes.”


    1. You are correct in saying, “Sadly.” From this side of the world it might be safe to group Asians together as a monolith, but if you are in Japan, and tell them they are the same as the Chinese, you will not fare too well. For those unfamiliar with Africa, Tanzania and Nigeria might look the same, as Zimbabwe and South Africa. They are not. There are some similarities, but they are certainly different cultures shaped by different climates, different histories, and different ways of seeing the world.

      The whole discussion of the African Bishops over the last few days reminds me of that horrid “Christmas Song” in which the writers lamented the “fact” that no rain ever falls and nothing ever grows in Africa, and horror of all horrors, there won’t be snow for Christmas.


  7. I could see someone saying, “All well and good but aren’t you using ‘Africa’ and the notion of the subaltern of the Western Anglican media to bolster your own claims?”

    Out of genuine curiosity, do you have much evidence for this western Anglican cultural imperialism?


    1. I do not think that I made any particular claim on the basis of the views of African Anglicans. I pointed out that we cannot simply assume the West is right and African theology arises from cultural backwardness. The evidence is the discourse surrounding the Communion itself. We in the West have decided that what the Africans think is vital is really secondary. Furthermore, we have decided that our aid to the developing word IS the common mission that unites the Communion. I do not think that most African Anglicans have agreed to this definition.


      1. As a gay man i am reminded that mant of these primates have supported the criminalization and nailing of lgbt persons…. Their lives are endangered. No cultural context can justify the guma. Suffering these leaders are implicit in causing. Save your empathy for those who are suffering. TEC has not sent people into these countries to try and hurt others. We have lived grace in our iwn country and these bigots are outraged


  8. Great piece. I really enjoyed it. I do have a question. In number 1. at the bottom of the piece, you wrote, “Secondly, according to our court system, just about every death of unarmed black men and women in recent years, has also been somehow legal.” I’ve read it a few times but for the life of me I cannot get it to click in my head what you are saying or referencing. Could you please expand upon that? Thank you!


      1. Thank you. I reread it again last night later and that’s what jumped out at me without your clarification. It felt a lot like when reading a portion of the Bible that I “just don’t get” and the Spirit jumps in gently and says “Here, let me help”. After that, it “Oh!!!” Deep doing all that calling and stuff. Thank you, again.


  9. I find it interesting that many white liberals, for want of a better term, will only acknowledge those Africans, or Afro Americans who agree with them I find that a form of duplicity, saying the black community has intelligence and is equal to white society only if they agree with what liberal white society proposes. if they do not agree, then the blacks who disagree or either being hijacked by some narrow minded white person or are ignoramuses. White liberal society ordains itself as the monitor of proper morality, the sole proprietor of intelligence and the moral wash machine through which all monies and philosophies must pass in order to be fit for public consumption. it is a slap in the face to those primates in Africa who are written off as unintelligent. might we ask is not the liberal wing of the church in a sort of round a bout way advocating slavery, slavery of thought? think our way or we will think less of you.

    Liked by 1 person

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