One thing [Jeffrey] Sachs cannot abide is a peculiarly American notion that the plight of the poor stems from their own moral failures. “One of the things I fight against is the strong view in our society that has its own religious and cultural roots that says the poor have themselves to blame,” he says, gaining momentum. “That basic statement is, scientifically, incorrect. . . . Africa’s plight has been variously viewed as a function of being black or being heathen, being pagan, being corrupt, being immoral, being libertine, being savage, being subhuman. Our wonderful civilization has attributed all of these reckless notions to Africa and used those also to condone, excuse, and justify every kind of barbarism on the side of the West imaginable over the last five hundred years. Mass slaughter. Mass slavery. Imperial rule. Colonial domination. Neglect of the AIDS pandemic. It’s all been part of a set of beliefs that have their own basis in deep misunderstandings” (Cathleen Falsani, The God Factor: Inside the Spiritual Lives of Public People, 189).
As I read the chapter on economist Jeffrey Sachs, I remembered some theological reflection I had done on Africa last year.
Zephaniah is one of the minor prophets in the Old Testament. His book is three chapters and is the usual gloom and doom for sin and promise of restoration afterward. Needless to say, Zephaniah is not a much read book. In doing research on Zephaniah, I came across some interesting reading in The New Interpreter’s Bible. The first interesting thing begins with Zephaniah’s genealogy. Zephaniah is the son of Cushi. In Hebrew Cushi means “African.” Cush is believed to be modern day Ethiopia. So Zephaniah could very likely have been from Africa, which might mean that’s why the end of his book has such a message of universal restoration and reconciliation: “From beyond the rivers of Ethiopia my suppliants, my scattered ones, shall bring my offering” (Zeph. 3:11, NRSV). Then NIB goes on to point out a little something in the Bible that white, Western types easily overlook:
The conversion of nations begins with the conversion of Cush: beyond the rivers of Ethiopia (v. 10, cf. Isaiah 18:1, 7). This ancient African superpower exercised a profound influence on the Israelite imagination through the eighth- and seventh-century BCE prophets, who reflected upon its role during the declining years of the Davidic monarchy. The experience of exile and growing diaspora communities, such as at Alexandria in the Nile Delta, also contributed to sustained interest Egypt and Cush of the Nile. The nascent Christian movement saw its pentecost experience as the occasion for expansion, and it, too, looked south into Cush for early conversions. Early church historian Eusebius of Caesarea, for example, saw the conversion of the Cushite official in Acts 8:26-39, which preceded the conversion of the Roman soldier Cornelius (Acts 10), as symbolizing the beginning of the spread of Christianity.
This interpretation of Zephaniah ben Cushi’s identity and the subsequent impact of 3:10 on the conversion account in Acts 8:26-39 help to correct Eurocentric readings of history that exclude Africa’s formative role in the development and spread of Jewish and Christian religious traditions. The acknowledgment and acceptance of Nubia/Cush (the NRSV uses the Greek equivalent, Ethiopia), along with its near neighbor and racial relative, Egypt, as being in and of Africa correct misinformed and often politically motivated views of African inferiority. The biblical witness holds an entirely different view of Egypt and Cush–namely, that they were important African players in the then international political and cultural scene.
Unfortunately, the effects of pseudo-scientific racial theories from the nineteenth century CE, supposedly proving the inherent inferiority of blacks, are still among us. These racial theories are comparable to the lies and deceit that marked the enmity Zephaniah ben Cushi predicted would cease in the coming reign of God. The oracle in Zeph. 3:9-13 should give heart to reformers today who work for local and international peace, because it is a clarion call for removing racist, sexist, and nationalistic ideologies based on lies and deceit and the fear they engender. (The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 7 [Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996], 700-1.)
One thing that has always infuriated me regarding some branches of Christianity is the belief that Africa is in turmoil because they are paying for their sins of idolatry and being pagan–they are “reaping what they sowed” (Galatians 6:7-8). First that is just bad theology. Paul was not writing to pagans–he was writing to Christians. He was telling Christians that they would reap what they sow, so I’m not sure that verse can even be applied to Africa–the Christians in Africa, yes, but the whole continent? Second I believe that Jesus said God sends rain and sun both on the just and unjust because He loves everyone and everything He created. Then we are commanded to be perfect as our Father is perfect–love everyone as he does, which also means forgiving our enemies, since that is the original context of the verse (see Matthew 5:43-47).
Here’s the kicker I really like: Christians cannot say “Well the Old Testament says!” Yes, there is the eye for an eye and holy war in the Bible, but that is just one voice. Zephaniah gives another voice; actually Zephaniah gives us both voices, but I want to focus on the grace, since that’s what gets overlooked in the Old Testament. Zephaniah 3:9-20 is sheer grace. After holding both Judah (God’s people), and the countries around them accountable for their sins and the atrocities they have committed against one another, God just doesn’t offer forgiveness and grace to Judah–He extends it to all the world–heathen included. Grace and salvation for all is not just a New Testament concept–that has been God’s plan all along. He has always wanted to be reconciled to His creation, period. Zephaniah shows us that. It’s also backed up by passages in Isaiah, and then there is this great little phrase in Exodus that often gets overlooked as well. The Passover has just happened and the Hebrews are leaving Egypt–“The Israelites journeyed from Rameses to Succoth, about six hundred thousand men on foot, besides children. A mixed crowd also went up with them!” One of my Old Testament professors said that literally “mixed crowd” means “mongrel.” The mixed crowd was any and every ethnicity and race that wanted to join the Hebrews and follow their God. The Prince of Egypt got that part right! When the Hebrews are leaving Egypt you see Egyptians and others joining them. It wasn’t just the Israelites (i.e. “God’s” people) who were redeemed and brought out of Egypt–it was whoever wanted to come–whoever wanted to have a relationship with God and be a part of his people. From the beginning of the Old Testament to the end there is a voice that says God wants everyone to come to him and be in a relationship with him. The only reason he selected Israel, and then the church, is so that we could show people what a relationship with God looks like. Unfortunately throughout history we have failed at that again and again. And I see grace in that too. We have repeatedly screwed up and misrepresented God in horrific ways, and yet God still chooses to work through us. God could have called it quits and said, “Okay enough is enough, it ends here and now!” But He hasn’t. He still wants to work through us and use us to build His kingdom. Am I only one who wonders if God is really brave or really stupid? And although there are times that I wish Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and company would just be swallowed by a big hole in the ground, I have admit that God extends his grace to them too; just as he does to me. I wonder if they will ever get past their petty, preconceived ideas and see how big God and his grace really are? I wonder if any of us will ever really see how big God and his grace are? I will spend the rest of my life trying.