Where Do We Come From? What are We? Where Are We Going to?
When I first learned about the essays compiled in this book I one day stood in front of one of Paul Gauguin’s (1848-1903) monumental paintings. It’s titled Where Do We Come From? What are We? Where Are We Going to?” These three questions summarize the painter’s main interest: birth, life, death, and how he contemplated the relationship between humans, nature, culture and religion. One could sum up Gauguin’s complete work with the key phrase Longing For: Images of paradise, yearning for an ideal world, pristine nature, harmony between humans, society, culture and nature characterize his paintings. However, his longing for was an escape from a world that is far from paradise, and from this life. In fact, shortly after having completed the above mentioned painting which he thought to be his last, he tried to end his life, disillusioned and disenchanted.
The contributions of this anthology are brought together under the title There is something we long for – Nous avons un désir, but under other auspices. The introductory poem shows the perspective of desire and longing for the biblical promise of God’s justice in the here and now (Moni Egger). This longing for justice leads to the supplication for truthful speech: „Scatter salt on our lips, so that our words may be faithful and true.“ (Heidrun Suter-Richter). Thus are the longing for life in this world and the will to change put face to face. In the midst of experiences of failure, violence and strife, the authors are oriented towards hope for a life in abundance (John 10,10). The essays have, indeed, inspired me to think further. In four thematic groups I will gather some of their concerns, bring them into conversation with each other and connect them to questions which are of particular interest in my current work.
- Longing for Identity
In the introduction Tsena Malalaka is presented by the editors as a group of theologians which is searching for what it wants to be and what it hopes for the Church as the Body of Christ: „What we long for is … more than what is already established or approved by traditional structures. “ The longing for represents the tension between what is already reality – our divine filiation – and that which will be: being like him, Jesus Christ. 1 John 3,2f puts it like this:
„Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.“ (1 John 3,2f)
The contributions in this volume engage many identity issues. The ignorance of what we will be is, on the one hand, comforting and liberating as it opens a space for change of an unsatisfactory status quo in our own lives, in the Church, in the society and the world. As it is said in 1 John, it is imperative under the sign of hope in Jesus Christ, to work for renewal, sanctification, and for the beginning of a new life. On the other hand, the future is by no means clear for us to see. This is why the search for orientation becomes a task. The question of what can be longed for and shaped in the space in between divine filiation and what we will be must be at stake. The longing for is symbolized doubly: revelation and hidden truth. Whatever we desire must not be arbitrary, but devised according to him whom the world has not yet recognized (1 John 3.1). At the same time everything we long for remains under reserve as identity and knowledge go hand in hand: While we already know that we will be like the Risen One, we do not yet see him as he is.
- Longing for cross-cultural understanding across cultural boundaries
This year’s (2015) World Day of Prayer was focused on the narrative on Jesus’ foot-washing, according to which Jesus asks „his people“ (John 13.1-17): „Do you understand what I have done to you?“ (v.12) Jesus‘ words and actions are not only misunderstood in the „world“, but also by his family, because they infringe upon religious rules and cultural codes and expose the thinking in hierarchical categories. Today understanding is blocked in, amongst others areas, academic theology and church practice, if both are disconnected from each other (Brigitte Rabarijona) or because agreements are reached on a withdrawn level of reflection that is disconnected from the deep structures of the human psyche (Verena Naegeli). Therefore the authors of this anthology recall that Jesus‘ words and actions aim towards an understanding of communication that steps beyond boundaries – or towards translation in the broadest sense. What could be more obvious than putting this cross-border communication into practice? At the round table, the team of authors brings African and European approaches to theology into conversation producing a transcultural blaze of color that remains closed to monocultural theology (Verena Mühlethaler). If the message of the Gospel is passed down across linguistic, cultural, religious and social boundaries, trans-latio, trans-missio or just translation is at stake from the beginning. The evangelists already translated Jesus‘ words from Aramaic into Greek. To understand the words of the Hebrew Bible, they resorted to the Greek translation (the Septuagint). Even in New Testament times, Christians put a multilingual translation process in motion that accelerated the passing of the message, implied a highly fertile „circularity of the word“ (Josée Ngalula) and fertilized the transcultural theological exchange. However, translations are not only complex, but also ambivalent. On the one hand, they are in danger of distorting the „original text“ – for example by adjusting the name of God to questionable conceptions of God, or by bringing in line foreign names of God – eg Modimo – with Missionary Christian ideas (Ina Praetorius). Therefore, new translations and new interpretations of the Bible remain a task of the worldwide Christianity (Pia Moser). On the other hand, we need the trans-lation of biblical texts in new languages, different cultures and lifestyles, in order to make new insights into the message possible (Fidèle Houssou Gandonou). Like a diamond that reflects ever new facets and sparkles in new colors when you turn it into a cone of light, so new facets of the gospel light up as soon as it is translated in – turned towards – new languages and worlds of thought. If shalom is transposed via eirene to the Malagasy fihavanana (Yvette Rabemila), new layers of meaning will shine without losing their partly affirmative and partly critical reference to the previous translations. By linking fihavanana to peace / paix, the „circularity of the word“ will continue that began in the first century and will reach to the fullness of Christ in the future…
„…so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.“ (Ephesians 4,13)
- The desire for a homeland in the strangeness of existence
Mobility, the experiences of migration and flight are a feature of our time that theological thinking cannot avoid. With this experience the longing for home inevitably pushes to the fore. For many people the original homeland is no longer and the foreign land not yet home (Evelyne Zinsstag). Sealing oneself off against foreign influences, however, would obviously not be a convincing counter-strategy. It drives people into isolation and fear, instead of bringing them closer to the longed-for home. The members of Tsena Malalaka pursue another path, consciously searching for dialogue in the encounter between Africa and Europe, dealing with it theologically, thus developing their theological multilingualism. In the direct dialogue and mutual visits an exposure takes place, an exposing of oneself to what life in the wrong place is, which for so many people is a forced harsh reality (Tania Oldenhage). In the age of globalization theological reflection rightly takes place in such wrong places, where a multitude of homelessness exists. Ecumenism, as well, cannot abstain from being a thorn in the flesh of churches that have made themselves all too homey in their own territory. To construct cross-border communion, ecumenical theology must never stop to be a locus theologicus alienus for the churches.
- The desire for life in the face of violence
This book confronts us with the omnipresence of violence. Violence shapes the daily lives of women and children, dominates the economic and political communities in many countries and is highly visible in the global society, too. For the Tsena Malalaka dialogue between Europe and Africa the historical factors of violence do not remain hidden as former colonies, countries like Benin, Togo, Congo, Tanzania, Zimbabwe and Madagascar, have perpetuated colonial patterns of violence. Combined with cultural patterns that are entrenched in indigenous societies they bear a double weight on the population, particularly on the most vulnerable. For what can people who are trapped in hopeless spirals of violence hope? Should we, for example, dismiss Christianity in Africa because it emerged from the colonial mission? Should we say goodbye to Mission altogether as it is – or has been – a cross-border and border-violating venture? That would be no solution, as the absence of communication across cultural and religious boundaries would inevitably end in ethnocentrism. Rather what is at stake is leaving behind forcibly built power relations in order to create space for encounters of equals. The conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well can be a model for this, understood as a sign for the breaking of asymmetries in everyday life, in religion and (world) society (Elizabeth Vengeyi). However, how can the dialogue between Africa and Europe succeed, when dealing with, on the European side, the burdensome guilt of colonialism, on the African side with the colonial legacy? It’s easier to identify the dead ends of such an attempt than its success. For example, if social ills in Africa are attributed one-sidedly to the colonial legacy, the responsibility for change is delegated to external actors and local governments are „de-charged“ at the same time of their political responsibility. The „théologie de la reconstruction“ counters a responsible ethical thinking to this trend (Brigitte Rabarijona). The grassroots project of women in Madagascar that contribute to minimizing violence in everyday life with their Peace caravan points in the same direction (Yvette Rabemila). To convert the victimization of women into strength is an inventive attempt from Togo: teenage pregnancies are called a „chance“ that can be used to undermine patriarchal power (LéocadieAurélie Billy). „I long for women to be empowered in all spheres of life“ (Mary Kategile). „We are longing to be valued as God’s co-workers“ (Juliette Razafiarisoa): These words aptly sum up what every contribution connects no matter where the authors are coming from, where they are located, what constitutes their identity, where and how they live and work.
(Translation from French: Ina Praetorius & Melissa Eberle-Schwartz)