By Robert Smith
Africa has received more foreign aid than any continent in history. Yet, by almost any reasonable measure, Africa remains badly broken. Its people live lives that are brutish and short when compared to the rest of the world. And as one who is a practicing Christian, who has been involved in Christian ministry in Africa, there is an additional, troubling dimension: Africa is also one of the most evangelized regions in history, and today some African countries are majority Christian, a few countries overwhelmingly so.
So, as a Christian, I have to face the possibility that the answer to the question – Why does Africa remain broken? — might be that the gospel we have delivered is not the True Gospel of Scripture, but a false or incomplete gospel that doesn’t make matters better, but makes them worse.
This conclusion is hard to digest. But consider this: those of us who are Christians believe that the Gospel has the power to transform. Indeed, we know it in our own experience. However, more than 70 percent of the populations of some African countries claim to be Christians. Yet corruption, war, the mistreatment of women, disease – they are all still rampant in many of these so-called “Christian countries.” Why is there an AIDS crisis in the most evangelized part of the world? Why is there corruption and an inability to deal with some basic infrastructure needs in countries that are now it their 3rd or 4th generation of Christians?
The explanation for this phenomenon can be one of only two possibilities: either the Gospel is false, or these Africans have embraced a false Gospel. Because I believe the Gospel is not false, but is true, I am suggesting that the answer is that they have a Gnostic view of the Gospel. They have been given – and they have embraced — a gospel that is disconnected from everyday life. The idea that the Gospel impacts one’s view of politics, of commerce, of health, of society – this notion does not exist, or does not exist as it should.
So what’s the solution? It’s simple, but not easy. The solution is to disciple men and women to tackle these issues from a Christian perspective. Take development, for example. What does the Bible say about begging, about self-sufficiency, about diligence, about perseverance and productivity? The Bible is not silent on these issues. But, too often, neither U.S. foreign aid nor Christian charity works in ways that are consistent with what the Bible says about these issues.
On a practical note, the speed with which colonialists left was harmful to Africans’ ability to keep infrastructure intact. In some cases, a country that was functioning well was left with no civil servants. In some cases, men who had not finished school – or who had no other education or training — were quickly put in positions of great authority. This created a dangerous and corrupting situation.
The result is that billions of dollars in foreign aid enriched these individuals newly placed in these positions of power, rather than doing much good on the ground. This situation produced devastating results. African leaders have learned to play one country off of the other. In the 70s and 80s, the U.S. would prop up bad guys because if they didn’t the Soviets would. Today, the Soviet Union is gone, but China and Muslim interests play the same game.
And what about Christian aid? As Christians we have offered Africa a trite Gospel. It has been presented in a way that emulated some of the colonial weaknesses: a “we and them” framework that offered the convert a ticket to heaven but no ticket to a transformed society. We are the white missionaries; they are the heathen pagans. The result? Both we and they rejected their culture rather than let the gospel transform it.
This we-them mentality also made discipleship problematic. Socially, there was and still often is a vast divide. Missionaries will have a nice car and a nice home in a community that is impoverished. And where does the missionary get his money? By begging for money from churches back home in the U.S. What the missionaries inadvertently teach is that the Christian gospel is one in which asking for money is a core practice. True discipleship, on the other hand, requires a social relationship. It can’t take place in an environment where the missionary is viewed more as the rescuer than as a friend.
How do we fix that?
Firstly, we have to believe ourselves in a Gospel that can transform. And we have to understand that it takes time and effort. The African convert must understand that it takes more than praying a sinner’s prayer and giving up one or two vices. It is a transformation that will change every area of life — not out of a legalism, but as a response to grace.
Most aid does not produce self-sustainability. It does not produce more than it consumes. It creates a cycle of dependence, rather than a capacity for independence. In many areas, the best job you can get is to work for the government or an aid group such as World Vision — rather than a job in the private sector that is creating jobs and goods and services.
The Bible teaches us to work with our own hands, minding our own business, to produce more than we consume, so we can be a blessing to others. If Africa learns to embrace these Biblical ideas, it won’t be long before this continent that has been a burden to the West for so long will be a blessing to the entire world.
Robert Smith is a native South African. He founded the Agathos Foundation, which cares for widows and orphans in Uganda and Zambia. He now runs EarthWise Ventures, a for-profit corporation attempting to help restore the transportation infrastructure around Africa’s Lake Victoria. For more information about EarthWise Ventures: www.earthwiseventures.com