The Fate of Africa: A History of Fifty Years of Independence
New York: Public Affairs, 2005
Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles
New York: Public Affairs, 2009
Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream
Colorado Springs: WaterBrook Multnomah, 2010
Returning through Amsterdam’s Schipohl Airport from Kenya last year, I picked up a couple of books on Africa that, once I started reading, I couldn’t stop. Not that I enjoyed them. I didn’t. But I had just been to Africa and am fascinated by the people and countries I’ve visited.
What these books teach is disheartening. They trace the development of Africa during the half-century since colonial rulers pulled out. Unfortunately, descent rather than development more accurately describes the stories these volumes tell.
Their coverage starts with celebrations as the newly “freed” nations greeted their independence. First the parties, then the long decades of disappointment: Rwanda, Darfur, Zimbabwe, Liberia, Sierra Leone—these just start the list. The early enthusiasm the new national heroes like Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser and Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah and Kenya’s Jomo Kenyatta stirred up quickly gave way to widespread disillusionment as these flawed leaders eventually displayed their true colors.
The depictions of the killings, rapes, and other brutalities with which the Big Man of this country and the Big Kahuna of that one clawed and tortured their way to power are almost more than the reader can bear. You resist the revelations of the heartbreaks that are Biafra, Uganda, Somalia, and Congo. If you ever doubted Lord Aston’s aphorism that “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” just dip into these books.
But all is not bleak. Men like Leopold Senghor of Senegal and South Africa’s Nelson Mandela remind us that out of the worst circumstances virtuous leaders can arise. When they do, the odds they face are all but overwhelming.
European colonial powers must shoulder much of the responsibility; they robbed and pillaged and left most of the continent prostrate. But Europe doesn’t deserve all the blame. Africa’s Big Men have for the most part impoverished their people and destroyed their own economies.
I returned from a trip to Eastern Congo a few years ago not just heartsick, but angry. I was told seven militant groups were shooting at each other then—I’ve learned since that there were even more. My brief experience there was baffling. How could a country so rich in natural resources have no infrastructure, no safety net, no food? How could it allow its children to shiver in nakedness with their bellies bloated by hunger? Even the dogs had disappeared—meat for the starving.
What does flourish, all over Africa, is a lethal combination of rich raw materials, pervasive political corruption, greedy international corporations, crippling poverty, unceasing tribal and racial wars, and near despair that nothing will change. But it’s only near despair. Richard Dowden, for example, marvels that on a continent in which so much has gone so wrong, hope doesn’t die. These are resilient people, survivors. Conditions that would kill us soft Westerners have not wiped out their hope
You can’t read Meredith and Dowden, the journalist and historian who have invested so heavily in this vexing, perplexing continent, without sensing their love for the land and the people.
Still, the call for assistance is urgent: Not yet more Western subsidies, not more international corporations sucking the wealth out to enrich the stockholders back home, not more well-intentioned do-gooders charging in on their white horses, not more lining of the stuffed pockets of the Big Men, but more investment in real job creation and real medical and educational attention. For this reviewer, at least, this means a more intelligent partnership between American churches and African.
One pastor who addresses this issue from the American perspective is David Platt, who preaches each weekend to an assembly of more than 4,000. Rather than glorying in his numerical success, though, he laments the megachurch mentality; he asserts that such a mentality is more beholden to the self-serving American Dream than to the others-serving Great Commission.
Platt fills his small book with anecdotes that illustrate the distance between what he believes Jesus would have us do as “radical” Christians and what we actually do as American dreamers. Radical recounts stories like
the Saturday evening Platt spent with a large church’s leaders before preach-
ing there on Sunday. He excitedly told of ministry opportunities in foreign countries traditionally hostile to the gospel. He expected an enthusiastic response. Instead, he got this: “David, I think it’s great you are going to those places. But if you ask me, I would just as soon God annihilate all those people and send them to Hell.”
The next morning it got worse. The host pastor closed the service by telling the guest, “Brother David, we are so excited about all that God is doing in New Orleans and in all nations, and we are excited that you are serving there. And, brother, we promise that we will continue to send you a check so we don’t have to go there ourselves.”
That’s Platt’s take on the successful church of American dreamers who want theirs, work hard to get it, and then dribble out a little of their leftovers for the rest of the world. Is this what Jesus wants?
To combat this perversion of the church’s role in the world, Platt dares the reader to try this one-year experiment in living radically for Christ. He includes a pledge form so we’ll take his challenge seriously. Here it is:
For one year,
I will pray for the entire world.
I will read through the entire Word.
I will sacrifice my money for a specific purpose.
I will spend time in another context.
I will commit my life to a multiplying community (an evangelistic church).
I will state specific, measurable goals for each pledge, and I will sign and date the commitment page.
And I will live a radically, not an American dreamer, lifestyle as a Christian.
Worth signing, don’t you think?
David Platt is not a lone voice in the wilderness. I may be wrong, but I believe there is a growing commitment among American churches to be more externally focused, to seek meaning over money, service over self-indulgence, and discipleship over membership. Platt’s pledge resonates with increasing numbers of pastors and people.
The American Dream has proved to be an illusion. Since 2008 fortunes great and small have vanished. Something more substantial, more lasting is called for. Serving the Lord of the Great Commission and the Great Commandment gives that satisfaction.
Do you have anything better to offer?
LeRoy Lawson, international consultant with Christian Missionary Fellowship International, is a CHRISTIAN STANDARD contributing editor and a member of Standard Publishing’s Publishing Committee. His column appears at least monthly.