Christian Values Versus traditional Cultures, by Fr. Lawrence Muthee, SVD
From the Catechism of the Catholic faith, we learn that the Catholic faith and worship is anchored on three major pillars namely: the Holy Scriptures, The Apostolic Tradition and the Magisterium. These three are founded upon the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth who is the Christ. Jesus came to enlighten us from the darkness of the past and renew us in spirit to be like God again after sin had damaged the image and likeness of God that we were created with. Though Jesus was born and brought up as a Jew, he did not get corrupted by Jewish negative traditions but rather he condemned them and helpe his fellow Jews to see things his way, the way of God (Lk 4:16-20). He also commanded his disciples to do the same (Mt. 28:19-20).
Christianity is about the Good News of salvation and cannot be tied to a certain culture. Christian values are valid for all cultures all the time because they transform and enlighten the people to live better and dignified lives. Although Christianity was brought to Africa by non-Africans, it cannot be considered as a foreign ideology. No matter who propagates it, Christian message is independent of any cultural orientation.
Christian values call for radical transformation of those who convert to it. This transformation means shedding away of all the practices that go against the teachings of Christ. One cannot keep both Christian values and negative cultural practices such as discrimination of women, which leads to polygamous unions.
Catholic faith is very elaborate about the life of a person in the light of the Gospel. There are mysteries of faith taught by Christ that require sober and thorough instructions in order to see their value and benefits in the life of the Catholic. These distinguishes Catholic faith from other Christian denominations. Among them are the seven Sacraments. The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines Sacraments as “The efficacious signs of the invisible grace perceptible to the senses instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church (1113-1131). The sacraments not only presuppose faith but also with words and ritual elements they nourish, strengthen, and express it. By celebrating the sacraments, the Church professes the faith that comes from the apostles.
This means that the Sacraments are not only superficial rituals that are performed without internal consequences. The sacraments are supposed to impart radical transformation to those to whom they are conferred.
The question of the Sacramental faith in the Polygamous Maasai community, for example, poses many challenges to the progress of evangelization. While many other radical cultures in Africa and other parts of the world were being largely transformed by the Christian faith, the Maa people remained stagnant due to the approach employed by the first evangelizers, that of relaxing the rules because the culture was seemingly too profound to break through. However, one would argue that the said approach was the best at the time; it will be insincere to deny the fact that if the right measures were employed earlier, as it was the case in other cultures, deep inroads would have been possible and today things would have been different. After 150 years of Evangelization in East Africa, majority of the cultures have embraced Christian values largely. However, the Maasai community has been left so much behind in many aspects.
The negligent to inspire and inform positive transformation to the Maa people as far as matters faith and formal education is concerned, has left them stuck in cultural practices that are no longer sustainable in the twenty first century. These include polygamous unions and child mmarriages Today many are living in abject poverty unable to feed their families because of the changing economic times. Delay in embracing formal education has left the community without enough human resources to fuel economic growth. Both the Church and civil leaders ought to have done better.
Just as they say change is inevitable, time has come when the Maasai culture is at crossroads. You can delay change but you cannot evade it. The more the kairos of change is delayed the more devastating it gets when the reckoning time comes. Changing slowly and steadily makes change bearable and sometimes enjoyable. Drastic change in huge portions may cause constipation and wreck communities. Cultures who have embraced transformation over the years have been able to preserve what was good and shed off what was detrimental without even noticing it. Those that delay too much risks throwing away the baby with the dirty water.
Here in the Maasai South mission, we are living a critical defining moment as far as the Christian faith is concern. When the Church arrived here in the late 1950s, the missionaries faced enormous challenges to convince the people to trade their deeply rooted cultural values for Christin ones. Instead of working towards convincing them, a kind of memorandum of understanding was made between the missionaries and the people compromising the very basic Christian values. The foundation was not well dug. The people accepted to be baptized and to go to Church on Sundays as long as the missionaries kept off their deep cultural practices such as polygamous unions. The Church participated in these practices and this made the people think that these values were coherent with the Christian Values.
They were not only baptized but they were also given Confirmation and Holy Eucharist without knowing what they were receiving. The Eucharist was converted into a common meal for those who were frequent and committed to going to Church even if they did not have a clue what it meant for them. Telling them today that they are not supposed to receive the Eucharist in their current state confuses them the more.
However, though they may not understand at this moment, we cannot afford to continue erring. It is time to look for ways that will gradually bring the transformation needed. It has to be a well organized and coordinated strategy. Profound sensitization, discussions and explanations are needed. All the stakeholders have to speak the same language. Patience will be key ingredient. Uniform guidelines needs to be employed in all the affected areas. It is time now to turn around and follow the proper direction. People have been lost for too long following mistaken direction. In the words of the Archbishop of Arusha Archdiocese his Grace Isaack Amani, time has come “to teach the Maasai people to be like Christ and not to teach Christ to be a Maasai”.
The evangelizers today need to understand the Maasai Culture and any other culture for that matter and strive to help them transform and be like Christ. They are not supposed to become Maasai and be interpreted to be supporting cultural practices that are detrimental to progress in faith. We cannot continue to entertain exceptions and expect to bring positive change. The rules do not change because some people find it difficult to adhere to them. They are rather patiently helped to understand them. A man who has his health vision does not pluck off his eyes in order to lead a blind man.
In our mission we have launched a big campaign dabbed “Mbelegenya” (Maasai word for change), to educate people in matters of true faith as opposed to the negative cultural practices. This we are doing not forgetting to commend and encourage many good practices such as deep concern for the family and the spirit of sharing that are deeply rooted in the Maa culture. We are visiting them in their small Christian communities to discuss the way forward and letting them participate fully in the search for solutions. So far we have started seeing some progress. The old men who are married to many wives are accepting to be the ambassadors of change to their children. Though they find it difficult to leave other women and get married to one in the Church, they have agreed to make sure that their sons and daughters do not make the same mistakes as they did. Once they understand what the Eucharist entails, they no longer complain of being denied to receive. This month we are blessing four marriages as a fruit of this campaign.
For the old women who are now widowed, we are preparing them in catechism of the Eucharist so that they can receive what they know and honor. For the young widows this may not be easy because in the Maa culture, widows can continue to give birth children for their late husband with friends. Unless the men, the young widows are not allowed to get married again. They are condemned to live under the shadow of their departed husbands. Sometimes small girls as young as 12 years old are married off to men as old as 60 years as second, third or even firth wives. When these men die, the girls are left at the mercy of the men in the compound. These women find it difficult to remain faithful to the old men who sometimes do not satisfy their conjugal rights. The consequences of this is the high rate of HIV infections.
With motorcycle transportation now men are able to move easily from one village to another and bring home STDs and HIV. As a Church, we have the responsibility to educate this community to move from cultural practices that are killing or maiming their future. The month of October being the missionary month, we have intensified our campaign for change and transformation. We may not be around to reap the fruits but we are certain that there will be sweet ones in the future.