Civilizing the World: Missionaries, Hutus, and Tutsis

During the “exploration” and colonization of Africa, European intellectuals kept stumbling upon a disturbing fact:  the Africans were not always the uncivilized brutes they ought to have been.  According to racist ideology–summarized beautifully and disturbingly by Hegel–true Africa (and Africans) lacked all historical, cultural, and intellectual development.  To account for the appearance of progress and civilization within Africa, Europeans restructured the “biblical” basis for enslaving Africans, the Hamitic Hypothesis.  

According to the Hamitic Hypothesis, Africans descended from Ham, the son of Noah.  The curse of servitude upon Ham’s descendants, therefore, applied to the Africans:  African enslavement was divinely-ordained.  During the early 19th century, this hypothesis was flipped upside down.  Now, the Hamites were not Africans; they were more like a middle ground between Europeans and Africans.  The Hamites were the civilizing force within Africa; they were not indigenous to Africa, but came to Africa, settling there and bringing cultural advancement along with them.  By the 1870’s, this hypothesis gained such strong ground that a group of theologians and missionaries at the Vatican I council could call on a mission to rescue the “hapless Hamites caught amidst the Negroes” (Mamdani, 86).  
In Rwanda, this Hamitic hypothesis was used to explain the differences between Hutus and Tutsis.  Even before colonial times, Tutsis had been the leaders over Hutus (which became a single ethnic identity only after Tutsi rule:  Hutus were all those who weren’t Tutsi).  During the colonial period, this hierarchy was altered in two ways.  First, the distinction between Hutu and Tutsi became racialized.  Earlier, one could “become” Tutsi by climbing the social ladder.  In other words, the distinction between Hutu and Tutsi was permeable:  it wasn’t common, but one could–and some did–move from one group to the other.  The colonial period made the distinction a racial distinction, and hence closed:  one was biologically either Hutu or Tutsi and there was no movement between the two.
Secondly, the colonial workers explained Tutsi rule through the Hamitic hypothesis:  Tutsi’s were natural leaders because they were not, properly speaking, African at all!  They were a foreign and superior settler race (Hamitic).  They represented, therefore, a kind of degraded Caucasian presence.  Tutsis were not white, but they were not African (like the Hutus).  
Missionaries and church leaders recognized this “Tutsi” superiority from the outset and organized Rwandan society around it.  At one point, many Tutsi leaders were resisting conversion to Christianity.  The Belgian authorities started deposing these non-Christian leaders–they were “unredeemable” and hence unfit to rule.  To fill the vacancies, the Belgian officials appointed Hutu leaders.  Christian missionaries (here, Catholic) were shocked:  the colonial officials were undermining the “traditional” and natural social arrangement (Mamdani, 91).  
It is an interesting shift:  the Belgian colonial administration thought it was more important to have Christians (whether Hutu or Tutsi) in leadership positions, whereas the missionaries believed Tutsi leadership was essential.  To place Hutus in positions of power undermined not just the missional-colonial structure in Rwanda, it undermined the very logic and rationale of the European civilizing mission:  racial superiority justifies European hegemony, and if the logic of racial superiority is denied (between Hutu and Tutsi), the justification of European rule will be denied as well.  Only the racially advanced can rule in a civilized fashion; accordingly, any instability in the racial order (European–Hamitic/Tutsi–African/Hutu) undermines the whole project of Christian civilization.  
One of the many problems in this situation–and there are so many–is that the state’s pragmatic interests would have better served the Rwandan people than the Church’s Christian convictions.  If Hutus had been allowed positions of power, perhaps the sharp distrust between the Hutus and Tutsis would not have escalated.  Perhaps the identities between the two would have not have become hardened, perhaps the Hutus would have had ways to protect themselves….But the Church was committed to a particular vision of the world (and its place in it, at the top).  The Church “acted as both the brains and the hands of the colonial state” (Mamdani, 99).  It governed the state–prophetically, one might say.  It challenged the state to live beyond mere pragmatic calculation, to see things from a biblical perspective, to understand what was at stake:  not just Belgian power, but the Church, Europe, [and] the kingdom of God! 
Why tell this long history?  Why implicate the church so heavily?  What does that mean for us–for me–today?  First, the situation in Rwanda highlights the problem of modern theology.  Fanon (my last post, May 2nd) points out in the 1960’s what was true back in the 1800’s and even before then (to the medieval era):  Christianity and the Church were the expression of European civilization, and more importantly, the project of European civilization (to bring all others into the true and authentic expression of human existence, Christian/European culture).  Without a doubt, this problem still exists (think of the “clash of civilization” and the “culture wars” rhetoric prominent today); we are still in it.  Though very few would endorse the Hamitic hypothesis or use the language of race, most Christians can’t help but feeling that Christianity has something central and essential to offer to the project of modern civilization (whether through direct oversight or through outside “prophetic” witness to the state).  The terms have certainly changed, but are we certain we have left the problem behind?  Do we even know how to diagnose the problem?
Secondly,  to move beyond Hutu-Tutsi difference in post-genocidal Rwanda, one cannot just appeal to the “baptismal” unity, to “Christian” identity, or to “Rwandan” identity.  Unless we analyze how all of these identities can be articulated as forms of cultural possession (we know who we are, and who we are is set off against, separate from, and opposed to some others, whether Congolese, Muslim, or whatnot), none of them will help move us beyond the problem. 
Thirdly, as a white American male looking into the situation from afar, I have to find ways to speak into the problem without positioning myself as the new western missionary, possessing the truth–the latest gospel–of who we all are and how to effectively bring everyone else into it.  How can I preach or teach in this situation?  That is a real question and a real problem.  
*All references to Mamdani come from Mahmood Mamdani, __When Victims Become Killers:  Colonialism, Nativism, and the Genocide in Rwanda___.*
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10 Responses to Civilizing the World: Missionaries, Hutus, and Tutsis

  1. Actually, Nick Barrett said: I think Galatians is a helpful dialogue partner in this discussion–especially concerning the implications of post-colonialism–because, it reminds us to draw a sharp line between nationalism and the “righteousness of God.” That is to say, what truly matters is “new creation”; rather than, race, nationalism, or socio-political ideology. Although I lament the epistemological consequences wrought by post-colonialism and its re-affirmation of the “violent” post-Kantian universe, I fear greater, the imperialistic nationalism all-to-often associated with euro-western missiology and “evangelicalism.” I highly recommend you read J.L Martyn’s Anchor Bible Commentary on Galatains. I appreciate your awareness and sensitivity to the missiological issue as you prepare for your mission.

  2. I’ve actually been thinking about Galatians (I downloaded free lectures on Paul from ITunes U–Reformed Theological Seminary; not the best, but still helpful). At Duke, there is a lot of hope in returning to “the tradition” as a way of bypassing the weakness and failings of “evangelicalism.” Admittedly, I’ve been taken up by it (I’m in an Anglican church now, after all); but I’m starting to be a bit skeptical about it (not about being in the Anglican Church, I love it, but about thinking that this move somehow gets me out of the problem). Galatians helps clarify how Christians want to rest their hope and confidence in something more concrete and substantial (i.e., possessed) than just God’s “nevertheless” (grace). Evangelicals and those who’ve jumped to the more “traditional” forms need to be reminded that the church always and only stands under the judgment of God and points not to itself, its own practices (whether liturgical, social, cultural, biblical!, etc) but only to the faithfulness of Christ (again, Barth and Bonhoeffer here). I haven’t read Martyn’s commentary, but I’ve read others that have learned from him (apocalyptic emphasis) and found them helpful.

  3. Nick Barrett: Yes, I agree. The church is accountable to God along with any other institution. I think Wink and Yoder are helpful here, especially when trying to figure the way in which external powers, internally affect institutions like the church as well. I agree with your skepticism of “tradition” as the penultimate answer to the post-colonial crisis and the problematic horizon of religious pluralism and multiculturalism. Although, I appreciate Radical Orthodoxy, I am skeptical that it will make good on its promises, and that it can ever escape its modern POMO lens–much like you and me. Tradition can’t be the answer since tradition–in many ways–functioned as the cause. I am, however, inclined to give quite a bit of consideration to Theological Aesthetics, because it seems to offer a lens similar to parts of the world which never went through (and still have not gone through) the enlightenment. We (in the “west”) may be under the choke hold of Kant, but even we can dance and sing with others. Although, Analytic and pseudo-scientific “theological methods” have interesting things to say to the western academy, they are essentially bankrupt and meaningless to a better part of the world. Yet, beauty, seems to resonate across every cultural.

  4. I should send you my thesis–I argue in it that Milbank’s theology presupposes an imperialist/orientalist vision of the world. I then turn to S. T. Coleridge (1800’s) as a source for Milbank’s theology, showing how euro-racist imperialism structures his theology, and then finally argue that Milbank’s “analogy of being” presupposes this imperialist culture (and hence Milbank’s Christian “culture” functions as a kind of neo-racist or “racism without race” discourse). What sustains RO is a lament about the collapse of Christian civilization (“once there was no secular…”) and a fantasy of a better (colonial….) time when the world was ordered and arranged “peacefully” by the Church. Milbank is explicit that his project is about rehabilitating the “Christian West” (esp. British Anglicanism) to reconstitute the Church as an organizing principle in the world. The attack on the secular, the attempt to reduce all non-Christian philosophy to violence, the worries about pluralism, the critique of liberal democracy and capitalism all follow from that prior commitment to Western Christian civilization. The fact that Hauerwas et al. don’t critique Milbank here shows how much they are actually caught up in it to: the objection isn’t to the project per se but over whether we ought to be pacifists or just warriors, anabaptists or anglicans, while we go about it. Neither could follow Barth–and Milbank wouldn’t claim to–in saying that the world would be lost without Jesus Christ but wouldn’t necessarily be lost without the Church. Barth insists on this point because it prevents the Church from claiming a position of strength and defining itself over against the world–it thus offers a way past the structure of identity that operated throughout “modernity,” from the imperialist age of expansion, to the colonies and orientalism, to German National Socialism. Well, I was going to say more about theological aesthetics, but I should stop this rant: I’ll only say that most theological aesthetics necessitate some kind of “analogy of being,” which obviously concerns me.

  5. Nick Barrett said: Yes you should send me your thesis, because this issue has become critically important to me in the last year, plus I would love to see if that Duke education has done you well (I am sure it has!). Your critique of Milbank is taken well. His concern does appear to be the rehabilitation of the Christian west and his desire to reconstitute the church as the central organizing principal, does seem to both assume and affirm a prior commitment to Western Civilization. Obviously, I think he would disagree with your claim that his theology functions as a type of neo-racist “racism without race” critique. Yet, more specifically, I would add that RO also clings to a prior commitment to western theology and philosophy as a “privileged” epistemological and metaphysical framework (I am aware that my use of these terms falls prey to that very trap). My point is that, RO privileges western structures of language and thought over and above societies that do not use these structures. Because of this, RO tends to do “aesthetics” through the lens of western philosophy and theology; which is entirely problematic for the rest of the world, because it again forces western notions of aesthetics. Yet, the very idea of trying to escape our Western lens also appears to be a western idea (cf. post-colonial philosophy, and structuralism, and deconstructionist philosophy). It is also problematic that RO attacks the secular, attempts to reduce all non-Christian philosophy to violence etc… because these attacks do assume and privilege prior commitment to Western Christian civilization. However, concerning Barth as the alternative may also be problematic. I am concerned that by leaning too heavily into Barth, you carve out a large chasm between Christ and the church—as Christ’s body. I tend to favor Barth’s reading more often than not, but I do find this dichotomy troubling, especially in light of Paul’s unwillingness to draw this distinction. If we go with Barth on this issue, then what implications does a text like 1 Cor 6ff. have on Christian ethics? On this issue, I think Barth dangerously walks a pseudo Gnostic line. In 1 Cor 6ff., Paul seems to suggest that what we do with our bodies (individually and communally) is essentially, the way in which we extend Christ to others. This of course raises all kinds of other questions concerning ethics and psycho-somatic politics, which I will avoid here. Nevertheless, I agree with Barth’s critique, lest the church claim some position of superiority over and against the world (as you stated so nicely). At the same time, though, when reading Barth, we should remember that—to some extant—Barth was reacting against the German Church’s spineless acceptance of German nationalism and Naziism (cf. the Barmen Confession). In light of his context, it would make perfect sense for him to develop a sort of polemic against a theology, which privileged the institution of the church in any way. Regardless, I do like your critique of RO, that Barth “offers a way past the structure of identity that operated throughout “modernity,” from the imperialist age of expansion, to the colonies and orientalism, to German National Socialism.” I think this is a good critique of RO and a useful reading of Barth in light of the present trend in evangelicalism to move toward RO—as seen all-too-often by the astounding number of young white men planting churches all across America (please note my sarcasm here). Why do you think Theological Aesthetics is a problem? “Aesthetic” methods—as we would call it—seem to pervade just about every culture. I don’t want to advocate a type of Schleiermarchian theology, but, I think he was on to something when he described the way human beings intuit knowledge on the basis of sense experience. Last week I had lunch with a guy from Maloui who is doing a PhD at Fuller, and we talked about some of these issues. I asked him what the general “pop” view of the universe is, in a place like Maloui. He said that many Africans—at least those not yet educated in western thought—formulate ideas about the universe through sense experiences, with nature, and what we would call the “arts” (e.g., Dance etc…). I think Schleiermacher nailed this point well. Nevertheless, this guy from Maloui, went on to describe how the relationship between tactile elements and the “spiritual” world are always tied together. As I listened to him speak, I could not help but think that, despite the limitations of my western perspective, our intentional and unintentional privileging of modern/ pomo philosophy has lead us to view this type of “theological/ philosophical methodology” as inferior, even though it would also tell us we can never disagree with it. That was my point in my last post, when I alluded to the “violence” of a post-Kantian universe (i.e., thanks to Kant and others, if I am a cannibal, you can never tell me I am wrong). Although we cannot escape our perspective, I think aesthetics might function as a bridge between our very different ways of understanding the world. There is not doubt that our tastes concerning beauty are shaped by our social practices. Yet, even if we don’t agree on what is or isn’t beautiful, we all resonate with the reality of beauty, since it plays on our desires and affections.

  6. Nick Barrett said: One last thought. Although most theological aesthetics follow Thomas’ analogy of being, there are other aesthetic theologies preceding Thomas. In would argue that wisdom lit., along with much of the OT functions as a type of “theological aesthetics.”

  7. Nick,I sent you a copy of my thesis using the email address listed on facebook. Briefly, on 1 Cor 6, I don’t think Paul uses “body of Christ” language regarding Christian witness; he does use it in terms of Christian ethics–but we shouldn’t think that our ethics are our witness (because it doesn’t work–good non-Christians, etc–and it makes our witness a pointing to ourselves). In terms of witnessing, I think 1 Cor 1-2 (knowing nothing but Christ crucified, coming in weakness, without persuasive power but totally dependent on the power of Christ, the cross) and 2 Cor 4-5 (we do not proclaim ourselves, we bear in our body the death of Christ and the power of God we hold in our own emptiness and weakness and from this posture we witness–proclaim that in Christ (not in us) God was “reconciling the world to himself”).But these questions are the ones I’m asking right now, and so I think you are exactly right to push me on them. I like how Barth pulls away any possibility of Christian self-assertion or self-possession. His first attempt to do this in the Romans commentary does have Gnostic tendencies (which he admits), but I don’t think you see that in his Dogmatics. On aesthetics–my worry is that a theological aesthetic presupposes a communal practice of judgment and hierarchical arrangement that has been, in modernity, explicitly linked to the racial ordering of the world. One has to carefully work through those practices and ideas before one can reclaim any kind of aesthetic–and this is what make Milbank’s and David B. Hart’s “aesthetics” problematic. But I haven’t done the work to see how a theo. aesthetics could be reconfigured–I’d be interested in seeing how one rebuilds it from within a kind of “blues” or “jazz” aesthetic setting (thinking of the music, the literature, and the practices involved…but again, it’s not something I’ve spent too much time on).

  8. Nick Barrett said: Hmmm…. I want to push a bit further if you don’t mind. Again, regarding 1 Cor 6ff., I am not sure Paul draws a distinction between ethics and witness. For example, Paul says concerning lawsuits in 1 Cor 6:6, “Instead, does a Christian sue a Christian, and do this before unbelievers?”If Paul has drawn a clear distinction between witness and ethics, then why is he concerned with ethical behavior before unbelievers? Also, consider Paul’s words in 1 Cor 6:15-17, “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Should I take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! Or do you not know that anyone who is united with a prostitute is one body with her? For it is said, “The two will become one flesh.” But the one united with the Lord is one spirit with him.”It seems for Paul to say that their bodies (i.e., body parts) are members of Christ, is indicative of Paul’s “psycho-somatic politics” as the logical corollary of his corporeal “Christ-body” metaphor. Thus, what we do with our bodies is what we do with Christ. Two issues seem to arise from this issue: one Christological and the other anthropological. 1.) If Christ is un-corporeal, the essence of the hypostatic union is reduced to the Historical Jesus. The significance of the resurrected Christ, is the continuation of his bodily presence within, and mingled with, the community of God (pending how high or low ones “Eucharistic” theology goes). This of course, never means, that we have any type of authority over Christ, because, we are indeed: his body, and as such, are subject to Christ’s head-ship. 2.) By moving away from—what appears to be—Paul’s “non-reductive physicalism,”—for lack of a better term—we risk fostering a type mind-body dualism, or mind-body-soul/ spirit trichotism, which may have some detrimental consequences;—especially concerning issues of race and racial identity. Thus the consequences sound something like this: If who I am, is not as much physical an “spiritual” then, what does it matter what I do with my body; after all, I am not “physically” united with Christ… (this is clearly problematic!). Thus, if who I am, is not as much physical as mental or “spiritual” then, what does it matter if I am black or Hispanic? The same issues arise concerning violence, sexuality, and our material relationship to and with the creation, thus waxing a Gnostic.

  9. Nick Barrett said: To further clarify point #1, I should say, if Christ is un-corporeal, the doctrine of the hypostatic union reduces the event of historical Jesus within a time-space-context i.e., 1st cent Palestine. This is a problem because, the theology of the resurrection implies the on-going bodily presence of Christ within the Church beyond 1st cent context. Further, since our eschatological hope rests upon the reality of the resurrection, we need to have a corporeal Jesus in our present context.

  10. Sorry. Its not that the doc of hypostatic union reduces.. but rather, is reduced…

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