Ancestors play in a familiar role in African society and religion. Some African theologians have used the category of ancestor to develop an “ancestral Christology.” The notion of Jesus as an ancestor, or brother-ancestor, seems worth exploring as a potential example of an “honor Christology.”
The following post coalesces ideas from: Bediako, Jesus and the Gospel in Africa, pp. 20-33; Orabator, Theology Brewed in an African Pot, pp. 75-77; and Tennent, Theology in World Christianity, pp. 122-31, the concludes with a review by Martin Munyao. This continues our series “Honor Christology.”
What is an ancestor?
African ancestors fit into a broad schema of African religion. African Traditional Religion (ATR) believes in a supreme God which people access through divinized spirits—a “diffused monotheism” of sorts. Many Africans prefer not to directly approach God (or an important person), as it implies disrespect or irreverence. Mediators are a way of respecting (not merely manipulating) the Supreme God. According to ATR, earthly ancestors acquire a supernatural status at death. They ascend to a position of mediator between God and their human descendants. The ancestors are elders deserving respect and veneration. Ancestors merit honor because they brought benefits to their people when s/he “lived among them.” The ancestor is a source of life for living descendants. In African thought, death does not separate someone from the family. Rather, the “living-dead” remain united and connected with the “living-living.”
Does Jesus qualify to be an ancestor?
To speak of Jesus as our ancestor essentially means he “shares common parentage with us. To him belongs the role of mediating between us and God, as well as modeling for us good and proper conduct. In return, we maintain a ‘sacred communication’ with him that is not broken by the reality of death.” (Orabator, 75). The term does seem helpful to explaining Jesus’ soteriological function. The notion of ancestor parallels key biblical explanations of Jesus: “mediator” (1 Tim 2:5; Heb 8:6), “high priest” (Heb 7 & 8), and even “second Adam” (Rom 5). Overall, the terms seems beneficial for helping Africans who seek connection with the supernatural world through traditional religions to understand the role and function of the resurrected Jesus Christ—He has gone before us to great glory, now intercedes to God on our behalf, and deserves all of our reverence and obedience. Applying the term ancestor to Jesus does require some qualifications. Unlike Jesus, ancestors were sinners who remain physically dead. And unlike ancestors, Jesus endured the shame and humiliation of the cross for all people. Jesus is a unique ancestor—The Ancestor.
Jesus’ “ancestorship subsumes and eminently transcends the limited notion of brother-ancestorship. Jesus Christ completes and perfects what Africans believe to be brother-ancestor. Christ is no longer on ancestor among many others, but the universal Brother-Ancestor par excellence” (Orabator, 76). His preeminent status and function displaces the place and role of natural spirit-fathers. African theologians thus speak of Jesus as “Proto”, “Supreme,” or “Greatest” Ancestor, always being sure to capitalize Ancestor. “Jesus Christ is the only real and true Ancestor and Source of life for all mankind, fulfilling and transcending the benefits believed to be bestowed by lineage ancestors” (Bediako, 31). “Ancestral Christology” has the potential to communicate an accurate picture of Jesus Christ—“the glorifier and the glorified, Glory Himself”—in African terms.
A review of Jesus as “Honored Ancestor”, by Martin Munyao
Ancestors play a significant role in the day to day live in African society. Christianity is lived to either strengthen groups’ identity with the ancestors or free self from any attachment with the ancestors depending on two main factors. One is the reputation that the ancestors had: whether honorable or dishonorable. Second is from whom did the people receive the gospel?
If from the African Instituted Church (AIC) mission then Christians understand Christ (the Ancestor) as one who comes to authenticate their identity with the ancestors. If from Western missionaries, then Christians understand Christ as one who comes to deliver them from the evil of the ancestors, hence association with ancestors (the living dead) is to be avoided. However, ancestors in Africa are understood as Jayson puts it as “a way of respecting (not merely manipulating) the Supreme God.” The living-dead and the living-living are united and connected in daily transactions of life. One is honored as s/he stays in a good relationship with the living-dead. Africans therefore understand the importance of Jesus’ mediation between God and man.
As a respected Ancestor, Jesus reconciles man with God, and through Him (Jesus as the Patron), African Christians access the Divine presence. Even though related to the living-dead nature of the ancestors, Jesus is living-living. His mediation surpasses that of the ancestors; Jesus as the sole “mediator”, “high priest”, “second Adam” as Jayson rightly puts it are helpful biblical explanations of Jesus’ ministry. The understanding of Christ as the true, holy, immanent yet exalted Ancestor are pictures that solve the complex puzzle of life in the highly religious continent — Africa. Hence in agreement with the author, “Ancestral Christology” is without exception a solid platform for theologizing in Africa. Christ the Ancestor invites believers to an everlasting relationship with God. He is to be honored (worshipped) forever.
Since Christ stands out as the honorable Ancestor, teaching Christology from the perspective of ancestral language in Africa is already a familiar ground for the African audience. Unfortunately because of a lack of honor theology in the mainstream (missionary) church in Africa, the glory of the “Ancestor” and the glory that he restores to those who know him is not emphasized. With the coming of missionaries and colonization of Africa ancestors were ‘demonized’ and shunned as evil past that people should be saved from. Hence the loss of connection and relationship with the ancestors. Thus articulating an “Ancestor Christology” is not common for fear of syncretism. Truth is, the mediator, Christ, the Ancestor, comes to restore the lost glory we had before the fall.