Is Jesus an “Honored Ancestor” for Africans?

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.”

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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—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.

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9 Comments on “Is Jesus an “Honored Ancestor” for Africans?

  1. Thanks Jayson for this stimulating post.

    After the initial pioneering burst of African theology (1960s onwards), I wonder about the present-day utility of generalisations about Africa. It now seems more important than ever to delve into local particularities.

    In Tanzania for example, there is a pervasive belief in witchcraft and widespread access of witch doctors (many of whose practice is of recent origin rather than strictly ‘traditional’, for example Dr Manyaunyau). As Martin points out in his comment, Western-origin churches have often emphasised deliverance from ATR rather than fulfilment of ATR, and in the Tanzanian situation, it certainly seems very difficult for Christians to make use of ATR ideas with good conscience.

    So the big question for me is how the ancestors appear at the grassroots level today, and what kind of space there is for theologising at the grassroots level. I think Bediako’s work is magnificent (for example), but the theological generalisations of the previous generation must surely give rise to grassroots reflection if they are now to make sense in Tanzania.

    I would be very interested to hear any further reflections you have, Martin and Jayson.

    • Arthur,

      Yes, I would suspect whether it works biblically to say “Jesus is an ancestor” will depend on the specific context. That is the thing about context-ualization, context matters!

      A word about the ideas here. I actually know very little about African culture/theology. I was reading up on African Christianity in the spring in preparation for my first visit there (which was really amazing!). In that reading, I encountered the notion of ancestor Christology, and thought it was an interesting contemporary example of Christology in honor-shame terms. So, my post was just a summary of other peoples’ thoughts. When I emailed it to Martin for quick feedback, he responded in depth with insight. So I asked him for permission to include his ‘feedback.’ I mention the backstory so you know what purpose I had in mind with the post–to simply summarize and introduce the idea as a potential example of honor Christology.

      One other note…when I was in Chad in Africa and mentioned these ideas to 9 national church leaders, they firmly rejected it. Though they struggled articulate exactly why, they did not think a Christian could right refer to Jesus as an “ancestor” in any possible way. It was a funny conversation in several ways, but I certainly respect their conviction on the matter for that particular context. That is one example of “grassroots reflection.”

      • Your experience from Chad is fascinating, Jayson, and gels with my experience from Tanzania.

        The pioneer African explorations of Ancestor Christology (Bediako, Nyamiti, et al) have certainly articulated the possibility of speaking truthfully about Jesus in terms of Ancestor, but it seems that many African churches have not made this their own. I have heard of cases in which ancestors are acknowledged as part of the context for worship — in the Anglican Church in Kenya, the Sanctus of the Lord’s Supper includes faithful ancestors in the company of heaven — but ‘Jesus as Ancestor’ has perhaps remained a more theoretical (and elitist?) idea.

        If anyone has examples of ‘Jesus as Ancestor’ in the life of African churches, I’d love to hear more!

        • Arthur,

          You are right when you say that many African churches have not made Ancestor Christology their own. However, it depends on what category of African church or Christianity you are referring to. If the mainstream missionary church, then, YES, there is either an unawareness of the subject or it is simply avoided. But when you reflect on the African Indigenous/Instituted Churches, then there is a strong focus on Christ as the honorable/noble Ancestor who comes to liberate people. That is why the African situation presents a challenge to Christian life and, of course, to theological reflection. There has been a theological tension between the mainstream church and the AIC’s. The African Christian scholars you mentioned tend to raise the awareness of Ancestor Christology among other indigenous topics to African Christianity in general.

  2. Dear Werner,
    I alwaysd am very grateful for your blogs. Thanks so much. I think the ‘brother-ancestor’ might be a good starting point for discussion with beliervers in ancestors, but sooner or later one must deliver the complete (or completer?) picture of Jesus. He is not from human origin (?Son of God), his life was without sin, his willingness to suffer, John 18:4, his shame and punishment was eternal wrath of God. His resurrection was bodily resurrection. He did not enter the ‘semi-heaven’ atmosphere of the ancestors, but returned to the heaven with the Father. So, although there are overlapping features, the complete picture shows the heavenly redeemer being radically different with the earthly (tribal centered) ancestor. I do think however that we could compare the ‘elder brother’-aspect of Jesus because he is our brother in heaven with intercession prayers. This view might become a powerfull antidotum to the Mary-adoration of many African christians.

    Thanks again for your exploring work. Every week I am eager to know your new blog. God bless,
    Kees Haak

    • Kees, great nuance. Thanks for laying out where there is common overlap and clearn distinctions between Jesus and “ancestor.” I like your phrase–“a good starting point for discussion.” The idea is a starting point, not a theological ending point.

      Peace, Jayson

  3. Timothy Tennent does a great job of working through this concept in “Theology in the Context of World Christianity.” He explores Christ as healer and ancestor, and evaluates the idea through 4 criteria; 1) biblical, 2) the historical church, 3) traditional African worldview, and 40 living experience of African Christians.

    In a nutshell Tennent argues that with some caution, Africans can use the concept, particularly as a means of restoring the human dimension to Christology, something that is often lost in Western theological discourse.

    Personally, I think Jesus as “the greatest ancestor” is a solid and useful contextualization of Christology for the traditional African context.

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