Only Grief permits newness[1]! How do African churches deal with grief, compared to Western  churches[2]?

International Research Consortium[3]

24-26th of March 2007



Frederick Marais

Buvton Stellenbosch

South Africa

Blessed are those who mourn: they shall be comforted.

Mt 5:5

In all that I tell you, you will be weeping a wailing while the world will rejoice: you will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn to joy.

Jn 16:20

1. It is now a time for the church to deal with loss and death in order to move on…

We all know that Christendom in the western world is dying, fast. David Bosch[4], John Douglas Hall[5] and others has been predicting it now for a few decades. It is now happening to us, we cannot deny it any longer. That is not to say that it is the end of Christianity.  While Christendom is dying, Christianity to the contrary, as missiologist Andrew Walls argues, is growing fast.  Christianity has shown tremendous and unexpected “serial” growth in Africa, South America en Asia.[6] The question under our attention should be: Are we willing to let Christendom depart this life so that something new can grow on its grave? The challenge is to grief the loss of Christendom and to move on.[7] Grieving therefore would become one of the most important practical and theological issues at the end of Christendom and the birth of a new missional era.

Lesslie Newbigin, in his book Foolishness to the Greek, argues that western Christians need African, Asian and Hispanic Christians to help them make a Christian analysis of the Western Culture. Syncretism is a greater peril for Western Christians than for African or Indian Christians and less often recognizable for what it is.[8] I will argue that this is especially true in regard to grief and mourning.

2. Comparing grief in African and Western cultures
         1. A hospital chaplain describing the different ways the families of African (mostly Xhosa’s) and western families (mostly Afrikaner) mourn the death of a child in the hospital.[9]

Western families seek privacy when their child, or for that matter any family member, dies.  They will draw the curtain if the room is shared with other people. Most of the time it will not be more than 4-5 people, only the close family. They will not speak much, some will cry softly trying to control their emotions. The mood will be subdued in respect of the dead person and mindful of the rest of the people in the hospital. They seek intimacy in this moment, touching the dead body and touching each other sometimes embracing each other. They will hold on to each other.  Family members will ask the nurse to bring a tablet to relief the pain.  The physical touching will be signs of intimacy.  They will leave after a while, holding on to each other. The picture is that of a family with almost no connections with the community.

African families will usually be accompanied by a larger groups of people from the community who do not necessarily  belong to the close family.  Usually it will be women from the community who came in support.  This group of women are there to weep.  This is their function. Their weeping creates a space where the mother (and the father) can be his- or herself, losing any sense of self-consciousness.  As they weep they will sit or stand close to the person to form a circle around him or her. She will hold the child’s dead body close to her chest and rock slowly. There will be a lot of activity and vocal expression in the room.  It happens often that family members will faint, just letting go of everything.  Nobody will be panicked by that, it seems normal to the mourners that some one will faint.  The weeping can sometimes be loud, the mourners  express themselves freely. After a while the weeping will be softer and the rocking will stop.  They stay in the room for a while, sometimes to the frustration of the nursing staff.  The men are mostly in the background.  They will leave the hospital in a group.

         2. The death of the wife of a Xhosa speaking Evangelist in Cape Town:[10]

On Saturday we buried her. There are a lot of things going on, on the day of the burial, the service, the grave, the meal.  On Friday there is a long prayer meeting in the Church from 19:00 to 21:00.  But on the Sunday,  you have to buy a sheep fresh from the farm, just for the family.  The sheep must be fresh, because it is for a specific purpose, different from the sheep for the day of the funeral. This sheep is for the family, it tells you that the time has come to wash  your hands and take each others hands, because our mother are  not with us(between us) anymore.  The death of a person weakens those who stay behind. A part of the power of the family is gone, a part of the unity of the family is not there any more and therefore the family must take hands even more so than before.  We call this a feast, the feast of Amanzi, the “feast-of-drinking-water-again.” We believe that when you lose somebody through death, it shocks you. When somebody gets a fright, we would normally give that person water to drink.  The feast is like this, it is for the family who got a fright because of the death of the mother, to drink water to cool off from the fright.

A week later we have the next feast, we call it “the-feast-of-the-washing-of-the-picks”.  These are the picks that were used to dig the grave. If we do not clean it from the mud that might sick on the picks, members of the family will die soon.  You make beer and invite the community, because it is the community that dug the grave, not the family.  You invite the community and the family, because the community has to wash the picks.

   3. Church leaders responding to death and disasters

Laingsburg Floods 1981 The moderator’s call to be strong in midst of suffering.

 In January 1981 natural floods occurred in large areas of the semi-arid Karoo area. In terms of loss of human life the town most affected was Laingsburg, where over 100 persons were drowned. Most of the bodies were swept downstream in the abnormally swollen river and were never recovered. A flood disaster of this dimension is rare in South Africa. There were very few injuries associated with the disaster and no epidemic diseases followed in its wake, but there were certain aspects of medical services related to the disaster worth recording.[11]

During a Buvton consultation with the Dutch Reform congregation in Laingsburg  in 2000, the following was recorded at the Story Wall exercise.[12]

We were devastated; the floods came so suddenly, many people died, including our pastor.  He was brave enough to assist the people in the old age home, but paid with his life as he also drowned.  More than 100 people died, houses were demolished. Nothing could prepare us for this.

The following Sunday the moderator of our Synod came to preach and to comfort us. We are a god-fearing community. We can still remember every word he said in that sermon.  He had sympathy with the devastation of our town and the many loved-ones we had lost. Then he encouraged us to be strong in the Lord. “The whole world is looking at you, now is the time to by a real witness of the strength in Christ Jesus. Be a City on the mountain and tell the world that in Jesus we can overcome every thing.”   When he left we were encouraged, but some people believed that we were not allowed to grief enough and that we still carried it with us today. Those of us who were left with questions and anger had no place to talk about it. Hiding it was not a goo
d idea.

The assassination of Chris Hani, Easter 1993 Archbishop Desmond Tutu capturing emotion and turning it around

The assassination of Chris Hani shocked South Africa. In the minutes of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission it was reported as follow:

Chris Hani was gunned down on Easter weekend 1993 at his home in Dawn Park. Polish immigrant Januzs Walus [AM0270/96] and CP MP Mr Clive Derby-Lewis [AM0271/96] applied for amnesty for the murder. Hani’s death led to fears of widespread reprisals and counter-reprisals that could derail the negotiations and an international team was set up to probe his assassination. Both Walus and Derby-Lewis were convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. Allegations still abound that a wider conspiracy was involved in the assassination. Some of those alleged to have been involved (names withheld at this stage) have also been implicated in intelligence documents as part of the so-called ‘Inner Circle’ or ‘Binnekring’ of 67 members of Special Forces (mainly CCB) and MI allegedly set up in July 1990. According to the former Transkei Intelligence Service they were asked to carry out special operations by top generals in former MI structures.[13]

South Africa was on the brink of a civil war.  Chris Hani was one of the most prominent black leaders popular among the youth. Leaders responded differently to the tragedy.[14]

120 000 people attended the funeral of Chris Hani at the FNB soccer stadium in Johannesburg and an estimated 4 million workers stayed at home to watch the funeral life on television.[15]  Desmond Tutu was the preacher, he was assigned the task to give direction at the end of the service. He read from Rom 8:31 “If God is for us who can be against us.”  Outside the stadium peace monitors watched helpless while mobs of youngsters burned down houses. The atmosphere was extremely tense, in the stadium but also across the country.   Knowing that the mourners are angry, ready to start a civil war, Tutu started with “rabble-rousing” after greeting the family and the mourners in five languages. He shouted slogans, and let the crowd respond. For more than 30 emotional minutes, he let them feel their emotion of anger, mocking with the white South African’s obsession with communism and black rule.[16]

Then Tutu changes the rhetoric:  “The death of Chris Hani gives…the government and all the key players another chance.” [17]  Slowly he guides the mourners away from their anger to hope and freedom. “Finally, Tutu asked the thousands spread out in front of him to lift their hands in the air.  Mandela, Sisulu, and Slovo- who had been in jail or exile when Tutu developed his techniques- sat enthralled, their eyes fixed on him, as he led the crowd in swaying their arms back and forth:  We will be free (we will be free) All of us (all of us) black and white together ( black and white together) we will be free ( we will be free) All of us ( all of us) black and white together ( black and white together) For we are marching to freedom! (Cheers, whistles)”[18]

The comparison between the two church leaders leadership in times of mourning and disaster is complex because the context differs largely. On the other hand provides the comparison us with a view on how different these two leaders responded.  Tutu connected deeply with the mourner’s emotion, allowed response verbal and physical.  He took the risk to let when feel the anger. The moderator almost completely ignored the deep emotions of grief and call on the congregation to be strong.  In doing that he prevented them from connecting with the feelings of grief. What created this stark diffirent approach?  Was it their cultural background, their theology or was it only a matter of personality, the charismatic Tutu and the stoic moderator? It might be that Tutu could draw on the African culture’s ability to grief and to mourn without feeling ashamed by it.

   4. Loss and Death in African- and Western culture

Grieving is about loss or death.  How comfortable is the two cultures in connection with loss and death? To answer this question we need to attend to the question of how these two cultures perceive death.

A lot has been written about “death denial in western society.”[19]  Arbuckle believes that western culture does not provide resources to connecting with grief  because it views any form of loss as failure that should be buried rather than discussed. Both philosophers and church leaders have a negative view of death and He sites Tolstoy’s character Ivan Ilych: It cannot be that I ought to die. That would be to terrible![20] as an example of western cultures denial of death. Allan Kellehear the Australian sociologist argues the contrary. It is not that we deny that we are dying, it is the way we receive death as a problem, he claims.[21]   He argues that the current health care debates in the USA, Brittan and Australia represent a one-sided affair where dying is perceived as a clinical challenge “rather than (a challenge) for the whole community…”  Although western culture may not deny death, it resists death because, as Elisabeth Kübler-Ross puts it: “We fear death”.[22]

Joseph Healey and Donald Sybertz find that in many African cultures death is not suppose to be something to fear or to overcome.  “Most African myths on death portrays death as an accident, a mistake, a type of punishment and something that ‘dehumanizes’ humans. Yet death is something more fundamental to the whole of existence.  It was present from the very beginning and not necessarily added along the way.” [23] Death is not related to sin because the African world view holds the cosmological view (sin is caused by outside forces) and anthropological view on sin (evil is caused by humans).

Dickson emphasizes six characteristic ideas in the celebration of death in Africa:

         1. Death is caused by evil.
         2. Death does not end life.
         3. Death does not severe the bond between the living and the dead.
         4. Death is an occasion for seeking more life.
         5. Death does not negate natural self-expression.
         6. Death affects the whole community[24].

The above might provides us with reason why African Theology affirms the cross as a basis of hope much easier than western theology. Gabriel Setiloane expresses this in his prayer-like liturgical statement called I am an African

And yet for us it is when he is on the cross

This Jesus of Nazareth, with holed hands and open side,

Like a beast at a sacrifice:

When he is stripped, naked like us,

Browned and sweating water and blood in the heat of the sun,

Yet silent,

That we cannot resist him.[25]

It becomes clear in this (too) short overview that the western view on death as something to fear and to overcome is not repeated in African culture and theology.

The differences stems from a different ontology. In western mind life ends when you die, a dead end. In African culture death is an opportunity to a new life, when you join the forefathers.

   5. The (lost) Biblical tradition of lament in the west.

We have witnessed the numbness of the western mourners in the hospital and the resistance to deal with the raw emotions of loss in the Laingsburg flood. Jaco Hamman argues that this lack of active grieving of the loss of Christendom power leaves congregations with numbness.[26] Is this a case of the domination of Western culture prescribing and restricting the live-giving message of the Bible?

It seem
s that theologian’s pays lip service to the tradition of Lament in the Psalms and the Prophets, not even to speak of following Jesus in his ministry and his selfless death in the cross, but the fact is we do not have the ability to make this into practice. Western theology should be humble enough to learn brothers and sisters in the African church how to put mourning back into our theological thinking and ecclesiastical practice. It surely is a question of both, of thinking and practice.  The theological issue is the fear for failure and death. The question is if there is theological leadership in the western church to acknowledge western cultures resistance to the gospel. We will only be able to transform out minds if we are willing to admit out shortcoming.

   6. Closing remarks and questions for discussion

It seems that the western culture do not provide us with tools and rituals to address tasks 2 and 3. Is the loss of energy in churches a result of the inability to grief and the eagerness to jump to the re-investment of energy?

Grieving tasks:

1.    Recognize the loss

2.    Feel the pain

3.    Live with the loss

4.    Re-invest energy

7.    Questions for further discussions and consideration

          i.    Grieving as a hermeneutic process of making meaning. The lament traditions should be practiced in our churches.

        ii.    We need safe space to grief and mourn: Creating our own laments in conversation with a passionate God

       iii.    Amanzi- drinking-the-water-feast  shows and the Eucharist, how could we combine the two?

       iv.    How are we going to deal with the fear of failure

        v.    Cleaning-of-the-picks and drinking beer: re-invest the energy. Do we have any similar rituals in the western churches?

       vi.    It seems that we do not have leadership that can demonstrate grieving and mourning as the likes of Desmond Tutu?

[1] Subtitle  of Walter Brueggemann’s commentary of Jeremiah To Pluck Up, to Tear Down: A Commentary on the Book of Jeremiah 1-25 (International Theological Commentary)

[2] We should be mindful that Western and African churches and cultures consists of a diversity of cultural expressions. The case studies that I use in this paper do not represent Western and African churches and cultures but are expressions of these cultures.

[3] This paper was first read at the Consortium meeting at Zingsthof on March 25th 2007. This current format is a revised edition with  the wise suggestions of Consortium members incorporated.

[4] Tranforming mission Orbis Books, 2002

[5] The end of Christendom and the future of Christianity.

[6] Chritianity in the non-Western World A study of the Serial Nature of Christina Expansion In The Cross-Cultural process in Christina History Orbis Books 2005 27-48

[7] Pat Keifert, We are here now! Allelon Publishing 2006, pp 34-36 Grieving the loss of Christendom

[8] Eerdmans 1986, p69

[9] Dr Pierre Goosen has worked as hospital chaplain in the Western adn Southern Cape for more than twenty years.

[10] Casper Johannes Wepener Van Vas tot Fees ‘n Ritueel-liturgiese ondersoek na versoening binne Suid-Afrikaanse kultuurkontekste, Stellenbosch 2004 D Th Dissertation,  527  This is a translation of the original Afrikaans text.

[11] www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/entrez/query

[12] The story wall exercise is a communal method to reflect on the history of a community. It was developed by Buvton to assist congregations to reflect on the transformation in their history.

[13] Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report, Vol 2, Chapter 7 www.africanhistory.about.com

[14] National Review, May 24 1993 After the assassination – political aftermath following the murder of the South African Communist Party leader Chris Hani  by Andrew Kenny. Slow, elderly, dignified, Nelson Mandela appeared on TV and appealed for restraint. At the funeral, he stood before the agitated black crowd, sympathizing with their anger but pleading for calm. By contrast, his estranged wife called for violent insurrection. Winnie Mandela, who now travels the townships in a chauffeur-driven Mercedes and accuses the ANC leadership of “elitism,” appeared in battle fatigues before a black mob in Cape Town urging revolution. Her co-speaker, Peter Mokaba, leader of the ANC Youth, chanted, “Kill the Boer!” to huge applause. It was disturbing but silly  Zagacki, Kenneth S. Describes Mandela’s address in his artical Rhetoric, Dialogue, and Performance in Nelson Mandela’s “Televised Address on the Assassination of Chris Hani” as follw: ” After the assassination of the popular black militant Chris Hani, Nelson Mandela sought in his “Televised Address on the Assassination of Chris Hani” to move beyond identity politics and to redefine the murder into a moment of political and dialogic change. He praised Hani as a model of proper political engagement, uncovered the dynamics of dialogue between South Africans, and performed an alternative stance for the post-apartheid era. Mandela’s rhetoric reveals both the limitations and the possibilities of performative rhetoric during difficult transitions to democracy.”

[15] John Allen Rabble-Rouser for Peace The Authorized Biography of Desmond Tutu Rider Books 2006, p334

[16] ibid

[17] ibid

[18] ibid

[19] See Arbuckle Grieving for Change pp 43-60

[20] ibid., 49

[21] Allan Kellehear Are we a “death-denying” society? a sociological review. Journal for the School of Public Health 1984;18(9): 713-23

[22] On Death and Dying Tavistock Publications 1970, 1-10

[23] Towards an African Narrative Theology Orbis Books1996, 207 they argue that the African view on death may be closer to the Gospel than the western view on death.

[24] Kwesi Dickson Theology in Africa Orbis Books 1984 192-95

[25] As quoted in ibid, 196

[26]  When Steeples Cry Leading congregations through loss and change The Pilgrim Press, 2005, p60