The Reverend Dr Leon Spencer is the former executive director of the ecumenical Washington Office on Africa and former dean of studies for the Diocese of Nairobi’s theological college. He currently chairs the companion relationship with the Anglican Diocese of Botswana for the Diocese of North Carolina.
In West Africa in the 19th century, Edward Wilmot Blyden, the Pan-Africanist scholar, wrote that Africa’s great contribution to the world was to be its life in community, its deep spirituality, and its bond with nature.
He came to my mind as I heard the appalling, embarrassing and obscene comments by President Trump about the nations of Africa this week.
My first reaction was to want to defend Africa and Africans, for it has been my great privilege to live in Africa, to teach about Africa, and to work with African partners over the past half-century. But upon reflection I realized that it was not my place, as a non-African, to “defend” Africa; Africans could do so very well indeed for themselves if they chose to do so. But more importantly, I concluded that the Trumpian quote did not raise issues about Africa; it raised issues about us – we Americans.
That’s where Blyden’s thought comes in. Are we Americans able to parallel Blyden’s vision of Africa – a noble vision – with a commitment to life in community and to the common good? If we are, then we need to stand up as an all-inclusive community to declare that what our President says does not represent who we are. We need to be saying that we are better than this, that we are a diverse society respectful of one another, that we are one nation among many who recognizes that we are part of a world of richness and vision and character, and that we look upon the rest of the world as a community of nations containing people of dignity and worth. Tragically, our President, again and again, denies the dignity of others. We are better than that. We can aspire to Bylden’s African vision for ourselves.
Are we Americans rightly able to claim Blyden’s vision of Africa as a place of deep spirituality for ourselves, as indeed we often do? If so, then all of us, evangelical Christians especially, need to say that a leader’s political agenda with which some may agree is insufficient for that leader to claim support when his words and actions deny the dignity of every human being, when his words and actions are harsh confrontations to that vision that we are all children of God. We are better than that. We can aspire to Blyden’s African vision for ourselves.
Are we Americans able to embrace for ourselves Blyden’s vision of Africa as a place that cares for nature? If we do, then we need to see that the protection of our environment is a community activity that affirms the dignity of all humanity and the worth of all creation. When our leader obscenely disparages nations and peoples wherever they may be, when our policies and actions endanger nations and peoples around the world, we need to say that this is not us, that these are not American values. We are better than that. We can aspire to Bylden’s African vision for ourselves.
One other thought: I have written and preached for years about the conundrum in which those of us who believe in an inclusive society and those of us who, as people of faith, embrace an inclusive church are to include those whose intentions are to exclude. I consider that we face a similar conundrum when we have a President whose words and actions again and again threaten the dignity and worth of all persons. Never mind Mr. Trump’s policies, so discouraging to so many of us. Never mind even his ignorance of complex issues, even his continuing parade of lies. What we have before us is a man who sees a need to crudely disparage individuals, groups, and nations – and what we are called to do is to include him as a child of God. That can be immensely hard to do, I know. But perhaps by not returning in kind, and by not speaking of our President as he speaks of so many of us, we are showing that we are indeed better than that, that we know what is meant by community, that we understand what a deep spirituality entails, that we are part of a creation that demands respect and dignity. We can learn from the African continent that Mr. Trump so crudely condemned this week. And if anything good can come from this, it is that we can declare that we are better than this.