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Exile and the prophetic: Searching for a legacy in Africa

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This post is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page

It is strange how many legacies are shaped in Africa.  As President Obama searches for a legacy of his own in Africa, he should pay attention.  He can learn from his own past.  He can learn from others.

In the immediate sense, it doesn’t look good for the President.  Right now he is being compared unfavorably with George Bush who is also in Tanzania now. When you compare unfavorably to Bush on anything, you’re struggling for air.  It’s sad to see our first African-American President – and our country – in such a situation.

For American Jews in a time of American and Jewish empire, the lessons from Africa are many and humbling.  They apply as well to Europeans and Chinese and Russians, who, like Americans, appropriate the material resources of Africa for themselves. 

It’s the plight of the poor to be used as pawns by political, economic and religious entities.  Rather than reversing this abuse, ‘development’ schemes enable it.     

Christianity and Islam have lessons to learn from Africa.  Using Africa as a proselytizing hunting ground where converts can be bought and sold the old fashioned way – by offering the minimum foundations of food, clothing and education – remains endemic.

I know this well.  In the 1980s and 1990s, I traveled with the Maryknoll missionaries who are best known for their promotion of justice through the lens of liberation theology.  That is part of their story.  The other part is retrogressive missionary work, converting the heathen and all that. 

I saw this especially in my travels in Tanzania where Maryknoll had a large presence.  Visiting mission sites in rural areas, I witnessed the best and worse legacy of Christianity being played out before my eyes.  Where liberation theology works among the poor to confront domestic and global systems of injustice, unreconstructed missions encourages a devaluation of the various African cultures people come from.

Instead of justice the virtues of ‘civilization’ are offered, from which most Africans can only aspire from afar.

Is Power Africa, President Obama’s plan to double electricity access in sub-Saharan Africa, the justice side or the missionary side of the American development coin? There’s a difference between real empowerment and business opportunity handouts disguised as partnership.

Interestingly Israel’s early image in Africa was more diverse than politically-correct thought allows today.  It’s a myth that Israel has always and only been seen by African leaders– and by African American intellectuals and activists such as W. E. B. Dubois and Martin Luther King, Jr. – as a militarized, Western colonial outpost in the Middle East.  In Israel’s early years some African leaders had admiration for the emergence of a small state founded by oppressed Europeans.  After all, Jews were the internal colonial subjects of European power recently decimated by the millions in the Holocaust.

In Africa, America has been seen both ways.  Africans identify with America’s initial struggle to overthrow colonial rule.  Africans also experience America’s imperial present as injurious to their future.  But since Africa is in need, African leaders are forced to choose between the lesser of imperialist evil powers.  They play both sides of American history hoping against hope that America’s anti-colonial past will win out.

That’s why President Obama confuses Africa.  As an African and African American he embodies the anti-colonial struggle within American history.  As President of the United States he carries America’s imperialism forward.

It’s confusing to other parts of the world – Israel/Palestine being the most symbolic place of all.  How can an African American President so identify with the imperial side of Israel and speak so weakly in defense of Palestinians?  Instead, the President should appeal to the underside of Jewish history and the plight of a decimated Jewry struggling after the Holocaust.  At the same time, he can boldly defend Palestinian history and the hope of a renewed Palestine.

We are all caught in history’s web and there’s no use speaking about a past that is unable to become the future. If the past is only to be condemned, if political salvation is impossible after historical sin, then every person, community and nation is doomed.  That includes the continent of Africa which has been besieged by outsiders too often with the collusion of Africans themselves.

At crucial moments, the internal contradictions of past history can be brought to the fore.  Even if many today see Israel as unredeemable and doomed because of its colonial past and present, Israel’s better angels – once recognized – can still be summoned.

What is sadder beyond words is that Israel has taken its imperialism so far that even mentioning its different reception in the past is doubted.   Is it possible that once upon a time others saw in the creation of Israel something positive and uplifting for the dispossessed Jews of Europe and as part of a larger anti-colonial movement defined by, among others, African and African American leaders?

On the journey back home, Air Force One carries these contradictions in its most important passenger.  If he could only resolve the contradictions within himself, the President’s African legacy might come to fruition in many parts of the world, including Israel/Palestine.

Marc H. Ellis
About Marc H. Ellis

Marc H. Ellis is Professor of History and Jewish Studies and Director of the Center for the Study of the Global Prophetic. His latest book is Finding Our Voice: Embodying the Prophetic and Other Misadventures.

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3 Responses

  1. Citizen
    July 3, 2013, 11:10 am

    Americans my age grew up with Paul Newman in Exodus, and then there came the Holocaust museums that dot the USA. Anne Frank is as well known as old images of lynched blacks and separate water fountains and the dogs and water hoses unleashed on protesters against Jim Crow. All these images are and were institutionalized. I discovered the Nakba totally on my own. There’s a new mockingbird to kill, so to say, and be assigned in a K-12 public school class. Maybe Brad Pitt could replace Gregory Peck? Yikes, i hear his father in law gnashing his teeth.

  2. DICKERSON3870
    July 3, 2013, 3:16 pm

    RE: If he could only resolve the contradictions within himself, the President’s African legacy might come to fruition in many parts of the world, including Israel/Palestine.” ~ Marc Ellis

    MY COMMENT: If that resolution is indeed a prerequisite, then the prognosis for Obama’s African legacy would appear to be quite poor.
    It is highly unlikely that Obama can resolve the contradictions within himself while he is encased in the presidential bubble. It is far more likely that his contradictions will be exacerbated.

  3. W.Jones
    July 3, 2013, 7:02 pm

    This brings up an interesting issue:

    Christianity and Islam have lessons to learn from Africa. Using Africa as a proselytizing hunting ground where converts can be bought and sold the old fashioned way – by offering the minimum foundations of food, clothing and education – remains endemic.

    First, perhaps this is not exactly correct as an explanation for how the “proselytizing” works. In order to receive those benefits is it required of the Africans that they convert? I am very doubtful, but admit I do not know the answer for certain. Couldn’t a person go to a mission center and ask for food and get it without converting, for example? A friend who had been in the Isr. army said that there was a group open to them that performed religious services and had food, and this fact encouraged people to go just for the food. Consequently, I wouldn’t be surprised if the person was required to listen to religious lectures in order to get the benefits, although conversion might not really be a requirement.

    On another note, this brings up an interesting issue with the Holy Land. Protestant churches have found a foothold there because they have the money to provide social services that the impoverished ancient native churches do not. I am unaware that the churches require one to convert to get the services, just like i doubt only Quakers may attend the Friends School in Ramallah. but nonetheless, this is an effect.

    So I see an upside and downside to the work as you say, but I am doubtful that it is really forced either.

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