Jake Meador: Let’s get right into a topic you’ve written about recently: why violence and corruption continue to plague so many countries in Africa. In your book The Sacrifice of Africa, you argue that the reason for this is not the failure of the nation-state in Africa, as many assume, but rather its success. Could you explain?
Emmanuel Katongole: I wrote the book in part in response to the endless cycles of poverty, violence, and corruption in many parts of Africa, including my own country, Uganda. You often hear about the dysfunctional nature of politics in Africa; you hear about different techniques to help the nation-state become more rational, more transparent, more effective.
But all these proposals assume that African nation-states are the way they are – often with disorder, violence, and poverty – because they’re still at an early stage of history. We will, the story goes, eventually progress to a more rationalized, bureaucratized system, able to effectively deliver services and promote the common good. But that is misleading. In order to understand why, one has to do a little bit of archaeology, so to speak: one must dig into the foundational assumptions of the African nation-state, of when, how, and why it came into existence. That is what I try to do in The Sacrifice of Africa, which led me to see that the African nation-state is a successor institution to the colonial regime. The latter was set up to benefit, not the colonized peoples of Africa, but rather the colonial centers. Accordingly, whatever “development” was set in place simply represented the minimum required to maintain the colonial system of control and extraction.
At independence, when power was finally wrested out of the hands of the colonial regimes, the African elites became the de facto rulers. Yet the institutions they inherited continued to work out of the same imagination of control and extraction. They continued not only to depend on the colonial centers in systems of commerce, but also to serve elite interests. This is what I refer to as “King Leopold’s ghost.”
So when people say “Africa is dysfunctional,” I reply, no, it’s not. Given the foundational assumptions – that is, the nation-state – politics in Africa actually works as intended.
Meador: It’s done what it’s designed to do.
Katongole: Exactly. That is why what is needed is not just recommendations to help democracy flourish or to make the nation-state work better. We need to reimagine politics from a new point of view.
Meador: Your discussion of the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart gets at the need to imagine a new political narrative rather than making a nostalgic appeal to something that came before. Can you talk about that?
Katongole: There’s a temptation to think, “If only we can recover the precolonial traditions and build from those.” Well, yes, this might be helpful. But we must be thoughtful. It is not as if precolonial traditions are standing around waiting to be recovered. Even if this were the case, there are a number of aspects of precolonial African history and society that I’m not sure I want recovered.
Things Fall Apart was crucial to me in thinking this through. There’s violence in the protagonist Okonkwo’s village before the coming of the colonialists; many are killed, women are abused. This is not a perfect society.
The book contains a scene in which Okonkwo and the village’s traditional leaders confront the colonialists, and Okonkwo kills one of the Europeans. I read this scene as showing two different forms of violence meeting in the marketplace. In a way, it is a picture of what is happening in Africa now. Some precolonial forms of violence come together with new forms of violence, issuing in what I call a unique form of African modernity.
My interest is, how do we move through this? Simply recovering or recreating the past is not the way history works.
Christianity, I think, might provide a way forward. Well, of course I think that – I’m a Christian! But I’m also committed to nonviolence, to the vision of true peace at the heart of the Christian story. If we were to live into that, it might provide us with a way of working through the violence at the intersection of precolonial, colonial, and neocolonial forms of violence in modern Africa.
Violence Is Not Inevitable
Meador: You’ve thought a lot about the question of violence. In the Enlightenment tradition of political theory, violence is assumed to be at the center of the picture. Max Weber, for example, says the state is that entity which has a monopoly on violence; Thomas Hobbes speaks of the pre-political life as fundamentally marked by violence, which must be tamed by a more violent nation-state. One of the things Christianity can do is to remind us that violence is not in fact the natural state.
Katongole: I learned from the theologian John Milbank that what you posit in the beginning as an assumption eventually succeeds in creating the very reality that is imagined. This is the whole point about the political imagination; it’s not just a kind of fantasy. Thus, the assumption that violence is the natural order of things, that it’s always really what’s going on, soon enough becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: violence becomes an essential part of the political order. And then all one can hope for is to control it, not to completely overcome it. Milbank debunks this assumption that violence is inevitable. I find his argument powerful.
But I also find powerful Milbank’s invitation for Christians to rediscover the power of the Christian story. The pathos of modern theology, Milbank says, is its false humility: “We are Christians,” we tend to say, “but we are only a religion after all. We have to wait for sociology and political science to provide the ‘facts’ upon which we can build, to which we can add spiritual truth as a nice gloss.” Milbank says that is wrong. What Christians believe about society, about God, about human beings being created in the image of God are facts. When Jesus talks about loving our neighbors, and tells us that if we have something against a neighbor, we must come together to reconcile before we bring our gift to the altar, that is basic sociology. Let’s not sell ourselves short by saying, “Well, this is just a spiritual principle.” We need to reclaim theology’s place as queen of the sciences, so that Christian theology is sociology.
A Time for Solidarity
Meador: Earlier this week you sent me these words from Cardinal Turkson: “We are rediscovering how much the destiny of each of us is linked to that of others. We are rediscovering the value of the things that matter and the worthlessness of so many things that we once considered important.” For a lot of people that point has come as they’re making sense of Covid-19; I know you’re in Uganda now – what are you seeing in regard to the pandemic?
Katongole: The attention that has been given to Covid-19 here is very impressive, just amazing! Everyone is trying as much as possible to keep it from exploding: the country was locked down for over two months and everyone came on board. But I can’t help thinking that if the same leadership and effort were given to the realities that kill people here daily – malaria, diarrhea, malnutrition, poverty itself – we would be a completely different country. Why has that not been the case? I think in some ways it’s because realities such as malaria and malnutrition have been accepted as just the way things are in Africa. And as long as these things kill only or mostly Africans they never get the attention they deserve. One reason Covid-19 has received such a response is that it was killing Europeans and Americans and we thought, “Can you imagine what it’s going to do to the Africans?” Why do we wait to hear from WHO before we act? It’s part of that problem of imagination. We see it in how we think about economics, too. We wait for the IMF and World Bank to define what Africa needs.
Speaking of economics, Covid-19 has revealed a major vulnerability of development economics in Africa. I have seen such terrible poverty over these months of shutdown in the semi-urban areas and slums. But so much of African politics and economics is centered around the city. It seems to think that nothing of interest happens in villages, which are poor and backward; people become interesting when they move to the city, where “development” happens. Covid-19 has revealed the city as very fragile indeed, and the village as the future.
It still hasn’t struck Africa as much as it has struck Europe and America. As a Christian, a theologian, I say, well, maybe this is a time for Our Lady’s words in the Magnificat: God brings down the mighty. I think it has revealed vulnerabilities in Western society and America. The systems that we thought worked so well, that we took for granted, made us think that such a disaster could never happen there. Covid-19 has provided a kairos moment, a unique opportunity where God intervenes, issuing both an invitation and a challenge. The invitation in the moment is always to live into a new future.
It is a warning, as well. Kairos moments are always connected to prophecy; the crucial role of the prophets always is to point to signs of the time. Because when we are going on with our daily work, we may not see them. Prophets also invite the community into lament and repentance, where they may discover something on the other side: hope.
To the extent that we are not drawn into lament, we cannot be drawn into the future. I like especially Jeremiah, who warned the leaders and the prophets and the priests for not healing the wounds of the people – “my people” – rightly. They had said, “peace, peace,” when there was no peace. They moved too quickly to “let’s get back to normal.” That is taking healing lightly.
Think of the lament in Joel, after the locusts came. From the priests, to the kings, to mothers, to babies, everybody put on sackcloth. But after the mourning, “the Spirit of the Lord will be poured upon everyone … old men will dream dreams … young men will see visions” (Joel 2:28). This only happens in the context of lament. I think after Covid-19 we desperately need new visions of something more than just the old order improved a little. We need new visions of community, of society, and, in America, of a post-racial world. This can only emerge out of a deep practice of lament, of turning to God, of turning to one another in solidarity. Then, your young men and women will see visions and the old men and women will dream dreams of a new future.
We need this desperately. The old world has run its course. You cannot polish things up a little bit and pretend that everything will be okay. That’s why I take Covid-19 seriously as a kairos moment.
Here in Uganda the lockdown coincided with an extraordinarily powerful rainy season: rivers and lakes flooding, homes destroyed, businesses destroyed. This points to an area in need of urgent attention – it calls us to care for the creation in this new moment. Why haven’t we paid the same attention to ecological degradation that we are paying to Covid-19? Covid-19 and the rains are connected.
In America, it is coinciding with racial tensions, frustrations. Don’t be too quick to separate them! Both Covid-19 and racism call us to the discipline of lament. And it may, if we turn to God, issue into new visions of a world of justice and interconnectedness, of deep solidarity, a world we share together. This cannot happen when we are so full of ourselves and so full of confidence, when we think that we are an invincible people, a superpower, that we are the best of God’s creation. New dreams cannot happen then. I think this is something God is communicating to us in this time.
This is how these things flow into each other. We need solidarity, and not only solidarity with one another, black and white, rich and poor. We need to respond to this kairos moment as a crucial moment in the journey into a new future and a new society that is in the process of being born. God is always at work building his new creation. What we are experiencing right now is part of that. This is a very significant time. But this kind of business cannot happen without tears, without blood, without pain.
The Church’s Calling
Meador: In The Sacrifice of Africa, you argue that the church has a central role to play in preserving the good life within a political community. But the sex-abuse scandals in the Roman Catholic Church and in Protestant churches, as well as the scandal of the way that American Evangelicals have rallied around Trump, have caused churches to lose social legitimacy. Is it possible for the church to draw us together and help us remember what is true?
Katongole: The challenge of Africa is a challenge of institutions; I realize that is true of America as well. Institutions that we trusted have been discredited when we most need them.
The church is called into the world to be its salt. A friend of mine used an image – since it is in the very nature of meat to rot, the crucial question is, “Where was the salt when the meat was rotting?” When you put salt into the meat, the salt disappears. That’s the only way it can work. It does not call attention to itself; it is not the thing that is noticed. Rather, the meat is preserved, its flavor enhanced.
Our rotting institutions are concerned about their self-preservation. This must not be the preoccupation of the church. Christians have to be willing, in a sense, to disappear like that salt. We need to go back to the basics, to the sense of Christianity as a story, a story of loving relationship with the world, a saving story, an amazing story. Too often we have nearly lost that excitement. “Were our hearts not burning on the way?” Our churches need a little bit of that. But that requires simplicity and stripping away, as we hear Christ teaching us. One can experience an elemental joy in living very simply.
Pope Francis uses the image of the field hospital. The church is not just for herself. She is a field hospital in the middle of a battle, saving lives. In the middle of battle, with so many wounded, one does not first ask the wounded, “Are you gay? Are you straight? Are you black? Are you from Nebraska? Are you from Texas? Are you from Uganda?” One needs to first attend to the wounds, or bring the wounded to the hospital!
But we have this need to know exactly who is in, who is out, who is going to hell. How did we get to that? So, I think the challenge is, how does Christianity get reimagined? Pope Francis says that we cannot do this if we do not connect with the poor, the weak, the homeless, the most marginalized. The margins are what save us from thinking as slaves of the center. I think that’s where Christians can recover a bit of our soul and be light – and salt – for the nations.
Meador: How do you see the Eucharist helping us understand what living well together ought to look like?
Katongole: The Eucharist is the bedrock of Christian memory, and, because memory is a part of the imagination, of the Christian imagination. In the Eucharist, all the elements of the Christian story come together. It proclaims the good news: The new creation is here! The Eucharist draws us into remembering the past, what God has planned, and what he continues to do. It also draws us to remember the future. It reminds us where we are and where the story is headed. It locates us.
Saint Paul says, over and over again, “In Christ God has been reconciling the world.” It is through Christ that this reconciliation happens: the Eucharist helps us remember his suffering, death, and resurrection. We remember the institution at the Last Supper, the day before he died: he took the bread and he blessed and broke it and gave it; he took the wine and he blessed it and gave it. And then they ate. That is the memory that shapes the lives of Christians. It is the taking, the giving thanks, the breaking, the giving, the eating, and then the sending forth: Go! Do this in memory of me. Go into the world!
I think this is what is unique about the Christian story, shaping lives that are Eucharistic. We must first receive, before we even try to do. That’s what I find so frustrating about so many discussions of reconciliation and forgiveness. When I talk to people about forgiveness, they are immediately interested in their agency: “How can I forgive?” they ask. “What are the steps?” I want to say, “Wait a minute, that is not how the story begins.” It begins with God’s reconciliation, and with us not as the agents but as the recipients of God’s reconciliation and forgiveness. The problem is that quite often we don’t think there is anything wrong with us. We think the problem is that other guy. But we ourselves have needed that forgiveness, and it has been given to us, as a gift.
Meador: It’s Adam in the garden, “This woman who you gave me – she’s the one who did wrong! Not me! I’m fine!”
Katongole: Exactly. And the woman says, “It’s the snake! It’s not me!” But in the Eucharist we receive everything we need as a gift. And we don’t have to pretend any longer that we are not needy, that we did not need that forgiveness, that love. Perhaps what we need to be doing more and more is to draw up examples, stories of people who are living into that forgiveness, as what the church looks like.
This interview, conducted on June 11, 2020, has been edited for clarity and length.