Atheists for God?
A new organisation seems to have been launched unannounced. It is called ‘Atheists for God’ and while it appears to have few members at present it has a powerful message.
OK, I’m joking, but only just. A remarkable article in The Times newspaper on Saturday 27 December, written by well-known journalist and sceptic Matthew Parris, was entitled, ‘As an atheist, I truly believe Africa needs God’. The subtitle ran, ‘Missionaries, not aid money, are the solution to Africa’s biggest problem – the crushing passivity of the people’s mindset’.
The article is not a send-up but an incredibly honest admission by someone brought up in sub-Saharan Africa that the Christian gospel delivers men and women from tribalism and passivity, makes them walk tall, and empowers them to fashion their own personal and national destinies.
Not material aid
This transformation, says Parris, is not the result of medical, social or economic aid programmes, good though these may be. Rather:
‘Christianity, post-Reformation and post-Luther, with its teaching of a direct, personal two-way link between the individual and God, unmediated by the collective, and unsubordinate to any other human being, smashes straight through the [stultifying] philosophical/spiritual framework I’ve just described. It offers something to hold on to, to those anxious to cast off a crushing tribal groupthink. That is why and how it liberates’.
And he concludes: ‘Removing Christian evangelism from the African equation may leave the continent at the mercy of a malign fusion of Nike, the witch doctor, the mobile phone and the machete’.
Parris does not make these judgements on the basis of remote armchair observation. Having spent his childhood in Nyasaland, and having recently visited Malawi, he writes from direct experience of the difference that Protestant Christianity makes.
He recalls that the African servants he met in Christian households were gracious, lively-minded workers. In the cities, he relates, ‘Africans who had been converted and were strong believers … were always different [from those in tribal areas]. Far from having cowed or confined its converts, their faith appeared to have liberated and relaxed them’.
At the age of 24 he and four student friends travelled by land across the continent – through Algiers, Niger, Nigeria, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Congo, Rwanda, Tanzania and Kenya. Seeking places to camp at night they had to acknowledge that ‘when [they] entered a territory worked by missionaries … something changed in the faces of the people’ – and they felt safe in a way they did not feel elsewhere.
Such impressions, he continues, were strongly reinforced during his recent visit to Malawi.
Evidence at hand
There are some important lessons here for Christians. Firstly, although atheists are forever calling on Christians to provide evidence for the existence of God, they already have ample evidence – and there are those among them who are honest enough to admit it. Real Christians, whether in Africa or anywhere else, do indeed obey their Lord’s command to ‘let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven’. Their testimony cannot but be noticed even by the most ardent sceptic.
Secondly, these African brethren made it clear to Matthew Parris what they believed. Otherwise he could not have singled out ‘post-Reformation, post-Luther’ Christian teaching as the key to the whole matter. Today, in Western society, Christians tend to keep a low profile, merging into the materialistic and hedonistic background for fear of being spotted as ‘different’. Not so the African brethren that Parris so greatly admires.
Thirdly, gospel evangelism can change not only individuals but the moral and spiritual environment where those people live and work. Biblical Christianity can change neighbourhoods and communities. If our churches do their job of preaching Christ, reaching out and doing ‘good to all men’, shall we not see this in our own localities?