What the African Church Can Teach the World About Racism and Ethnocentrism

Participants at the conference titled “African Christian Theology: Memories and Mission for the 21st century” hosted by the University of Notre Dame in Rome. (Credit: University of Notre Dame.)

What can the African Church teach the world about racism and ethnocentrism? Few places have struggled with foreign racial bias, as well as endemic ethnic divides, as much as the African continent. But Church leaders from African countries are calling for unity, resilience and, of course, a sense of humor.

Racism in Africa has a long and bloody history, born not only from years of colonization, but also from deeply rooted ethnic and tribal divisions. From its experience, the African continent can offer guidelines when it comes to addressing racism: have a sense of humor, be united and be resilient.

“Resilience in the face of discrimination is something that Africa can teach the world,” Nigerian Archbishop Fortunatus Nwachukwu, the Vatican representative to Nicaragua, told Crux.

Black people in Africa have faced discrimination and hostility due to racism for hundreds of years, one only needs to think of the Apartheid system in South Africa. But Nwachukwu insists that when talking about Africa, the correct term is ethnocentrism.

“In Africa we don’t speak of racism, we are now speaking of ethnocentric discrimination based on ethnic or sectional affiliation,” Nwachukwu said. “The challenge is that ethnicity is deep-seated, and the ethnic group is a measure of value.”

In a statement released March 10, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Nigeria recognized the “rising profiles of ethnic militias and their increasing destructive violence against our commonwealth. We have witnessed a rise in the politics of identity with our people retreating to the womb of ethnicity.”

While pointing out the horrible massacres that took place in Rwanda in the 1990’s, the inter-ethnic violence that shook Kenya in 2007, and the ongoing cases of violence in Cote d’Ivoire, South Sudan and Nigeria, Nwachukwu recognized the role of the Church when it comes to ethnic and racist issues.

“There is an ethnocentric discrimination within the Catholic Church,” Nwachukwu confirmed. The archbishop cited as an example the dioceses in Nigeria and Sierra Leone, which have been left vacant due to ethnocentric biases against appointed bishops.

Nwachukwu is the founder of the Aquaviva Foundation, created in the Diocese of Aba, Nigeria. Its major goal is fighting negative prejudices and discriminations based on ethnic origins or sectional and similar affiliations within the Church and in the society.

To do so, Nwachukwu said, “A sense of humor is a system used by many Africans to appreciate beauty and see through the nature of things. Some Africans have learned this and are able to tell others.”

Yet laughter will not solve all problems related to racism. The real challenges for fighting ethnocentrism – according to Nwachukwu – are corruption, violence, and bad leadership.

To combat and address these challenges, Nwachukwu called for a “renewal of evangelization” so that cohesion under Christian unity may overtake ethnic differences.

During his presentation at the conference on “African Christian Theology: Memories and Mission for the 21st century” that took place in Rome March 22-25, Nwachukwu warned that ethnocentric biases make “people think that the blood of ethnicity could be thicker than water of baptism.”

“When ethnicity degenerates into ethnocentrism and forms of negative prejudice and discrimination, it is a mark of failure in leadership. The antidote to this pathology is a leadership borne out of courage and vision; one that inspires hope,” he added.

Nwachukwu called for a new leadership within the Catholic Church, as well as a dedicated attention to the formation of priests and nuns so that they may be prepared to handle and address the issue.

“When a priest becomes ethnocentric, he betrays his religious identity,” Nwachukwu told Crux.

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Claire Giangravè