On 15 June 2023, Shri Piyush Goyal, India’s minister of Union Commerce and Industry, claimed that India and Africa are “natural partners with historical and cultural ties” (Government of India 2023). It is hard to imagine that these ties do not include theological exchange, considering that there is a history of intercultural exchange between the two (Shankar 2021).
It is certainly interesting to investigate how historically Indian and African Christian theology have influenced each other, though for several reasons this exploration has so far been limited. For one, in the global era, the Western dominance in academic theology, facilitated by its material prosperity, makes the West the major theological voice that one must engage with if one desires to establish oneself as an academically sound theologian. The economic benefits involved in engaging with the West come in the way of sharing other benefits reaped by engaging with theological expressions from other regions.
Nevertheless, in the past few decades, there has been a growing realisation that “the Next Christendom” is concentrated in the global South (Jenkins 2011; Hanciles 2021). With this recognition, new possibilities for intercultural exchange between marginalised theological contexts have opened up. I want to propose at least three avenues of theological engagement that can foster a deeper connection between African and South Asian theological voices.
1. Capturing grassroot stories of collaboration
During the early years of my theological education, I moved to Punjab in the northwest region of India. While there, I met several African students who regularly attended Sunday services and also some chapel services at our local Bible college.
Over a period of time, everyone began to take notice of Peter, who often stayed with other students and fasted and prayed with them, eventually leading prayer meetings, devotions and chapel services at our Bible college. I do not remember whether Peter had found God in India or he had carried his faith from Africa to Punjab, but he was certainly a contagious believer. Several times Peter invited us to the fellowship of African students, where conversations about faith were often over food. Peter eventually established his own ministry in India and was invited to speak at many Christian gatherings in different villages of Punjab and North India, wherever Christian leaders had recognised his wisdom and call to ministry.
Every year hundreds, if not thousands, of students like Peter come to India to pursue education (Mohapatra 2019), and become part of and/or form Christian fellowships in urban centres such as Delhi and Bangalore (Myambo 2017). These fellowships provide them a space to negotiate their religious identity with other Indian Christians as fellow believers, on one hand, but also culturally distinctive African Christians, on the other.
However, beyond educational pursuits, there is a growing collaboration between African and Indian Pentecostal pastors and workers. This is particularly evident in Punjab, where Christianity has experienced rapid growth in the past few years, especially among its most oppressed castes (Menon and Mahajan 2022). United by strong Pentecostal beliefs and expressions, African and Indian Christian workers, pastors, preachers, prayer warriors, prophets and healers often travel to each other's mission fields to preach, pray and heal.
Pentecostalism has found roots in both Africa and South Asia partly because of the poverty, religious persecution, oppression and marginalisation evident in both contexts. Both African Christians and Dalit, Adivasi and lower-caste Christians in India share the same status as victims. In fact, there have been efforts to form a common black identity between African peoples and the Dravidian, Adivasi and Dalit groups in India, as the latter are often discriminated against due to their dark colour by the light-skin-loving Aryans (Mampilly 2022).
Unfortunately, the developments in Punjab and stories like that of Peter have not yet entered the academic alleys of India-Africa theological collaboration, but it is certainly the right time to consider them. Capturing such stories of collaboration need not devalue or counteract pursuing more formal theological engagement. In fact, one of the tasks of academic theology could be to provide a platform to grassroot theological developments so that they can be of more benefit to the wider church. This will require setting aside presuppositions about what theological collaboration should look like, following the ‘signs of times’ and being open to the partnership that is already taking place at the grassroots.
2. Initiating joint theological ventures
Discerning the grassroot stories of collaboration should naturally push African and South Asian theologians to consider entering into partnerships for academic projects. For several reasons already mentioned, theological engagement among voices from different regions of the global South remains nebulous, but there is a growing recognition of its need.
EATWOT (the Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians), for instance, was established in 1976 with the aim of fostering “new models of theology which would interpret the gospel in a more meaningful way to the peoples of the Third World and promote their struggle for liberation” (Tomita n.d.). It recognises that “Third World” expressions of Christianity share a common socio-political, religious and cultural condition that sets them outside the centres of power.
In the recent past, the contributors to the South Asia Bible Commentary unashamedly acknowledged the ‘holy jealousy’ that they felt at the production of the Africa Bible Commentary, which fuelled their own passion to produce something similar. The SABC, like the ABC, remains the first one-volume Bible commentary produced by native theologians and scholars.
As I write this blog for African Theology Worldwide (ATW), I am gripped by the hope to soon see a South Asian Theology Worldwide (SATW), that would provide a platform for local and contextual voices, consequently leading them to converse with theologies from Africa and other parts of the world, enriching the conversation for the benefit of everyone. Endeavours such as these offer hope and inspiration for further cross-pollination between African and South Asian voices.
3. Recognising the global nature of theology
Although the similarities between the social, cultural, and religious landscape of Africa and South Asia mean that there is fertile ground for theological interaction, proper collaboration also means recognising the uniqueness of each context. For instance, generally speaking, the issue of religious pluralism has been a hot potato in South Asian settings, while the stress on relating African traditional religion with Christian theology has been evident in African theology. The central concerns are present in both contexts, but the stress is different. An African-South Asian theological engagement can bring out new insights for each context.
The whitewashing of our differences can also come from the setting in which we find ourselves. For instance, from a postcolonial perspective, it is tempting for any collaboration between African and South Asian theology to raise our contextual difference with the West – our history, traditions and culture as a whole, as a monolithic category that sets us in opposition to the dominant Western voice.
Apart from ignoring the uniqueness of our voices, what can follow is a shutting down of all conversations with the West. Such a reaction may be unfortunate on two accounts. Firstly, the claim that the West and the ‘Third World’ share no similarities flies in the face of the fact that in our globalising world, both contexts share similar questions and concerns, such as those related to science, economics and the meaning of life. These questions may be answered differently and with a diverse set of approaches, but they nonetheless point to concerns common to humanity. Secondly, such a shutting down of conversation goes against the catholic nature of the body of Christ, in which each limb, with its strengths and weaknesses, contributes to the life of the body.
Given these considerations, platforms that give space to contextual African and South Asian voices (such as ATW and SATW) will have to continue conversing with Western theology—challenging it with new approaches, but also constructively calling each other to unity in Christ.
To conclude, a proverb that is believed to have originated in Africa says: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” Considering the mutual benefit that an intercultural theological engagement between Africa and South Asia can generate and the contribution it can make to theological thinking globally, it is high time that these avenues of intercultural theology were explored more thoroughly.
Charles Christian is a doctoral student in Intercultural Theology at the Protestant Theological University in Groningen, the Netherlands.
Government of India. 2023. “India and Africa Are Natural Partners with Historical and Cultural Ties: Union Commerce and Industry Minister Shri Piyush Goyal.” Ministry of Commerce and Industry. 15 June 2023. https://commerce.gov.in/press-releases/india-and-africa-are-natural-partners-with-historical-and-cultural-ties-union-commerce-and-industry-minister-shri-piyush-goyal.
Hanciles, Jehu J., ed. 2021. World Christianity: History, Methodologies, Horizons. Maryknoll, NY, Orbis Books.
Jenkins, Philip. 2011. The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity. Oxford, Oxford University Press.
Mampilly, Zachariah. 2022. “Africa Holds Up a Mirror to India: An Interview with Shobana Shankar.” Africa Is a Country. 14 September 2022. https://africasacountry.com/2022/09/africa-holds-up-a-mirror-to-india.
Menon, Sunil, and Anilesh S. Mahajan. 2022. “The Pastors of Punjab.” India Today. 14 November 2022. https://www.indiatoday.in/india-today-insight/story/from-the-india-today-archives-2022-the-pastors-of-punjab-2368101-2023-05-03.
Mohapatra, Bikash. 2019. “‘Study in India’ and India’s African Dilemma: An ambitious initiative clashes with a regressive mindset.” The Diplomat. 10 June 2019. https://thediplomat.com/2019/06/study-in-india-and-indias-african-dilemma.
Myambo, Mellisa Tandiwe. 2017. “The African Churches of South Delhi.” Africa Is a Country. 19 October 2017. https://africasacountry.com/2017/10/the-african-churches-of-south-delhi.
Shankar, Shobana. 2021. An Uneasy Embrace: Africa, India and the Spectre of Race. London: Hurst.
Tomita, Luiza E. n.d. “Eatwot Global - History.” Accessed 13 October 2023. https://eatwotglobal.com/history.html.