The Retrial of Ancestor-based Religions
by Thandazani Mhlanga | 18 June 2021 |
Before making a case for the retrial of ancestor veneration in the courts of Christian thought, maybe a brief contextual self-introduction detailing my connections with the subject matter is in order.
My name is Thandazani, which means in my native tongue “pray,” in the emphatic sense. I am a third-generation Seventh-day Adventist Christian and pastor.
Yet I have close family members and friends who still practice or participate in ancestor veneration. Some of them are practicing Christians and others are not, but they all remain part of our lives. We celebrate weddings and birthdays together. We exchange recipes and natural remedies, and we also mourn and bury our dead together.
All of which means that I have first-hand experience of both religious worlds, and I have been on the front lines where the two worlds meet.
As a pastor, I am well aware of Christian teachings about ancestor veneration. But, I am also mindful that many people have judged ancestor-based religion without understanding and, in the process, may have missed the uniting parallels between these two religious worlds. Remember that whenever the history of the hunted is written, taught, and intellectually canonized by the hunter, what you get is the hunter’s point of view.
My goal is to walk you through the basics of ancestor worship, to give the reader a bird’s eye view of the underpinnings of it. While my experiences are most relevant to ancestor worship as practiced in southern Africa, I have realized that these pillars largely hold true wherever you find the practice. “Ancestor worship,” by the way, is an unfortunate label given by the hunter. Because, as I’ll explain later, ancestor worship may be better understood as ancestors helping people reach out to God.
Death is the doorway to life
Among most peoples of the world, there is a collective denial of the finality of death. Most Asian religions believe in some version of reincarnation. The denial of the finality of death is true in Christianity and the other Abrahamic religions. And, it is true among those of my native continent who practice ancestor worship.
The philosophical idea behind ancestor veneration is that death is the doorway to a greater existential understanding. Before death, one’s knowledge is limited and fallible. But death ushers in divine understanding and a more substantial reality. It is believed that the living can access this life-saving knowledge as they commune with those who have died.
When faced with this information, the usual Christian approach is to theologically attack the practice and not intellectually engage the philosophy. We often get theologically preoccupied with how it’s done instead of understanding why it’s done.
When we consider the why of ancestor veneration, we see that Christians and ancestor worshippers share a philosophical foundation. Paul articulated the Christian version of this in his letter to the Galatians. “For through the law,” Paul argued, “I died to the law so that I might live for God. I have been crucified with Christ, and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:19-20).
Here we find the idea of death as a doorway to life. Baptism is the dramatization of this philosophical idea. Through baptism, we believe that the individual dies and is buried in the watery grave so as to be resurrected into the newness of life in Christ Jesus (Romans 6:1-11). In the Christian worldview, the death of self is essential for authentic living to occur; and physical death will be replaced by eternal life when Jesus comes again.
Not everyone who dies gets to be an ancestor. Contrary to popular belief, the qualifications to be an ancestor are high. One has to be known to have lived well to qualify. Anyone who lived a selfish life, who didn’t contribute to the wellbeing of others, does not qualify. Infants, children, and young adults do not qualify. Thieves, murderers, and the sexually promiscuous do not qualify.
African culture understands that an ancestor has to have had a compassionate understanding of the human condition. You will also find that ancestor-ship is not a perpetual position. Ancestors have a shelf life of at most three generations, which helps keep those in office relevant to the needs of the living.
The ancestors are not divine. They act as mediators between the gods and human beings. In ancestor-based religions, there is a clear and distinct difference between gods and ancestors, even as the western world has a clear and unarguable distinction between their cultural heroes and the gods. There is never a time when historical role models such as George Washington or Martin Luther King, Jr., for example, are mistaken for divine beings. While their life stories are taught, their biographies recommended, they are not gods. Though the ancestors are considered part of the family in a way these cultural figures are not, neither are the ancestors divine beings in African theology.
To the missionaries, African religion looked strange, frightening. We had no hymns, no pianos, and no Judaeo-Christian Messiah. Instead, there were traditional songs, drums, and the mediating ancestors. But it turns out that what was assessed and labeled as “ancestor worship” by the colonialists and missionaries was predominantly the worship of God. There are names and titles for God that pre-existed colonial theology: Qamata, UMlimu, and UThixo were all titles of the one supreme God. To the Africans, the ancestors were our best access point to His omniscience. Jesus the Messiah is, in a sense, an example of an ancestor (albeit a divine one) who is our brother (Luke 8:21) as well as our mediator.
Jesus may be thought of as the rival ancestor—the perfect one. Maybe we ought to consider intellectually repositioning who Jesus is as we minister to those who honor the ancestors.
As he looked back at the history of God’s chosen people, the author of Hebrews argued that “In the past, God spoke … at many times and in various ways (Hebrews 1:1).” The same is true of my birth culture. God was never silent. The continent was never without a revelation of God. God spoke at many times and in various ways.
We live in a world full of people desiring a relationship with God. In that quest, people have taken different routes, such as ancestor veneration, reincarnation, and (in our case) Christianity. What makes the Christian message unique is that we can see, as the author of Hebrews said, that these many religious paths show how God is searching for us, as we are searching for God (Luke 19:10).
The author of Hebrews concludes these numerous progressive revelations of God by emphasizing the greatest revelation of all: Jesus, the one and only unique Son of God. In the story of Jesus the Messiah, I have received God’s greatest revelation, which is why I am a Christian.
In all my interactions with friends and family who are still convicted and convinced that the ancestors are the revelation of God, I am patient, loving, and accepting. Their beliefs help me to reflect upon what Jesus did for me. I have learned to see beyond the practice and celebrate our shared philosophical underpinnings. It is not always easy, but it makes for a peaceful environment in which belief systems are discussed without anyone feeling the need to aggressively defend their theological real-estate, and burn bridges in the process.
The actions of a few aren’t representative for the whole. All religious movements have, in their ranks, fundamentalists who hurt others in the name of the religion. These fundamentalists exist in ancestral religions, too. Unfortunately, they are the ones who make the news and shape people’s perspectives. For example, when the subject of “ancestor worship” comes up, many people often associate it with “voodoo.” But ancestor veneration and voodoo are unalike and incompatible. In fact, one of the primary responsibilities of the ancestors is to protect their loved ones from those who practice voodoo—not unlike how Jesus the Messiah helps the Christian “to stand against the devil’s schemes” (see Ephesians 6:11-12).
This is certainly not an argument for a return to ancestor worship. I am only saying that ancestor veneration has been misunderstood as an end in itself, when in fact it was another path—albeit a wrong one, in light of the revelation of the Bible—in humanity’s search for God. Even though we human beings have often gotten it wrong, we have always been in search of God—or, to be more accurate, God has been in search of us. To understand this will help Christians reach out to those who honor their ancestors.
Thandazani Mhlanga is a pastor, educator, speaker and author serving the Osoyoos Church in the British Columbia Conference. Pastor Thandazani and his wife, Matilda, have been blessed with three daughters, who are the joy of their lives and their highest calling. His website is themscproject.com.