From Tower-Dwellers to Travelers
Christian leaders from five war-torn countries of East Africa gathered in Kampala, Uganda, last November to strengthen the church's witness in the midst of conflict. They were convened by Emmanuel Katongole, a Catholic priest whose biography embodies both ethnic tension and Christian hope. Katongole was born and raised in Uganda, the son of Rwandan parents. His father embraced Christian faith as an adult, and his joyful seriousness about Christianity shaped Katongole, who joined the priesthood and trained as a philosophical theologian in Belgium. Katongole now teaches at Duke Divinity School, where he is co-director, with Chris Rice, of the Center for Reconciliation. He spoke with Andy Crouch about this year's big question for the Christian Vision Project: What must we learn, and unlearn, to be agents of God's mission in the world?
You've lived on three continents and in four countries, and your parents were from yet another country, Rwanda. How does your story affect your understanding of God's mission in the world?
Being an immigrant can be a blessing. God's mission, as I read it in 2 Corinthians 5:17, is new creation. God is reconciling the world to himself. And there is a sense of journey that is connected with that. When, later on, Paul says that "we are ambassadors of God's reconciliation, God is appealing through us," he is inviting us into a journey toward a new kind of community. People looking at Christians should be confused. Who are these people? Are they black? Are they white? Are they Americans? Are they Ugandans? In Revelation, John sees people drawn from all languages and tribes and nations: an unprecedented congregation. Living on three continents has deepened my understanding of the church as such a congregation; at the same time, it has heightened my sense of Christian life as a journey and of what it means to live as a pilgrim, a resident alien.
That is reminiscent of the name Christians gave themselves in Acts, "people of the Way."
That is, the way of Jesus. I also take that to mean people on the way, on pilgrimage. We have settled too easily. Instead of living out that story of journey toward a new creation, we tend to live out the stories of nationality. And then we forget what it means to journey. It's not difficult to see why we settle, because our nations or tribes or races try to convince us that life can't get any better than this. They ask us, "Where would you want to go? Why would you want to leave?" This is not just something that happens in a superpower like America. Even small nations like Rwanda, even small tribes, have an America-sized imagination of themselves!
The challenge that Christianity faces in our time is the challenge of tribalism. There's a church in Rwanda where the baptismal font still stands. But it bears the scars of being hacked by machetes, and the church was littered with thousands of bones of people who were killed. You couldn't find a more strange and ironic and tragic image than that: a common baptism surrounded by killing in the name of Hutu and Tutsi.
Many of us feel we are beyond that, but the dynamics of national identity remaineven of ecclesial identity. We can be settled in our Catholic power. We can be settled in our Baptist, Episcopalian, Pentecostal, or evangelical identity, and we feel a certain power from that. We think that our mission derives from that power.
The story of the tower of Babel begins with people settled in the land. The tower speaks of strength, power, and stability. It speaks of the ability to stand above the land and survey it. Pilgrims don't build a tower! In our day, I think what God is doing is exactly what he did for that towerdispersing people, spreading them out, scattering them. Scattering, the way I read it in Genesis, is a good thing. It is part of God's purpose for God's people. It is meant to be good news for both Israel and the nations.