The National Catholic Review
Wayne A. Holst

A skilled author can introduce ideas that change a reader’s consciousness. In Disciples of All Nations, Lamin Sanneh delivers just that.

Before engaging directly this important book, let me briefly digress to illustrate such a “perspective changing” moment from personal experience.

Forty years ago, as a young missionary serving in Trinidad, West Indies, my awareness was transformed after reading the book Capitalism and Slavery, by Eric Williams. Williams—a black Trinidadian academic—was the first prime minister of this newly independent nation. I was attracted to his views and read his revisionist interpretation of why Britain had abolished the slave trade throughout its empire during the 1840s.

The author argued that slavery was repealed because it had become an economically barren system, not because of any heightened ethical standard on the part of the British. Economics, not justice, was the decisive factor that forced a change of policy. Challenging the common historical wisdom of the day, Williams theorized that systemic slavery continued only so long as it proved to be economically feasible.

Though I knew little about economics, Williams’s book opened for me a new way of viewing reality. For the first time I was reading history interpreted by “the other.” Williams, whose ancestors had themselves been slaves, was giving me a fresh perspective on the demise of slavery. He revolutionized my consciousness and deepened my understanding.

In similar fashion, Disciples of All Nations challenges common Euro-American thinking about the nature and future of the faith. Sanneh powerfully re-examines the roots of a “post-Western Christian awakening” in a postcolonial world. A Gambian by background (now a naturalized American), he teaches history and world Christianity at Yale University. He was a Muslim before converting to Catholic Christianity. As a lay theologian he brings an African, early-life Muslim perspective to an enthusiastic convert’s apologia for Christian faith.

Much of what Sanneh describes in this paradigm-shattering book was not supposed to happen like this. Christians of the two-thirds world were not supposed to be grateful for the gift that they had received from those missionaries who frequently “collaborated” with plundering imperialists.

The small Christian offspring/remnant of the colonial missionary enterprise was supposed to disappear into irrelevancy and not become the foundation for new Christian cultures in Africa and Asia. New Christians in many places were not supposed to attend to and be shaped by local “independent” prophetic figures who knew little of the 2,000-year-old Christian tradition but served as bridge-builders between indigenous traditions and the new faith.

Apparently, in God’s economy, things do not always turn out as we hope or fear they will.

For several generations a great shame has enshrouded churches in the West because of what many of us have come to believe was an unseemly and abusive liaison between colonialism and the modern Christian missionary movement. The author, whose African heritage includes both colonialism and Islamic faith, transcends both our guilt and his need for retribution; and his writing serves a different purpose.

“I am urging a revisionist history,” he says, “without claiming that mission and colonialism were not in cahoots.... In many places there was, without question, co-operation between them, with missionaries supporting military force where necessary to support and defend their work. The story of Catholicism in the New World and elsewhere makes that clear. But Catholicism was not the sole culprit.... Although missions fell from their high moral calling by engaging in slavery and the slave trade,” he continues, “they also transcended them by creating communities of faithful converts.”

The evidence reveals a more nuanced picture of what really happened. There were, in fact, many forms of missionary service as well as diverse and unpredictable indigenous responses.

A great deal of what we think happened is inaccurate, Sanneh claims. The ecumenical churches have been too pessimistic about mission and interfaith relations. Now living and working among us, Sanneh wants to revise the story from the perspective of “the other.”

I came away from reading this book with a new sense of hope for Christianity as a truly global faith. In spite of the many flaws in the process of “transplanting” the Good News over the last centuries, the genuine message was indeed translated meaningfully and effectively. It is time for us in the former “sending” churches to let go of both our guilt and our need to control, recognizing that the Spirit of God is free do its work.

The author challenges and transforms many of our long-held perceptions, and in so doing he does for us now what Eric Williams did for me four decades ago—even though Sanneh’s philosophy and manner are more conciliatory. From the beginning, notes Sanneh, Christians saw their faith as having global implications. Now, in our post-colonial world, that dream is truly coming to pass.

In considering where Christianity is moving in terms of its new global nature, he uses terms like “diversity,” “innovation,” “adaptation” and “diffusion.” History teaches that there will be times of impetus and setback, improvisation and re-engagement.

Sanneh focuses on several missionary visionaries who worked for the de-institutionalization of mission. He provides case studies showing how different parts of the world (like Africa and China) are being drawn into the Christian orbit and gives special attention to Islam and indigenous religions—as well as secular approaches like Marxism and new nationalistic challenges.

Amid all this confusing diversity, Sanneh is hopeful, because he believes the greater movement is toward unity, not division. “Post-Western Christian hatchlings,” he points out, “may be able to offer a lesson for the West about the spirit of mutual bonding as part of Christianity’s contribution to the worldwide human family.”

Faced with many testimonies to these developments, readers must choose their reading wisely. Sanneh would be a good choice, not least because of his irenic skill as a transformer of consciousness.

Wayne A. Holst teaches religion and culture at the University of Calgary in Canada and at St. David’s United Church in that city.