Friday 12 February 2016

Attitudes to Africa

Our modern era in The West sometimes seems to be defined through distinctions concerning one's attitude to Africa (implicitly sub-Saharan Africa). And on this question we have, as usual, gotten things upside down.

The mainstream secular Left has a concern with Africa that is both obsessive and wholly material - as must inevitably be the case, given the atheist and Liberal assumptions of our mainstream culture. The secular Left, from a vantage point of Western comfort, convenience and ease, regards Africa with pitying superiority underpinned by gnawing guilt.

Africa is (accurately, on the whole) seen as a place of endemic starvation and violence; a place of bodily suffering - and the conclusion is that something must be done, involving large amounts of Western medicine, money and expertise.

This imperative of curing poverty and disease comes from the Western perspective of near-total spiritual and existential bankruptcy. We see that Africa lacks what we have; but what (some) Africans have that we lack is utterly invisible. And that is Christian faith of a strength and purity which is far beyond almost anybody in the West (including beyond the mainstream Western self-identified Christian churches).

The consequences of faith are not just invisible, but actively denied - we will not acknowledge that religious faith makes any significant difference; certainly we will not acknowledge that it makes all the difference in the world. For the mainstream secular Leftist, religious faith is just a pathetic delusion, which tries but fails to make up for the reality of material poverty, oppression and disease.

From our position of utter existential poverty, of extreme spiritual suffering (such that we want nothing more than a life of continuous distraction, excitement and pleasure leading to a painless death; and partly organize, but wholly welcome, our national extinction and population replacement)... from this comfortably nihilistic perspective we want Africans to have the same as us. We apparently want this deeply: we want for Africa to be as this-worldly as ourselves.

So far Africa's interaction with the West has brought good and ill alike; but what counts as good, and what counts as ill is perspectival upon whether faith is regarded as real and serious or as a childish escapism.

The good includes Christianity. Why am I personally so sure this is good? Because of what I know of African Christians, including those I have met personally and the reports of those I trust who have direct experience. African Christians are better Christians, on the whole, than those in the West - and they seem to get extraordinary strength and happiness from their faith. If you are not persuaded - so be it: this is how it strikes me; and not as a subtle distinction but as a very solid fact.

The harm Africa has derived from The West includes almost permanent near- or actual-starvation, high levels of horrific violence, and some of the worst governments in the history of the planet. These are (mostly unintended) by products of Western medicine, Western aid, Western technology, Western expertise and Western ideas (such as communism).

In sum, Western interventions caused and sustains a massive population explosion in Africa, which continues.

Before contact, Africa seems to have been a place with a low and sparse population, kept in check by a high level of lethal diseases; and a relatively high standard of living in terms of the amount and variety of food and a low requirement for work and a high availability of social living.

Until the 1960s Africa had less starvation than either Asia or The West, and while it did have a high proportion of violent accidents and deaths, this was not the truly monstrous and sadistic violence that has been experienced over the past decades - this required the technology, organization, ideologies and destabilization which the West amply provided.

Well, the West has given Africa the goodness of Christianity, and we are in no position to help much more in that respect (indeed, quite the opposite - we in The West need Africa's faith). And most of the rest has turned out to lead to very horrible consequences - which are only exacerbated when the West continues to provide what it imagines to be 'help' and 'aid'. The effects of Western medicine, public health and hygiene were helpful in reducing suffering over the initial short term, but have been utterly catastrophic in the long term and continuing.

We in The West are so blind to the transformative power of the spirit that we are simply unable to understand what life is like for a really faithful and strong Christian. Everything looks different to one who sees the world in an eternal context and from an attitude of joyous gratitude at salvation.

To discount and deny this, as the secular Liberals of the West do when considering Africa, is the very worst kind of 'cultural imperialism'; because it encourages us to continue to destroy true personal fulfilment in the name of an insipid ideal of comfort, convenience and pleasure which we ourselves have come to despise - although were remain addicted to it.

Indeed the key is that word addiction: we are behaving like an addicted pusher - feeding Africa with exactly that which has enslaved us in terminal misery.


ajb said...

It's a problem with much of the Gospels - the conditions have changed, and so one has to work out the underlying reasoning of what Jesus is saying. Jesus says to help widows, so should we focus on helping widows? Well, widows in Canada tend to be materially comfortable (they can own property, have pension plans, there are large numbers of social services, and so on), so a key part of the situation with widows in his time and place doesn't hold.

Having said that, Jesus *does* focus on material poverty, even thought spiritual poverty is more important than material poverty. This is a tension that goes back to the Gospels.

Bruce Charlton said...

@ajb - To be candid - I don't think this is a geniuine dilemma.

Observing said...

The attitudes among most to Africa do not seem genuine. The elements of self-serving actions and attempts to posture for status predominate.

JP said...

What do we actually know about pre-Western-contact Africa?

I have trouble imagining that they did not suffer from permanent near- or actual-starvation, high levels of horrific violence, and extreme misrule (vicious, tyrannical, and corrupt leaders). If so, then the net effect of Western intervention has not been all that significant.

Bruce Charlton said...

@JP - What possible reason is there hor having a null hypothesis that things have not changed significantly - when all evidence is to the contrary?

Anonymous said...

Africa may be more Christian in the traditional sense than Europe and America are, but like European Christians in the past, it does not stop those Christians from enacting the most barbaric violence on those who oppose them. Still, I cannot blame them, or judge them. It is the most difficult thing to turn the other cheek when under attack, and when war and violence does the job of preserving the lives of our loved ones, or our people.

Christianity is the hardest of all religions to follow. Its founder does not permit violence against persons under any circumstances. Even when he was angry with the money changers in the temple, he turned over their tables and gave them a good telling off, but he did not hurt them physically. My instant response would have been to give them a good hiding, which is why I need the example of Christ before me all the time to, at least, engender remorse, even if I allow anger to take me over and I commit violence. It is not a common occurrence, but the potential is always present.

It is the same with any Christian anywhere at any time, whether they define themselves as conservative or liberal Christians. We are all prone to violence. It is our dual nature - beast and angel, or man and divine. We all bear the mark of Cain. That will never be wiped away until the end, and Christ has come.

The command never to commit violence against the person is hard, very hard, but it is the aspect of Christianity (and Christ) that I most admire. For me it makes it superior to the two other Abrahamic faiths. Christ never permitted himself to do violence, but he allowed the violent to murder his earthly body. This is something that every Christian knows, looks up to, and knows he must try to emulate.


Bruce Charlton said...

@Seeker - Pacifism is a very recent idea - probably originating in 18th century England. I wasn't a principle of Christianity originally. Probably certain people have always been forbidden violence - but (in this earthly life) violence is not prohibited of Christians.

JP said...

"What possible reason is there hor having a null hypothesis that things have not changed significantly - when all evidence is to the contrary?"

I'm asking what the evidence is that Africa sucks more now than it used to.

The null hypothesis is that humanity has suffered from famine, violence, and misrule for the vast majority of its history. That is the current state of Africa. I find it hard to credit that things were somehow significantly better before the Europeans came on the scene.

Anonymous said...

Below is a chunk of text from -

'Jesus opposed use of violence in his notable "live by the sword, die by the sword" statement, which suggested that those who perpetrate violence will themselves face violence.

Historian Roland Bainton described the early church as pacifist - a period that ended with the accession of Constantine.[65]

In the first few centuries of Christianity, many Christians refused to engage in military combat. In fact, there were a number of famous examples of soldiers who became Christians and refused to engage in combat afterward. They were subsequently executed for their refusal to fight.[66] The commitment to pacifism and rejection of military service is attributed by Allman and Allman to two principles: "(1) the use of force (violence) was seen as antithetical to Jesus' teachings and service in the Roman military required worship of the emperor as a god which was a form of idolatry."[67]
The Deserter by Boardman Robinson, The Masses, 1916

In the 3rd century, Origen wrote: "Christians could never slay their enemies. For the more that kings, rulers, and peoples have persecuted them everywhere, the more Christians have increased in number and grown in strength."[68] Clement of Alexandria wrote: "Above all, Christians are not allowed to correct with violence the delinquencies of sins."[69][70] Tertullian argued forcefully against all forms of violence, considering abortion, warfare and even judicial death penalties to be forms of murder.'

It would seem that Christian attitudes towards violence have changed back and forth through the centuries, from, no to violence, to it is OK to be violent in some circumstances, to no again, etc, etc.

My own view remains unchanged. I feel that Christ did not want us to be physically violent at all, but I respect your differing opinion.


Imnobody said...

"We see that Africa lacks what we have; but what (some) Africans have that we lack is utterly invisible."

In 1997, when I was 27, I left my comfy position as a University professor in Spain, to move to Central America. Almost 20 years later, I'm still in Central America and nobody in Spain can understand why I took that decision.

After all, moving to Central America means lowering your standard of life and going to a region that is full of trouble. Nobody was able to see what Central Americans had and Spaniards had lost: some degree of faith and its consequences (happiness, peace of mind before the hardness of life, optimism, caring for each other, trusting God, etc). It is not coincidence that the country I live is among the three or four happiest countries in the world, every year.

The problems are abundant (but much less that the sensationalist media depict). But people know how to live with them. I remember a female friend of mine that married a US citizen and lived in Atlanta saying: "Developing countries have REAL problems (I have no money, etc) while developed countries have PSYCHOLOGICAL problems" (I don't feel fulfilled or understood, etc). I guess the brain is a machine that needs problems to work so, if it doesn't have problems, it invents them.

Since 1997, Spain has been moving further down the path of nihilistic consumerism and hedonism. People are more and more unhappy, the consumption of antidepressants has skyrocketed. This ideology is becoming more mainstream in Central America now, because of Hollywood, United Nations, the Internet and the mimicking of developed countries.

Almost 20 years ago, my relatives could not see that everything is not material wealth. They are still unable to see it.

Greetings from Central America.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Imn - Thanks for that contribution - very valuable.

Just one modifying comment wrt " the consumption of antidepressants has skyrocketed" - this has happened everywhere in the developed world, but is mainly due to 1. massive dishonest marketing plus 2. these drugs induce dependence - so once they have been consumed for several months a significant proportion of people will never be able to stop (especially since they are told that the withdrawal effects are the 'depression' 'coming back'. In some suveys I have seen antidepressants are the only class of drugs where prescriptions/ consumption has been rising by a few percent every year for many years.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Seeker - Fair points. But I am struck that if we leave aside monks and priests (who are forbidden violence - at least in most times and places) - many of the people I regard as the best Christians have voluntarily served in the military or police. In other words, I accept the guidance of the General Authorities of the CJCLDS; and they never have prohibited the use of violence as a principle. But clearly, some Christians are 'called' to a nonviolent life - with the many sacrifies that entails - and it is possible you may be one of them.

Bruce Charlton said...

@JP - I want to clear aside the notion or assumption that pre-contact Africa could plausibly have been the same as post-colonial Africa, when the two societies are so utterly different.

My information comes initially from Gergory Clark's A Farewell to Alms, and the paradigm shift that book induced in me - after which hypothesis I have since 2007 been testing against a mass of material (including biological) - that does not refute it.

I believe that Africa has had a higher proprotional level of violence than Europe and Asia, because European and Asian populations have been through powerful (harshly imposed) selction against violence for dozens of generations by stable agrarian societies with states that effectively took a monopoly of violence. So I think violence in Africa has been relatively high for many, many centuries.

However, I have heard of nothing to compare with some of the post-colonial Africa states (eg Sierra Leone, Rwanda, Congo, Uganda) for mass outbreaks of the most sadistic violence imaginable arising following swiftly on a relatively high level of order, prosperity and peace under (esepcially British) colonial rule.

The current sitiation seems to be again trending in that direction in several places for the reason you indicate - but has not yet reached that level of Hellishness (at least, I don't think so - but this type of news is nearly always hidden/ covered up by the international media - so I am not sure).

The main factor in making Africa literally the 'poster child' for poverty and starvation has been reducing the child/ early adult death rates by 1. initially Western colonialism and then 2. Western aid - esepcially public health and medicine. The 'Biafran' (Nigerian) famine was the first really big African famine (actual famine added onto the base of near-starvation). Up till then mass famine was a feature of Asia - both the Indian subcontinent and East Asia - where the population was at the highest density over the past centuries (plus deliberately-induced famine is used by Communists to control the behaviour of populations and retain power - as in the USSR under Stalin, or China under Mao; and I think this sitiation continues in North Korea).

But there have been famine/ near-famine situations in much of Africa over the past fifty years - nonetheless, due to Western aid and medicine, the population has been growing with astonishing rapidity and continuing. Clark estimated that the population of Mauritania was currently living on fewer daily calories than any society in world history - yet the population has been doubling every couple of decades or less.

This combination of famine and population growth was impossible at any time in history - when famines resulted in mass net death. So the surrent situation is unprecedented.

David said...

'the brain is a machine that needs problems to work so, if it doesn't have problems, it invents them.'

This is exactly what I have suspected for many years of working in western primary care mental health services. In a value free or 'non-judgemental' health care system, literally anything can be medicalized as a problem! Fat people are not fat because they succumb to greed or laziness, they are 'victims' of depression or anxiety disorders. If someone experiences low mood for any reason at all for over two weeks they are labelled as depressed and promptly prescribed antidepressants like sweets by doctors who really should know better. If someone dies, if a relationship breaks down, if someone worries that these things 'might' happen at some point in future, then it is labelled as mental illness (rather than a normal and to be expected part of life, difficult though that might be) requiring a state sanctioned therapy program focused on getting people to think differently to neutralise the pain of mortal existence. I remember the bemused looks and confusion explaining my job as a 'therapist' to some curious locals in Costa Rica. That's because they still know what a real problem is and what is not a real problem. Bizarrely most westerners seems to have forgotten this. It is this kind of realisation that has prompted me to try and get out of this area of work that has for me, at any rate, debunked the myth of mental health problems (naturally they exist but they are blown far out of proportion and distorted to pander to people's desire for having attention lavished on them or 'pity parties' as I now call them). But of course when you explain this point of view to 'career climbing' colleagues and other professionals that you want to climb a different tree and that in retrospect, the tree should be probably just cut down as a bad tree to climb or replaced by religion, then you are regarded with horror as some kind of evil or callous brute.

Greetings from the hand holding West.

Nathaniel said...

@Seeker - I think when the "live by the sword, die by the sword" quote is cited we also need context! We don't see violence specifically forbidden in all circumstances, but an explicit teaching associated with the crucifixion. Jesus was to fulfill his crucifixion as a sacrifice for our sins, and as part of that it was fully carried out by the legitimate Jewish and Roman authorities representing worldly powers. We must remember the historical context in this! He was making explicit that He did not intend to die as another false Messiah, or rebellious military leader attacking Rome and trying to establish a new Israeli Kingship (there were many of these at the time!) - His mission was different and contrasted starkly with those false teachers.

Legitimate use of violence (such as police, military) has never been forbidden in totality. Indeed, we see Christ blessing the centurion for his faith.