"Not Without My Ancestors": A Christological Case Study of the Shona Ancestor Cult of Zimbabwe
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The issue of ancestors has been controversial since the first encounters of Christianity with Shona religion. It remains a major theological problem that needs to be addressed within the mainline churches of Zimbabwe today. Instead of ignoring or dismissing the ancestor cult, which deeply influences the socio-political, religious, and economic lives of the Shona, churches in Zimbabwe should initiate a Christology that is based on it. Such a Christology would engage the critical day-to-day issues that make the Shona turn to their ancestors. Among these concerns are daily protection from misfortune, maintaining good health and increasing longevity, successful rainy seasons and food security, and responsible governance characterized by economic and political stability. Since the mid-16th century arrival of Jesuit missionaries in the Mutapa Kingdom, the Church has realized that many African Christians resorted to their ancestors in times of crisis. Although both Catholic and Protestant missionaries from the 1700s through the early 1900s fiercely attacked Shona traditional beliefs as superstitious and equated ancestors with evil spirits, the cult did not die. Social institutions, such as schools and hospitals provided by missionaries, failed to eliminate ancestral beliefs. Even in the 21st century, many Zimbabweans consult their ancestors. The Shona message to the church remains "Not without My Ancestors." This dissertation examines the significance of the ancestors to the Shona, and how selected denominations and new religious movements have interpreted and accommodated ancestral practices. Taking the missiological goal of "self-theologizing" as the framework, this dissertation proposes a "tripartite Christology" of "Jesus the Family Ancestor", "Jesus the Tribal Ancestor," and "Jesus the National Ancestor," which is based on the Shona "tripartite ancestrology." Familiar ecclesiological and liturgical language, idioms, and symbols are used to contribute to the wider Shona understanding of Jesus as the ancestor par excellence, in whom physical and spiritual needs-including those the ordinary ancestors fail to meet-are fulfilled.
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