Tumultuous Urgency

Dayle's feet in the Ambulance and me following in our carUrgency with inner tumult, that’s what I felt when Dayle was very ill, especially when she was having heart arrhythmia that was frightening her and when she woke so dehydrated that she couldn’t move. I wanted something done NOW! I wanted the doctors and nurses to feel and act with the same kind of urgency. Of course they don’t.

Not only do they not share my turmoil of urgency, they shouldn’t. Doctors have to act with urgency, but it can’t be the kind with inner emotional turmoil, or they would be less effective. I found myself in the moment wanting the doctors to be rushing the way my emotions were rushing. But even when they acted with urgency, it was a calm, controlled kind. I could only appreciate that when I was calm again myself.

But there’s more. Not only shouldn’t the doctors share my tumultuous urgency, they can’t share it. If I have the same emotional reaction to seeing Dayle in serious health problems as people who don’t know her, then what can I say of my love for her? The doctors and I should have different reactions; that’s what is good, natural and proper.

I struggled to let everyone have their healthy, normal and helpful reactions to Dayle’s illness in its acute moments – to understand that my turmoil as a husband was my legitimate reaction and mine alone.

It was mine to take to the Lord who welcomed me with my tumultuous urgency. But it was not mine to shove down the throats of others.

Why the Old Testament – War

ONUC Peacekeeper in Congo Deploys to Combat Zone, UN Photo/Marie Frechon

ONUC Peacekeeper in Congo Deploys to Combat Zone, UN Photo/Marie Frechon

A few weeks ago, I introduced a series of blogs on the rationale for translating the Old Testament into the languages of Africa. There are quite a number of languages in Africa with the New Testament, no Old Testament and no plans to translate the Old Testament. As I stated in the introduction, there are a number of good reasons to translate the Old Testament. I am limiting myself to one proposition – that God has revealed himself in the Old Testament in ways that give his comfort, encouragement and instruction for many of the most burning issues facing African Christians, while the New Testament has little to say on those burning issues.

In February, a friend of mine who has worked in Sudan, posted on Facebook this lamentation from by a Sudanese woman:

I was born in war.
I grew up in war.
I got snatches of simple schooling in war.
I hid in mango groves to hide from war.
I wore leaves as clothing in war.
I married in war.
I bore children in war.
From birth to now I am still in war.
I probably will die in war.

You may think that all of Africa is embroiled in conflict. That is certainly not true. But it is certainly true some parts of Africa are in long-term conflicts or wars. Sudan and Southern Sudan come at the top of that list. It is also the case that conflicts sometimes break out in peaceful parts of Africa, last for a while, then go away. Côte d’Ivoire is a good case in point.

Camp for displaced people in Congo, photo Julien Harneis

Camp for displaced people in Congo, photo Julien Harneis

Unless you count the book of Revelation, the New Testament contains very little military conflict. On the other hand, the Old Testament tells the story of hundreds of years of conflict between the descendants of Abraham and the Philistines. That conflict ebbs and flows, throughout the books of Samuel, I Kings, II Kings, I Chronicles and II Chronicles. And that is not the only military conflict in the Old Testament.

Westerners can have difficulty making sense of the story of the siege of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar, the deportation, exile and eventual return; so much so that we need to read explanations. But to people in Southern Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, such stories sound all too ordinary.

But the Old Testament goes beyond simply telling stories of conflict and war. In the prophets we get God’s perspective on those conflicts. Through the voices of the prophets we hear God’s evaluation and his remedy. But that is not all. In the Psalms and in Lamentations we hear cries from the souls of those caught in the horrors of war. In those books, wars cease to be just historical fact or acts condemned by God. They take on a human face. We are shown the gut-wrenching effects they have on real people.

My eyes are red from crying,
my stomach is in knots,
and I feel sick all over.
My people are being wiped out,
and children lie helpless
in the streets of the city.
A child begs its mother
for food and drink,
then blacks out
like a wounded soldier
lying in the street.
The child slowly dies
in its mother’s arms.
Lamentations 2:11-12

Some Christians may say to people in caught in the troubles of war that they don’t have enough faith. The health and wealth Gospel tells those in the poverty of war that they need to claim God’s promises. Some Africans would say of that God has cursed those caught in conflict. But the Old Testament does something different – it validates the suffering of those caught in the horrors of violent conflict. We comfortable Westerners find the lamentations in the Old Testament difficult to understand, but for those living in war, they bring release, comfort, and even encouragement because they parallel the own tears and feelings. They are real-world examples of the New Testament injunction:

… casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.
I Peter 5:7

The Sudanese woman quoted above was not exaggerating, not even a little. I’ll bet that if she were to read the book of Lamentations in her language, she would find her feelings validated and it would give her hope. There’s nothing like it in the New Testament.

Why translate the Old Testament? Simple, so that woman, and millions like her, will have the passages in the Bible God wrote just for her, passages that let her know his presence, consolation, encouragement and gentle instruction for her exact situation.

Why the Old Testament – Traditional Religion

This is the fifth in a series of six blogs on the rationale for translating the Old Testament into the languages of Africa. As I stated in the introduction, there are a number of good reasons to translate the Old Testament. I am limiting myself to one proposition – that God has revealed himself in the Old Testament in ways that give his comfort, encouragement and instruction for many of the most burning issues facing African Christians, while the New Testament has little to say on those issues. Last week, I dealt with poverty. This week, my topic is living surrounded by traditional religion. To Westerners, it may be the least understandable of my blogs on this topic. But it may also be the most important reason to translate the Old Testament into more languages in Africa.

Africans live surrounded by religion. This is because their worldview does not separate the religious from the secular. This is one of the features of all primal religions around the world. Every ethnic group (the word “tribe” is considered inaccurate and pejorative) in Africa has its own religious beliefs. Everyone knows that the spirits they venerate and the religious rites they practices are different from their neighboring ethnic groups.

This is a situation very much like the Old Testament, where the Israel worshiped Jehovah using specific religious rituals while other ethnic groups worshiped different gods using different rituals. The Philistines, for example, worshiped Dagon. Every ethnic group follows its god and its religious practices. In this system, a person is born into his ethnicity, language and religion. Religion is not a choice, it is something people inherit.

The stage on which much of the Old Testament plays out is one of multiple religions. In this multi-religious setting, the God of Israel vies for his rightful place while the people of Israel sometimes adopt the gods and religious practices of neighboring groups, having lost confidence that they can trust Jehovah alone. There are dramatic stories of the conflict between Jehovah and his prophets and the god Baal and his prophets, such as the one on Mount Carmel. The prophet Isaiah conveys the supremacy of Jehovah in eloquent passages such as Isaiah 40. We love the powerful words of verse 31:

But those who trust in the Lord will find new strength.
They will soar high on wings like eagles.
They will run and not grow weary.
They will walk and not faint.

But we forget (or perhaps we didn’t know if the first place) that Isaiah wrote these verses as part of a passage comparing the Lord to gods of wood, silver or gold, and touting the value of following the Lord compared to the uselessness of following other Gods. Soaring high on wings of eagles is not promised the followers of other gods.

The Old Testament is a world of rivalry between the One God and other gods. This rivalry is very real. It plays out in the fertility of the land, who wins battles, whose kings is the most prestigious, who has the most righteous laws, etc.

We Westerners need to spiritualize passages about idolatry. For example, we rightly see the love of money as a kind of idolatry. Most Africans need no such spiritualization. The idols, the worship of different gods by different peoples and the conflict with the true and living God are part of their everyday lives. The Old Testament passages about such things hardly need interpretation for them. They match the primal religion out of which many African Christians are moving and the religion in which quite a Africans few still practice. Those who are Christians still find that their former religions tempt them back. In Ghana which is some 70% Christian, there has been a recent resurgence of traditional healers and shrines. There are even a few who claim to be Christian pastors who argue for the practice of traditional religion alongside Christianity. Just as the confrontation between Jehovah and false gods and flowed in the Old Testament, we should expect that African Christians will experience struggles as they put their faith in the one true God.

One of Africa’s most well-known theologians, Prof Kwame Bediako has noted that the Old Testament is rich in instruction for African Christians in dealing with the primal religions in their backgrounds and in their communities. He notes that the Old Testament has a constant call to turn from primal religion to Jehovah.

We only get hints of primal religion in the New Testament. On the other hand, the Old Testament is chocked full of the stories and teaching needed for evangelizing people steeped in primal religion. Those same stories and teaching are needed if African Christians are to grapple effectively with their primal heritage rather than have their Christianity weakened or even destroyed by it.

Why translate the Old Testament? So that the hundreds of millions of new Christians who live every day in the conflict between the one True God and the gods of the religions they have just left will have the parts of the Bible that deal directly with the spiritual conflict in which they live day in and day out.

Why the Old Testament – Poverty

Four weeks ago, I introduced a series of blogs on the rationale for translating the Old Testament into the languages of Africa. As I stated in the introduction, there are a number of good reasons to translate the Old Testament. I am limiting myself to one proposition – that God has revealed himself in the Old Testament in ways that give his comfort, encouragement and instruction for many of the most burning issues facing African Christians, while the New Testament has little to say on those issues. Last week, I dealt with the issue of ethnic tensions and rivalries. This week, my topic is poverty.

Combined HDI and Translation mapsThe map to the right shows the human development index for the countries of the world. The places in red score low on the index, meaning that people there are poor not just in terms of income, but also in terms of access to health care and in many other ways. If you compare the red and orange zones on that map with the map below it showing where there are the most languages without a translation of the Bible, you will see that there is a very significant overlap. In other words, poverty is a part of life for most peoples without the Bible.

The Old Testament deals extensively with the subject of poverty. Much of the Old Testament treatment of poverty is in the form of story. The whole book of Ruth, for example, is a story of a family falling into poverty through a set of circumstances over which they had no control – a famine and then the death of the men in the family – followed by a partial recovery of prosperity. The Old Testament is rich in stories of oppression, wars, famines, widows, and orphans — all of which are related to poverty. As a rural farming society, God’s people were subject to the changing “fortunes” of the weather. Their crops were also subject to disease and insect pests. So we read of famines caused by lack of rain, and by pests, especially locusts. Africa is 60% rural and much of Africa’s rural population lives through subsistence farming. So its people face many of the same issues.

Mobiot QuoteThe Old Testament lists several causes of poverty in addition to kinds of calamities listed in the previous paragraph. The book of Proverbs lists laziness as a cause of poverty. Poverty is also attributed to unjust economic practices and shows how that can be eliminated through righteous and unselfish leadership.

The Old Testament paints a very realistic picture of poverty and its causes. Neither God nor the human authors of the Old Testament books hid the hard times God’s people went through. Many traditional religions say that calamities come when a person breaks the taboos of the religion. Or they may attribute them to the evil actions of others (i.e. witchcraft). The first blames the poor person for his the poverty caused by calamity and the second sows discord. The health and wealth gospel tends in the same direction – blaming the poor person for their poverty saying that they don’t have enough faith. Hardly any churches, however, go as far down that road as does the JCC church in Kenya where the pastor warns poor people not to attend.

The Old Testament warns of the poverty-inducing effects of laziness and foolish decisions. But it also  displays a great deal of sympathy toward the poor. It has a message which poor believers in many parts of the world need, and need desperately — that their poverty is no their fault nor is it necessarily a judgment from God. The following verses are a good example of the Old Testament approach to poverty:

But you are a tower of refuge to the poor, O  lord , a tower of refuge to the needy in distress. You are a refuge from the storm and a shelter from the heat. For the oppressive acts of ruthless people are like a storm beating against a wall, or like the relentless heat of the desert. But you silence the roar of foreign nations. As the shade of a cloud cools relentless heat, so the boastful songs of ruthless people are stilled.
(Isa 25:4-5)

Why translate the Old Testament? First, to counter the wrong messages about calamity and poverty found in traditional religions and even in the teachings of some churches. The messages about poverty in the Old Testament  give the world’s poorest people, including its poorest Christians, the comfort and instruction God has given for their situation, while the New Testament has much less to say on the topic.

Why the Old Testament – Ethnic Tensions

Three weeks ago, I introduced a series of blogs on the rationale for translating the Old Testament into the languages of Africa. As I stated in the introduction, there are a number of good reasons to translate the Old Testament. I am limiting myself to one proposition – that God has revealed himself in the Old Testament in ways that give his comfort, encouragement and instruction for many of the most burning issues facing African Christians, while the New Testament has little to say on those issues. Last week, I dealt with the issue of corrupt oppression. This week, my topic is ethnic tensions and rivalries.

Some people think that Africa is full of ethnic conflicts. (They are sometimes called “tribal conflicts”, but the word “tribal” is inexact and out-of-favor, so I will used “ethnic” in place of “tribal” and “peoples” or “ethnic groups” in place of “tribes”.) But most of Africa’s almost 2000 peoples live peacefully with each other year in and year out. This is not to say that there are not tensions and rivalries between them, but it does mean that they don’t escalate to conflicts. The rivalries between neighboring ethnic groups are not purely ethnic. Instead they are usually about resources such as land, jobs, water, cattle, political favor or even just respect.

Most Africans rub shoulders every day with people of different ethnic groups. Those relationships are cordial. They know that there is always potential for escalating ethnic rivalry into conflict through careless action or words. As in all places, there are sometimes a few hotheads who stir things up and some people ready to follow them.

After the division of the humanity into male and female, the next most noticeable division is into race and ethnicity. Yet few books on Christian theology make any mention of ethnicity or race. They may have a whole chapter on what the Bible teaches about human beings without hardly a mention of race or ethnicity. This is in spite of the fact that a word laden with ethnic connotations – Goy – is used throughout the Old Testament and another with similar connotations (εφνοσ ethnos) is used throughout the New, and in spite of the fact the Bible is full of ethnic conflict and rivalries, especially the Old Testament. As I mentioned in an earlier blog, the Old Testament tells the story of hundreds of years of ethnic conflict between the descendants of Abraham and the Philistines. That conflict ebbs and flows throughout the books of Samuel, I Kings, II Kings, I Chronicles and II Chronicles. Furthermore, the conflict with the Philistines is not the only ethnic conflict in the Old Testament.

Bunia Storm

A rain storm brewing in Bunia

In the 1990s, an ethnic war had engulfed the town of Bunia in northeastern Congo. The town would switch hands from one side to the other, causing those belonging to the other ethnic group to flee or risk facing acts of ethnic vengeance. Perhaps I need to say something about this ethnic war and most such conflicts. Those actively taking part in ethnic conflicts are usual only a small minority from each ethnic group. Rather, some members of each ethnic group formed a militia composed of people from that ethnic group. Those militias had varying degrees of support from the people in that ethnic group. Some gave active support while many remained passive, and others tried to stay neutral. Some even covertly helped people from the other ethnic group, and a few openly opposed the militias. The militias sometimes killed or harassed people from their own ethnic group who opposed them, aided the other side, or who tried to stay neutral. I know one pastor who was targeted for assassination by people from his own ethnic group (and his own church!) because he took a meal to a member of his church from the other ethnic group who was in prison. They perceived his action as aiding and abetting the enemy.

Worship at a church in Bunia

Worship at a church in Bunia

Bunia was also the place where a translation of the Old Testament into the language of one of the opposing ethnic groups was taking place. The New Testament had been published a few years earlier. One day, the son of one of the translators disappeared. When his body was found some days later, it was obvious that he had been tortured and mutilated before dying. The translator buried his son knowing that he had suffered greatly merely for belonging to his ethnic group. The translator is an expert in the Old Testament, having gained a doctorate in that topic at a university in the Netherlands. So he was well acquainted with the ethnic conflicts recorded in the Old Testament and what God says about them. The translator is also a member of a church with members from both of the warring ethnic groups. By God’s grace, he found a way to keep fellowship with believers from the other ethnic group who were members of his church.

Dr. Sule-Saa's doctoral thesis which explored the impact of the translation of the Bible in two languages of northern Ghana

Dr. Sule-Saa’s doctoral thesis which explored the impact of the translation of the Bible in two languages of northern Ghana

None of the ethnic groups involved in this war had the whole Bible in their language. I find that fact pertinent. The fact that ethnic rivalries are a part of life is an excellent reason to translate the Old Testament into more languages in Africa. It just might help Africans create a more harmonious continent.

As a matter of fact, a Ghanaian researcher, Dr. Solomon Sule-Saa, studied the impact of translations of the whole Bible into languages in northern Ghana where ethnic tensions regularly broke out into conflict. He found that the translations contributed greatly to peace and reduced tensions.

When one ethnic group gets military dominance over another, the underdog can feel that God has abandoned them. A mostly Christian ethnic group can feel that God has cursed when they are overtaken by another ethnic group with few Christians. But the Old Testament refutes the conclusion that God abandoned them or cursed them because in its stories Israel was many times under the military dominance of others. That situation may have been God’s correction, but it was never his abandonment or curse.

So why translate the Old Testament? Because it gives God’s counsel about ethnic tensions and conflicts to people who desperately need it, whereas the New Testament says little.

Why the Old Testament – Oppression

Trillion dollarTwo weeks ago, I introduced a series of blogs on the rationale for translating the Old Testament into the languages of Africa. As I stated in the introduction, there are a number of good reasons to translate the Old Testament. I am limiting myself to one proposition – that God has revealed himself in the Old Testament in ways that give his comfort, encouragement and instruction for many of the most burning issues facing African Christians, while the New Testament has little to say on those burning issues. Last week, I dealt with the issue of war and conflict. This week, my topic is oppression.

Oppression and corruption are closely related. For my purposes here, I define oppression as a system of corruption or favoritism which prevents people from living in freedom and/or keeps them in poverty. First, we will look at some facts about oppression in Africa, and then we will look very briefly at the way the Old Testament treats the issue.

Article in Ghana newspaper

Article in Ghana newspaper

A web of corrupt activity costs the poor one trillion dollars a year and results in 3.5 million deaths, according to researchers. Perhaps a story would help put those numbers in perspective. When Dayle and I worked in the Democratic Republic of Congo, we met a man teaching fisheries at a University. He told us that he made a field trip with his students to a local lake where there were traditional fishermen. While there, he discovered that some fishermen were fishing in the spawning beds of the lake – a practice that is both illegal and which will eventually result in reduced number of fish threatening their livelihoods. So he raised the issue with the chief in one of the fishing villages. The chief told him that he was concerned and so were all the fishermen from the area, but the men fishing in the spawning beds were not from the area. Attempts to get them to stop did not have any effect, on the contrary, it became clear that those men were protected. No one dared touch them. I told this story to another one of the lecturers at the university who was from that area. He confirmed the story. He said he believed that the men were connected all the way to very high offices in the capital, so that even the Governor of the Province could not stop them.

Here were people who had been fishermen for generations. They knew how to protect their livelihood and make sure its sustainability, but they faced high-level corruption that was ruining them. Not all officials are corrupt, but enough are that the corruption can strangle small businesses and ruin local people.

You might ask how corruption can kill people. Let’s take counterfeit drugs. Criminal manufacturers create knock-offs of drugs like antibiotics that look like the real thing, packaging and all. They contain just enough of the real ingredient that they can fool simple testing. But when people buy them, they are not cured and some die. People living in poverty might spend several weeks wages on drugs for a critically ill family member, not knowing that the drugs are imposters only to have their loved one die. Corruption in ports, customs offices and government medical services facilitates the flow of counterfeit drugs.

Here’s another example of how corruption kills. An audit of the funds sent to Sierra Leonne showed that a full 30% of funds earmarked for fighting Ebola were not accounted for. Funds which should have been spent stopping the spread of Ebola, went into the hands of civil servants, which undoubtedly lead to more deaths.

Every year, the Human Rights report for Congo states that the police and the military commit over 95% of all human rights abuses. In Nigeria, Boko-Haram is killing people, chasing them off their land and bringing farming and small businesses to a halt. Thousands have been killed and many more have had their livelihoods ruined. Responsible people who worked hard for their families and took care of themselves have been forced off their land and into poverty.

slavery-per-capita-map-wo-arrows_eIf you take maps of human trafficking (slavery) and corruption and lay them over a map of the places with many languages without the whole Bible, you will see significant correlations.

All the situations I describe here parallel those described in the Old Testament where religious and government leaders practiced corrupt oppression and ordinary people suffered for it.

The New Testament has some statements about corruption and oppression, but it is the Old Testament that deals with the issue in-depth. There is the poignant story of Naboth who was the victim of a plot by Queen Jezebel who killed him and gave his vineyard to King Ahab. (I Kings 21:1-16) I am sure that those Congolese fishermen would nod their heads with understanding if they were to read that story. The story of Naboth is not the only story of corrupt oppression in the Old Testament.

But the Old Testament has much more than stories of corrupt oppression. It addresses the  issue in practical ways:

Corruption makes fools
of sensible people,
and bribes can ruin you.
Ecclesiastes 7:7

More significantly, we find in the Old Testament long passages that deal with corrupt oppression, such as Isaiah 28:7-22, Isaiah 5:8-30, Psalm 73 and pretty much the entire book of Habakkuk. These longer passages deal with corruption and oppression from several angles: how God views such practices, the future God reserves for those doing the oppressing, God’s favor on those being oppressed, the future God reserves for the oppressed, the damage done to people and all of society by corrupt oppression and the emotional pain of seeing oppressors get economic gain from their oppression, among others.

Those suffering under oppression can sometimes assume that they did something to deserve it – they may think that God is punishing them for their sins. This plays into the hands of the oppressors. After all, oppressed people who believe that it is their fault will probably just take their punishment. They are not likely to take a stand for justice.

In the Old Testament, God’s people who live under oppression can know that God is on their side and that staying away from corruption and oppression will eventually be rewarded. Maybe that will give some of them the courage to stand against evil even though it is dangerous. Maybe some will start telling the Old Testament stories of corrupt oppression and spreading the Old Testament perspective on it, and maybe, just maybe, that will result in a more just society for them in the long-term. We have an example in the US civil rights movement which drew heavily from the Old Testament.

That’s an outstanding reason to translate the Old Testament into more languages in places where the levels of corruption and oppression are high.

Why the Old Testament – Part 1

Genesis 1 in the 1611 edition of the King James Bible

Genesis 1 in the 1611 edition of the King James Bible

A renewal of interest in translating the Bible into all languages started in 1800 with the creation of Bible Societies in many countries. In addition to the work of the Bible Societies, throughout the 1800s and 1900s missionaries translated the Bible into many languages for the first time. Wycliffe Bible Translators joined this movement in the 1930s with a focus on more remote and smaller languages. However, Wycliffe’s approach was to translate only the New Testament. In more recent years, they also translate some Old Testament books too. But Wycliffe has been involved in the translation of only a small number of whole Bibles. Wycliffe’s choice to give priority to the New Testament reflects the preference which Western Christians have for the New Testament.

Western Christians comprise most of Wycliffe’s staff and financial supporters. For many Western Christians the Old Testament (or at least large portions of it) seems irrelevant or not understandable. It seems to me that the face that the Old Testament is perceived as irrelevant accounts for much of the reason why Western missionary translators have tended to translate on the New Testament. Recently, there is renewed interest in translating the Old Testament. Those promoting more translation of the Old Testament in Africa often cite two reasons:

  • All Scripture is inspired by God, not just the New Testament
  • African cultures bear a lot of similarities to the Old Testament so African’s prefer it. One study of sermon texts in Nigeria found that over 80% came from the Old Testament.
Genesis 1 in the Lelemi language of Ghana

Genesis 1 in the Lelemi language of Ghana

One would think that the first argument – that all Scriptures is inspired, not just the New Testament – would be enough for translators and their financial supporters. But it has not been.

While the second reason – the cultural similarities between the Old Testament and African culture – is true, it doesn’t carry much weight, not even with me. I can like something without that being what I need.

I plan to write a series of blog posts giving other reasons why translation of the whole Old Testament, or at least significant parts of it, it crucial for the health of the church in Africa, and why it is absolutely necessary for African Christians to flourish in their faith.

I will not be treating the two reasons above because I will be assuming that they are valid, the first one especially. I will not be treating other reasons for translating the Old Testament, like:

  • It is mostly in the Old Testament that we learn about God’s character
  • Parts of the New Testament are impossible to understand without reference to parts of the Old

Those propositions are true and important, but others have written about them. So I will be limiting myself to one proposition

God has revealed himself in the Old Testament in ways that give his comfort, encouragement and instruction for many of the most burning issues facing African Christians, while the New Testament has much less to say on those burning issues.

In other words, the Old Testament is not just relevant to much of the context in Africa, it contains what God says about things which are not the common experience of Western Christians in ways that the New Testament does not. God has reached out to all his people with revelation dealing with their most pressing issues of life and faith, so that they could love and follow him in everything. We should not, therefore, translate only the parts in which God addresses our issues, but also the parts where he addresses the issue of the people for whom we are translating.

The issues to be covered are:

  • Living in conflict and war
  • Living with corruption and oppression
  • Living with ethnic strife and tensions
  • Living with poverty
  • Living surrounded by traditional religion

Selling out

GILLBT Projects 150 KonkombaIn 1977 the New Testament was completed in the Konkomba language of Ghana. At the time, there were very few Christians among the Konkomba. In fact, the Konkomba people first gave passive resistance to the translation of the Bible in their language. So when the translation was finished, only 2,000 New Testaments were printed, even though Konkomba is spoken by over 600,000 people.

In six years, those 2,000 New Testaments sold out. So 10,000 more were printed in 1984. They sold out by 1997, at which time the translation of the whole Bible was finished. So the first Konkomba Bible appeared in 1997. 10,000 copies were printed. It took just over 10 years to sell them all. This was quite amazing as there probably aren’t more than 10,000 evangelical Christian families among the Konkomba. But the Bible did sell out. So another 10,000 were printed in 2009. They sold out last year – in five years.

A few months ago, we received another 20,000 Konkomba Bibles. They were stored in our offices for a few days and filled the whole building. Within days of their arrival, 9,500 of them are already sold!

Dr. Sule-Saa

Dr. Sule-Saa

So, when all of the the 20,000 are sold, one adult in 10 will have a copy of the Bible, on average. And that is in a people group where only a few decades ago there were hardly any believers.

The Bible in their language has caused big changes. The head of the Presbyterian Church in Ghana’s Northern Region where the Konkomba live says:

Bible translation and literacy in the mother tongue has reshaped the face of the church in the Northern Region

Konkomba is not the only language in Ghana where the Bible has sold out more than once. Siwu, a small language in the Volta Region has sold out two printings of the New Testament. An just a few weeks back we received a shipment of the third printing of the Gikyode New Testament after the first two printings sold out.

While it is legitimate to ask if translating the Bible into the languages of Ghana is a worthwhile endeavor. I propose that we let specific people answer it – those who buy the Bibles till they are sold out. Their opinion is probably more relevant than yours or mine.

DSC09017

Boxes of Gikyode New Testaments just arrived from the printer

Safety

ONUC Peacekeeper in Congo Deploys to Combat Zone, UN Photo/Marie Frechon

ONUC Peacekeeper in Congo Deploys to Combat Zone, UN Photo/Marie Frechon

Most days, I read news about Africa and Ghana. I also subscribe to a very small number of blogs. Among them is a blog by an American living overseas. I don’t think the author is a believer, but she is much better than I am at putting into words what it is like to live and work in a very different culture and context. Sometimes, it is like I am reading my own life. That is how I found the choice quote below. The author decided to go live in a very dangerous country. Her American friends were shocked. She writes her responses to the questions people asked when she visited the US, including the question: “Were you safe?”. (The emphasis is mine.)

Of course we were safe. Of course we were not safe. How could we know? Nothing happens until it happens. People get shot at schools in the United States, in movie theaters, office buildings. People are diagnosed with cancer. Drunk drivers hurtle down country roads. Lightning flashes, levees break, dogs bite. Safety is a Western illusion crafted into an idol…

Camp for displaced people in eastern Congo, UN Photo/Endre Vestvik

Camp for displaced people in eastern Congo, UN Photo/Endre Vestvik

It seems to me that safety is one of the great quests of Western society – safer highways, safer food, safer water, an environment that does not contain toxic threats, less violent crime, children protected from sexual predators, etc. Of course, all of these quests are more than good – they are noble. However…

The horrors of the acts of ISIS cause American Christians fear for their political system, freedom and safety. They demand political and often military responses. So far so good. But…

We live in this world, but we don’t act like its people or fight our battles with the weapons of this world. Instead, we use God’s power that can destroy fortresses.
II Cor 10:3-4

When our reaction is the same as the people of this world, we need to stop and pray. Are we deploying God’s weapons – prayer, missions and evangelism? Has our concern for safety and our way of life overwritten our faith? Are we following Jesus’ approach to personal safety?

Seeking safety causes us to draw in and cut off. So one of the first reactions to Ebola was to proposed cutting off flights to affected countries. But our God does not draw in and cut off. Quite the contrary; he seeks out. He moves towards those in danger. The Jesus who left the safety of heaven and was killed said:

“Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.”
John 20:21

Camp for displaced people in Congo, photo Julien Harneis

Camp for displaced people, photo Julien Harneis

When we are back in the US for a short stay we get asked if we are safe. In some ways, it’s an impossible question. For a while, Dayle and I worked in the Democratic Republic of Congo, just at the end of a civil war that claimed more civilian lives than any war since WWII. I flew into airstrips controlled by rebel forces where very young soldiers greeted us with assault rifles. I had a drunk soldier with an assault rifle stop us and use his weapon to extort a little money from us. A missionary in the area was recently shot by bandits.

Was I safe? Well, I’m writing this!

Is being safe what actually happens or is it the degree of threat I feel? People who feel perfectly safe end up dead or maimed every day. Every day, people who fear for their safety with good reason finish the day alive and well. Which of them was really safe?

Was it safe to go to the Congo? I’m not sure. Did God keep me safe in the Congo? Obviously.

Safety is a Western illusion crafted into an idol

When I am afraid, I put my trust in you
Psalm 56:3

I trust in the Lord for protection.
So why do you say to me,
“Fly like a bird to the mountains for safety!
Psalm 11:1