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.

Incorrigible Grammar

Irregular verbs English_eI work with languages, but I hated most of my English classes in high school and beyond. The literature classes were Ok. The grammar classes on the other hand … It always seemed to me that the grammar of English was a lot more slippery and complicated than my English teachers let on. My linguistics studies confirmed me in that opinion.

One definition of grammar is: “A propriety of speech.” Someone suggested that grammar is not a property of speech but rather an impropriety of speech. It is so hard to get your hands on it. There are rules, but also so many exceptions.

A game with rules like English grammar might be considered fixed by the Gaming Commission! This is not just true of English, but of all living languages. Many African languages are not written, but they have complicated grammar all the same. Just ask the missionaries who learn them, or the translators who attempt to describe them. I asked one translator about the number of genders in the language he was working on. He said that he stopped counting at around 120.

One translator was reading a draft translation to people to see if it communicated clearly. They came to a part that said: “Don’t steal from widows”, and everybody laughed. It turned out that the way it was said implied that one should steal from other people than widows! It sounded like “Don’t steal from widows; steal from someone else instead!” To get the right meaning meant using a grammatical structure in that language called topic-comment. In topic-comment, the topic of the sentence is stated first (widows), then the thing one wants to say about the topic (don’t steal from them). In that structure, the verse read “Widows, don’t steal from them.” This communicated clearly and avoided the idea that it is okay to steal from other people.

All translators, even those translating into their own language, need an explicit knowledge of the grammar of their language, or they might not use features like topic-comment even where they are necessary to be faithful to the meaning. So even translators translating into their own language need training.

Primitive

Photo: Marc Ewell

Photo: Marc Ewell

In 1910, a major world missions conference was held in Edinburgh. Those present held hope for evangelism among the followers of eastern religions. The well-developed philosophical positions of those religions appealed to Europeans and American academics. Not a few Westerners romanticized Hinduism as a new world religion. We all know the attraction of eastern gurus in some segments of US society.

In contrast to the appeal of eastern religions, the missions conference came to the conclusion that the “primitive” religions of Africa would prove difficult ground for Christian faith. Many Western Christians find the masks, face paints, and rituals of African religion scary, barbaric and primitive – something so different from Christian faith that it could not possibly be fertile ground for evangelism – a religion that held no redeeming qualities such as eastern religions seemed to have.

Africa’s traditional religions are called “primal” religions by theologians, and anthropologists. Those at the conference saw Africa’s primal religions as rocky ground where the seed of the Gospel would struggle to survive, while the Eastern would produce a bountiful crop. It has not turned out that way; not at all.

Chart evangelicals in AfricaIn 1910 when the missions conference was held, only 9% of Africans were Christian. Furthermore, almost all of those were in just four of the many countries in Africa: Ethiopia, South Africa, Egypt and Madagascar. Early missionary efforts had not borne fruit. But by 1970 almost 40% of Africans professed Christian faith. That number is for all kinds of “Christians”. What is more astounding is the growth of evangelical, Bible-believing faith in Africa, as you can see in the graph.

Meanwhile, evangelism among those following eastern religions has been very slow.

But this is not just an African phenomenon. In the last century Christianity has spread the fastest among peoples who follow what theologians and anthropologists call “primal” religions. This is true in Africa and around the world. It seems that people who follow the so-called “primal” religions are the best prepared by their traditional religion for Christian faith. In any case, the conclusions of that missions conference in 1910 were way off the mark.

God has a delicious way of turning the human wisdom into obvious folly. In this case, he has chosen those whose religious practices we considered primitive, vile, even barbaric, and poured out his Spirit on them. Paul wrote about things like this.

Instead, God chose things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise. And he chose things that are powerless to shame those who are powerful. (I Cor 1:27)

Not only has Christianity flourished in Africa, churches in Africa are now sending out missionaries. Professor J. Kwabena Asamoah-Gyadu of Trinity Theological Seminary in Ghana has written:

“It is indeed a surprise that Africa, associated in Western minds with poverty, deprivation, squalor, political instability and barbarism, should emerge in God’s purposes as a leading player in Christian mission, including missions to the West.”

I believe that the confounding of the powerful and sophisticated is in full swing. But sometimes missionaries seem to miss it. I wonder if some mission activity in Africa goes on as though a major movement of God were not happening. The kind of growth in numbers, depth and capacity we see in the church in Africa must be matched by an equally significant shift in how we do translation here. Otherwise we effectively deny by our actions the marvelous thing God is doing. Let’s not make the blunder of painting our African brothers and sisters with the same mistaken brush used in 1910. Our methods and goals need to align with and celebrate the awe-inspiring movement of God’s Spirit among people who are coming out of primal religions.

Anti-Balaka

CAR in Africa

CAR in Africa

The civil strife in the CAR (Central African Republic) has faded from the news, but it is not over. The international media describes the conflict as religious in nature, saying it pits the “mostly Muslim” Seleka Rebels against the “Christian” Anti-Balaka

My Christian friends from CAR and the countries around it are shocked and dismayed that the international media calls the Anti-Balaka “Christian”. They point to photos of Anti-Balaka militiamen draped with charms and talismans for protection, a practice denounced by the churches and one which has its roots in African traditional religion, not Christianity.

A federation of churches in the CAR issued a statement decrying the characterization of the crisis by the international media saying that the international media: “has given a religious connotation to a crisis that is in its core political and military”. My friends have noted that few of the Anti-Balaka are members of a church or attend one regularly. A friend from the CAR posted an update on Facebook which included the following paragraph:

“During our stay, we were encountered with two AntiBalaka who decided to turn to Jesus Christ and asked that their Amulettes could be burnt. … The event took place in public and had a big impact on the rest of the militia.

My Christian friends from CAR and neighboring countries continue to be dismayed that the international media puts them in the same religion with violent militiamen who openly use religious practices denounced by their churches – people they are evangelizing.

There is no grand conspiracy here, just a lack of understanding and intellectual laziness.

Elisee Zama (courtesy Wycliffe Global Alliance)

Elisee Zama (courtesy Wycliffe Global Alliance)

In the meantime, the CAR has over 70 languages, many of which do not have the Bible. At least one national translator, Elisee Zama, was killed in the conflict, in front of his wife and children who he was leading to safety. Many translation programs were disrupted and equipment was looted. Translation was never easy in the CAR. Now it is more difficult and in some places it is even dangerous. Danger is a growing feature of many places where Bible translation is still needed. Although we do not face that kind of danger in Ghana, the violent conflicts in Nigeria and Mali are not far away.

God, When Will You Speak in My Tongue?

 

The poem below was written by a man from Southern Sudan expressing his desire to have the Bible in his language. Sometimes, Bible translation is presented as something done where there are few believers. But in Africa, there are places where there has been a Gospel witness for decades and a growing church, but no Bible in the language of the people, their heart language. In such cases, believers long to have God’s word in a language they really understand. They know that the Bible is being translated into languages around them, and they wonder when it will be their turn. Put yourself in the place of those believers when you read this poem.

 

Lokuuda Kadanya

James Lokuuda Kadanya

Far and near
It is said that you, God, speak!
How do you do that?
Is it in their tongues?
If it is truly so,
God, when will you speak in my tongue?

East and west, north and south,
The Creator speaks, it is said!
Not in the language as of birds;
But in other human tongues I cannot understand!
God, when will you speak in my tongue?

Children and grown-ups of other lands,
With their different tongues,
Know your voice.
In their tongues you speak a special message to them!
If you speak messages in different tongues,
God, when will you speak in my tongue?

South Sudan in Africa mapIn the world around, we perceive you,
Yet your language is not clear.
We want to know you personally,
We want to hear you speak to us.
If you know all tongues,
God, when will you speak in my tongue?

We search you as a treasure.
Our eyes look on mountains, rivers,
Even in caves, forest and world around us.
Many voices are heard, confused we become,
If your voice is one, as of that of the Creator of all,
God, when will you speak in my tongue?

Oh! God, Creator of all people,
You who do not segregate,
Is it possible to hear you speak?
Can you speak in my tongue?
God, when will you speak in my tongue?

—James Lokuuda Kadanya

South Sudan Flag

South Sudan Flag

James speaks the Toposa language of South Sudan, which is spoken by more than a half million people. Today he is operating Salt and Light Outreach Ministries in South Sudan.
This post is re-blogged from The Seed Company Blog.

Durable

20130906_163620In September 2013, Dayle’s parents celebrated their 65th wedding anniversary. In preparation for the party, Dayle was making a cake. She called me over to see this and have me take a photo. She is mixing the cake for their 65th with a mixer they bought about 2 years after their wedding. When I posted the photo on Facebook, one of their grandchildren posted:

Durability. The mixer. The marriage.

Durability is one of the principles behind our work. We want what we do to leave a lasting and increasing impact. We don’t mind if it starts small. Jesus was looking for lasting and increasing impact when he said:

I tell you for certain that if you have faith in me, you will do the same things that I am doing. You will do even greater things, now that I am going back to the Father.
(John 14:12 CEV)

You did not choose me. I chose you and sent you out to produce fruit, the kind of fruit that will last.
(John 15:16 CEV)

We believe that durability of ministry means encouraging ministry in a language that touches more than the head,  investing in local people, and passing the vision for Bible translation to the new churches in Ghana. You will see durability reflected in our by-line.

Connecting at the deepest level for lasting impact

It is also reflected in our ministry goals.

Dayle's parents 65th

Dayle’s parents 65th

I am not against short term missions, on the contrary, But short term missions without an accompanying long term effort will only very rarely create lasting and increasing impact. I am not against ministry in English and other major languages, but there are many environments where only touching people using their heart language (mother tongue) creates lasting change. I am not against evangelistic campaigns, but unless they are linked to something else, many who confess Christ will slip back into their former lives.

Producing durability is often not flashy. In fact, it often can only be appreciated after some time, when it becomes more and more impressive, just like that mixer or a marriage of 65 years.

From 60 to who knows

Ed in Cameroon with Daniel Ngwanou

Ed in Cameroon with Daniel Ngwanou

In the late 1990s my responsibilities included finding ways to increase the number of translation projects in Africa lead by Africans that were linked to Wycliffe. At a time when hundreds were lead by Western missionaries, I found 60 lead by Africans. That was better than the dozen or so of only a few years earlier.

Recently, I came across a document I had written at that time. In it, I had written my personal goal of seeing that number go from 60 to 120 in four years.

Sylvester Nkrumah (Ghana) and Uche Aaron (Nigeria), part of the first wave of national translators in Wycliffe's work in Africa

Sylvester Nkrumah (Ghana) and Uche Aaron (Nigeria), part of the first wave of national translators in Wycliffe’s work in Africa

I am pretty sure that goal was met, although I don’t have data to prove it. The increase was probably only attributable to me in very small part. When I saw that old document, what struck me as more important is that the goal now looks silly. Today, it is the norm that programs to translate the Bible are lead by Africans. Programs started years ago by Western missionaries are winding down and a few new ones are starting here and there. They are the exceptions.

We thought that having more Africans doing Bible translation was something that needed to be promoted. In a way it did. But mostly so that our ways of working would accommodate it. Hindsight allows us to see that it was going to happen anyway. God was making it happen.

I used to be concerned with finding God’s will for me. I now understand that includes getting behind a trend in which I see God’s hand and running with it. At a minimum, I don’t not want to buck a trend only to find later that it was God’s doing. But what I really want is to set unnecessary goals because God is going to accomplish them anyway. By setting the goals, I’m not making them happen, I’m just showing my alignment with God’s actions.

What speeds up translation?

Translators correct translation on computerWhen I am in the US, people often ask how much technology is speeding up Bible translation. I don’t know of any formal assessment, but I have seen translations done before computers and now with them. My own personal estimate is that the computer shaves 1-2 years off a translation project. Furthermore, the time is saves was mostly spent doing tedious and uncreative tasks like checking spelling and consistency.

Bible translation for minority peoples is progressing at 2-3 times the pace it was two decades ago. What is producing that increased pace? Well, technology accounts for a small part of the increase. But the biggest increase is coming from elsewhere.

In an article entitled “The Vernacular Treasure” in The International Bulletin of Missionary Research, Dr. Harriet Hill of the American Bible Society says this about the increased speed.

Translation organizations are working more intentionally with partners, recruiting and training translators from all nations of the world, and working with clusters of related languages rather than with one language at a time.

So, she sees three changes that are increasing the pace of Bible translation.

  • working more intentionally with partners
  • recruiting and training translators from all nations of the world
  • working with clusters of related languages

Michael Serchie, Gilbert Ansre and EdI concur with her assessment that these are real causes for the increased pace. Technology is important. But it is the human connections (working intentionally with partners) and the building up of God’s people (training translators from all nations) that reflect God’s kingdom. We should not be surprised, therefore, that increases in the pace of translation come mostly from doing those things.

That is why our goals and activities, are built around partnering in a new way with the churches in Ghana and training their people to accelerate the translation of the Bible for all the peoples of Ghana and beyond.

Sisaala Bible Dedication

The dedication of the Bible into the Sisaala language was quite an event. Hundreds attended. The Sisaala are only 10% Christian and only 1% Evangelical – both up from 0% not that long ago. Many still follow their traditional religion. So it was significant that many attended. It means that many are open to the message of the Gospel even if they have not made the decision to believe.

Only about 600 of the world’s 7000 languages have the Bible. So Sisaala joins a rather exclusive club. (Many more languages have the New Testament.)

In people groups like the Sisaala, it is likely that the Old Testament will have as much impact as the New Testament, or even more, because the culture of the Sisaala and that in the Old Testament are so similar. Also, they ask similar questions and have similar problems to the ancient Hebrews.

Enjoy the Photos. I’ll post more details later. Hover over a photo to enlarge it and see a description. Click on a photo to enlarge it and start a slide show.

Translation by asking around

Tembo boy reading Luke in his language

Tembo boy reading Luke in his language

Martin Luther, the German reformer who first translated the Bible into German, wrote that to translate well, the translator should go out into the streets and “look into the mouths of women and children”. He meant that the translator must find ways of saying things that are the usual way people speak – not a complicated or sophisticated way, or one full of theological jargon. This tradition is still at work. After the translators in Africa understand the Bible passage to be translated, they make a draft translation. That draft is then taken out into the community and read to people so see if they understand. Before that, translators flag things that are difficult to translate. What is the best way to say “mighty tempest” in Jonah 1:4, or that God is “gracious” in Jonah 4:2? In cases such as this, translators might find several alternative phrases or words and discuss them with people.  So, translators today are following Luther’s method of looking “into the mouths of women and children”.

Nawuri translation volunteer

Nawuri translation volunteer

Some people have a particular knack for this kind of thing. One was this man who volunteered many hours on the translation into the Nawuri language of Ghana. The translators told me that his suggestions were invaluable. Pray that every translation will have several such people among the translators and volunteers. In other cases, there is nothing like an object lesson. Here in Ghana, translators butchered a goat to get all the internal organs right when translating parts of the Old Testament that deal with sacrifice.

Remember, African translators are producing the first ever translations into their languages. There is no history of words to use for Bible concepts. Actually, sometimes its worse than that. People may have started using inaccurate words or phrases. When we were in Congo, we discovered that the word people were using for adultery only applied to women!

That kind of thing can only be discovered and corrected by a translation method that includes a heavy dose of asking around.

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