The Doctor

Rev Dr Browne (right), at a conference on translating the Bible

Rev Dr Browne (right), at a conference on translating the Bible

Doctor Browne is a real doctor. By that I mean a medical doctor. But these days he is also a minister of the Gospel with Lighthouse Chapel International, a church that was started in Ghana, and is found throughout Ghana and in other countries. Doctor Browne is a doctor’s doctor. Before becoming a minister he taught at a medical school and consulted on difficult cases. For a while, he was responsible for all the churches belonging to Lighthouse Chapel International in northern Ghana.

As soon as he was given that responsibility, he started learning one of the most important languages of northern Ghana – Dagbani, the language of the Dagomba people.

That is an interesting thing to do. Northern Ghana is not as prosperous as the part of Ghana Doctor Browne is from. Many Ghanaians with credentials not nearly as impressive as Dr. Browne’s don’t want to work or live there. Also, learning Dagbani is a big step down the social ladder. But Dr. Browne saw value in learning Dagbani, of identifying himself with them. In a few months, Doctor Browne learned Dagbani better than others in his church who had been there for much longer.

Doctor Browne’s actions are all the more amazing when compared to the actions of others. For example, some ministers in Ghana will only use English because it is prestigious. They preach in English even when they know that people don’t understand. They would never learn Dagbani, or any other Ghanaian language. Also, many Ghanaians with his education and credentials dread, as I wrote above, being assigned to northern Ghana because of the lack of services. Instead, many are emigrating to the USA or to Europe.

The continued use and impact of translations in the languages of Ghana depend on ministers of the Gospel like Doctor Browne who are more interested in communicating the Gospel than in prestige or their careers.

While others are heading up, Doctor Browne is going the other direction. Actually, his direction is the real up – the direction Jesus took:

Think the same way that Christ Jesus thought: Christ was truly God. But he did not try to remain equal with God. Instead he gave up everything and became a slave, when he became like one of us. Christ was humble. He obeyed God and even died on a cross. Then God gave Christ the highest place and honored his name above all others. (Phil 2: 5-9)

Endangered Languages

Endangered languagesYou may have heard that many of the world’s languages are dying. That might lead you to ask why translate the Bible if languages are dying. It’s a good question. The answer is simple. But let’s back up a bit before answering it.

A while back I heard one of Ghana’s leading linguists, a man who spent decades helping to translate the Bible into 13 language in Ghana and neighboring countries, Professor Gilbert Ansre, speak about Ghana’s languages. Here’s what he said:

‘The numbers of speakers of most of the indigenous languages are on the increase and the vast majority of our mother-tongues are not about disappear or “die”. They are here to stay for a long time and need to be reckoned with…’

Dr and Mrs Ansre with portrait

Prof and Mrs Ansre with portrait

Professor Ansre was talking about Ghana. In other places language are dying in significant numbers. Those places include the Americas and Melanesia. The situation simply is not the same in Ghana. In fact, in all of West Africa few of the hundreds of languages are dying. Most are increasing in number just as Professor Ansre said that they are in Ghana. Data gathered independently by governments, churches, linguists and others all lead to this same conclusion.

Why are most of Ghana’s languages growing? Because of population growth. The population growth rate in Ghana is 2.5%. At that rate, the population in Ghana will double in 29 years. Since almost 100% of the native population of Ghana speaks at least one Ghanaian language, the number of people speaking those languages increased by 28% during the last decade and doubled in the last 29 years.

Children in the street

Children in the street

The evidence of population growth is everywhere. When our son Matthew visited with his fiancée who had never been to Africa, she keep commenting on all the young children she saw. They are with their mothers who sell food or vegetables by the road or in the market. Children are everywhere. The church we attend has an attendance of about 500. There are about 100 children in Sunday School, in spite of fact that many who attend are unmarried university students without children.

To see the effect of population growth on keeping languages alive, let’s take an imaginary case of a language spoken by 100,000 people where two thirds of its speakers stop speaking it in the coming 50 years. Here are the numbers using Ghana’s annual population growth rate of 2.5%.

Number of speakers of the language today         100,000
Number in 50 years (2.5% compounded)           335,000
2/3rd stop speaking the language                       -224,000
Remaining 1/3rd                                                      111,000

Children in the street

Children in the street

As you can see, even though 2/3 of the people stopped speaking the language, there were still more people speaking it at the end of the 50 years than there were at the start. Besides, it appears that very few of Ghana’s languages will lose 2/3 of their speakers in the coming 50 years. On the contrary, the number of people speaking Ghanaian languages will probably double or triple.

Back to the original question – why translate the Bible if languages are dying. The simple answer is that we do not translate the Bible into dying languages, but rather into languages that are not only alive; they are growing.

If you liked this, you might also like Dying Langauges or Ten Thousand.

Not my religion

MosqueA number of years ago, I helped at a workshop for translators working in a country where the dominant religion is not Christianity. One of the national translators told of becoming a Christian. He had believed all his life that to be patriotic he had to follow his country’s dominant religion. Everyone from his country followed that religion. So religion and national identity were fused. It took him a long time to realize that he could still be a faithful citizen of his country and become a Christian.

In 2012, I attended a conference on evangelism in Ghana. One of the speakers, told a story about William Ofori Atta, one of the founders of modern Ghana. He had traveled to a town in northern Ghana to help with evangelism. With a church member from that city, he was witnessing in the streets. He started talking to someone. The church member stopped him, saying: “Don’t talk to him, he’s a Dagomba”. The Dagomba are one of the larger people groups in Ghana. Almost all Dagomba follow a world religion other than Christianity. The church member, himself a Christian from the south of Ghana and not a Dagomba, considered it natural that the Dagomba people follow a different religion. The Dagomba man thought the same because after listening for a minute, he said: “As for me, I am Dagomba.” Many Dagomba think that being Dagomba means following a religion other than Christianity.

Sisaala chiefs

Sisaala chiefs

Many people in northern Ghana have woven themselves an identity in which language, ethnicity, culture and religion are part of the same cloth. Following a particular religion, speaking their mother tongue and following their ethnic customs are all part of an immutable identity. In their minds, religion is not a matter of personal conviction or choice any more than being born a member of their ethnic group is a personal choice. One particular religion is seen as part of their identity. They cannot imagine being authentic members of their ethnic group while following another religion.

Worse, some Christians from other ethnic groups believe the same, like the man who stopped William Ofori Atta from witnessing.

Local languages are not morphology and syntax, they are a people’s identity
– Prof B Y Quarshie

B Y Quarshie

B Y Quarshie

Before translation, decades of missions and evangelism in northern Ghana did not change these perceptions of identity and religion. Sometimes, the way evangelism is done aggravates the perceptions – such as when evangelism is done by members of an ethnic group that is mostly Christian and they do it in their language. Or missionaries do evangelism only in the language of one of the largely Christian ethnic groups in Ghana. So, how does one break down perceptions that Christianity is a religion for only some of the peoples of Ghana?

We are working with churches in northern Ghana on a program which has been shown to change those perceptions. The key elements are:

  • Using the heart language (mother tongue) of the people including the Bible in their language
  • Holding church services and evangelism in the heart language of the people
  • Organizing literacy classes for anyone, in their heart language

Research has shown that these methods are effective in breaking down perceptions that Christianity is a religion only for others. Language is also part of peoples’ identity. When a message or teaching is “at home” in their language, people no longer think that it is foreign, or only for others.

We are rolling out this program, including seeking funding for the first three years from Ghanaian Christians. Prayers appreciated!

Naval Blockade

This week is Banned Books Week which is an annual celebration of the freedom to read, first celebrated in 1982. I don’t like everything that everyone celebrates during banned books week, but I would like to celebrate a particular case.

Do you know what country mounted a military operation, including deploying its navy to prevent a book from being imported into the country? And do you know what book that might be?

Given the subject of this blog, you have probably guessed that the banned book was the Bible.

William Tyndale

William Tyndale

Years before the King James translation was commissioned, some wool merchants secretly sponsored an Oxford scholar named William Tyndale to do a translation of the Bible into English. But King Henry VIII and Cardinal Wolsey, the head of the church, banned the Bible in English. Not only that, they set up a network of spies to seek out translators, arrest them and burn them at the stake. So Tyndale fled to continental Europe where he completed his translation and had it printed. But King Henry VIII and Cardinal Wolsey heard of Tyndale’s translation and that he was planning to smuggle into England. Their reaction was dramatic. Here’s what Melvyn Bragg wrote about it in his book The Adventure of English:

It now seems quite extraordinary, but the whole country was put on alert. In order to prevent the word of God in English landing in the land of the English, naval ships patrolled the coastal waters, boats were stopped and searched, men were arrested and a great many Bibles were intercepted. The action taken was indistinguishable from being on a war footing and to Henry VIII and Wolsey it was just that. Latin was the only word of God allowed by the state and now the state came out in full armed force to defend its most loyal ally, the Church.

There are two competing ideas about religious truth. One is that it is known by experts who tell the rest of us what we should believe. That was the view of Henry VIII and Wolsey, one they were willing to defend to the extent of deploying the military. For them, the Bible should be in Latin and accessible only to the clergy who would interpret it for everyone else. Lamin Sanneh points out that this idea is found in some cultures:

In many traditional societies, religious language has tended to be confined to a small elite of professionals.

Ghanaian girls with Bibles in their languages

Ghanaian girls with Bibles in their languages

In contrast to this view, Tyndale held the view that God created every person with the ability to know what is true when they have the Word of God to consult and the Holy Spirit to guide them. Tyndale subscribed to that idea. To a member of the clergy critical that he was translating the Bible into English, he said:

If God spare my life, I will see to it that the boy who drives the plowshare knows more of the scripture than you, Sir!
Lammin Sanneh points out that Bible translation is the enemy of the “expert” approach to religious truth:

The Christian approach to translatability strikes at the heart of such gnostic tendencies, first by contending that the greatest and most profound religious truths are compatible with everyday language, and second, by targeting ordinary men and women as worthy bearers of the religious message.

Jesus said:

“When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth.” (John 13:16)
“Make them holy by your truth; teach them your word, which is truth.” (John 17:17)

Ghanaian man reading the Bible in his language at a church service

Ghanaian man reading the Bible in his language at a church service

Today, few Christians subscribe openly to the idea that we should blindly follow religious experts. But sometimes our actions are not fully aligned with the idea every person can know the truth when they have the Word of God to consult and the Holy Spirit to guide them. I have seen missionaries and churches willing to put resources into propagating their doctrines but not into giving people the Word in their language. That approach is closer to Wolsey’s than it is to Tyndale’s. I have full confidence that making God’s Word widely accessible is good for Christian faith, the church, families and all of society. Research into the impact of Bibles in Ghanaian languages confirms this.

During banned books week, let’s celebrate Tyndale. Let’s also check the practices of our churches and missionary endeavors to make sure that they do not subtly elevate something else to the place where it eclipses the Bible.

Tyndale Bible

Tyndale Bible

Official languages

Official languages of African countries

Official languages of African countries

Most countries in Sub-Saharan (Africa south of the Sahara Desert) Africa have one official language. Furthermore, the official language of most of those countries is only spoken by a small percentage of its citizens, and only a few of those speak it as their heart language (mother tongue). In general, the official language is the language of the former colonial power. In former French colonies the official language is French; in former British colonies it is English; and in former Portuguese colonies it is Portuguese. Sometimes an African language is given official status in addition to the language of the former colonial power. So Sango is an official language of the Central African Republic alongside French. In most of those cases, the European language still dominates. Laws and regulations, for example, are generally distributed only in the European language in spite of the official status of the African language.

Since the 1960s, countries in Sub-Saharan Africa have spent all their educational resources to teach their citizens to speak, read and write their official languages. They are still far from accomplishing that goal. Let’s take Ghana as an example. English is the official language of Ghana. When you arrive at the Kotoka International Airport in Accra, you will be greeted by officials who speak English. You will find taxi drivers who speak English eager to give you a lift. If you go to a hotel, a restaurant or a store, you will find staff who speak English. You might get the impression that everyone speaks English. Understandable, but false nevertheless.

Bilingualism is a funny thing. A person can be very good in a second language in one area and not in another. For example, my Ghanaian car mechanic whose mother tongue is not English knows the names of car parts in English that I don’t know. That does not mean that he can talk about every topic in English with the same proficiency I have. It is mistake to have a satisfactory talk with hotel staff in English about hotel stuff and conclude that they can also carry on a conversation in English about politics, family life or religion with the same degree of fluency. It is possible to learn another language in a way that is deep yet narrow. People do it all the time. Then other people hear them talk fluently in that one area and conclude, wrongly, that they know English perfectly. When someone says: “Everyone speaks English”, I always take that with a grain of salt.

In Accra, Ghana’s capital, there is a proliferation of businesses that help Ghanaian high school and university graduates improve their English to get jobs or to prepare them for English proficiency tests some employers and universities require of Ghanaian applicants. If the secondary schools and universities were giving Ghanaians excellent English, these would have no reason to exist, much less abound.

Professor Gilbert Ansre is one of the leading authorities on languages in Ghana. As a linguist, he did research into the use of languages in Ghana. At an event a few months back, he said this about English in Ghana.

There is an erroneous belief that English is actually preponderantly used in Ghana. This is really true only of its enforced use in the educational system, on government and civic official functions such as now, in documentation and when the speaker is unable to use the commonly used language of the locality. Even the most highly educated Ghanaian prefers and frequently uses a Ghanaian language commonly shared.

The use and actual usefulness of English as a tool for wide spectrum National Development, especially at the “grass-roots” level is highly debatable to say the least.

Professor Ansre with his family

Professor Ansre with his family

He went on to say that:

… the quality of English as spoken and written in Ghana is drastically on the decline …

The official language of a country tells us in what language its laws are written and what language its elites master. The language(s) in which the people can grasp the Gospel, or even needed health information, might not be the same at all.

Countries have official languages. God’s people, the church and God’s Word should not.

How words get their meaning

Humpty DumptyIn Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, we find this exchange about the meaning of words between Alice and Humpty Dumpty:

“When I use a word”, Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master— that’s all.”

What about Humpty Dumpty’s approach; can words really mean whatever the person saying them wants? Can I say “house” and mean “flower”? The problem, of course, is that if everyone did that, words would end up with no meaning at all.

SelfieThe people who create dictionaries comb through masses of data including ­ newspaper articles, books, magazines and more. That is how they determine what words mean, and that is how Oxford dictionaries named “selfie” word of the year for 2013. My word processor has not caught up. It is still marking selfie as a misspelled word!

ColoredDictionary makers also track changes in the meaning of words. An interesting case is word “colored” especially in the phrases “colored people” or “people of color” which are now offensive. It was once considered a term of racial pride. But in the 1960s, “black” replaced “colored people” as the acceptable term.

The fact that it used to be acceptable is shown clearly in the name of an organization – the NAACP, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

dictionariesHumpty Dumpty’s approach is the wrong one. The meanings of words are established by collective use, not by the pronouncements of any one person, no matter how expert. Dictionary makers know this, so they compile how people really use words and they produce new dictionaries to keep up with the changes.

This leads to a difference I have with some theologians who are critics of some translations of the Bible. While they are experts in the languages of the Bible – Greek and Hebrew – their approach to English can sometimes be that of Humpty Dumpty when they declare that this or that English word is the correct translation for this or that Bible word. Sometimes I read such pronouncements and wonder how the theologian can be so out of touch with the way people actually understand the English word (or phrase) in question. That a word used to have a meaning or should have a certain meaning is not as important as how people actually understand it.

A good translation of the Bible uses words as people really understand them, not how a theological tome defines them. The great reformer and Bible translator Martin Luther said that a translator should study how ordinary people speak. He wrote:

“For one must not inquire of the literal Latin language for how one should speak German . . . instead one must ask the mother in the house, the children in the street, the common man in the market about this, and listen very closely how they speak and then translate accordingly so that they understand it and realize that one is speaking German to them.” (quoted in Luther’s Translation of the Bible by Birgit Stolt)

In other words, Bible translators should know how ordinary people use the language into which they are translating. Fortunately, almost all modern English translations take this approach, but some critics use Humpty Dumpty’s method.

It is very good to be concerned that translations of the Bible be faithful to the original languages. But we need to be equally concerned that translation is faithful to English (or whatever language) as people really understand it. When Jesus spoke, he spoke using words as the people of his day understood them, so did the prophets and the apostles. A translation, therefore, dare not use words in other ways.

Divine communication is never in a sacred, esoteric, hermetic language, rather it is such that ‘all of us hear … in our languages … the wonders of God’ – Kwame Bediako

Ladies reading a new translation to see if it communicates

Ladies reading a new translation to see if it communicates

One of the steps used is a solid translation programs is called testing. After a first draft of the translation is created by translators, another group of people meet (usually called reviewers or testers), read it, and comment on what it means to them. If it means something different to them than what the original text means, then the translators have to revise the draft until they find a translation that has the same meaning as the original.

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.