Review of Stan Chu Ilo’s “The Church and Development in Africa”

Imagine a Western church leader or church member interested in donating to an overseas cause, in a judicious way. Or, imagine a politically-minded person, wanting to think through the relationship between Christian faith and aid and development. Then again, perhaps the reader simply wants to learn more about Catholic social ethics, African theology, or the link between dogmatics and social justice. There are many sorts of reader to whom this book would appeal, and that wide-ranging application is part of its appeal.

Stan Chu Ilo wrote this book in response to the 2009 papal encyclical Charity in Truth (Caritas in Veritate, henceforth CIV). Ilo applies this to the African context, particularly the issue of international aid and development for Africa. He suggests that Christianity, a belief about being transformed by God’s grace, equally implies social transformation and the pursuit of justice. This comes about because Christians are shaped and defined by the gracious charity – love – of God, and in turn that love moves them to be compassionate people in solidarity with others, especially the poor and weak.

Ilo’s first chapter explores CIV and Catholic social ethics. He agrees with CIV that true development must be based on a correct understanding of the human person (1). The Trinity and love are the basis for Christianity, and Christ reveals truth to mankind. Thus, charity “inheres” in truth (4) and ontology comes before praxis. Charity is participation in God’s love; humans too are defined by God, sharing a common trait: the image of God. Humans are “intrinsically relational and objectively valued” because of this common image, and the telos of humanity is communion in the Triune God. Humans are defined by relationships to God, the world, and other people. It is the cross that makes communion possible and restores broken relationships of every type – which means that Christians must be about the work of reconciliation and justice because it is tied to the gospel itself. Ilo decries globalization, which he believes marginalizes the weak and leads to social disintegration; Christians should not be driven by greed and consumeristic capitalism, but by grace and love. The Roman Catholic position is that human rights derive from the imago Dei all humans bear, which contrasts with overly-individualistic or utilitarian worldviews.

Moving on, Ilo examines a broad sweep of ethical issues – business, international aid, subsidiarity and solidarity, and the need for ecological ethics, among others. He repeatedly emphasizes the need to seek the common good of humanity, the values of subsidiarity (assisting people to help themselves) and solidarity, and human equality and co-dependence. Some of the principles he proposes for aid in Africa sound this same theme: a basis in God, a need for a theological anthropology, and respect for and solidarity when working with Africans.

The major theme of the third chapter is “homelessness”, which entails isolation, lack of reconciliation, struggles over identity, and lack of hope for the future; this despair and alienation is addressed by God, who offers holistic salvation. Ilo reiterates often that what Africa needs is a communally-shaped “regenerative ethics” (125). What is Africa’s current situation? Aid has often made the situation worse, poverty has increased in most of the continent (half of Africa rates in the “extreme poverty” category), HIV/AIDs and malaria kill countless people, and globalization further marginalizes the continent. Ilo diagnoses several reasons for the poverty and under-development of Africa: internal corruption (though he avers this is not a main cause), a top-down rather than grassroots approach to aid, unrealistic goals set by non-Africans, and an unsustainable debt burden, among other issues. He goes so far as to condemn globalization and Africa’s international debt as sin, since they suppress people, promote materialism, and judge with a purely economic standard. These two forces also fail to seek the common good of all.

How, then, do Christians and the church provide truly meaningful aid? The justification for the church’s service is Jesus’ command to love one’s neighbors; Jesus’ ministry demonstrated care for the poor and salvific freedom from sin and evils. Ilo coins the term “total ecclesiology” here, and defines it as ecclesiology in which God’s Word, the sacraments, and service are the essential building blocks. The church cannot be a sign to the world if not involved in it, he reasons. At the same time, the church must remember its origin (the Trinity), identity (God’s people), and goal (eschatological community). These truths enable the church to evaluate the state and other cultural institutions and values; these truths must be known before people can be freed to pursue God’s plan for them. What principles drive such involvement? Christian charity in truth is inspired by God’s love and seeks above all to make it concrete, cares for the whole person, and relies on those competent in their fields. Charity witnesses to Christian beliefs, and is just as much a part of the spiritual life as weekly worship services and prayer.

In the last chapter, the author delves into specifics of how charity in truth can transform Africa. He eschews the dangerous division in African theology between inculturation and liberation, instead following a “missional, cultural hermeneutic approach” which draws upon context (history of Africa and Christianity, local culture, etc.), the Christian message, and Christian experiences in that context. The four roles Ilo lays out for the church in Africa are: 1) a credible, “prophetic” lifestyle, 2) critique and engagement with culture in practical acts of love, 3) improving conditions so people can take control of their own lives, and 4) engaging in education and cultural development reforms. His conclusion is that the church is, at its core, a reconciled family of Trinitarian communion, where leaders, laity, ethnicity, gender, age, and so forth come together as one. To live this way, the church in Africa must emphasize the blood of Christ, which transforms people and confers a new, common identity that trumps all other loyalties. Salvation and reconciliation are the church, and their impact must be seen in all aspects of life, from personal identity to ecological concerns to development plans. Hope for Africa – for all creatures on earth – springs from Christ’s resurrection, and the salvation he brings liberates people and points them to a new and hopeful future.

Those theologically-minded and less well-versed in ethics will appreciate Ilo’s grounding of social involvement in core Christian dogmas. Another strength is his championing the role of the imago Dei in Christian theology, in shaping human identity and a universal human nature. One might have hoped he would spend more time in biblical texts, but regardless, his case is clearly made. What is less clear is what Ilo means by the repeated phrases “prophetic” and “social gospel”, which he does not define (perhaps the latter would be obvious to a Catholic reader; it was not to this Protestant one). As a Protestant, this reader also disagreed with some aspects of the book touching on natural law and assumptions about the goodness of humanity.

One aspect of Ilo’s book that could be controversial in certain circles is his repeated invocation of the Trinity as a model for the church, which some would read as tending too much towards social Trinitarianism. While those areas of the book could be more carefully written, he has still demonstrated that the Trinity has significant bearing on ecclesiology and the imago Dei, particularly in the areas of solidarity, community, and love. His challenges to capitalism and globalization may not sit well with Western readers, but they ought to be taken seriously, especially in light of the statistics of African debt, development, and poverty. His work also agrees with that of Agbonkhianmeghe E. Orobator on the issue of HIV/AIDS, noting the extent to which it ravages the continent and the destruction it brings upon people, as well as retarding attempts at development. His appendix on the ten commandments for working in Africa – and other Majority World settings, one would think – are particularly relevant and on-target, as is his indictment of Western post-Enlightenment anthropologies. African theologies can offer a corrective to Western theologies here, drawing on ubuntu theology and the idea of life as participation, among others. His “total ecclesiology” model assists in explaining how social involvement is essential to the church’s identity and mission, though never at the expense of the Christian message. Perhaps he might even provoke some Protestants to take the sacraments more seriously, as he draws on the Eucharist to show how reconciliation is central in the church’s identity. Ilo’s book is worth purchasing for several reasons. Hopefully, the author has indeed drawn readers beyond their own limited worldview, by broadening their horizons and providing thought-provoking questions that will stick with them long after the book has been put down.

Many thanks to the publishers for generously and graciously providing this gratis review copy.

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About Stephanie Lowery

I studied systematic theology at Wheaton College Graduate School, studying under Daniel Treier and writing my dissertation on ecclesiological models in Africa. I grew up in East Africa, and am happy to have returned at long last!
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One Response to Review of Stan Chu Ilo’s “The Church and Development in Africa”

  1. Pingback: Biblioblog Carnival February 2012 « Cheese-Wearing Theology

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