Aliou Niang’s “Faith and Freedom in Galatia and Senegal”

Finally! I study African theology (which includes biblical studies and theology), and I love it—but it is often difficult to interest others in my field. I’ve particularly struggled to find biblical works of a more academic level which would provide the depth and tone (Western) biblical scholars expect while simultaneously bringing African contexts to bear on the situation. Many African theologians write for non-Western readers, and rightly so—their main audiences are pastors and Bible college students. On the other hand, there are more Western-friendly academic biblical works by African theologians, but many of these provide very little explicit interaction with African contexts. In short, Aliou Cissé Niang’s Faith and Freedom in Galatia and Senegal: The Apostle Paul, Colonists and Sending Gods (Brill, 2009) contains the best of both worlds. In terms of African theology, this is without a doubt my best find of the year.

Niang argues that “Galatians 2:11–14 and 3:26–29 depict Paul . . . as a sociopostcolonial hermeneut” bearing a gospel which breaks down social barriers, bringing equality based on one’s identity in Christ (1–2). The author compares the situation of Paul and the Gauls/Galatians with that of a particular people group in Senegal, the Diola, and their encounter with French missionaries in 1835. (He is also able to bypass the arguments on the Northern and Southern Galatian theories, thanks to his approach.) Just as the French sought to force Western civilization on the Diola, equating that civilization with Christianity, so too the Galatians were being pressured by the Judaizers to submit to a hegemonic, colonizing force. Both the Galatians and the Diola were characterized by outsiders as “uncivilized barbarians,” vanquished people, but Paul’s letter offers a vision of a Christianity that is inclusive, and addresses community formation, identity concerns, and sociopolitical issues. Niang details several parallels between the two people groups, not only in their relationship to their oppressors, but in terms of each group’s socio-religious values: their understandings of and concern with justice, the place of confession and propitiation and the priestly role in these two, and even examples of “prophetic resistance” to the colonizing force (Paul and Aline Sitoé) as well as the types of communities these leaders envisions (both Paul and Sitoe describe equality and unity through abolition of cultural barriers, but without abolishing the differences themselves).

Niang also proposes that his own approach of a sociopostcolonial hermeneutic addresses weaknesses of some other theologies in Africa (liberation hermeneutics, South African Black theology, and most postcolonial biblical studies), which are weak on methodology and scriptural support. His own method realizes that inculturation of the gospel message involves the full social milieu of a people, which includes their history, economics, culture, and religion. Niang understands the cross and faith in Christ as a force of freedom from oppression, giving people a new identity in Christ and bringing them into a community in which people are empowered, social barriers are broken down, and fellowship exists between those who were formerly separated. He concludes, “I propose that Paul was a countercolonist whose message decolonizes by freeing the colonized to be conscious of their divine status as children of the promise (Gal 4:23, 28, 31), regardless of their cultural contexts, ethnicity, gender, and social status (Gal 3:28). Such a message is implemented not through cultural transplantation as first colonial missionaries to Senegal have done, but rather through an inculturation of the message of the cross” (138).

What makes Niang’s work so strong? He provides an in-depth analysis of a specific group in Africa, engages in solid textual analysis in a non-traditional way, and also makes the case for his particular methodological approach. The biggest weakness, if it can fairly be called that, is simply the brevity of his book. Everything in the book is well-written and argued, and leaves the reader wishing Niang would examine the whole book of Galatians in detail. Hopefully Niang will address this in the future. In sum, whether or not a person is a Pauline scholar per se, I heartily recommend this book.

I am grateful to Brill for providing a review copy of this book.

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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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