African sacrifices, justice, and the invocation of ancestors (Ancestors – part 2)

This is part 2 of a guest post by Andy Alo. Yesterday in part 1, Andy called the belief that Africans worshipped their ancestors a theological myth. Based on field research he conducted on his own Lugbara ethnic group, he showed that semantically, respect for ancestors is not that same thing as “worship.” He also explained how “offerings” of food to the ancestors were understood. Read the whole post: Did Africans really worship their ancestors?

PART 2: Sacrifices and the invocation of the ancestors

Calamities or unfortunate events in Lugbara beliefs happen as a result of bad or immoral conduct by a member of the group, a sub group, or the entire community. In the Lugbara traditional religious system, a sacrificial lamb had to be offered to appease the anger of ADROO ‘absolute spirit’ who was capable of punishing the community. Ancestors were implicated in the process as witnesses. Ancestors were the ones who transmitted to the living generations the body of knowledge that would guide these generations in the way of truth ‘EDYO ADA’ (literally ‘true matter’). The ancestors were invoked as a way of helping the community remember what the ancestors had said would happen if anyone acted contrary to their teachings.  For the Lugbara, it was not the ancestors who punished members of the community. Rather, punishment came directly from ADROO and was immediate.

In my research, the attributes of ADROO were not clear, but a key concept for understanding justice and judgment/punishment in Lugbara culture is LEMI “truth, right and innocence.” Briefly stated, LEMI means “if any one did wrong, something wrong would happen to him; and in case he did not do any wrong, no calamity, sickness or death could touch him.” LEMI is the ultimate justice beyond the reach of humans and was administered by the ADROO (absolute spirit). After pleading guilty, anyone who did wrong could sacrifice an animal to cancel the effects of punishment. In this entire process, the ancestors were simply reminders of the right way of living.

In sum, the Lugbara view of ancestors is a conjectural statement re-opening ways for new considerations. African ancestors were not worshipped in the traditional milieu; they were simply being honored as members of the community. They are gone and yet “they are with us”; transcendental fellowship continues. The ancient Lugbara had their own ways of perpetuating that communion; but those ways were not worship.

© 2008 Andy A. Alo

[Andy, from north-eastern Congo, is currently writing his dissertation at NEGST on translating the metaphor of light.]

Did Africans really worship their ancestors? An African perspective

Guest post by Andy Alo

Many Africanists interested in African Traditional Religion have made the assertion that Africans worshipped (or are worshipping) their ancestors. However, field research that I conducted from 2002 to 2005, and completed in August 2008 in my own Lugbara ethnic group leads me to the conclusion that the worship of ancestors by Africans is a theological myth.

Simply Semantics

In the Lugbara language, the concept INZI conveys any attitude which externalizes consideration due to a person’s status. It means ‘respect’ when describing a person lacking respect for his superiors. Children’s respect for their parents (‘honor’) is expressed by the same concept INZI. Today, INZI is also applied to ‘worship’ or ‘adoration’ of God in Christian settings, but older native speakers of Lugbarati do not equate their previous ‘honor’ (INZI) towards ancestors with the present ‘worship” (INZI) of God. Ancestors were simply honored or given due respect.    

If the Lugbara did not worship ancestors, why then did they give ancestors food in some sacred places

Why give Food to Ancestors? 

Commensality [eating together] in Lugbara culture is the ultimate way of expressing communion and brotherhood. All the members of the community not only share their resources by helping each other, but they also eat together. Traditionally, the ancestors have been part of the community; they are “present” even though they were gone. The Lugbara people would say, “They are with us.”

Every member of the community (except children) knew very well that the ancestors did not literally eat the food offered to them. The servants or “priests” of the community took the food on behalf of the ancestors. Sharing the food symbolized the communion between the living members and the members of the community who had gone on to the other side of the world.

Thus, communion with the ancestors was not a form of “worship” or “adoration,” it simply remembered ancestors as part of the community. They were cherished and honored in the collective memory because they were metonymically representing the body of knowledge that guided the community in the different dimensions of community life: ethics, socio-economics, family matters, etc. Most references to ancestors occur in relation to the quest of truth, ethical decisions and other deliberations.

[To be continued: Part 2.]

© 2008 Andy A. Alo

Andy hails from north-eastern Congo and is currently writing his dissertation at NEGST on translating the metaphor of light.

A shrine to the ancestors at Durham Cathedral; an African perspective

In a recent post, we began to explore the phenomenon of Western ancestor worship from an African perspective. Last Saturday, as we were leaving the British New Testament Conference, we visited Durham Cathredral and found that it proudly features a shrine to an ancestor. Take a look at the header on the Durham Cathedral website which includes this paragraph:

The Cathedral houses the shrine of the seventh-century saint, Cuthbert of Lindisfarne. There are some objects on display in The Treasures which date back to Cuthbert himself – including his cross and his coffin. Other items tell the story of the Cathedral and the community associated with it right up to recent times. (emphasis mine)

This is not just any church; it is the home of the Rt Rev Dr Nicholas Thomas Wright (aka NT), someone who will surely be named among the revered ancestors of our time.

Lest we try want diminish the religious significance of the shrine, I (illegally) took a picture of the sign on the door. (I did otherwise respect their request – “No digital photography” – and resisted the temptation to photograph the tombs or statues of any of the ancestors housed in the church.)

Tomorrow I will post a special guest essay arguing against the myth that Africans worship (or have worshipped) their ancestors. Stay tuned!

Ancestor worship at Cambridge

A week ago Saturday, Ethan Sanders our favorite American PhD student here, graciously toured us all around Cambridge. As we stood in one particular sacred hall lined with plaques venerating various alumni, Nelson muttered under his breath: “Ancestor worship.” Think about it. If we saw Africans building idols and paying homage to their grandfathers the way we ooh and aah over our heroes of previous generations . . . what would we call that?

On Sunday, Nelson and I attended Saint Andrew the Great (STAG) – a very nice and lively evangelical church. It has vibrant worship with theologically weighty songs and sound exegetical preaching. We thoroughly enjoyed and appreciated the service, but lining the walls were plaques commemorating dead saints from the past; one of them is prominently buried right in front of the pulpit.

How many buildings do you know built to keep the memory of our ancestors alive. Living in Washington for nine years, I was regularly awed by our great monuments to Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Roosevelt, Kennedy, and even Reagan. (Take a moment to reflect on much $$$ has been invested and how far people come from to venerate these ancestors.)

Let me push the point a little closer to home. Many friends of mine can hardly speak a sentence of theology without appealing to the authority of the ancestors: Calvin, Warfied, Hodge, Machen, Van Til? (I guess that betrays where I went to school.) Calvin College anyone? (BTW, that’s not where I went.) Or more broadly: “I’m Lutheran, Weslyan, Warrenian”(wait; he’s not dead yet!;-)

Not the same you say? Maybe you need to take a second look at it from a different perspective. 😉 Shall we fight our own Christianized sychronistic pagan idolatry, or will we ask a few Africans how it is that they “worship” their ancestors. (Hint: many forms of “ancestor worship” are more about keeping the memory of the ancestors alive for a few generations.) Or maybe you’d prefer to keep on calling the African ancestors animistic demons while we . . . ?

Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses [i.e. dead ancestors], let us . . . (Heb. 12:1).

Here’s a picture of Nelson and Peterat a shrine for Sir Isaac Newton.