by Andrew DeCort, the Ethiopian Graduate School of Religion
David Daniels’s article “Honor the Reformation’s African Roots” – the basis of his recent Sightings article – has gone viral as Christians around the world celebrate 500 years since Luther’s 95 theses. As my first reflection on “the craft of teaching,” this article can serve as a useful case study in the sensitivity required for teaching Christian history and theology in contexts of inter-Christian complexity and conflict.
Daniels’s stand-alone thesis nailed to the Internet is innovative and exciting: Luther’s Reformation was inspired by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, which served as Luther’s “forerunner.” Thus, the Reformation is not the hegemonic monopoly of European Christians but should be received as a gift rooted in Africa.
As a professor of theology in Ethiopia, who was trained in Ethiopian Studies under the University of Chicago’s Donald Levine while completing my PhD in Theological Ethics at the Divinity School, Daniels’s fascinating essay reminds me of Levine’s discussion of “Conventional Images of Ethiopia” in his Greater Ethiopia: The Evolution of a Multiethnic Society (University of Chicago Press, 1974 and 2000). Levine argued that the root problem with these “images” is that they “tell us less about Ethiopian realities than they do about the history of the world outside” (15). Rather than reflections of Ethiopia, these images are often the dreamy projections of foreigners who have little or no familiarity with Ethiopia itself and can sometimes contribute to conflict within Ethiopia.
Unfortunately, Daniels (or at least Daniels’ Luther) falls into this trap, and his article tells us less about Ethiopian realities than it does about “the history of the world outside,” notably in the age of Trump with its resurgent white supremacy.
Let me mention several complications that should attune theological educators to the great care required when teaching theology in complex and conflictual religious contexts like Ethiopia.
First, “Ethiopians” have not historically thought of themselves as “Africans” per se. Of course, Ethiopia is in Africa, and some Ethiopians happily identify as Africans. But by calling “Ethiopian roots” “African roots,” Daniels reveals his ignorance of Ethiopian identities and their complexities, past and present. In an article that celebrates the cultural expansiveness of the Reformation, it would be responsible to have some sensitivity to how Ethiopians typically think and speak of themselves.
Second, Daniels’s case for “Ethiopian roots” is shallow. While he carefully refers to “possible Ethiopian connections” to Luther’s reform movement, the fact that Luther may have respected “the church of Ethiopia” does not indicate any causal connection to his launching of the reformation without further evidence, much less the accuracy of Luther’s impression. Daniels mentions that Luther had his (first?) face to face discussion with an actual Ethiopian believer, Michael, in 1534 – seventeen years after 1517.
The fact that this single deacon seems to have affirmed Luther’s “Articles of the Christian Faith” says nothing about the potential translation issues and political factors in play. After all, this was during the time of Ahmed Gregn’s jihad in Ethiopia, when the Christian Ethiopian state desperately needed foreign assistance. Daniels shows no awareness of these possible complexities in Deacon Michael’s approval of Luther’s theology.
Third, Daniels calls “the church of Ethiopia” the “dream” of Luther and as such “a true forerunner of Protestantism.” For better or worse, Luther’s view of Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity was in fact dream-like because it was not a forerunner of “Protestantism” in any obvious sense.
A. Ethiopian Orthodoxy was obviously not “Roman Catholic,” but it had its own patriarch or “pope” with all of its hierarchy just like Catholicism, which Luther viciously ridiculed.
B. It is questionable whether Ethiopian Orthodox Christians practiced the Eucharist in the way Luther or Daniels assumes. In fact, to this day, few adult Orthodox Christians even take the Eucharist after childhood because they see it as too holy, a source of acrimony between Orthodox and Protestant Christians here.
C. With regard to “vernacular Scriptures,” this is partly true and partly not. Much of the liturgy and readings in Orthodox corporate worship are in Ge’ez, the ancient Ethiopic equivalent of Latin, which most ordinary Ethiopians can’t understand. Thus, there is a very similar dynamic to the liturgical language which Luther rejected in Ethiopian worship, which contemporary Protestants do not hesitate to polemically point out. It would be interesting to see if this was the case in the 16th century.
D. Daniels claims that the Ethiopian Church rejected practices embraced by Catholicism that Luther also rejected. But here there are also problems. Although the Orthodox Church may not have written and sold formal “indulgences,” the idea that our works – especially gifts to the church and the poor – affect our eternal destiny after death is a deep part of Ethiopian Orthodox spirituality. Also, as I mentioned, “the primacy of the Roman Pope” was simply replaced in the Orthodox Church by the primacy of the Coptic Patriarch (Ethiopian Orthodoxy did not become fully independent from Egypt until 1959).
In fact, if Luther had known more about the medieval church, he would have likely condemned the ways Ethiopian emperors interfered in the liturgy and doctrine of the church. Curiously, Abba Estifanos, a 15th century “reformer” who is sometimes compared to Luther, was tortured to death by Zara Yaqob, the most theologically influential emperor in medieval Ethiopia, who centralized Mary’s mediatory role in Ethiopian piety, an idea that would have horrified Luther and horrifies Ethiopian Protestants still. Incidentally, Zara Yaqob is venerated as a saint in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church to this day.
Fourth, to write that “Luther must have been thrilled to learn that what he had rediscovered in his reading of the Scriptures was already present in the Ethiopian Church” is over-simplistic at best and likely simply wrong. To this day, “Lutherans” in Ethiopia are often viewed as followers of a foreign religion (“yewuchi haimanot”) dangerous to the Orthodox Church. When I visited Gondar (a key seat of theological learning in Luther’s time), the principal of an Orthodox monastic school forbade me from coming inside because he assumed that I was Protestant missionary and thus a follower of a false religion seeking to destroy their church. My Lutheran students often return the compliment (sadly) and refuse to acknowledge that Orthodox people are even “Christians.” In fact, one of my students (sadly) denounces Orthodox Christians as “Romish pagans.”
Given that Abba Estifanos was tortured to death a generation before Luther, it’s hard to imagine that things would have been much different during Luther’s time. Moreover, it is difficult to imagine how Luther’s intense anti-Semitism would have influenced his views of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, which prides itself on its “Jewishness” and prioritizes the Old Testament in its piety (e.g., keeping kosher laws), despite Luther calling it the “gentile” church. During Luther’s time, there were fierce debates in the church about the observance of the Sabbath (Saturday, Sunday, or both?), which Luther would have ridiculed as “Judaistic.”
Thus again, to claim “For Luther, the Church of Ethiopia was the historical proof that his reform of the Church in Europe had a clear historical and biblical basis” borders on an ignorant insult dressed as a compliment that has potential to stir further conflict within Ethiopian Christianities.
While there are many ecumenically hospitable people and priests within the Orthodox Church, with some of whom I’ve been graced to have extended theological discussion (including Abuna Mathias), the overwhelming majority would be horrified to hear that their church is being claimed as a source for Luther’s Protestantism. To this day, children are routinely kicked out of their families when their parents learn that they convert (and it is seen as a conversion) to “Protestantism.” In fact, a student told me in my office just this week that her father refused to speak to her for three years after she converted to Protestantism from Orthodoxy.
In sum, then, Daniels’s thesis with its unconventional “image” of Ethiopia – for better or worse – tells us more about Luther and/or Daniels and what Levine called “the history of the world outside” Ethiopia than it does about Ethiopia or her ancient church.
While every theological educator who cares about teaching accurate history and authentic Christian theology should celebrate Daniels’ attempt to disrupt a Eurocentric vision of Christianity, it is unfortunate that his article ends up doing so by reducing Ethiopia, yet again, to a screen for the projection of the Western imagination, even one so great as Luther’s. While it is nice that “the Ethiopian church” was Luther’s “dream,” it was, is, and deserves to be much more than that.
The ignorances, inaccuracies, and potential sources of conflict in this article show the persisting complexity of “reform” today and the danger of Western scholars trying to defend the Africanness of Christianity in a way that “Africans” themselves would not likely recognize or appreciate. If nothing else, then, Daniels’ article is a useful if problematic reminder of the imperative to teach theological traditions in ways that are respectful and recognizable to their followers, as well as mindful of the unforeseen potentials for fueling further misunderstanding and hostility within faith communities when seeking to build global bridges.
For Christian educators who embrace the Pauline “ministry of reconciliation,” we can and must do much better as we seek to promote peace and the common good within and beyond our religious communities.