“Empower International Ministries works with existing ministries in developing countries to promote the biblical message of the equal dignity and potential for unity among all human beings, regardless of gender, age, race, social, or family status.”
But as we have spent more time in Africa, we have become increasingly aware that the most important part of what we do in Africa is to provide leaders with tools to help people build marriages and families base on agape love. Agape is the Greek word used in the New Testament to mean caring concern or self-giving love.
And as someone who heard one of our talks recently said, “What could be more important in this world than teaching people to love each other and to love God?” But why do we need to teach it?
In countries with a long history of Christian teachings on love, even people with no interest in religion believe that marriage and family life should be based on love. But in less-developed, historically non-Christian countries, equal respect and concern for others may be out-of-keeping with customary practices. In fact, in these societies, most social interactions, whether among human beings or with the gods, are based on material exchange. I call such relationships “transactional”.
Take for example human interactions with the local gods of traditional religions. In Burundi (a small country in central Africa between Rwanda and Tanzania), there is a local god named Kiranga. Before people become Christian, if they wanted many children, which of course everyone did, they had to sacrifice a lot of livestock to Kiranga. Local gods, whether African, Chinese, or the Roman gods whose myths we learned in elementary school, were all happy to do things for human beings — but at a price. For the gods do not really care about people. Any “love” they have for human beings was not agape: Zeus, for example, expressed his love for particular human beings by raping them. Ancient Greek philosopher Airstotle admitted that “the Gods were incapable of real concern for humans–lust, jealousy, and anger, yes, but never affection.” Furthermore, the gods have no integrity: Kiranga might accept your goat this week, but next week he will just as readily accept a sacrifice offered by your jealous neighbor and curse your many children. While many traditional religions include a High God who does not accept bribes, this kind of god was impossibly remote and unresponsive to human needs.
People conceived of the gods in such a way because this is the way people interacted with each other. Prior to the Industrial Revolution in the West (about 1800) and contnuing today in less economically-developed parts of the world, most of life’s necessities were produced in households. Simple survival requires the coordinated efforts of many people, creating a demand for children to serve as a loyal source of labor and for support in illness, accident, and old age. In such circumstances, marriage becomes mostly an economic transaction motivated by the mutual need for children.
If you ask African what a man wants when he pays brideprice to marry a woman, both men and women will tell you that he wants children, food (women do the farming in most of Africa and produce 70-85 percent of the food), and sex. These are very real obligations, by the way — if a woman does not produce children, or if she produces only girls, she will be called “worthless” and sent away. Steve Tracy from Phoenix Seminary and Mending the Soul ministry argued with Christian pastors in Congo for three days about whether a woman was obliged to have sex with her HIV-infected husband. That’s what she is for, the men argued. What if she gets AIDS and dies? Professor Tracy asked. Then it would be a good death, the men replied.
What about companionship? Does a man want that in choosing a wife? No. Husbands and wives rarely move around together. When you see two Africans holding hands, they are always same-sex friends. Emotional support? Again no. If a man has a problem, he goes to his uncle, not his wife. Further, in less-developed economies, people may have more children than they can feed, clothe, educate, or otherwise care for — because the purpose of having children is for the children to care for you.
This is not to say that people in such circumstances are not fond of each other, do not love each other, or do not find the family to be a source of strength and comfort. And bear in mind that things are changing in Africa as a result of exposure to Western economics and Christian ideals. It is just that love and affection have not traditionally been the motive for marrying or bearing children. Love and affection, even sexual attraction in marriage, are luxuries that most people simply could not afford.
To return to the gods: In contrast to Kiranga and Zeus, the Jewish-Christian traditions were revolutionary in conceiving of a God who loves us. More, God as understood within Christianity not only cares about people, he is accessible to them as an abba — “Father”, or more literally, “Papa” (Mark 14:36). Moreover, rather than requiring payment, the Christian God benefited human beings by making personal sacriice of His own. In return for this sacrifice and provision, God asks not for chickens and goats but rather that human beings love each other as God loves them.
The Bible repeatedly asks those who benefit from God’s agape love to imitate Christ by replacing ancient family strutures based on material concern with ones based on agape. Fahters could no longer use ther children for their own purposes but are to serve them instead, rearing them up “in the nurture and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4). Husbands could no longer use their wives’ productive capacities wihtout concern for them as persons, but are to love their wives as their own bodies, caring for them and sacrificing themselves for their sake (Ephesians 5). Masters were to serve their servants and cease to exercise their coercive power over them (Ephesians 6:9). And those in subordinate positions — children, wives, slaves — were asked to stop attempting to manipulate their fathers/husband/master — the common response of those in subordinate positions — but instead to support and honor the men who give up his priviledged position for the sake of agape love (Ephesians 5:21, 22, 33; 6: 1-3, 6-7).
So we love, because God loves us first. And that underlies the rest of our programs at Empower.
Carrie Miles is executive director of Empower International Ministries, http://www.EmpowerInternational.org
Copyright 2010 Carrie A. Miles