April 2012


So I didn’t want my excitement about hearing Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie to cause me to ignore something that’s been nagging at my conscience for about a week now. And that was that Nigerian Finance Minister, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and World Bank Presidential nominee lost out to Jim Yong Kim, Obama’s pick.

I was really disappointed to see this happen and I’ve found myself wondering why. Bottom line: she was far more qualified than he for the job.  Okonjo-Iweala is an economist, has been a Finance Minister twice! for Nigeria,was trained at Harvard and had a 20 year track record of working at the Bank, being influential there and also knowing it from the inside.  Kim, on the other hand, had impressive credentials of his own. He too was trained at Harvard as a physician and medical anthropologist, was a co-founder of Partners in Health who  have done impressive public health work in Haiti and Peru among other places, and is the President of Dartmouth until the end of June.  But was he really qualified to lead the World Bank?

As a Nigerian and a public health person myself who therefore felt a significant connection to each candidate, I couldn’t help but think Dr. Kim was far more suited to head the World Health Organization – where he had a track record of trying to achieve 3 million people living with HIV on anti-retroviral medications by 2005 (otherwise known as 3 X 5) – than a bank, even if it was a development bank. After all how many other physicians or anthropologists -without an MBA – are deemed qualified to head banks?  But that didn’t seem to matter.

Dr Kim was Obama’s pick and the IMF and the World Bank have an unspoken agreement that a European should lead the IMF and the World Bank President should be an American.  Leaders of developing countries put up a brave fight arguing that the winds of change dictated that this unspoken agreement had run its course and it was time to include candidates from other countries with emerging markets that increasingly represent more and more of the world’s citizens.

But those arguments were not convincing enough. Although the voting was not unanimous for Dr. Kim, itself a small victory, I firmly believe the less qualified candidate was selected – his impressive accomplishments notwithstanding but because of his nationality and the nation he represented.

The bitter irony of it all for me was that had Dr. Kim not been an American citizen –  he was after all born in South Korea of South Korean parents, whose family emigrated to the US – he would not only not have had the illustrious career that he did have, but he would not have been selected by an American President which all but guaranteed him this job.  Tell me, where’s the justice in that? (Photos courtesy of The Guardian.)

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It’s a rare day when I have the privilege of meeting two award-winning African women writers. In fact it has never happened before for me – but what a treat it was to first listen to Leila Aboulela being interviewed about being a Muslim writer and describing where she got the inspiration for her 3 novels, and then hear Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie describe her journey as a writer and the role of Catholicism in her upbringing. Both were one of 30+ writers who participated in the recently concluded Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College from the 19th to 21st of April.

These two women were the main draw for me, although they were in the very esteemed company of other writers such as Marilynne Robinson, Jonathan Safran Foer, Judith Shulevitz, Carey Wallace, Ann Voskamp, and Shane Claiborne. It was truly not just a festival but a delicious feast with each course getting more and more inviting.

I realized that not only was I so taken with Ms Aboulela and Ms Adichie because they were African women, as I am, but because they spoke and write of a world I know and inhabit.  Both of them could be described as global citizens, who straddle dual countries, dual continents, and hence an identity that is fluid.  Adichie described it so well when she explained that in Nigeria, she is an Ibo, but in America – where she spends half the year – she is a black African, and she has no issues moving between these two contexts, between these two worlds. Ms Aboulela could probably have said the same thing. Born in Cairo, but raised in Khartoum, to an Egyptian mother and a Sudanese father, she lived in the same home until she was 23 and then  made her way to London to pursue a master’s in statistics. Raising a young son while her husband was working and living in the middle East, the family was able to re-unite when her husband got a job in Aberdeen, Scotland.  She was so homesick for the Sudan of her youth, that she began to write. A short story, The Museum, won her the first Caine Prize for African Literature.  She followed up her short stories with her first novel, ‘The Translator’, a window into life and love for a modern Islamic widow living in Scotland. After a number of years of residing in Scotland, she now lives in Doha, Qatar with her family.

Adichie’s first novel, ‘Purple Hibiscus’, came from being homesick too. A drab winter in eastern Connecticut forced this former medical student to write a book she wanted to read, that reflected characters that were familiar to her, the university town in Nigeria that she grew up in and the Catholicism of her upbringing, which led to a coming of age story about Kambili, a character whose voice the author found herself unable to ignore.

Adichie spent a considerable amount of time describing the genesis of her second book too, ‘Half of a Yellow Son’, a historical novel centered around the Biafran war that occurred in the 1960’s in Nigeria.  The southeastern part of the country fought to secede from Nigeria and sought to create their own nation called Biafra.; the war was ultimately unsuccessful. Though Adichie was born after the war was over, she lost both grandfathers in the war and her parents, being Ibos, and living in the southeast were profoundly affected by it. In the writing of the novel, she described how her father, a “lovely quiet man”, sought out his father’s grave once the war had ended. He was the oldest son and tradition dictated that he give his father an honorable burial. Instead, he discovered that his father’s dead body had ended up in a mass grave behind a school which had been turned into a refugee camp. Unable to rescue the corpse, instead he gathered sand from the grave and he keeps it in a jar on a shelf in his study, something Adichie had been completely unaware of despite sleeping in a bedroom next door to the study for her entire childhood.

I can’t tell you how proud I felt to be an African that day, sitting in an audience of mostly white mid-western readers and writers hanging on every word and absorbing with interest the complexities of Islamic life in Sudan and Catholicism in Nigeria, and deeply appreciating the skill of their craft and the brilliance of these writer’s minds.

After Adichie’s interview, I approached her as a fellow Nigerian and introduced myself. She was warm, engaging and interested. I asked her about her use of Jaja as the name of Kambili’s brother in Purple Hibiscus.  She laughed and said she just loves the story of Jaja of Opobo.  He founded this island city-state in the late 1800s and resisted British domination of its people.  (Opobo happens to be the ancestral home of my grandfather, my father’s father.) I chuckled along with her and my friend Christine captured it all in pictures.

In my last post, I mentioned my favorite new writer, Emmanuel Katongole, and the book of his that I’m reading through slowly, Mirror to the Church.

Among the many gems in this book is the idea that the genocide in Rwanda was possible for many reasons, not least of which was that the blood of tribalism was thicker than the waters of baptism. In other words, that people’s identities as members of a particular ethnic group – itself a social and historical construction, ironically, in this case – over-rode their identities as sisters and brothers in Christ, joined together through baptism.  Katongole argues that the U.S. is no different. Our allegiance to race, ethnicity, even denomination often runs stronger than our allegiance to the person of Jesus Christ.

Last week, I was made aware of such American tribalism.

I was at the birthday dinner of a friend, and had the opportunity to meet this friend’s brother. He had flown in to be with his sister and her friends to mark her 50th birthday. He’s an academic at a Christian college and has been there 10 years. In the course of talking, he happened to mention two requirements that the Board makes of the faculty: 1) That this college requires all its faculty to worship at churches that are the same denomination of the college and 2) the children of faculty members are required to attend Christian schools.

I was taken aback I have to admit.

I can understand the first ‘requirement’ to some degree though I think it’s over-stepping a faculty member’s freedom to worship at a Christ-centered church of their own choice. But that their children must attend a Christian school?

Aren’t we all trying to build our lives on the foundation of Jesus the Christ, the one who didn’t set himself apart from us, but entered into the messiness of our world? And then pursued the least and the lost, the undesirables and the questionable? The one who challenged us to be in the world, to seek its peace and prosperity, to settle down, build houses, raise families. Didn’t this same Jesus call us to ‘Go and do likewise’?

In the instance of this college, is there not a serious danger of elevating a denominational affiliation and an allegiance to Christian education above that of seeking to live lives that genuinely reflect our Jesus?

You be the judge of this.

 

I picked up a book this week called ‘Mirror to the Church’ by my newest spiritual mentor, Emmanuel Katongole. He is a Catholic priest of the Kampala Archdiocese who teaches at Duke Divinity School – and he’s brilliant. In ‘Mirror’, I learned that the genocide that happened in Rwanda in 1994 – 18 years ago – began on the Thursday after Easter.  Although it was on April 7 that year, today is that Thursday. Like us, a week before, in Rwanda, Christians all over this largely Catholic nation celebrated Maundy Thursday , so named for Jesus’ command for us to love one another to the point of laying down our lives.  Instead, a mere 7 days later Tutsis and Hutus began killing each other in what would result in the loss of 800,000 precious lives of people made in God’s image slaughtered over 3 months.  Most were killed by the machetes they used to clear brush with in their gardens. The international community failed to act swiftly – the UN stalled in their response –  despite pictures of these deaths showing up in American homes every evening for weeks on end.  Most of us were far more interested in the OJ Simpson trial that spring. I was one of those people I am now ashamed to admit.

Of the 6 genocides that have occurred in history, this one was unique in that it was perpetrated by Christians on Christians. Sadly the blood of tribalism was thicker than the waters of baptism.

Katongole’s argument is that if Rwanda is a mirror to the church, then we must face in it all the contradictions that cloud the global Christian identity (p22).  Furthermore, the only hope for our world after Rwanda’s genocide is a new kind of Christian identity for the global body of Christ (p13).

We can’t change what occurred in Rwanda so tragically almost 2 decades ago – and whether we were on the sidelines or distracted by the ‘wow’ of OJ Simpson. But we can choose to remember and repeat this story, saying ‘Never again’. And we can examine in our own hears where our true identity lies.  Do we align more closely with Christian brothers and sisters – our eternal siblings – or do we  gravitate and cling to an identity apart from Christ, that which is found in race, ethinicity, nationality, or age?

Lord help us.

Last Weds 3/28, the Grace & Race team at  Redeemer hosted Dr. John Piper and Dr. Tim Keller in a  conversation about ‘Race and the Christian’ moderated by Dr. Anthony Bradley, who contributed in key ways to the discussion.  About 800 people showed up at the Society for Ethical Culture to participate in the event, and over 4,000 other folks watched the event on-line.  Questions for the discussion were submitted in advance and tweets during the event were also permitted.  Desiring God, Piper’s ministry arm, told us they received an overwhelming amount of questions – by far – more than any other event that Piper has participated in where they’ve solicited questions – pretty amazing!

The impetus for the event was Dr. Piper’s latest book, Bloodlines: Race, Cross and Christian, published by Crossway who sponsored the event. Tim wrote the forward to the book.

It was a provocative discussion, and one that was long over due.

In case you missed it, or would like to see it again, check out the link here:

http://www.desiringgod.org/resource-library/recently-added

Bloodlines

Keep Your Head Up

To order either of these books at a 40% discount and free shipping until midnight on 4/11/12, click here for Bloodlines: crossway.org/RCBL or here for Keep Your Head Up, edited by Anthony Bradley: crossway/org.RCKeep.

 

 

So today the 4th of April is significant to me for two reasons.

First, this is the day 44 years ago that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr was gunned down on the terrace of a Memphis hotel. He was just 39,  husband and father of three young children, and at the forefront of a social movement that radically altered the racial and ethnic dynamics in this nation.

I also  always remember April 4th because 9 years before MLK’s death made this date memorable, my parents were married – in 1959 – in a registry office in London. They met the previous August on a ship crossing the Atlantic. My Northern Irish mother had been to the east coast to visit her ‘American’ cousins – their parents, her aunt and uncle,  emigrated from N. Ireland following the potato famine. My father was leaving the US – after coming here as a scholarship student and getting 2 degrees – to study law in London. Two years later, they would take another ship and travel to Nigeria – his home – to live life and raise a family together.

This week being Holy Week, today also happens to fall in the middle of the most sacred week in the Christian calendar. I found myself in Matt 26 this morning reading about Jesus’ anointing at Bethany. The phrase that jumped out at me was: “She has done a beautiful thing to me.”(v10b).

What made it beautiful was not only the extravagance of it but it was costly – and not just in financial terms but Mary was chastised for her act; it was sacrificial, and it also pointed to Jesus’ upcoming burial.

Costly and sacrificial:  Kind of like MLK’s death –and my parent’s 40 year marriage.  My father died almost 13 years ago now and so my mother is aging alone, as a widow, like so many of her friends….

So today as we anticipate the last supper, Gethsemane, the crucifixion, Jesus’ burial and resurrection, let’s not forget.  Our God does bring beauty from ashes, and the resurrection is proof of this.

Hallelujah!