My most memorable
experiences of interfaith dialogue came in the context of accompanying my
husband, Inus Daneel, in his ministry among Indigenous Churches and
Traditionalists in Zimbabwe. The 15-year civil war (1965–1980) and its
aftermath were accompanied by massive deforestation, erosion, and the
destruction of ecologically sensitive areas such as river beds. To combat this
situation, in the early 1980s Inus allied with a group of chiefs and spirit
mediums to launch what became ZIRRCON, the Zimbabwean Institute of Religious
Research and Ecological Conservation. This groundbreaking ecumenical
environmental movement among poor rural people in Masvingo Province aimed to
reforest denuded communal lands and to teach sound ecological practices.
remarkable aspects of the “War of the Trees” was its basis in religion. At its
height, 180 African Indigenous Churches (AICs) representing an estimated two
million people conducted joint tree-planting eucharists, in which participants
confessed their sins against nature. After taking communion, church members
planted seedlings and provided them follow-up care. The Traditionalist wing of
ZIRRCON, on the other hand, was led by chiefs, war veterans, and spirit mediums
who held beer libations and summoned the ancestors to protect newly planted
seedlings.1 Over eighty women’s clubs conducted income-generating
projects and activities for earth care, such as gully reclamation.2 Children’s
groups held tree-planting days with the seedlings raised in our dozens of
nurseries. Through the 1990s, ZIRRCON was the largest tree-planting movement in
southern Africa. Together the Christian and Traditionalist wings of ZIRRCON
planted hundreds of thousands of trees a year, before political upheaval
destroyed the movement in the early 2000s.
My own position
as wife of “Bishop Moses” gave me a bird’s eye view of practical interfaith
activities.3 In addition to serving for several years as vice
president of the board of trustees of ZIRRCON, I accompanied Inus to outdoor
church services in which he functioned as a Ndaza Zionist bishop, dancing in a
circle with the men and laying on hands to heal people. Later I conducted
research among ZIRRCON-related senior women about their theologies.4
Probably my most important role was to support the theological education by
extension program (TEE) that accompanied the Christian wing of the movement and
that continued to exist for several years after its demise.
One of the most
interesting aspects of my time with ZIRRCON was the long discussions Inus and I
had about interfaith issues. As “amateurs de l’Evangile,”5 we lived
in the tension between Acts 4:12 (“there is no other name under heaven given
among mortals by which we must be saved”) and Acts 14:17 (“yet he has not left
himself without a witness in doing good”).6 As a Christian, just how
far should Inus go in participating in non-Christian religious rituals? He was
the only white person to be admitted into the cave sanctuary of the Shona god
in the Matopo Hills. He led delegations of ZIRRCON leaders to the oracular cave
sessions for the high god to bless the movement. When interviewed about his
knowledge of their religion and customs, leading chiefs indicated that he was a
spirit medium who knew their ancestors.7 At the same time, Inus was a
child of Dutch Reformed missionaries, scion of the famous missionary family of
holiness spiritual writer Andrew Murray, and senior professor of missiology
alongside David Bosch at the University of South Africa.8
condition of interfaith collaboration is the conviction that witnessing to the
gospel required the mutuality of respecting persons whose understanding of
culture, practices, and religion do not match one’s own. After a long history
of colonial and racial oppression, AICs had firmly rejected white tutelage.
Similarly, Traditionalist spirit mediums had led multiple uprisings against the
white political regime. To work among them required a constant attitude of
patient listening. Dialogue could occur only in the context of deep respect—and
witness could occur only in the context of dialogue. Just as Jesus respected
the woman at the well through establishing a relationship of mutual dialogue
(John 4), despite their different religious traditions and genders, so Inus
respected Traditionalist beliefs and practices. After attending oracular cave sessions
as a respectful listener, he had earned the right to share the Good News of
Jesus Christ. Following his attendance at high god rituals, Inus indicated that
now it was his turn to share his own beliefs in Jesus Christ. He opened his
Bible, read from the Scriptures, and testified to his belief in salvation
through Christ. The sympathetic relationships established through respecting Shona
religious rituals allowed for an ongoing contextually based witness to the
challenge for me was the need to navigate unbiblical and patriarchal gender
roles and to relate to my counterparts in the movement, who were often wives
ranked by hierarchy in plural marriages. Ultimately our task of missionary
identification required that mutuality and respectful personal relationships be
the foremost principle for interfaith dialogue. Common concern for God’s creation,
for the “rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, and filling you with food and
your hearts with joy” (Acts 14:17) remained a higher goal than imposing one’s
own Christian beliefs on others— although witness always remained a happy
A fruitful text
that characterizes evangelical principles of interfaith dialogue is Matthew
5:17: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have
come not to abolish but to fulfill.” A century ago, “fulfillment theory” was a
prominent theme in mission praxis. Missionaries argued that just as Jesus
Christ fulfills but does not displace Jewish law, so he fulfills the deepest aspirations
and most noble sentiments of other religions.9 The appeal of
fulfillment theory to missionaries of the 1910s–1920s was that it provided an
alternative to the failed negativity of colonialist displacement theory, which
in its efforts to proclaim Jesus Christ had discarded the customs and worldview
of indigenous people as so much useless garbage. Some Western missionaries
argued that disdain for people’s customs, including their indigenous religions,
shut off rather than opened pathways to Jesus Christ. Such insights by the
1930s merged into the discovery of mission anthropology.
1See Marthinus L.
Daneel, African Earthkeepers, vol. 1: Interfaith
Mission in Earth-Care; and vol. 2: Environmental Mission and Liberation in Christian Perspective
(Pretoria: University of South
Africa, 1998, 1999); also see Daneel’s article on dissolution of the movement,
“Zimbabwe’s Earthkeepers: When Green Warriors Enter the Valley of Shadows,” in Nature, Science, and Religion: Intersections Shaping
Society and the Environment, ed.
Catherine M. Tucker (Santa Fe: School for Advanced Research Press, 2012),
Chirongoma, “Karanga-Shona Rural Women’s Agency in Dressing Mother Earth: A
Contribution Towards an Indigenous Eco-Feminist Theology,” Journal of Theology for Southern Africa 142 (March 2006): 120–44.
3In the early
1990s, the Ndaza (Holy cord) Zionists made Inus a bishop. They named him
“Moses” because he led them in theological education during the 15-year Zimbabwean
liberation war and afterward into a ministry of earth care. Traditionalists
called him Muchakata, or “wild cork tree.”
4Dana L. Robert,
“Gender Roles and Recruitment in Southern African Churches, 1996–2001,” in Communities of Faith in Africa and the African
Diaspora: In Honor of Dr. Tite Tiénou, ed.
Casely B. Essamuah and David K Ngaruiya (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications,
5This early French
term for “evangelical,” meaning “lovers of the gospel,” was proudly carried by
my Swiss Protestant ancestors in the 1530s.
Chiefs Chikwanda, Chivi and Murinye, ‘Muchakata and the War of the Trees,’” in Frontiers of African Christianity: Essays in Honour
of Inus Daneel, ed. G.
Cuthbertson, H. Pretorius, and D. Robert, African Initiatives in Christian Mission
8 (Pretoria: University of South Africa Press, 2003), 43–54.
8At Unisa, Bosch
taught the A stream, Western theology; Daneel taught the B stream, African
theology. Inus Daneel was thus the first professor of African theology and
missiology at the University of South Africa.
9E.g. see J. N.
Farquhar, The Crown of Hinduism (London: Oxford University Press, 1920); Kenneth
Courtesy and Love: Theologians and Missionaries Encountering World Religions,
1846–1914 (London: Epworth
Press, 1995); see also Edwin Smith, The
Christian Mission in Africa: A Study Based on the Work of the International
Conference at Le Zoute, Belgium, September 14th to 21st, 1926 (New York: International Missionary Council, 1926).
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Dana L. Robert is the Truman Collins Professor of World Christianity and History of Mission at Boston University, where she has directed over sixty doctoral dissertations.