Sunday, October 15, 2006

A Theology of Land

Living in Africa has improved my understanding of the Old Testament. The cultural landscape of Africa is similar to the thought patterns, rituals and rhythms of life of the ancient Israelites.

Take for instance, the importance of land. In the Old Testament, remember, a major component of God’s covenant with the people of Israel is the promise of land -- an actual, geographically-defined, physical piece of land with rocks, streams, trees, mountains, and dirt (see Genesis 12:1-7 for the beginning of this covenantal story). God deemed this land to be important, and so did the Israelites.

And, in fact, that same piece of land is still revered as holy, important and promised by the same group of people today.

But Western Christians are often mystified by this phenomenon because our understanding of God’s promises and covenant has been spiritualized. When we speak of the “new covenant” of Jesus Christ, we’re not talking about male children, pieces of land, or circumcision, but rather, hearts, minds, and spirits.

To Israelites, however, the covenant was a particular place which God had given, a place which they were to make into a residence, a dwelling of the Most High. And they understood that this was to be a place dedicated to “shalom” – peace, prosperity, well-being.

In a similar vein, Cameroonian Methodists are beginning to yearn for their own pieces of land for their churches. They attach an importance to the matter that I personally have not understood.

Whenever a pastor has voiced his or her concern that the Mission purchase land for church construction, my typical response has been: “Well, let’s wait and grow first. We don’t want to put the cart before the horse!” I realize now that I am speaking out of a different cultural experience – for Americans, land is a tool of the church’s witness.

But I now understand that, in the African context, the land itself is the church’s witness! It marks a place of permanence, stability, and constancy, which is a witness to God’s own faithfulness. When Bishop Boni visited Cameroon last April, he remarked (out of my presence) that “a church doesn’t truly exist until she owns her own land.”

Last week, I spent an afternoon in Monatele, a small town about 60 kilometers from Yaounde. Pastor Jean-Blaise Bikoy wanted me to meet a member of his church who had an unusual offer – he wanted to give land to the church!

So I went to see it. We had to trek through the bush for several hundred yards until we came to an overgrown field of cassava. The old man pointed out the edges of the plot with his machete. He showed me a rock from which we could make concrete for a building, and a place where we could gather sand.

I admit I was skeptical about his reasons for wanting to “give” and not “sell” his land. I asked him (through Pastor Simeon, who translated into Eton), “You want to give this land to the United Methodist Church?”

He answered, “Yes.” I asked, “Why?”

As he answered, a smile broke across his face, and for a moment, I thought I glimpsed Father Abraham, who certainly understood the significance of a piece of land: “It’s not my land anyway,” he said. “It belongs to God.”

Now that's not a bad bit of theology!