An important part of many African traditional religions is veneration of ancestors. Ancestors who have died are not gone. They remain very much involved in people’s lives and a good deal of religious practice pertains to the ongoing relationships between the living and ancestors.
As we prepare to go to Africa, I am very interested to learn how Christianity in Africa has dealt with this important aspect of traditional religions.
In 2003, Juergen Moltmann gave a lecture in Okinawa on “The Ancestor Cult and the Resurrection Hope.” The veneration of ancestors has also been an important part of Asian religions. Moltmann’s reflections are suggestive. He says, “Christian missionaries condemned this Asiatic reverence for ancestors as idolatry and demanded that Christians abandon it. But that was the non-culture of the Western world rather than Christian faith. It is better to develop a Christian form of reverence for ancestors, springing from the shared Christian resurrection hope, as has happened in Korea. And for us in the West, it is important to learn again how to deal with the burdens and blessings of our forefathers instead of letting them disappear in anonymous graves; for whether we like it or not, we live in their light and in their shadow.”
I think Moltmann is pointing in a fruitful direction. As an Anglican, I would like to think through how the communion of saints can also help in developing a Christian form of reverence for ancestors in conjunction with “the shared resurrection hope” (as Moltmann puts it). In any event, I am very interested in learning from the church in Africa about how they have dealt with this. As Moltmann notes, I suspect we in the West have a great deal to learn from them about living with the burdens and blessings of our ancestors.
Part of my meditation this Easter will be on ancestors and resurrection hope.