The old saying “a divided church cannot unify a divided country” has never been truer than these days. We are witnessing both a divided church and a divided country in Ethiopia. I am not committing myself to say that the two have a direct cause and effect relationship. However, history tells us the two feed each other.
Ethiopia has long been a religious country to say the least. It has adopted all the three Abrahamic religions almost earlier than any nation in the continent of Africa. Taking Christianity in particular, Ethiopia is known to be the earliest evangelized/Christianized nation outside of the Roman Empire. It is undeniable fact that religion in general and Christianity in particular played a significant role in unifying the country since the country had adopted a theocratic form of governance as most world empires also used religion as a tool to unify a nation. The case for Ethiopian unity through religious means is even stronger because both Islam and Christianity take Ethiopia to be a Holy Place mentioned in their Holy Books.
In Christianity alone, Ethiopia is thought to be mentioned in the Holy Bible some 48 times which is more than any nation next to Israel and Egypt. Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahido Church (EOTC), Ethiopian Catholic Church (ECC) and majority of Protestants/Evangelicals take the Biblical reference to Ethiopia to mean that Ethiopia has a special place before God. This is long rooted belief almost in all Christian denominations across the country, and this belief is thought to be originated from the mother Church, EOTC. This belief played a significant role in unifying the country for many centuries.
This belief is yet to die. Many of Christians from every denomination still believe Ethiopia has a special place in the kingdom of God although recently some critics of this belief have come openly. Whether this belief is true or not, one cannot deny that it has served as a great force to unify the country.
Many Churches, Many Ethnicities, One Country
The current demographic distribution of religion in the country is much different from 100 years ago. A century ago, Ethiopia was a Christian nation, Ethiopian Orthodox – nation. Majority of the people belonged to the EOTC. However, now things have changed. Muslims have a significant share in the population to the point claiming to be the majority although the census shows that Christianity is the dominant one.
The last 50 years have shown a radical shift in the distribution of the Christian sects across the country. The Protestants/Evangelicals have grown to have voices and have become the fastest growing single religious group in the country. This has created tensions between EOTC and the growing protestant churches. The reasons for the dramatic surge of Protestantism in Ethiopia are many which include the escalation of indigenous reformation taking place in the EOTC and ECC, vast missionary endeavors, contextualized (to the language and culture of the people of different ethnic groups in the country) preaching and Bible translations, and Pentecostal beliefs such as exorcism and miracles.
The significant difference in the theology and cultural understanding between the Protestants and the EOTC has led to the increased tension and disagreements between the two Christianity sects. The recent demographic data even show that the difference has taken geographic sites. While much of the old Christian land, the northern part of the country, has still maintained a majority of Ethiopian Orthodox followers, the southern and south western part of the country (Mainly Oromia, SNNPR & Gambella regions) have become epicenters of Protestantism in Ethiopia. It is still an unanswered question whether this division has something to do with the current ethno-political climate. Again although it might not have a direct cause and effect relationship, history teaches us that divorced Christian sects cannot form a unified country. The great schism of the 11th century can be a very good example.
It is now vivid to see that not only the politics but also religion, particularly Christian sects, are distributed in Ethnic bases. There is unwritten law in the mind of most Ethiopians that Tigre and Amharas are Orthodox Christians while the Wollega, Borana Oromos and the SNNPs and Gambellas in general are Protestants. Unsurprisingly, what we are seeing in the politics is also not much different. The country is divided. The division among the people of Oromia and Amhara which is thought to be decisive for the fate of the country, has become so difficult for healing because of the religious difference among the nations. Christianity seems no more to work to unify these nations as the sects are growing much in difference and not in unity.
Ecumenism Can Save Ethiopia
Thankfully, the idea of ecumenism or ecumenical unity isn’t new for Ethiopian Christians. It has been tried and it has good number of advocates from both sides. I believe ecumenical unity can save Ethiopia or at least it can play a very great role in minimizing differences and creating unity in this country. If history in general and history of Christianity in particular teaches us something, it is the fact that the unity of the church can move any mountain. I can present several reasons in the context of our country but before I begin, let me first let define by what I mean ecumenical unity.
Thomas E. FitzGerald describes ecumenical movement as “the quest of Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican, Old Catholic, and most Protestant churches for reconciliation, and the restoration of their visible unity in faith, sacramental life, and witness in the world.” The word ecumenism comes from the Greek word ekoumeni meaning “the whole world”. Although ecumenism has been a movement that strives for believers’ unity, it has also played and significant role in social issues. For instance, World Council of Churches’ (the greatest ecumenical body) New Delhi assembly (1961) emphasized on the social challenges in the third world, bearing the theme “Jesus- the light of the world”.
Ecumenical movement in Ethiopia has been a topic of discussion and reflection for half a century. The late Rev. Gudina Tumsa of the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus (EECMY), who once served as the General Secretary of the Church, in his address to the general assembly of the EECMY which met January 1978, spoke on the topic of “ecumenical harmony and creation of the Council of Churches’ Cooperation in Ethiopia.” Here Rev. Gudina defines ecumenism as “the common strategy of the churches in working together for the furtherance of common interest.” In his elaboration, he mentions opposing theological views in the unity of the church (“Spiritualizers” versus “seculizers” as he called them) and offers what he says is the best way to realize the unity. He describes it as the holistic model. “In holistic theology,” he says, “both the spiritual and the physical are taken seriously in inseparable manner.” It seems that Rev. Gudina Tumsa also believed that the unity of the church has to be formed with holistic approach meaning both doctrinal matter and social responsibilities have to be taken seriously.
Can Ecumenical Unity Save Ethiopia?
I offer three reasons why I believe ecumenical unity can save Ethiopia from disintegration and collapse.
1. Ecumenical Unity can Play a significant Role in Ethnic Reconciliation
It is true that the old time of Abyssinian unity of religion has gone for good. It was never a true unity. The non-Abyssinian people of the country were not given a chance to become themselves. They have now developed or chosen their own religion that depicts their culture. We cannot deny this fact.
The radical unity of the church aka ecumenism, on the other hand, while respecting cultural boundaries, can maintain smooth relationship among different ethnic groups. It is very difficult to heal a divided country with a divided church. Ecumenism at best can facilitate ethnic reconciliation and healing.
Revenge and conspiracy politics exist because moral decay in the society. Churches are the source of moral laws and truths for the nation. A universal Christian ethics cannot be built in a divided set up. Christian unity is the anchor of Christian moral status. Hence, I argue, if our long history of hate and oppression has to be erased, there is no good reconciling tool as Christendom.
I have even proposed (in my oncoming book) for the formation of ecumenical council in every university campus in our country. Universities have been a target for ethnic conflicts. Ecumenical councils in universities can help in reconciling ethnic divisions.
2. Ecumenical Unity can create Culture Understanding
The role of the church in Ethiopia has been nothing less than magnifying culture. As much as the EOTC looks like Northern in culture, Ethiopian Kale Hiwot Church (EKHC) looks like southern and EECMY South Western. They all bear a culture tag on their forehead. North Ethiopian can calls EOTC “my church” while the Oromo calls EECMY or Mulu Wongel or the baptists “my church” and the Wolayita can call EKHC “My church”. The difference is quite clear: religion has married culture. While it is mandatory for religion to be contextualized to the culture of a society in order to gain many followers, it is not advisable to be associated with a certain ethno-linguistic culture. Historical Christianity flourished in the Middle East. However, no Christian in our country either dresses speaks as Middle East. Christianity doesn’t associate itself with a single culture. What we are looking in our country, however, is the reverse.
In this culturally diverse country, ecumenical unity can bring people of different cultures into unity and understanding, and opens up conversations. If Mekane Yesus and Kale Hiwot have a good image in the Northern Ethiopia, subsequently the Oromo and the Wolaita can have good image. If EOTC have good image in Wollega, the Amhara and Tigre will have good image in Wollega. Although this generalization seem hasty, the truth is ecumenical unity can help in bringing about cultural understanding than we think.
3. Ecumenism can compete better with other identities
The identity question has been the root for ethnic divisions and conflicts. The theologian wrestles with the question to which one should one give priority, to ethnic identity or the Christian identity. Both ethnic identity and Christianity demand sacrifices. People die both for their ethnic identity and Christian belief. While most theologians agree with the fact that culture and ethnic identity are important tools for the Church to use them as a tool to reach the society, ethnic identity should not compete with religious one. The church and theologians prioritize Christian identity over all. Is this working?
However, this doesn’t seem to work in our country. The Northern part of our country that is on the verge of war with each other is dominantly an Orthodox Christian. Majority of Wolaita and Sidama belong to Evangelical Christianity and yet they are looking each other as enemies. The Gujis and the Gedeos are both Protestant dominated, and yet they have been fighting. When it comes to ethnic conflict people seem to prioritize their ethnic identity than their religious belongingness. Perhaps this has also had to do with the nominal nature of the adherents of the Christian sects.
Ecumenism opens the way for what I call ‘inter-religious constructive criticism’. Psychology proves it right that moral constructive criticism is effective when it’s done by a moral rival. For instance, two Christians, one member of EOTC and the other a Protestant, living and working together in a morally competitive environment can produce the best mutual moral life than they could produce if they run alone. Protestants can play a significant role in creating peace on the northern Ethiopia because they are morally competitive to the EOTC members. EOTC can take the lions share in reconciling the Gedeos and Gujis or Sidama and Wolaitas because EOTC is a moral competitive to the protestant members.
Not only moral competitiveness to each other but also a shared moral unity among the sects can create a strong Christian identity that can rival other identities including the ethnic. A Strong ecumenical church can overshadow cultural barriers and can become the identity of individuals in the nation.
In conclusion, since ecumenism is by no means an end rather a means to an end, I hope and believe that theologians of both sides continue to struggle for the unity of the Ethiopian church to save this country from collapse.