Reading Jeremiah in Africa: Biblical Essays in Sociopolitical Imagination

Written by Bungishabaku Katho Reviewed By Nathan Lovell

Bungishabaku Katho has lived an extraordinary life. Growing up in DR Congo his community suffered ethnic violence: fifteen thousand people were displaced and another thousand slaughtered. Although he might have chosen an easier path after obtaining a South African PhD, Katho returned to his homeland because he was persuaded that the gospel has the power to bring peace and justice. Since then, he has been held at gunpoint by child soldiers. He has traveled with his wife to churches in parts of the country where protection was necessary, only to recognize the bodyguard as one of the men who had been part of the militia that slaughtered his people. He has contended with dysfunctional leadership, political corruption, and false prophets that get rich at the expense of the poor. “As I am writing these words,” he pens, “demonstrators are being killed in the streets of Kinshasa” (p. 135). This book is about bringing these experiences, so often the tragic fabric of African life, into conversation with the book of Jeremiah (which of course, is set in its own tragic circumstances). But Reading Jeremiah in Africa is not a book of despair. It is a book born of a stubborn faith that God has a better plan for Africa than what Katho’s experience might suggest.

Katho frames the work as a series of reflections from Jeremiah. Each chapter selects a short passage, provides some context and a brief discussion of the pertinent themes, and then moves back and forth between Jeremiah and a contemporary African issue. He draws heavily on African history as well as his own life. Although he occasionally engages in a scholarly debate, his purpose is not to provide exposition. His previously published commentary on Jeremiah, now available in English, does that job (Jeremiah and Lamentations, Africa Bible Commentary [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011]). In this work, Katho asks whether God, through the book of Jeremiah, has anything to say to the people of Africa.

Chapter 1 reflects on Jeremiah’s call (Jer 1:1–19), the nature of prophecy, and his own remarkable experience of being called through a “strange vision” to bring light to the darkness in DR Congo. He laments that so few prophets in Africa would suffer for the sake of Christ. Chapter 2 (Jer 2:4–6, 8) explores the way idolatry can lead to us telling wrong stories about our past. Katho wrestles with both the colonial past and the post-colonial present. Chapter 3 (Jer 4:19–22) explores the social consequences of poor leadership and the way this gives occasion to other types of injustice. Chapter 4 (Jer 5:1–6) examines poverty, which makes people vulnerable to temptation and becomes an obstacle to faith, destroying human dignity. Chapter 5 (Jer 9:2–9) reflects on the way Judah had ignored the covenant, relating this to the lack of spiritual formation in the African church. Christians should understand their calling to society. Chapter 6 (Jer 9:23–24) explores the knowledge of God as a primary societal virtue. Katho reflects that access to knowledge is often a means to perpetuate inequality in Africa, as the children of the rich are provided with better opportunities. Chapter 7 (Jer 22:13–19) assesses structures of political power. Although often hailed as a “Christian” form of government, democracy cannot be the savior of the African people and is not the only way to organize political power within a Christian worldview. Katho is neither for nor against it per se but calls for reflection. Chapter 8 (Jer 24:4–7) brings the problem of weak leadership into conversation with King Zedekiah, while chapter 9 (Jer 29:4–9) reflects on Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles and the massive displacement of African people. What would it mean to “pray for the welfare” of your captors? The final chapter (Jer 31:31–34) explores a better vision for society that the new covenant offers: peace, healing, forgiveness, and justice.

Those who, like me, are accustomed to reading Jeremiah as a part of God’s unfolding story of redemption may wrestle with the hermeneutic Katho employs. (To be up front, Katho disagrees with the new covenant interpretation of my own PhD supervisor, so I am certainly reading his book through a hermeneutic lens of my own!) Throughout, his method is to apply analogy. Many situations in Africa are analogous to ancient Judah. The church, then, must recover the prophetic voice of Jeremiah. Katho explicitly conceives of his own ministry as a modern-day parallel of the prophet. But there is little reflection on the particularity of Judah within God’s salvific purposes for the world, nor how the book of Jeremiah contributes to a story that culminates with Jesus. Because of this, it is often unclear how Katho would have us connect the message of Jeremiah to the cross of Christ. How, precisely, does the gospel bring societal change when the broader culture is opposed to it? At many points, it seems enough for Katho that Africa claims to be “Christian” and so should do a better job of looking like it. Yet, even so, the book does articulate that social renewal is an implication and outworking of the gospel, without conflating the two. It just seldom reflects on what the gospel is.

The strength of this book is the relentless hope in God that pervades every page. Despite so many stories of pain and loss, Katho encourages us, and through the examples of his own and Jeremiah’s lives, shows us how to persevere in doing good with joy. He dreams of a better world, and he knows that only the gospel has a hope of realising it in any measure. He concludes the book with the Lord’s prayer: “Your kingdom come; your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

Nathan Lovell

Nathan Lovell
George Whitefield College
Cape Town, South Africa

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