We Westerners know how modernization works. Light dawns in the north and west and spreads Reason and Science to brighten dim worlds to the south and east. We’ve had to nudge the laggers along, for their own good—sometimes with a bit of force—but if they’re wise or lucky they’ll end up enlightened like us. We’ve worked this narrative into our vocabulary: “Developed” countries embrace Western economics, Western rights, a Western understanding of the nature of religion and its role in public life. “Developing” countries are somewhere on the path behind us, catching up.
In point of fact, modernity doesn’t have a single northern source. It isn’t a European or American monologue. It’s a dance and a dialogue. As Jean and John Comaroff observe in their Theory from the South, even during the age of imperialism, “colonies were critical sources of value and innovation for the modern nation-states of the north.” The frontier between Europe and its colonies “fostered conjunctions of Western and non-Western desires, conventions, and practices.”
Colonizers adapted the food, crafts, and clothing styles of the colonized. They learned medical techniques and were inspired by exotic religious beliefs, rituals, and indigenous modes of government. Anthropologists brought insights gained from study of the non-West to bear on the homeland. Long before the south and east “modernized,” modernity was “a north-south collaboration,” though “a sharply asymmetrical one.” If you have doubts, check out the Indian takeaway in the nearest English village. Or ask yourself where the English found the tea to make their national beverage.
In the half-century since decolonization, the relationship has tipped the other way. It’s not that the “global South” has caught up with the parent countries. In important respects, the post-colonies have surged ahead. “History,” the Comaroffs assert, isn’t “running behind Euro-America, but ahead of it.” As the subtitle of their book has it, “Euro-America Is Evolving Toward Africa.”
Culturally, post-colonial Africa is home to characteristically contemporary forms of life—“popular Christianity, or mass-mediated musical genres, or cinematic genres, as evident in the mighty Nollywood straight-to-video movie industry.” The south and east are a petri dish for economic innovation. Foreign investment in Africa increased 16 percent in 2008, while falling 20 percent worldwide, a sign both of African dynamism and the creeping sclerosis of some northern economies. And the cultures in the petri dish don’t necessarily come from the north. While the south provides cheap labor for Western multinationals, it conducts experiments with informal economies and has built “cutting edge info-tech empires” of its own.
Politically, too, the post-colonial world has become a trendsetter. “Living politics” in South Africa and elsewhere inspires direct-action movements in the U.S. and Europe. College activists used to wear Che T-shirts. Now it’s Mandela. Both, of course, are not-northerners.
Population flow across national boundaries has heightened multicultural tensions in Europe and the U.S., threatening Balkanization. European nations can no longer base their national identities on the assumption of homogenous culture, race, or ethnicity (if they ever could). Border control has simmered just below the surface of American politics for decades, until Trump turned up the temperature.
All this is old news in Africa. Every African nation-state encloses a variety of traditional tribal groups. Border anxieties and worries about the economic and cultural impact of immigration have been central to South African politics since the beginning of this century, breaking out into violence against immigrants in 2008. South African journalists Rapule Tabane and Ferial Haffajee identified the shift from idea-driven politics to identity politics, from ideology to “ID-ology.” We’d do well to pay attention to how African nations balance national unity with respect for cultural diversity. We have to develop the same skill.
The non-West has been a bellwether of northern upheavals. A decade before our financial collapse in 2008, Asia suffered an economic crisis and Argentina slipped into a depression. Few pundits (note—a Sanskrit word) took these events as signs of looming crisis for the north—perhaps, the Comaroffs suggest, because we haven’t yet adjusted to the fact that former colonies might be ahead of us.
We need to flip the world upside down to see it right side up. And that holds massive implications for how northern Christians regard our brothers and sisters in the Global South. The peculiarities of African Christianity in particular—belief in miracles and healing, a “sacramental’ imagination, a love of biblical story and proverb, a holistic vision of the self and the Church’s mission, new configurations of Christendom—aren’t a “pre-modern residue” but cutting-edge forms of late-modern Christianity. Africans are exporting to the West, planting immigrant churches and entering into mission pacts with northern churches. Surely we northern Christians have gifts of the Spirit to share with the south, but we must learn to assume a posture of reception.
We might hope that the Church, like Western civilization as a whole, is evolving toward Africa. We can move ahead if we make our way to the light shining from the dark continent.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.