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Engaging the Bible in Mission Theology Scholarship: Bénézet Bujo and Communal Moral Discourse

Bénézet Bujo is the author of Foundations of an African Ethic: Beyond the Universal Claims of Western Morality.[1]  He is a Catholic priest, a leading voice in African Christian theology, and a professor emeritus of moral theology and ethics at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland. 

In Foundations, Bujo affirms an emphasis on community and virtue in ethics, but he particularly advocates a ‘palaver ethic’ that begins with context rather than abstractions and involves communal discourse.  In this, we have a version of what has been favoured in Anglican circles in recent years in ‘shared discourse’ or Indaba (a Xhosa and Zulu word).  Bujo compares and contrasts a western ‘discourse ethic’ (which, being western, entails moral abstractions) to a western communitarian type of narrative/community ethic (which is opposed to abstractions such as moral principles or values) and then advocates instead a third option, an African palaver (discursive) ethic.  The differences might be seen in this quotation:

The common denominator linking discourse ethics and communitarianism can be clearly seen here too, since both underline the position of the community in the establishing or justifying of ethical norms.  But whereas discourse ethics demands that all concerned [the unborn, living, and dead] participate in an unlimited communicative community, communitarianism emphasizes the significance of tradition and community for the understanding of ethical norms.  To a large extent, African [palaver] ethics constructs a bridge between these two.[2]

Moreover, as the moral philosopher, Alisdair MacIntyre, has argued, different societies understand virtues differently.  Bujo develops this for his own thought:

It is interesting here to note that Western ethics links such matters as adultery with falsehood: one who is unfaithful has deceived his or her partner, whereas in Africa adultery is associated with theft.[3] 

Bujo writes, ‘For Black Africa, it is not the Cartesian cogito ergo sum (‘I think, therefore I am’) but an existential cognatus sum, ergo sumus (‘I am related, therefore we are’) that is decisive.[4]   So, for example, Western ethics is concerned about the identity of the foetus in abortion discussions, whereas a communitarian ethic would respond that ‘these are too much interested in trying to define the precise possibility of a development in the direction of reason in the unborn child (e.g., the cerebrum), or to define precisely when one can speak of the individual qua individual’.[5]  An African approach to the question would take ‘a network of relationships that includes the community of the ancestors in the process whereby one becomes a person’ as the starting point.[6]

African ethics is, for Bujo, more communitarian and holistic.  It is more family and community focused than, for example, the Western emphasis on human rights.  Nor does one operate out of a sacred/profane dichotomy.  Africans within the same family may have very different religions—religious freedom is allowed because of the strength of the family.  The dependence on the community and the difficulty of separating individual identity from the community raise questions over this human rights understanding.  The aim in African society is to strengthen life in the community.[7]

Western ethics emphasize the ultimate authority of the human conscience.  The African accepts an individual's going against the community, but such a person 'wants his private insight to be shared by the community.’[8]  Bujo’s palaver model for ethics ‘urges all the members of the community to listen to one another and analyze the word or digest it in common, before individuals start asserting that they alone are right.  This emphasizes the ecclesial dimension of conscience more strongly than traditional Western moral theology.’[9]  Ethics is ‘not a private matter, but has social consequences, either establishing or destroying the community.’[10]

In an earlier work, Bujo explored an African communitarian ethic on various subjects.[11]  In chapter 11, 'The Importance of the Community for Community Action: The Example of AIDS', he observes that in traditional African societies,

‘there is interdependency which is based on the fact that all members have the task of mutually increasing the life force.  Everybody’s behaviour and ethical action have consequences for the whole community: the good contributes to the increase of life, while evil destroys or at least reduces life.[12]  

So, for example, he says:

because no clan member can live in unrelatedness, in cases of misfortune the cause is looked for within the community itself.  According to African wisdom, a disease is always an indication that something in human relations is wrong.[13]

The doctor or healer will, therefore, go beyond giving medicine to studying the person’s family and ‘social and economic relationships,’ and this might include the ‘community of the deceased.’[14]  Hence the typical African greeting that enquires into the health of the whole family.

All this explains, according to Bujo, that ‘the African person sees no dichotomy between sickness and sin.’[15]  A woman facing a difficult childbirth will be asked by the midwife to confess all her sins (mainly sexual), and a person dying to pay off all debts.  If a child is ill, the mother-child relationship needs to be examined.  When a person is sick, the whole community ‘gathers around the patient to show their solidarity during suffering and sickness.’[16]  Also,

the healer’s task is to trace all these feuds in order to reconcile the community with the patient before any medicine is administered.  This can be symbolically achieved through dances or laying hands on the patient.  The medical treatment with follows afterwards, must not neglect the concept of harmony with the entire cosmos.  In consequences, medicines consist of herbs, animal bones, hair, minerals and the like….  Whoever avoids contact with a patient wishes this person’s death; still more, this person is a sorcerer who endangers the person’s life and who ‘devours’ his or her life force.  In case of any previous conflict, the visit must not take place without reconciliation.[17]

Applying this view to the subject of AIDS, the Catholic, African theologian Bujo follows J. Gründel in asking whether AIDS is not a ‘symptom of a deeper spiritual immunity deficiency.’[18]  Distribution of condoms, for example, fits a consumer society in which sex is a commodity.  What is needed is thinking about AIDS in terms of the community.  Quoting ‘Thesen aus dem Institut für Sozialethik’ (p. 72), he writes:

Neither purely technical advice (use condoms, prevent AIDS!) nor moral admonitions (remain faithful!) are sufficient to control the disease.  The prevention and stopping of AIDS does not depend solely on the individual but on the quality of our institutions, changes in culture, economy and politics as well….  A new culture of sexuality is needed whereby sexual encounter has to be viewed in its communal dimension instead of stressing a one-dimensional and individual-oriented self-realization as the highest value’’[19]

Bujo notes that colonial medical policies involved keeping the black work force healthy for their work, but also post-colonial African leaders let health services decline even further.[20]  He also agrees with Pope Jean-Paul II that asking African countries to repay debts when that would mean unbearable sacrifices is unjust.[21]  Thus Bujo links AIDS to poverty:

It ought to be stressed that the dramatic speed at which the disease is spreading in sub-Saharan Africa cannot be linked only to sexual contacts.  By all means, the poor hygienic conditions in medical care have to be mentioned.  Blood transfusions, vaccinations, anti-malaria injections; all these are connected with a high risk of AIDS since blood donations are not examined everywhere, as doctors and the medical staff are often overburdened.  Medical instruments are often insufficiently sterilized, throw-away syringes are not used everywhere, etc.  To fight against AIDS in Africa, therefore, means also to create a just economic order, so that the widespread predicament within medical care can be corrected.[22]

He further argues that

It is not admissible to create the impression that condoms are an ideal help against AIDS—as it happens so often in Africa and generally in the Third World.  To give such an impression completely ignores the moral question and the problem of unjust economic structures, which contribute to render the danger of being infected ever greater.  A legitimate question here would be whether, in the long run, the advertising of condoms is not chiefly for commercial purposes.  Is the supply of condoms not similar to that of weapons which thrives at the expense of the poor and those killed?  In that case, the major concern does not focus on health, but on condom export and money….  From an African perspective, it is to be stated that an indiscriminate distribution of condoms ultimately wipes out African culture.  In dealing with AIDS, the main point is to change previous sexual behaviour.  In the African tradition, there are many practices to prepare for sexual self-discipline….  If the industrialized nations with to help Africa, they should offer their support in such a way that the African people can recover their spiritual and moral immunity, which cannot be underestimated even if it does not offer or replace a technical solution for AIDS’ (p. 192).  E.g., prostitution is a problem, and approaches which let it continue with greater safety does not get to the heart of the matter for a holistic culture [23]

Bujo advocates learning about traditional religious understandings and medical practices in Africa, and integrating healing into the message of the churches.[24]  The ‘sacrament’ of the sick in many African communities is not a private but a community affair.  ‘This healing dimension should be expanded to other sacraments, particularly confession and Holy Communion’ (cf. 1 Cor. 11.28-30).[25]

Thus Bujo appears to think first and foremost from the African context towards traditional Christianity.  This clearly raises major questions about one’s understanding of Biblical authority as well as historic Christianity.  He says,

That the African community understands itself as a healing community can lead to further Christological reflection.  The historical Jesus in whose life healing was central, becomes the proper healer in Africa mainly by the fact that he personally experienced pain, so that he can cure men and women more efficiently than any other medicine and reconcile people with each other and with God.  This healing, however, can only be efficient if it is holistic, embracing also the socioeconomic and political abuses of today.  Jesus cannot be experienced as a healer, if the community of those who believe in him are satisfied with a mysticism which hardly develops a feeling for tropical diseases, AIDS, dictatorship and all forms of exploitation.  Whoever does not work for the restoration of the community destroyed in such a manner undermines the ‘life force’ of one’s fellow human beings and is truly a ‘sorcerer’.[26]


These distinctions are very helpful.  However, they remain descriptive of cultural and historical approaches without having any prescriptive force—except where someone might assume that a culture ought to do ethics in a way that suits the culture.  This does, however, rather beg the question. Western ethics can be described in certain ways, but it is also self-analytical and self-critical.  It is therefore not static or self-congratulatory, and one can never say it is simply one thing.  While all too often falling for its own cultural assumptions, it has sought to be diverse and critical according to academic expectations.  The question is, ‘Which authorities outside of one’s own contextual assumptions make analysis and critique possible?’  For Evangelical Christians, this is the Bible, as our interpretations of it, as well as of culture and human thought, are subjected to its authority. Christian moral discourse, then, becomes discourse engaging the interpretation of Scripture and an enquiry into how it speaks authoritatively into our diverse contexts.

The proper use of Alisdair MacIntyre would be to go beyond noting that ethical virtues have a narratival substructure—all too often ignored (or rather forgotten) in modern times.[27]  As Stanley Hauerwas has been at pains to argue throughout his writings, it makes all the difference in the world which narrative one chooses for moral teaching and formation.  What is lacking in Bujo’s discussion, then, is a robust interpretation of the Christian narrative and an authoritative introduction of it and Scripture into any culture’s discussion of ethics.  Noting how a given culture will, by default, approach ethical issues is very helpful, but it is quite another matter to submit cultural inclinations, processes, and interpretations to the authoritative Word of God.

[1] Bénézet  Bujo, Foundations of an African Ethic: Beyond the Universal Claims of Western Morality (New York: Crossroad Pub. Co., 2001).
[2] Bénézet  Bujo, Foundations of an African Ethic, p. 50.
[3] Bénézet  Bujo, Foundations of an African Ethic, p. 51.
[4] Bénézet  Bujo, Foundations of an African Ethic, p. 22.
[5] Bénézet  Bujo, Foundations of an African Ethic, p. 196.
[6] Bénézet  Bujo, Foundations of an African Ethic, p. 196.  It is not quite right to establish this point as a 'Western' versus 'African' approach to ethics.  Bujo is himself building on 'Western' narrative ethics and applying this to the African context.  Stanley Hauerwas, an American and internationally known ethicist, for example, has written two articles on abortion making the same point that Bujo does (in his Community of Character).
[7] Bénézet  Bujo, Foundations of an African Ethic, pp. 196-197.
[8] Bénézet  Bujo, Foundations of an African Ethic, p. 199.
[9] Bénézet  Bujo, Foundations of an African Ethic, p. 199.
[10] Bénézet  Bujo, Foundations of an African Ethic, p. 200.
[11] Bénézet  Bujo, The Ethical Dimension of Community: The African Model and the Dialogue Between North and South [(Nairobi: Paulines Publications Africa, 1993).
[12] Bénézet  Bujo, The Ethical Dimension of Community, p. 182.
[13] Bénézet  Bujo, The Ethical Dimension of Community, p. 182.
[14] Bénézet  Bujo, The Ethical Dimension of Community, p. 182.
[15] Bénézet  Bujo, The Ethical Dimension of Community, p. 183.
[16] Bénézet  Bujo, The Ethical Dimension of Community, p. 183.
[17] Bénézet  Bujo, The Ethical Dimension of Community, p. 184.
[18] J. Gründel, ‘AIDS und die ethische Problematik,’ in A. W. von Eiff and J. Gründel, Von AIDS herausgefordert (Medizinish-ethische Orientierungen (Freiburg: Br., 1987), p. 101.  Quoted by Bujo, The Ethical Dimensions of Community, p. 186.
[19] Bénézet  Bujo, The Ethical Dimension of Community, pp. 186f.  The details of this point, as Bujo continues, are not clear to me.  Bujo criticizes international drug trade and western banks allowing the loss of money from the Third World.  He several times mentions the declining health care system and that one cause of this is the ‘North’s’ involvement in the economic decline of the ‘South’s’ economies.  This must be part of what he understands by ‘economy and politics’.  Nor is it clear to me what he really means when he emphasises that ethics must be understood ecclesially (pp. 187f).  Both points would be ways in working out ethics in a communal way, but how he really understands this escapes me and probably involves a particular political perspective.
[20] Bénézet  Bujo, The Ethical Dimension of Community, pp. 189f.
[21] Bénézet  Bujo, The Ethical Dimension of Community, p. 190.
[22] Bénézet  Bujo, The Ethical Dimension of Community, p. 190.
[23] Bénézet  Bujo, The Ethical Dimension of Community, pp. 191-192.
[24] Bénézet  Bujo, The Ethical Dimension of Community, p. 193.
[25] Bénézet  Bujo, The Ethical Dimension of Community, p. 194.  Bujo’s argument that the Church needs to derive this from the African context—rather than Scripture—demonstrates how African theology often approaches the practice of theology and ethics differently from orthodox Christianity.
[26] Bénézet  Bujo, The Ethical Dimension of Community, p. 195.
[27] See Alisdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, 2nd ed. (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984).