Vincent J. Donovan on communal faith
Donovan here recounts an episode from his missionary endeavors among the Masai people of East Africa:
“As I was nearing the end of the evangelization of the first six Masai communities, I began looking towards baptism. So I went to the old man Ndangoya’s community to prepare them for the final step.
“I told them I had finished the imparting of the Christian message as I could. I had taught them everything I knew about Christianity. Now it was up to them. They could reject it or accept it. I could do no more. If they did accept it, of course it required public baptism. So I would go away for a week or so and give them the opportunity to make their judgment on the gospel of Jesus Christ. If they did accept it, then there would be baptism. However, baptism wasn’t automatic. Over the course of the year it had taken me to instruct them, I had gotten to know them very well indeed.
“So I stood in front of the assembled community and began: ‘This old man sitting here has missed too many of our instruction meetings. He was always out herding cattle. He will not be baptized with the rest. These two on this side will be baptized because they always attended, and understood very well what we talked about. So did this young mother. She will be baptized. But that man there has obviously not understood the instructions. And that lady there has scarcely believed the gospel message. They cannot be baptized. And this warrior has not shown enough effort … ‘
“The old man, Ndangoya, stopped me politely but firmly, ‘Padri, why are you trying to break us up and separate us? During this whole year that you have been teaching us, we have talked about these things when you were not here, at night around the fire. Yes, there have been lazy ones in this community. But they have been helped by those with much energy. There are stupid ones in the community, but they have been helped by those who are intelligent. Yes, there are ones with little faith in this village, but they have been helped by those with much faith. Would you turn out and drive off the lazy ones and the ones with little faith and the stupid ones? From the first day I have spoken for these people. And I speak for them now. Now, on this day one year later, I can declare for them and for all this community, that we have reached the step in our lives where we can say, ‘We believe.’
“We believe. Communal faith. Until that day I had never heard of such a concept, certainly had never been taught it in a classroom. But I did remember the old ritual for baptism of children, the first question in that ceremony. ‘What do you ask of the church of God?’ we inquired of the infant. Of course, he couldn’t answer for himself. He certainly could not believe. And there is no such thing as a valid baptism without belief. Such an act would be magic, witchcraft.
“The answer to that question, supplied by sponsors, was not ‘baptism’ or ‘salvation.’ It was, ‘faith.’ That is what the child asked of the church of God, of the community of believers — faith, their faith, to become his, to make baptism possible.
“I looked at the old man, Ndangoya. ‘Excuse me, old man,’ I said. ‘Sometimes, my head is hard and I learn slowly. ‘We believe,’ you said. Of course you do. Everyone in the community will be baptized’.”
from Christianity Rediscovered, 2nd Ed., (Orbis, 1982), 91-3.
[talk of “community” should not mean anything less than is practiced here by the Masai]
P.S. from Austin Farrer
Christians sometimes listen to clever atheists but never think of consulting competent theologians, apparently supposing that they have to do battle against giants with their own fists, and oppose archery to gunfire!
from The Essential Sermons, Ed., Leslie Houlden, (SPCK, 1991), 6.