Allegra Jordan: An African Cluny?
It’s not fantasy to think a new version of the medieval abbey of Cluny might be taking root in east Africa. It’s actually happening.
This year the European Institute for Cultural Routes celebrates the 1100th anniversary of the founding of one of Europe’s most influential institutions, Cluny. The Benedictine abbey opened in Burgundy, France in 910 A.D. The donor of its land made the important stipulation that Cluny’s abbot would report directly to the Pope, not to local or regional church authorities. This autonomy, along with savvy leadership, assisted in the abbey’s expansion to a network of 1,400 related abbeys throughout western Europe.
In its early years, Cluny mediated reconciliation, cared for those at the margins, and created hopeful art that pointed to a God who means creation to flourish. Its leaders also brought the voice of peasants into the hard work of peacemaking by encouraging popular support of the “Peace of God” peace process. Cluny’s imperfect teachings of peace battled back against the even less perfect culture of war in which it was situated. As with any institution that operated for nine centuries, Cluny’s legacy was at times corrupted by excess, identity politics, and wars. But, at its best, Cluny transformed culture, and did not simply mirror it.
East Africa today is in a situation not unlike that of France in 910. It is a land of great opportunity, leadership and energy. It is also the theater for feuding warlords, corruption, plague, and poverty. Yet according to Philip Jenkins, Africa and the southern hemisphere represent the future for Christianity, given its demographics and church growth.
In this promising and painful landscape, a new, Cluny-like federation has begun to emerge. A group of more than 100 leaders linked by their commitment to forgiveness and reconciliation have built fine grassroots organizations in Southern Sudan, Burundi, Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, and the Eastern Congo. These leaders range from unknown activists doing backbreaking work to the formidable Marguerite Barankitse, “the Angel of Burundi,” who has helped raise 30,000 orphans.
These leaders didn’t know each other just a few years ago. In 2007, Duke’s Center for Reconciliation invited them to gather, rest, and to encourage each other in reconciliation and forgiveness. As of this writing they are gathering again in Burundi for their fourth time to encourage each other in dreams for a world that reflects new ways of thinking about poverty, war, and disease.
What is now needed is the creation of a permanent, vibrant institution in Africa, by Africans. This gathering pumps air into the lungs of a new Christian institution dedicated to peace and reconciliation. It must grow stronger, as Cluny strengthened a fragile culture in southern France a thousand years ago. For example, these leaders need an educational center in which to meet, nurture each other, and create the art that reflects a world of hope.
An African Cluny is a vision that will take some 300 years to bring to fruition. But it’s not fantasy. Great institutions start with small, practical steps. One thing we learn from Cluny is that a core belief system embodied in grassroots action did make a difference. Cluny’s specific actions included creating oases of peace in the violent world. They hosted annual gatherings to strengthen their network of abbeys. They also stoked the imagination of all members of society, from the peasants to the Pope, in considering a new narrative, different from war, death and disease. It was a world that, at its best, reflected God’s hopeful future.
We can also help specific grassroots movements in this new African federation. U2 leader and activist Bono wrote of the need for such support recently in “The New York Times.” He urged people to follow the lead of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton when she went to East Africa and bypassed government officials to meet with grassroots leaders. In addition to leaders that the Duke Center for Reconciliation supports (enumerated in its annual reports), organizations like Africa Rising have been formed to help Westerners assist African leaders through technical and fiscal assistance.
Perhaps a thousand years from now a generation will celebrate an African federation of Christian ministries dedicated to reconciliation and forgiveness as a new Cluny without the warts of the old. It’s not a dream, it’s not history, and it’s not easy. An African Cluny is the opportunity of a new generation of African leaders.
Allegra Jordan serves as Executive Director for the Social Sector at Duke Divinity School.