A while ago, I was invited to an imbeleko, a traditional Xhosa ceremony honoring the birth of a child (only in this instance the child was 17 years old). This was indeed a unique experience for me. While I would like to say that the highlight of the event was eating a slaughtered goat that was skinned and cut up before my eyes, something else from that day has been lingering in my mind.
You see an imbeleko is a ceremony that announces to the ancestors that a child has been born into a particular family, and therefore make them aware of the child’s existence. The blood spilled from the animal is the channel through which the message is delivered. Although I didn’t participate in the ceremony, I struggled over eating meat that had been dedicated to the ancestors. However, it was important for me to gain a deeper understanding of traditional ceremonies since I mentor young people who are raised in this culture. I was also intent on telling someone there just how ludicrous this whole ancestral worship really is.
Enter the old man. I became conversationally engaged with a very talkative, elderly gentleman who was eager to find out more about this American in his homeland. However, he was also quite passionate and informative in relation to Xhosa customs, including the one in which we found ourselves immersed. While he talked about the need for family identity and the ability of the ancestors to protect them from sickness, I was eagerly waiting to pounce on his ideals until the strangest thing happened. The old man seamlessly transitioned the discussion into his faith in Christ.
The man spoke about the resurrection and the Holy Spirit. He quoted scripture to support our need for a savior. He spoke with as much passion about his Redeemer as he did about the ancestors. I couldn’t believe it. On the heels of celebrating Resurrection Sunday, this man was acknowledging the atoning grace bought with the blood of the living Christ, while at the same time holding on to the need to spill the blood of animals in order to secure the protection of those long dead. It was in that moment that I realized that there was a serious disconnect. While we have been fairly successful in helping some of our students come out from under the bondage of these cultural realities, there is a host of others who are not just lost, but very confused!
Then I thought about myself. I thought about many Christians I know. I thought about how many Bible-believing Christians embrace all of the tenets, ideals, and blessings locked up in Christianity, but at the same time, hold on to things that can be quite antithetical to our Christian ideals. Whether it is money, television, Beyonce, or our pastors, idolatry runs amuck in most of our lives. While I’m not necessarily equating sin to ancestral worship, I do recognize the hypocrisy in both situations. The point is that while I will continue to emphasize the need to let go of ancestral worship here in South Africa, I must also challenge myself and all of my brethren in Christ to streamline the faith, return to the simplicity of the Gospel, and live a holy, single-minded life before the Lord!