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“Chineke! I thank you for this new morning! I thank you for the sun that rises…Chineke! I have killed no one, I have no one’s land. I have not committed adultery…Chineke! I have wished others well. I have helped those who have nothing with the little that my hands can spare.”

These are the words of Papa-Nnukwu, grandfather of Kambili Achike, and the protagonist in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s debut novel Purple Hibiscus (2003).

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

These words spoken by Papa-Nnukwu were part of his itu-nzu, which was the declaration of innocence performed daily by practitioners of Igbo religion.

It is my sense that Adichie’s portrayal of Papa-Nnukwu’s faith challenges how Christians should live out their faith; in particular, it should call Christians to assess how much of their Christian lives are informed by cultural attitudes rather than biblical ones.

Coming of Age in 1990s Nigeria

To understand what I’m arguing, I have to offer a selective overview of the book. Set in politically tumultuous 1990s Nigeria, Purple Hibiscus is a “Coming of Age” story about a fifteen year old girl, the aforementioned Kambili Achike. Kambili lives in a luxurious home in the eastern Nigerian city of Enugu with her mother Beatrice and her brother Jaja. Eugene, her father, is a successful businessman and newspaper publisher, who has dared to run editorials critical of the new government. From outside of the wall of the Achike compound, it seems that they are a model, God-fearing family. They are devoutly Roman Catholic. Eugene holds tenaciously to democratic values. He is also generous with his wealth. Jaja and Kambili are fine students poised to lead the next generation of Nigerians.

As Nigeria’s political situation grows darker so does Eugene’s treatment of his family, who cower owing to his abusive behavior. Adichie implies that Eugene’s abuse has been pervasive throughout the family’s history, and has roots in Eugene’s own treatment at the hands of missionary priests during this school days.

What is more, Eugene has disowned his “pagan” father. During one Christmas visit to the Achike rural homestead in Abba, Eugene prayed for his father, as described by Kambili, “Finally, he prayed for the conversion of our Papa-Nnukwu, so that Papa-Nnukwu would be saved from hell. Papa spent some time describing hell, as if God did not know that the flames were eternal and raging and fierce.”

As the story progresses, the reader learns that Eugene does the bare minimum to take care of his elderly father. He refuses to visit his father, and has decided against inviting his father to live with him.

In vivid contrast, every morning Papa-Nnukwu prays to the Creator god, Chineke for his son. “Let the sun not set on his prosperity,” prays Papa-Nnukwu.

The Law Written on Their Hearts

When I read Papa-Nnukwu’s declaration of innocence in the context of the book, I could not help but think of the Apostle Paul’s teaching in Romans 2. I wonder if Adichie intended to draw from Paul’s teaching.

Igbo religion drew from natural revelation. It believes in a Creator god, but also in lesser gods that people pray and sacrifice to. But the brand of Catholicism embraced by Eugene, was rigid and reflected the colonialist attitudes of European priests who still functioned in Nigeria at the time.

Papa-Nnukwu’s declaration of innocence affirms what Paul teaches in Romans 2. The Igbo had established moral prohibitions against theft, adultery, murder, etc. Basically, the Igbo by nature kept the law of God “written on their hearts” (Romans 2:14). Papa-Nnukwu was keen in upholding the moral standards of his people.

Therein lies the rub: though Eugene had received the light of special revelation, he had plenty to learn from the moral codes of his people, received through natural revelation. Eugene had become Catholic, but he had also accepted the colonialist attitudes of the missionary priests who taught him.

Eugene’s treatment of his father is a microcosm of what he had come to believe about his people and homeland in general. Nigeria’s failures were due to its failure to adopt the undiluted faith and values of their former colonizer, England.

Christian or Western?

Christians in the West have to realize that their theologies, liturgical expressions, and worldviews are steeped in culture. What we may call Christian ways may be only Western ways in a flimsy disguise. The danger of this is that it marginalizes Christians whose cultural practices are different from Western ways.

On a personal level, we have to ask ourselves if our Christianity is warm, gentle, and accommodating to other people’s preferences. Through Eugene Achike, Adichie warns Christians about how damaging a tightly wound, culturally insensitive Christian attitude can be. It is no better than the prayers of the “pagan.”

In fact, the prayers of the “pagan” indict the prayers of the self-righteous.

Eric Washington

Eric Washington teaches history at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he directs African and African Diaspora Studies.

9 Comments

  • Marty Wondaal says:

    Professor Washington,

    The declaration in the last paragraph is completely refuted by the prayer in the first paragraph.

    Isn’t Nigeria consumes by corruption? Western values, such as the rule of law and property rights, would go far toward a more just and prosperous society.

    I will say this: Igbo are fascinating people.

    • Stephen Staggs says:

      The “declaration in the last paragraph” is not refuted by Papa-Nnukwu’s prayer in the least. Actually, quite the opposite. Papa-Nnukwu lives in the village of Abba. He is not a member of the Nigerian upper class nor a member of the Nigerian government. He is not touched by corruption.

      Indeed, a study of the early modern history of Nigeria reveals that “Western values” actually contributed toward the corruption that afflicted “Colonial” and “Independent” Nigeria. Furthermore, the Igbo possessed values such as the rule of law BEFORE the British entered the region. The Igbo did not need the British to teach them about “rule of law.” Finally, I wonder whether “property rights” or private property produces a more just and prosperous society. Early Christians followed sold their “property” and goods and shared with those in need (Acts 2:45), following Jesus instructions to the rich young man (Matthew 19:21). In so doing, they created a more just and prosperous society.

      • Marty Wondaal says:

        If you are proposing establishing a theocracy (or perhaps just a Christian kibbutz), good luck with that. Acts 2 is not prescriptive of how secular governments should function. It is, however, a paramount example of the Church being the Church.

        If you truly wonder if property rights or private property produce a more just and prosperous society, then I challenge you to submit a actual counter-example.

    • Eric M Washington says:

      Thanks for reading Marty. I would disagree that the end contradicts the beginning. What I intended to demonstrate through Adichie’s contrasting characters is the danger of Christian hypocrisy that is wrapped in cultural garb. I believe this is what Paul gets at in Romans 2 as he chastised the Jews for condemning Gentiles, but they condemned themselves by thinking their works would save them. Or that being ethnically Jewish saves them. I would agree with my colleague Steve Staggs what writers such as Adichie and Achebe have shown in their fiction and non-fiction is that the Igbo were quite successful at ruling themselves before British imperialism and colonialism in the early 20th century. In Purple Hibiscus, Adichie, through Eugene Achike, deals with the legacy of colonialism in the minds of the older generation who believed that everything European was right. Again, thanks for this query.

      • Marty Wondaal says:

        Professor,

        Thank you for your response. My point, as Rowland Van Es better points out below, is that the the prayer in the beginning of your essay is the prayer of the Pharisee. Our righteousness does not derive from who we are, or what we’ve done (or not done). But I assume you know that.

        I have no doubt that many of the Western Imperialists, Colonizers, and Missionaries were hypocrites and worse. But, on balance, would you agree that the spreading of the Gospel was a good thing for the people of Nigeria? Similarly (and this will trigger some people), I contend that Western, particularly British, Colonialism benefitted many parts of the world that embraced the ideas of the Colonizers (India, East Asia, North America) even after they left. Virtually no country in Africa maintained any of the Western ideas or ideals, and virtually no African country has prospered since. The last almost 70 years of history in Africa is the story of tyranny imposed by Marxist and Big Man ideology. One result of this oppression and suffering is that many Evangelical churches in North America, including mine, have felt called to provide basics such as clean water to communities in Africa. Is that also cultural imperialism?

        I understand that it is trendy in academia today to blame Western Civilization (and it’s ideas such as free-market capitalism and limited government) for the ills of much of the world. I reject that accusation, and so does history and present-day reality.

  • Rowland Van Es says:

    The prayer in the first paragraph sounds like the prayer of the Pharisee in the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee. A good Jewish prayer, but not such a good Christian one.

  • Andrew Oppong says:

    I love this post for so many reasons Prof. Washington. The paramount reason I am sure you know is your decision to draw from Chimamanda’s Purple Hibiscus. But beyond that, you have touched on something that is incredibly hard for most Western folks to admit and acknowledge.

    Your post reminds me of Kosuke Koyama’s profound words: “While a Christianity that has been Americanized is found acceptable, a Christianity that is Hong Kong-ized or Japan-ized or Zimbabwe-ized is rejected as impure and syncretic.”

    Thanks for your courage to speak truth!

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