Review of Emmanuel Katongole’s The Journey of Reconciliation on Catholic Books Review

My review of Emmanuel Katongole’s latest book, The Journey of Reconciliation: Groaning for a New Creation in Africa (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2017), has been published on the ‘Catholic Books Review’ website.

You can read the full review here, or reproduced below.

I urge you to check out the Catholic Books Review site – there is an impressive range of contributions, with something to interest readers from a variety of traditions (‘catholic’ is understood ‘inclusively’ on the site, with the caveat: ‘Most churches accepting the Nicene creed consider themselves as catholic.’)

Review of Emmanual Katongole’s The Journey of Reconciliation

Emmanuel Katongole’s latest collection of essays, The Journey of Reconciliation, is a thoughtful and provocative meditation on the challenge – and the promise – of the Christian journey of reconciliation in Africa.

The book consists of a short introductory chapter, ‘On Discovering Reconciliation,’ which on its own is a succinct theological contribution to inter-disciplinary debates on reconciliation. It is followed by eleven essays based on Katongole’s public lectures and previously published works. These essays are a masterful blend of theological reflection and the stories of real Christians in real places. It is their Christian witness to reconciliation that provides the hope in which Katongole’s arguments are grounded.

In the introduction, Katongole argues that Christian theology can make a unique contribution to reconciliation studies, pushing beyond the social scientific focus on skills, strategies and techniques to provide fresh insights on what it takes to overcome human divisions. To that end, Katongole conceptualizes reconciliation as ‘God’s journey with creation,’ which includes God’s commitment ‘to restore fallen creation and humanity’ (p. x). He also describes reconciliation as both a gift and an invitation: Christians have received the gift of reconciliation from God, and it is then up to them to share that gift in the world in which they live. Katongole explores the sharing of that gift through what he calls the Word Made Flesh methodology, which takes as its starting point the stories of Christians who are transcending divisions in the most violent and poverty-stricken parts of Africa. Word Made Flesh methodology does not to look for stories that confirm theological assumptions. Rather, it starts with stories of people who are already on the journey of reconciliation and uses them as the basis for theological reflection, producing a brand of practical theology that promises to be relevant on a continent where, Katongole acknowledges, widespread Christianity has made little difference in stopping violence and exploitation.

The essays are divided into three parts. The first, ‘Reconciling all Things,’ features theoretical essays in which Katongole elaborates on his theological vision of reconciliation. The chapter on ‘Reconciling Africae Munus’ is an especially useful critique of Pope Benedict’s Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation. Katongole observes that the document gives the impression that reconciliation is just one item among many on a crowded pastoral agenda. But for Katongole, the Church’s mission in Africa must be understood as one where reconciliation is its central task.

The second part, ‘For the Life of the World: The Church as Sacrament of God’s Reconciliation in the World,’ focuses on ecclesiological dimensions of reconciliation, providing a basis for Katongole’s argument that the Church is uniquely well-placed to transcend so-called ethnic and tribal divisions. Here, the Word Made Flesh methodology begins to come into its own, featuring stories like those of Sister Félicité, a Hutu nun who sheltered Tutsi refugees during the Rwandan genocide. Her brother was a colonel in the Rwandan army, and she could have been spared. But she refused, and was forced to watch the murder of her Sisters and the refugees before being killed herself, by a militiaman who asked her to pray for him before he shot her. Katongole tells her story and those of other martyrs without romanticizing them, devoting an entire chapter (‘Threatened with Resurrection’) to considered reflection on how Christians might learn to live with the ‘skills and courage’ these African martyrs displayed through their lives (p. 117).

The third part, ‘Improvising new Creation: On Being Ambassadors of Reconciliation in a Divided World,’ focuses on the lives of Christian peace activists and identifies what can be learned from their witness. This is the Word Made Flesh methodology fully realized, as Katongole gleans theological insights from ‘the formed habits and patterns of living’ based on individuals’ immersion in the ‘Christian story’ (p. xxiv). One of the more striking examples is Archbishop John Baptist Odama of Northern Uganda, whose activism has ranged from facilitating negotiations between the government and militias, to advocating for children’s rights. Katongole describes how Odama sets aside every Thursday as a Day of Adoration, praying before the Blessed Sacrament. He conceptualizes Odama’s Day of Adoration as a ‘resource’ or ‘innovation’ that is rooted in Catholicism. The practice ‘is not an interruption of or even a rest from his advocacy’ [but] intensifies it’ (p. 133). The essays in this section highlight not only the witness of Archbishops and priests, but also lay men and women, including a Baptist husband and wife team who Katongole sees as living out Pope Francis’ vision of the Church as a field hospital.

Katongole’s writing is accessible to readers outside the academy. Given the nature of the volume, some of the stories are repeated in different essays. This could be seen as a weakness; however, an advantage is that each essay is able to stand on its own, ensuring that the most powerful examples of Christian reconciliation are more widely read.

(First published on the Catholic Books Review)

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