- Deacon Alemesilasé Sahlesilasé
An Ancient Christian Witness to the Perennial Crisis of Identity
Within the Western Christian tradition, there is a crisis of tradition. Among Western Christians, faith has been distanced from its ancient sources and heritage, and this has ultimately caused a confusion of identity. In the ancient Christian tradition, the core message of identity is connected to the fundamental truth of human dignity, which has also proclaimed itself contrary to the anthropologies of rulers and governing systems of the world. This message is theologically grounded in and declared to the world by the ancient church—which is alive and active today. One particular subset of the ancient church, whose teachings have informed social justice for nearly 2,000 years, is the Ethiopian/Eritrean Orthodox tradition.
Beginning with the first stories of the Torah, Genesis proclaimed our dignity as one which is mirrored directly from the Image of the Creator (‘in His image and likeness’በአርአያነ ወበአምሳሊነ). Moses’ story of human value contradicted that of ancient civilizations who attributed the divine image only to the king. In the stories of the Torah—where man is claimed to have directly encountered the true God—revelations were heard of humanity’s great dignity, a message in opposition to the societies of that time, and this message carries into the present.
The witness of this truth was propagated throughout human history via the prophets of Israel, against their own systems and rulers, even to the point of proclaiming divine judgment against their own nations for its own continued societal injustices. The oracles of these prophets and their writings were completely contrary to rulers, their politics and agendas. This is manifest in the written tradition itself as it undermines the perspective of the kings of Israel, with the recurring formula ‘the rest of the acts [name of king] and all that he did, are they not written (elsewhere) in the Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Judah (or Israel)?’ This shows that even those nations claiming divine authority never lived up to the divine standards of justice, because no system, secular or sacred, met the mark of righteousness.
The scrolls of Amos condemn the system and society of Isralite kings and the elite for the oppression of the poor, inequalities of wealth, and the denial of justice. In the words of the oracle, “they trample on the heads of the poor as on the dust of the ground and deny justice to the oppressed” (Amos 2:6-7), for which God said to them “I will not turn back from punishment” (Amos 2:6).
The faith built upon Moses and the Prophets critiqued all systems on how they treated the poor and those to whom justice was denied.
“This is what Moses preached in the Torah and Isaiah told of it through prophecy”– Canticles of St Yared
ዘሰበከ ሙሴ በኦሪት ወኢሳኢያስ ነገረ በትንቢት-ዝማሬ ዘኖላዊ
Christ and the early Church elevated and proclaimed this very same truth. Even unto our contemporary context, the ancient African church has witnessed this.
In the eve of the conflicts which would become the Second World War, new ideologies defined humanity in ways deemed beneficial to nations, economies, and the like, robbing value of the person to ascribe importance to the nation. These seemingly ‘modern’ ideas of the person portrayed humanity as malformed beings, with an overgrown mind (or technical advances) and a pining heart (meaning internal essence), which also carried with them views of racial superiority.
This was incongruent with Biblical truth, and Abuna Petros, an Ethiopian Orthodox bishop, monk, and biblical scholar, knew in his heart the poison that had yet to manifest in the atrocities of WWII. In 1935, Italian troops invaded Ethiopia and while some within the Church accepted the presence of fascists, Abuna Petros denounced the killings of Ethiopians by Italian soldiers. Aware of his popularity, the Italians, with the help of some representatives of the Ethiopian Church itself, sent letters to him to bribe him away from his protest, offering a peaceful and comfortable life in the capital. Abuna Petros refused. The insignificance of the human person and the idea of racial superiority propagated by the colonial powers were cause for Abuna Petros’ protest. He continued to strive against all offers of a comfortable life by Italian invasion forces, and for this, he was publicly executed by firing squad.
On July 29, 1936, he was taken to a public square and gave his final public speech. He told the crowd who gathered:
"My country men do not believe the fascists if they tell you that the patriots are bandits, the patriots are people who yearn for freedom from the terrors of fascism. Bandits are the soldiers who are standing in front of me and you, who come from afar, terrorise and violently occupy a weak and peaceful country: our Ethiopia. May God give the people of Ethiopia the strength to resist and never bow down to the fascist army and its violence. May the Ethiopian earth never accept the invading army’s rule."
After his speech, Abuna Petros was shot and killed by Italian soldiers, and eventually became a national martyr in Ethiopia. Following Abuna Petros’ martyrdom, many Ethiopians joined the resistance to Italian occupation, which ended successfully on May 5, 1941. The entire conflict of World War II would end four years later, marking history with the worst atrocities known to humanity. History has also recorded Christian protest (such as that of Abuna Petros) to the ideologies and thought patterns, which inevitably brought such atrocities to manifest.
There are many such examples of Christian witness from the ancient African tradition, which is a legacy— from Moses, the Prophets, Christ, and to the Church today. It is this legacy that informs us of who we are and roots us in our path forward. It tells us that our value and dignity are not defined by the systems and rulers that lead. Our heart’s allegiance is not to them, whether those systems claim divine authority or not. Rather, the value of the human is spoken through the Scriptures, witnessed by those of faith in the past. We are surely called in our faith to continue this very tradition into the future.
1 William M. Schniedewind, “Writing and the State,” in How the Bible Became a Book: The Textualization of Ancient Israel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 35–48. Paul Nadim Tarazi, “The Rise and Formation of Scripture,” in Old Testament: An Introduction : Historical Traditions (Crestwood, N.Y: St Vladimirs Seminary Pr, 1991), 15–81.
2 Fesseha Mekuria and Sven Rubenson, “Abune Petros: A Martyr of the Millenium,” Media Ethiopia, August 2000, http://www.ethiopians.com/abune_petros.htm.