restricted access 4. 2 Corinthians 7:1 against the Backdrop of African Purification Rites
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4 2 Corinthians 7:1 against the Backdrop of African Purification Rites J. Ayodeji Adewuya Introduction This essay is an attempt to show how the reading of 2 Cor. 7:1 from an African cultural context not only enhances the understanding of the text but also complements its scholarly interpretation.1 It is an example of what Justin Ukpong describes as “inculturation biblical hermeneutic” (Ukpong 1996: 190), an approach by which interpreters consciously and explicitly seek to interpret the biblical text from sociocultural perspectives of different people. It is a method that includes giving due consideration to the religious and secular culture as well as the social and historical experiences of the readers. “Ordinary” African readers of the Bible do not dwell on a passage as somebody else’s text to be read and analyzed; rather, they see the text as intended to provide them with a framework to look at their own lives. As such, they immediately appropriate a particular text and situate themselves inside of it, trying to understand what it expects of them. Thus discussing a text really means discussing the life of the people without making any great distinction between method and content. Reality and the biblical text merge, each shedding light on the other and competing for attention. Hence, as John Pobee states, “Culture then is a hermeneutic for reading Scripture” (Pobee 1997: 166). Specifically, then, one must ask how the experience of an African could facilitate the understanding of 2 Cor. 7:1. Paul calls the Corinthians both as individuals and as a community to make their holiness complete by cleansing themselves from every type of pollution because of the fear of God. Three elements of Paul’s exhortation are important for the discussion here. These are the motif of cleansing, the idea of pollution, and the fear of God. 67 Holiness: Cleansing from Pollution In 2 Cor. 7:1, Paul, as a summary exhortation of the preceding verses (6:14-18), enjoins the Corinthians katharisōmen heautou (“cleanse yourselves”). Paul, including himself, summons the Corinthian church to stop unacceptable relationships with iniquity, the powers of darkness, Belial, unbelievers, and idols. Paul’s exhortation to holiness and a call for separation in 2 Cor. 6:14 are now formulated in terms of cleansing from defilement of both flesh and spirit, a circumlocution of the total person (Adewuya 2011: 122). Paul’s call to cleansing will no doubt ring a bell for traditional Africans, as they are not only familiar with purification rites but also understand the underlying reasons for such acts. Various kinds of purification rites in Africa are tied to various events and for various reasons (Ray 1976: 90–100). Not all purification rites are done for religious purposes. Nevertheless, many religious purification rites are specifically concerned with each society’s relationship with the deity. In such cases, there are basically three major grounds for purification: taboos, the holiness of God, and relationship with the deity. Among Africans, as Awolalu notes, “purification is a positive approach to the cleaning and removal of sin and pollution. It involves an outward act that is consequently believed to have a spiritual inner cleansing. The cleansing may be of the body, or of a thing or of a territory or community” (Awolalu 1976: 284). If one is aware or is made aware by a diviner that he or she has committed an offense that has resulted in the disruption of his or her peace, he or she will have to undergo a ritual cleansing. This may include ritual shaving of the hair followed by ritual bathing in a flowing stream. The “washing off” of stains is undertaken by the sinner under the guidance of a priest on an appointed date, time, and place. The sinner provides what the priest directs him or her to bring for the “washing.” The whole event is symbolic and dramatic. Sin is here portrayed as a stain and a filthy rag, which can be washed off and cast off respectively. The disappearance of sin brings new life, just as the rejuvenated person takes on a clean, white cloth and casts off the old one. The significance of purification among many African societies is evident in the words that are used. Among the Zulus, purification is called either ukuhlambulula or ukusefa, both of which mean “to make thin” or “to make a person free, loose, and unbound” and derive from the word ukuhlamba, which means “to wash” (Sundlker 1961: 210). In Zulu traditional...


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