Josiah Kibira

Josiah Kibira (1925-1988) was a bishop in the Lutheran Church in Tanzania. He also served as president of the Lutheran World Federation (1977-1984). In his ministry and leadership, he put forward a view of the Church as both global and local; he brought together the center and the periphery.

A short documentary about Kibira by his son, also Josiah Kibira.

Early Life

In late August of 1925, in Bukoba, Tanzania, Esteria Kibira gave birth to a son. She lived with her husband, Isaya Kibira, and a co-wife; they were members of the Haya ethnic group. Only days after his birth, the child became violently ill, and it was not clear whether the infant would live. When the child pulled through the sickness, Isaya named him Josiah Mutabuzi. Josiah is a biblical name meaning “the Lord heals,” and likewise, in the Haya language, Mutabuzi means “he is a savior.” Isaya died while Josiah was still young, and he remembered being raised by his mother. As he said, “[my mother] tried to teach us how we should follow the Lord and that we had to go to church. She also taught us to pray and sing. I especially learned from her how to pray in faith and very simply.”[1]

Josiah’s father played a pivotal role in bringing Christianity to Bukoba. According to the historian Bengdt Sundkler, the kings of the Bukoba region were not particularly keen on having Christian missionaries in the area. They were the guardians of the traditional moral order and feared that white foreigners would undermine them. King Mukotani said, “If the whites are allowed to teach everywhere, what will not this new religion do? Will not then even our rivers and forests ‘believe?’ Will our sacred trees escape and not be cut down like ordinary trees?” It was only after being pressured by the German colonial government that the White Fathers could build catholic mission stations in the area. Yet it was not at these mission stations that Isaya came in contact with Christianity. He was a trader who traversed the banks of Lake Victoria in his canoe. Crossing into Uganda, Isaya and his fellow traders came in contact with the Anglican Church Missionary Society. Over the course of five trips and several years, missionaries and Buganda converts introduced Isaya to a whole new world of roads, bridges, education, and modern medicine. Likewise, he was introduced to Christianity. Upon returning to Bukoba, Isaya gathered a community of believers around him. As Christianity was not popular in the region, they met in secret in a cave by the banks of the Lake. When in 1907 Pastor Ernst Johanssen from the German Bethel Society arrived in Bukoba, he did not need to plant a church—rather he built on the foundations already laid by Isaya.[2] As Isaya died, he said “My sons still carry on what I wanted to do and could not achieve.”[3]

The missionary stationed at Bukoba by the Bethel mission baptized the young Josiah Kibira. As Kibira came of age, he received an early education at Kashenye Village School and religious instruction from the missionaries. At fifteen, he was confirmed.[4] The German missionaries were particularly sensitive to African culture. Bruno Gutmann, Traugott Bachmann, and Ernst Johanssen were developing a nuanced understanding of Western missionaries vis-à-vis African culture. German missionaries believed that God was present within and (imperfectly) revealed through African religion, social order, and customs. Because of this, it was not the objective of German missionaries to completely overturn African culture; on the contrary, they wanted to preserve it. The objective of the missionary was only to introduce a people (Volk) to the gospel. In the same way that missionaries believed that Africans knew about God before their arrival, they believed that Africans already had a God-given sense of ethics. According to this view, Christianity and African religions shared an ethical basis. To be sure, the German missionaries were not completely tolerant; they argued that some aspects of traditional culture were contrary to the gospel. Nevertheless, even those elements of traditional culture, social order, and religious rites that contradicted the gospel could be Christianized and used in the service of a people’s unique Church (Volkskirche). Finally, German missionaries believed that the greatest danger for Africans came from European “civilization.” Espousing a romantic view, they believed that modernity, with its structures of migratory labor, free market economies, and a sense of individualism, destroyed the rich social fabric of African village and church life.[5] While these exact points may not have been made within a catechism class, Kibira was a product of a missionary education that attempted to reconcile the gospel with African culture. As Kibira matured as a theologian, he too would tackle the question of what it meant to be both African and Christian.

Higher Education

Kibira proved to be an apt student, and continued his education at the Kigarama Secondary School. There, he wrote hymns, participated in the choir, and took an interested in theater. It was also at Kigarama that Kibira began his lifelong ministry. According to Angolowisye Malambugi, at Kigarama, Kibira baptized a sick elderly woman who miraculously recovered. After passing his examination, Kibira went on to the Nyakato Government Secondary School in 1942. He was a fastidious Christian in those days, and his friends remembered him as both earnest and hard working. He excelled in his academics, led prayer services, and conducted Bible studies. The church leadership even made Kibira an elder.

Yet Kibira came in contact with a movement that made him reconsider his previous life.[6] Beginning in the 1930s, the fires of the Balokole revival swept through the East African Protestant mission churches. Balokole, meaning “the saved ones,” criticized the lax attitude of “lukewarm Christians,” calling people to a sincere faith and high standards of morality. The Balokole formed their own kind of clan, separating themselves from their nominal Christian neighbors, attempting to live an exemplary life that refused to compromise with the “world.” Even still, for the most part, the Balokole remained within the Protestant Churches.[7]

Two Anglican preachers of the Balokole tradition arrived at Nyakato in March 1947 and preached for three days on the necessity of sincere conversion and an uncompromising position toward the world. These words resonated with Kibira, and forced him to re-narrate his own life. He decided that he had been a hypocrite up to that point—his outward actions may have appeared holy, but he had not really committed himself fully to Christ. At midnight on March 21, 1947, Kibira said the following prayer, “Lord Jesus, come into my heart.” He confessed his sins to his roommate and declared himself reborn the next morning.[8]

Both the German missionaries and the members of the Balokole movement were committed to local communities. Nevertheless, both German Lutheran missionaries and the Balokole had ties with various world-wide movements. By the middle of the 20th century, Lutherans in Tanzania, Anglicans in Chennai, Methodists in Bangkok, Congregationalists in New England, and many more local Protestant bodies were all linked into an amalgamation of global networks that came in contact through ecumenical conferences and within universities. In 1957, after spending some time as a teacher in Tanzania and marrying fellow Balokole member Martha Yeremiah, Josiah went to the Bethel Mission’s Kirchliche Hochschule in Beilefeld, West Germany. There, he studied to be a minister.[9] He brought revivalist methods to Germany, and in doing so he upset the standard European/missionary hierarchy. The paternalistic assumption of missions was that converts learned at the feet of white missionaries. Yet Kibira claimed that missionaries needed to be humbled before Christ in the same way that Africans did. This also meant that white missionaries did not have unique access to Christ and the Christian tradition, and therefore did not deserve unique leadership within the Churches.[10]

Bishop at Boston University

Kibira was an outspoken advocate of an independent Lutheran Church. He was an exacting Christian with a radical bent. The combination could prove to be upsetting and perhaps terrifying to missionaries who supported the status quo. Yet one white missionary found in Kibira a worthy leader. Bengt Sundkler, who will long be remembered as a talented scholar of African Christianity, was appointed Bishop of Bukoba in 1960. Kibira had both too grand a vision and too little patience to make a good village pastor—he did not fit comfortably into one parish. Yet rather than focusing on his problems, Sundkler saw Kibira’s potential. At the 1961 meeting of the World Council of Churches in New Delhi, Sundkler nominated Josiah Kibira to be a member of the faith and order commission.[11] Likewise, working in conjunction with the Lutheran World Federation, he found scholarship money to send Kibira to Boston University. Kibira was at Boston Universty from 1962 until 1964. Sundkler remembered visiting Kibira there, saying that his protégé had adopted local customs. When Sundkler arrived, Kibira took him around to various students at the school, introducing them to “my Bishop from Bakoba.” According to Sundkler, this was “a thing that only Americans could do.”[12] At Boston University, Kibira studied with Sundkler’s old acquaintance of  from Sweden, Nils Ehrenström. Ehrenström, who was a veteran of the Life and Work movement, taught as a professor of Ecumenism at Boston University from 1955 until 1969.[13] By 1964, Kibira earned his masters at the School of Theology, and had an offer to begin work on a doctoral dissertation. Sundkler, however, had other plans for Kibira.[14]

Josiah Kibira

Kibira returned to an independent Lutheran Church in Tanzania—formed in 1963. All across the continent of Africa, “the winds of change” were blowing, and increasingly more Africans demanded their independence from Europeans in all areas of life.[15] This was a call that many missionaries headed. Sundkler, for his part, knew that the time for an African bishop had come. In conjunction with the pastors and the diocese, it was decided that Sundkler would carry on acting as Bishop with an African assistant. In 1964, the synod elected Kibira. He was consecrated in September of 1964, 100 years after the first African Anglican bishop Samuel Ajayi Crowther. The consecration was very much an ecumenical event; Moravians, Anglicans, and Lutherans all participated in the consecration. Kibira would not be Sundkler’s assistant for long. Only three months later, Sundkler returned to Sweden, leaving the diocese in the hands of his former assistant. Kibira worked as Bishop of the Northwestern Diocese of the Lutheran Church in Tanzania for the next two decades.[16]

Sundkler stepped aside so that Kibira could come into the limelight. As Bishop, Kibira was able to develop his ecclesiological vision for Africa on the ecumenical stage. In October of 1965, Kibira gave the keynote speech at the All Africa Conference of Churches in Addis Ababa. In his speech, entitled “A Changing Church in a Living Society,” Kibira utilized and synthesized the various streams of thought that he had been learning and developing over the course of his life. He identified a number of tensions facing the Churches in Africa. Reflecting some of the older German theologies, Kibira called on the church in Africa to be authentically African. The Churches in Africa, he argued, needed not only political but also spiritual freedom to fully come into themselves. He wrote:

Both ecclesiological and theological freedom are lacking in African churches. There is need for change of the church’s ecclesiological foreign image and [to] make it more indigenous. This change must affect church buildings, liturgy, forms of worship, and symbolism…We depend mostly on advisors from Europe and America. Our Theological Boards are very inadequate as long as they reflect American, Swedish, or German Lutheran theologies rather than African theologies…Research into African religious beliefs has revealed that nearly all Africans believed in God. Some tribes possessed an elaborate religious system including superstition, magic and ancestral worship, taboos, and reverence of the sacred and the aged. If this is true, then theologians are needed today to find out what all these African beliefs have in common…[and] these data must be evaluated in light of the Christian message.[17]

Yet after affirming this, Kibira went on to note how spiritual freedom posed a serious challenge to unity. Differences in thought, practice, and opinion could easily cause friction, and Kibira did not want to superficially do away with difference to find the lowest common denominator of agreement. To do so, after all, would only limit freedom of thought. His solution to this problem was one of unity amid diversity. “We are Lutherans,” he wrote, “we know ‘in whom’ and ‘what’ we believe. We have particular emphasis in our doctrine; especially in this precious one—‘Justification by faith alone’—and in many others. But this, our very heritage, is our challenge.”[18] Kibira argued that Lutherans needed to make their position clear within ecumenical discourse, seeking to share the insights of their own particular body with the rest of the Church. Even if the unique insights of each denomination conflicted, all needed to participate in the dialogue from their own unique position. There was also much to be gained from such open conversation. Kibira wrote, “We [Lutherans] rejoice because we have a relatively clear understanding of our confession…Yet, at the same time, we would be wrong if we would bluntly say: ‘We have the whole truth.’ Such a generalization would be ‘killing faith.’”[19] In this way, diversity could be maintained while unity and fuller depth of knowledge was established through conversation.

The freedom to be African also gave rise to another tension. At Addis Ababa, Kibira talked about two kinds of “tradition.” He said there are traditions—with a small “t”—that represent the unique characteristics and textures of African cultures and societies, and there is Tradition—with a large “T”—that include the Gospels, the Epistles, and Church history. Thus, there was a kind of tension between the local dimension of a specific Church and the universal dimension of the whole Christian church. Here, he addressed the question of indiginization, writing

There are many good traditions in the African culture which have made an impact on groups of people. These traditions convey unique values. We must be careful before we abandon them as Christianity is introduced. If they are indigenous, then we need to give them Christian meaning and root the Gospel into the African soil. At this point it has to be mentioned that the real ‘indigenizer’ is the African himself.[20]

Again, Kibira placed himself in connection with the German missiological model. There was, however, one key difference: the foreign missionary was not to be the one to indigenize the church. On the contrary, it would be the African Christians themselves. African Christians understood both traditions and Tradition; they were the ones who could best understand how to root Christianity in African soil. Much of Kibira’s work focused on understanding how African concepts of kinship could dialogue with Christian ideas of fellowship.[21] He attempted to root Christianity in indigenous African worldviews while at the same time offering a model of fellowship to the wider church.

Tradition, regardless of small or large “T’s,” was a chain that related people to their spiritual and familial ancestors. At the same time, however, Kibira recognized another potential problem. He wrote, “Chains can bind; become rigid and sterile.” Many Protestant Churches became set in their ways, the worship became cold, and the general level of commitment dropped. Kibira argued that the Churches needed revival.[22] Much in the same way that his own faith and commitment to the Church was deepened by his experience with the Balokole movement, Kibira called on the Churches to always rekindle their spiritual energies, and direct them toward the world.

The main emphasis of the revival has always been “JESUS”. The Abalokole maintain that in order to be a Christian, one has to accept Jesus Christ the Son of God as his personal Savior, and that this cannot be achieved unless one repents and puts right the things one had damaged during one’s rebellion and then receives in faith, God’s forgiveness. The Christian’s life then becomes a walk in the light and a willingness to repent daily of all sins. From this forgiveness, Christians have a special gift of joy in their lives that cannot be ignored. Out of this spiritual discovery many revival Christians have volunteered to leave their jobs and work for the Church as evangelists and ministers.[23]

Kibira knew that Africa faced major need in the areas of food security, migratory labor, women’s and family problems, healthcare, and education. For Kibira, a highly motivated and spiritually charged Church could use its energies to build diaconal, or service, ministries in all of these areas. He wrote, “The church has the responsibility to preach the Gospel to all. But after that it will find that it cannot escape being busy with people. To uplift them, to change their ethnics for the better and to dress their wounds, to feed the hungry and others.”[24] Yet for all of the energy that revival gave to the Churches, it also posed a threat. Sometimes revivals led to theological ideas and practices that fell outside of the Christian tradition and divided the body of Christian believers. Therefore, the revival and the established Church had a lot to gain from each other. As Kibira wrote “The principle task confronting the official Church is the willingness to listen to the revival. It is only in this was that well-trained theologians will be able to offer their constructive criticism of the revival.”[25]

At the Addis Ababa conference, Kibira showed that he was aware of some of the major tensions within the world church—viz, the church as universal and the church as locally rooted, the church as part of an ancient tradition and the church as ever new, the church as a united body and the church as many different members. His answers to these problems attempted to show that while there would be no easy solutions, the tension itself was constructive. His answers showed a great deal of sensitivity to the particular and the universal dimensions of the Christian church in the 20th century. Kibira’s ideas were so well received that he was asked to lead opening worship at the Uppsala Cathedral at the 1968 meeting of the World Council of Churches. His reputation also quickly advanced within Lutheran circles. In 1970, Kibira was elected chairman of the Commission on Church Cooperation for the Lutheran World Federation General Assembly. Perhaps the greatest honor came, however, when Kibira was elected President of the Lutheran World Federation in 1977. He was the first African to hold the position. It was an exciting moment for African Lutherans and a great honor to the Lutheran Church in Tanzania. The President of Tanzania, Julius Nyerere, was so pleased with Kibira that he called a state banquet in the Bishop’s honor. As President of the LWF, Kibira worked tirelessly to keep ecumenism, social justice, and faithful discipleship on the federation’s agenda. He held the post until 1984.[26]

Josiah Kibira died in 1988 after suffering from Parkinson’s disease. It was a great loss for both the church in Africa and the World. Kibira was born in a small village by the banks of Lake Victoria, and he eventually died there. Yet during his life, he was part of a global movement, and found himself learning from and leading people in Asia, Africa, Europe, Latin America, and North America. His life witnessed to the fundamental nature of the Christianity in the 20th century—it was both local and global. Kibira was no stranger to the tension of multiple localities being brought into one universal body. As the recent debates over homosexuality in the Anglican Communion demonstrate, local practice, interpretations of scripture, and traditions can lead to conflict at the global level. Yet rather than view these tensions as inevitable points of fracture and schism,  Kibira’s theology allows for the tensions between local bodies to be constructive at a global level. His theology allows one to embrace the history and tradition of both church and society, while at the same time exploring new possibilities. Ultimately, Jesus is the focal point of this ecclesiology. The image is almost Eucharistic: the world Church comprises many different people, who often hold radically different views; nevertheless, they all gather at the table around Christ, sharing their experiences, and learning from each other. Looking forward into the 21st century, Kibira’s theology provides an excellent blueprint for a world Church. It is not a church without conflict. It is not a church that ignores various members of the body. It is a radically inclusive space, where all are asked to be true to themselves, and all are asked to learn from each other.

S.J. Lloyd

[1] Angolowisye Isakwisa Malambugi, “Josiah Mutabuzi Isaya Kibira,” Dictionary of African Christian Biography

[2] Bengt Sundkler and Christopher Steed, A History of the Church in Africa (Cambridge, 2000), 594-596.

[3] Isaya Kibira in Malambugi. (Again, I’m not sure if this is the same Isaya/Isaiah. It would be great if it were, but there it is hard to say. His last words would make sense if he were the reader that brought Christianity to Bukoba. I’ll send an email to Malambugi to see if he knows the answer. I very much like the story of Isaiah the reader, and I would like to include it regardless.)

[4] Malambugi.

[5] Klaus Fielder, Christianity and African Culture: Conservative German Protestant Missionaries in Tanzania, 1900-1940 (Brill, 1996), 72.

[6] Malambugi.

[7] Paul Gifford, African Christianity: Its Public Role (Indiana University Press, 1998), 152-153. Gifford’s description of the Balokole movement is rather limited and somewhat negative. For a fuller description of the movement, see the volume The East African Revival: History and Legacies, eds. Kevin Ward and Emma Wild-Wood (Ashgate: 2012).

[8] Malambugi.

[9] Ibid.

[10] This argument is influenced by Robert J. Houle, “The American Mission Revivals and Modern Zulu Evangelism,” Zulu Identities (University of KwaZulu-Natal, 2009), 231-35. He argues that when young Zulu migrants underwent sanctification by the Holy Spirit at revivals, it gave them enough spiritual capital to challenge the authority of both white missionaries and the elders.

[11] Malambugi.

[12] Marja-Liisa Swantz, Beyond the Forestline: The Life and Letters of Bengt Sundkler (Gracewing Publishing, 2002), 256-57. Nils Ehrenström was hand picked by the famous ecumenist Nathan Söderblom to go to the Geneva Ecumenical Institute.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Malambugi

[15] “The Winds of Change” was the title of a famous speech given by Harold Macmillan on February 4, 1960. “In the twentieth century, and especially since the end of the war, the processes which gave birth to the nation states of Europe have been repeated all over the world…The wind of change is blowing through this continent [Africa], and, whether we like it or not, this growth of national consciousness is a political fact.” The speech made the agenda of decolonization of Africa clear.

[16] Swantz, 196-97.

[17] Kibira, 62-63.

[18] Ibid., 66.

[19] Ibid., 68.

[20] Ibid., 67.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid., 67-68.

[23] Ibid., 99.

[24] Ibid., 90.

[25] Ibid., 100.

[26] Malambugi.