Beware the ‘Berlin Conference’ Model of the Protocol for Separation

A United Methodist Insight Exclusive

History is always bound to repeat itself unless we learn lessons from the past and take actions to avoid similar outcomes. The end of colonialism in its direct approach gave rise to neo-colonialism that seeks to attain the same objectives of suppressing and oppressing others through different means. Unfortunately, the church’s history of association with colonialists didn’t end with the wave of independence across Africa. Neo-colonialism has been sustained through systems and processes that continue to undermine the humanity and dignity of people of color across the world.

Every student at high school level in Africa would be familiar with the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885; some countries teach this even from primary school. The Berlin Conference has a negative and significant role in redefining Africa with consequences that are still visible today. The Berlin Conference is used as reference for the official partition of Africa among European imperialists without participation or consideration of Africans. It drew territorial boundaries on the continent with total disregard of African kingdoms or identities. It has led to division of tribes and groups to new political configurations and the atrocities of colonization. The Berlin Conference left a negative mark on the African continent, actions that may not be forgiven.

The political machinations of colonists were preceded by Christian missionaries in Africa. We often say the flag followed the cross, the cross representing the Christian faith and the flag representing political powers. A quote popularized by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, reflects a reality I would caution is unfolding in our eyes in the UMC. One African says, ‘When the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land. They said, ‘Let us pray.’ We closed our eyes. When we opened them, we had the Bible and they had the land.’

As United Methodists engage in conversations related to the future of the church, one can clearly observe the zeal by which some are determined to enhance neo-colonialism on Central Conferences, using the divide and rule technique to gain political mileage and a scorched earth policy to deprive the denomination of any possibility to exist after their planned departure.

In a recent article published by United Methodist News Service, it is claimed that African bishops aren’t united on the future of the church. If one reads events closely, one can observe the planned tactics of sowing discord among Africans by applying a wedge issue that has no direct bearing on their context to score political mileage. The advocates of separation can’t conceive the unity of the church in Africa for fear of exposing their sectarian interests. Some go to the extent of talking about dual membership of United Methodists in Africa, being part of the planned Global Methodist Church and the UMC. 

To see this divide-and-rule approach more clearly, one has to start with the UMC equivalent of a Berlin Conference leading to the partition of the church among imperial powers. The advocates of separation have reached a deal, named the Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation as a way forward for the denomination. It should be more clearly stated that it is a ceasefire agreement among different groups in the USA. It is no secret that the agreement didn’t have African participation but was blessed with facilitation of the late Bishop Yambasu. The provisions of the agreement aren’t necessarily limited to the church in the USA but are extended to the church in Africa without their participation. In the same UMNS article Bishop Thomas Bickerton is quoted saying, “The protocol team has established a sub-group to talk to African bishops about how they can best be represented in the protocol team’s work.” This is accompanied by publications from some caucuses about the Protocol being a “done deal” with no re-negotiations possible. This should certainly raise eyebrows that African bishops who were not part of the negotiation are asked to come to a table where terms have been concluded and asked to relay decisions that will affect the church in Africa without a say. In the same way the Berlin Conference partitioned Africa without voice or representation, the United Methodist Church is being partitioned without the African people.

Such proceedings sustain a view so prevalent in many parts of the church that defines the United Methodist Church as the church in the USA and those outside as strangers. American views and practices are considered normative and others as exceptions to the extent that even our Book of Discipline isn’t available in French, a language spoken by more than 2 million United Methodists.

The wave of political independence that moved across Africa in the 1960s has lessons to teach us today as some in the denomination adopt these neo-colonial approaches. The United Nations Charter enshrines the right to self-determination, recognizing the freedom of people to define their own destiny without the interference of others. My question to United Methodist groups against the right to self-determination of all people as supported by regionalization is, why do you fear human freedom if it is not due to the threat it poses to neo-colonial hegemony? With regionalization as advocated by Christmas Covenant, United Methodists are put in equal footing, those in central conferences and in the jurisdictions. Each region will be able to define for themselves their destiny without the interference of external caucuses. As Martin Luther King, Jr. notes in his “Letter from the Birmingham Jail,” “freedom is never given voluntarily by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” The right to self-determination of United Methodists, especially those outside the USA, will not be a gift of the caucuses seeking to hold the continent hostage but will be attained because it is the right thing to do.

The tendency to talk about freedom as a choice between two alternatives imagined outside of one’s reality is simply short-circuiting an imposed decision. Africans do not need to vote to remain who they are and have been for decades simply because some people gain political mileage out of it. Africans no longer need to be guests in their own denomination, where some set the rules and decisions and direct you where to go.

One tool used by colonialists and neo-colonialists is the divide-and-rule approach, sowing discord among people by using a wedge issue so that in such confusion one can blind people from the real concerns that should be dealt with. The oppressed are told that another victim of colonialism is the root cause of their pain so they don’t identify the real oppressor. In the past few years, the UMC in Africa has become a battlefield, with some caucuses doing the best they can to undermine even the leadership of African bishops. They seek to dictate how affairs should be run in certain episcopal areas and appoint themselves as spokespersons of the African people. Everything that is from Africa which doesn’t align with their views is to be undermined and attacked. Unfortunately, this approach is not strange to the people of Africa who have seen groups funding wars pretending to facilitate peaceful resolutions or those fuelling division putting a face of saints. The church belongs to God and we should be concerned when political tactics known for being evil are used in the denomination. Colonialism and neo-colonialism are evil deeds of which we should repent.

The Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace Through Separation is the culmination of a UMC equivalent to the Berlin conference and should be approached with caution by those who are simply invited as guests. The idea of dual membership in both the UMC and the proposed Global Methodist Church is a “scorched earth” policy that aligns with a plan to destroy the UMC from within and erase it from existence. Giving the oppressed an imagination of becoming an oppressor tomorrow is a technique used to lure people into assimilation. When colonists were forced to leave the African continent, many enabled the rise to power of dictatorships to provide an excuse of self-destruction so they could continue to plunder resources in silence. The Congolese people would remember the assassination of Patrice Lumumba and rise to power of Mobutu.

As United Methodists reflect on the decisions that lie ahead of us, we shouldn’t put aside our call and responsibilities to a faithful and respectful dialogue that values the humanity of all and their right to self-determination. We cannot claim to love a neighbor when we seek to impose on them who they are to be. A lot can be said about the need to decolonize our church, but one step at a time we can accomplish it and it begins by recognizing the sacred value of all humans with their inherent right to self-determination. African United Methodists shouldn’t have to choose to stay who they are simply because it provides an excuse for others, especially when such decisions have been reached without the equal participation of Africans. Our generation shouldn’t offer a blind pass to the repetition of the Berlin Conference. The best option is to claim for ourselves the right to self-determination, uninfluenced by brokers hiding behind wedge issues.

Albert Otshudi Longe is a Congolese United Methodist serving as a chaplain in the Great Plains Annual Conference.

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