Ethnic politics in Ethiopia and the church


Essay, 2011

20 Pages, Grade: A-

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1. Introduction

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Gal 3:28)

Paul tells the Galatians that all people are equal in Christ in the context of 1st century Greco-Roman dominance where there is a clear class, ethnic difference and rivalry. He seems to swim against the river. He also mentioned that he did not consider his Jewish descent as a thing he would be proud of it though there might be others (Phil. 3:4–11). We cannot deny who we are ethnically. But we could count our ethnic identity as a gift for the glory of God which should be secondary to our identity in Christ because we are made anew in Christ. My ethnic identity is not a thing to be boasted about neither it is a thing to be ashamed of it because of the very reason I did not do anything to be what I am or to which group I belong.

Politically, Ethiopians are currently provoked and even forced to align with their ethnic group as opposed to Ethiopianism that promotes national identity over ethnic identity.1 Mesfin Woldemariam discusses how this was enforced in the 1992 election in Ethiopia.2 This has to do with the federalism governance the country adopted since the over through of the Dergue regime. As the result of this there is a growing ethnic tension in many places, government sectors, other organizations and churches. As Christians of this century living in a critical defining term of history, we are in a baffling trajectory where every other turn seems grey and our ethnic identity and our view of it plays a crucial role. What directions should we take and what is the biblical base to take that one way over against the other one? As the nation is under pressure politically and in many cases forced to go against biblical convictions, there should be a relevant, contextualized and timely theological response which could help Christians and the society at large to provide a balanced view of ethnicity. The church is not a political organization that changes her guiding principles based on the situation or political orientation the country follows. The church is an entity with divine and natural nature that is guided by unchanging biblical truth. As models as expected of them, Christians should bring a positive impact on the issue of ethnicity and related problems we are facing currently. Christians should play an appeasing role in the ethnic tension Ethiopia is facing and the church should present herself as a model for this.

This paper is not just another additional work for a fulfillment of the requirements at EGST rather it is a credo and my reflection as I struggle and experience the issue of ethnicity in my life daily. I strongly believe that our belief concerning ethnicity guides us as it is the key tuning factor of the nation in current socio-political and cultural reality of the country.

2. Defining ethnicity

There are many kinds of definitions of ethnicity. Argawi Berhe defines ethnicity as “it is intrinsically about collective identity and belongingness to a specific ethno-cultural or ethno-linguistic group often expressed in relation to a powerful or dominant collectivity in a multi-ethnic society.”3 One can adopt his/her own definition of ethnicity based on what he or she intends to make out of it but many would agree with the definition of ethnicity as Kjetil Tronvoll said, “theories of ethnicity and nationalism generally embed a notion of the ‘other’ as inextricably linked to the concepts of a collective ethnic or national identity: we are who we are in contrast to others.”4 The central motif or defining theme in ethnicity is its embedded dichotomy of people as ‘we’ and others.5 For instance Oromo will define itself as ‘we’ and defines non-Oromo groups as ‘others’. Tigrians refers to Amharans as ‘they’ or ‘others’ as opposed to their reference as ‘we’. This is the central motif behind ethnicity.

I do not think that biblical people ever escapes this dichotomization as well though some doubt the existence of textual evidence in supporting the presence of ethnicity in early Israel.6 The Israelites described their difference and animosity with other ancient near-eastern people in different times of their history but this did not entail that their enemies were unrelated to them cf. Judges 6, Gen.25:2, Exod.17:14 ff, Deut.25:17 ff.7 Aaron and his sister Mary spoke against Moses about his marriage with the Ethiopian Deut.12:1. God rebuked both and defended Moses that tells us that God did not intend the Israelites to be ethnocentric. The reformation Ezra and Nehemiah brought and the endogamy they insisted could not only be taken simply as an act of purification. Biblical scholars like F. Charles Fensham argue that the ethnic purity in Ezra and Nehemiah is not purity of blood rather it was covenantal purity.8 In relation to this kind of ethnocentric reflection we can refer to the refusal of the prophet Jonah and the Psalmist’s oracle against the Babylonians cf. Jonah and Psalm. Ethnic motifs in the Bible are not still theologically resolved but the balance is inclined to the covenantal purity. Frank Crusmann argues that in defining the nation of Israel as a particular people there is the view of all people in the background Gen.32:43, cf.Rom.15:10.9 There is similar case in the NT times where we observe Jesus commanding his disciples to preach only the Jews in giving homeland mission cf.Matt.10. In the Pauline letters we learn that there were many Jews who see themselves as ‘we’ as opposed to the ‘others’ e thnei (gentiles) in demarcating the distinctiveness of their ethnic group Acts 15 cf. Galatians and Romans. I believe that it is impossible to escape from what we are and what others are ethnically. And biblical people must have passed in similar struggles and identity issues. This does not affect the truth in our Bible that God loves the world with all its diversity of people. There is no question that God loved the world and this is depicted in his self-sacrificial love to all humanity cf.John3:16. His election of the people of God (Israel) should therefore be understood in his universal progressive Mission that was to be communicated through a particular nation, Israel cf.Gen 18:18, Exo.19:6. But against the divine expectation, Israel did not live up to the will of God and as a result failed to accomplish her mission. The Israelites however were strongly ethno-centered in political and religious life. I am not condemning the biblical people for ethnicity or endogamy but I am making an affirmation that there was a real issue of ethnicity as defined above.10 The Jews would refer themselves as ‘we’ usually ‘the elect God’s people’ in contrast to ‘others’ usually pejoratively, ‘gentiles’. However, this does not rule out that there was not a belief in Judaism that gentiles will be saved by Yahweh as I have made my case clear earlier.

3. Ethnic Ethiopia, Federalism and Ethnic politics

It is not yet known how many ethnic groups we have in our country.11 But it is unanimously agreed that there are about 80 to 90 ethnic people group in the country where more than half of these diverse groups are to be found in the southern part of the country.12 Based on this simple fact, one could ask how the already implemented ethnic federalism13 could work out in serving all these groups in equity. Does this federalism benefit the major ethnic groups? How about the minority groups in the larger group? Is power shared by ethnic representation or power dominance? Hareri is an autonomous region with less than 30,000 people while many southern ethnic groups (like Gurage, Sidama and Wolayta) numbering more than a million people each are merged to be in one region. Who is beneficiary in such federalism? What is the role of the federal government and what should the different ethnic groups contribute to its formation? What is their role politically and economically in the country’s affair at regional and federal level? What kind of government system is feasible to Ethiopia? These are very serious questions we need to deal before we start implementing ethnic federalism.


1 Ethiopia: Ethnic federalism and its discontent, executive summary (Nairobi/Brussels International Crisis Group Africa Report No 153:4 September, 2009)Pp23

2 Mesfin Wolde-Mariam, Th e Ho r n o f Afri ca : Con flict and Poverty (Addis Ababa: Commercial printing press, 1999) pp211

3 Argawi Berhe, Genuine Ethnic Federalism or divide and rule? PDF pp 2

4 Kjetil Tronvoll, W a r and the Politics of Identity in the making of enemies and allies in the Ho r n of Africa Ethiopia, Eastern Africa Series (New York: James Currey, 2009 )pp7

5 Tronvoll, War pp7-8

6 Diana Edelman “Ethnicity and Early Israel” Ethnicity and the Bible (Leiden, New York: Brill Academic Publisher, INC., 2002) pp 26-27

7 Frank Crusemann, “Human solidarity and Ethnic Identity” in “Ethnicity and Early Israel” Ethnicity and the Bible (Leiden, New York: Brill Academic Publisher, INC., 2002) pp70-71

8 F. Charles Fensham The Book of Ezra and Nehemiah: The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982)pp18

9 Crusmann, Human, pp70-71

10 Ethnicity not only Israel and other nations but even within Israel, tribes of Judah and Benjamin versus the ten tribes, also in the book of Judges 9:2.

11 There are even recently recognized people group in the southern Ethiopia and there are some who are claiming to have a different identity and demand separation of name and administration.

12 Alem Habtu, Ethnic Federalism in Ethiopia: Background, present condition and future p r ospe cts, a paper presented in the second EAF International symposium on contemporary development issues in Ethiopia (Addis Ababa, July 11-13, 2003)

13 The implemented Federalism constituent has 0nly 9 ethnic states and three federal cities which do not necessarily show the balance in the system.

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Ethnic politics in Ethiopia and the church
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This essay was part of my assignement for a course in which I tried to reflect the current ethnic politics and what the church should do against any racist ideologies which are disintegrating the nation.
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Yoseph Shibeshi (Author), 2011, Ethnic politics in Ethiopia and the church, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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