A Tribute to Dr. Lamin Sanneh
by Juan Sarmiento
Lamin Sanneh* was a man of deep faith. Since the age of eighteen, that faith guided a journey that would take him from the banks of the Gambia River to become one of the foremost experts in World Christianity. A mixture of profound sadness and gratitude overtook me last week when I received news of his sudden death.
As a young man, Sanneh was bold to not let the expectations of his family and community stop him from publicly professing faith in Christ. He recognized that following this new path placed him at odds with some fellow Christians who did not consider it appropriate for a Muslim to convert. Later, Sanneh’s desire to study theology and become ordained were also met with staunch resistance in the church. However, he continued to pursue his calling in such diverse places as a historically black college in Virginia, USA and the Near East School of Theology in Beirut, Lebanon.
Sanneh’s faithful and inquisitive persistence would become the avenue that would help him question several entrenched assumptions in “establishment Christianity.” He raised his voice as a first-generation Christian from Africa to call the increasingly secularized West to rediscover the redemptive and dignifying elements that can be part of mission. Christianity is far from being a Western religion, Sanneh invited us to ponder. It belongs in Africa, Asia, and Latin America as much as in Europe and North America. Perhaps it is a more natural fit for the non-Western world.
Sanneh confronted us with what he coined as “the missionary guilt complex” by helping us see the constructive aspects that translating the the Bible and catechetical literature into different languages could have. Rather than dismissing or destroying cultures, translation has often been a way of recognizing the immense worth of different societies and of strengthening their future identity. Along the same lines, Sanneh daringly pointed out that for all that has been done in the name of mission work, both good and bad, the spread of Christianity has mostly been the work of new converts who have joyfully shared the gospel in their own continents and in their own terms.
Sanneh was a bridge builder in the best sense of the word. Countering the unchristian habit of separating the Church into competing traditions that denigrate each other, he lived up to the “one baptism” that unites all believers in Christ (Ephesians 4:5). He could move with ease between committees appointed by the Pope and circles such as Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization and the World Evangelical Alliance. Later in his life, he focused his scholarly work in making known how Islam and Christianity have lived, and can live, peacefully together in Western Africa.
Sanneh’s extensive and thoughtful academic work has helped us see how our Christian conceptions are seriously impoverished by purposely or inadvertently creating echo chambers inside of which only believers from certain backgrounds and latitudes get to speak. He gave us the opportunity of being enriched by becoming acquainted with the dynamic experiences of faith of our sisters and brothers around the world, much beyond the hallways of Aberdeen, Harvard, and Yale.
In many ways what Sanneh stood for did not fit the dominant narratives of cynical polarization and standardizing disbelief. Personally, I find it very strange that in some scholarly circles people have managed to ignore his crucial contributions. Sanneh has been eulogized by The New York Times, The Washington Post, Christianity Today, and The Christian Century, but he is yet to be recognized by many within our Christian communities. However, his voice carries on, both humble and unyielding.
Dr. Sanneh’s legacy will be passed on through the establishment of the Sanneh Institute in the University of Ghana. Dr. John Azumah, who served as a trustee of The Outreach Foundation and has done so much to facilitate the formation of our partnerships in Ghana, will become its founding director.
To use the words in the title for Lamin Sanneh’s 2012 memoir,** he has now been “Summoned from the Margin.” His final homecoming has taken place. The very same baptism that he refused to reconsider is now complete. The name by which he was baptized, unknown to many, has surely been called by the One who summons a people from every tribe, tongue, and language to come home.
Professor Sanneh reminded us that we have a message worth translating, and he inspires us to continue translating it. I am forever indebted to him.
*Lamin Sanneh was the Professor of Missions and World Christianity at Yale Divinity School and Professor of History at Yale University.