“Nom de Dieu, quelle race!”: The Saying, the Said, and the Betrayal of Charity in Mongo Beti’s Le pauvre Christ de Bomba
When Mongo Beti’s Le pauvre Christ de Bomba was published in 1956, some critics modern-day Voltaire who had an axe to grind, in particular against Christianity, and who viewed religion as superstition. It is true that, in his fiction, Mongo Beti never expresses the kind of reverence for indigenous African religions that we find, for example, in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, published in 1959. Achebe laments the passing of a mythic order and shows how its noble protagonists are tragically caught between the demands of the old order and of the encroaching of the modern West. There is no nostalgia in Mongo Beti for the old order. Indeed, he himself is a modern Western intellectual in the sense that he believes in the highest ideals of the Western Enlightenment, i.e. in social and economic equality for all people. On the other hand, unlike Voltaire and many eighteenth-century philosophers, Mongo Beti is not hostile to Christianity itself, or so I argue in this essay. Mongo Beti’s novel Le pauvre Christ de Bomba is not anti-Christian, as Beti himself acknowledged when he remarked, more than twenty years after the book was published, that he was not “in principle hostile to Christianity or even to Roman Catholicism” (Beti in Djiffack 147).1 The real target of Beti’s satire is the spirit of missionary evangelism, which the author sees as subverting the alleged core of Christianity – that core being charity towards others – which Emmanuel Levinas associates with what he calls the “saying” (“le dire”) as opposed to the “said” (“le dit”) of a theologizing discourse that is always in danger, paradoxically, of betraying others in the name of God.