Ethiopia’s history of resisting European colonization and efforts to maintain its own cultural and religious identity have contributed to a sense of pride and confidence among Ethiopians. This has also resulted in a sense of suspicion towards people from the global north, which affects how Ethiopians interact with foreigners and their efforts to evangelize in the country. This essay utilizes Bourdieu’s concept of “habitus”1 to analyze how Ethiopia’s history of resistance and cultural identity have influenced the dispositions and practices of its people, including their pride and confidence, as well as their resistance to foreign religions, and how this unique habitus engenders a hermeneutics of suspicion2 within Ethiopian society.
The first historical period that contributed to Ethiopia’s sense of pride and confidence, was the early Christianization of the country. The belief that Ethiopia is a Christian nation has been strong since in the early fourth century. That is when Emperor Ezana converted to Christianity which is credited to Syrian brothers Frumentius and Aedesius, who were saved and taken as slaves by locals and brought to the reigning monarch.3 Ezana left relics of his conversion to Christianity by stone inscriptions and coins that attest to his conversion and efforts to establish Christianity as the official religion of Ethiopia4 and his efforts to spread it among the population.5 Since then, many Ethiopians have felt that foreign religions are undesirable.
With a distorted hope and determination to bring together the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, which has a long-standing history and strong ties to the Coptic Church of Egypt (another Oriental Orthodox Church) and with the Catholic Church of Rome. Jesuit missionaries, mainly Spanish and Portuguese, started traveling to Ethiopia in 1557. Besides their endeavor to advance the Catholic faith, the Jesuits were seen by Ethiopian priests and monks as agents of European colonialism.
In 1622, Pope Gregory XV (1621–1623) founded a mission oversight organization, the Sacra Congregatio de Propaganda Fide (Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith), aimed at transforming mission work from a colonial phenomenon into a purely ecclesiastic movement, freeing the missionaries from political interference. The Holy See thought that a new and solid organization was necessary to manage missionary work and to reduce Spanish and Portuguese power.6
Since the Spanish and Portuguese colonizers were expanding their influence in Ethiopia during the sixteenth century, the Ethiopian Church was wary of European political and economic interests and saw the Jesuits as a threat to their independence and autonomy. So, from early on, there is this sentiment among Ethiopian leaders and people that say, “we don’t need any foreign religion.”
Looking back at Ethiopian history, it is evident that the emperors were primarily interested in obtaining material, rather than religious, support from missionaries. For instance, Emperor Yohannes I criticized missionaries who sought to reform the Ethiopian church, telling them to “Go and convert first the Muslim Egyptians and the Turks instead of coming to Abyssinia where we are all Christians.”7 The close relationship between the King’s palace ideology and governance, and the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church (EOTC) polity and theology, can be compared to the way that two hands fit perfectly together in gloves. This strong connection resulted in the Orthodox Church protecting the emperors’ divine right to rule, while the Ethiopian state supported the growth and influence of the Orthodox Church.8
Emperor Haile Selassie I (1930-1974) was considered “Elect of God.” His power was unlimited and unquestionable by the people.9 It was during his time that Amharic was instituted as the official language10 and Orthodox Christianity state religion. This bond was founded on the belief of all Ethiopian emperors that they were descendants of the line of Judah, which was directly linked to Christ. All emperors based this belief on the historical lineage dating back to the relationship of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Hence, there is a common belief among these emperors and their feudal regime with that time EOTC leadership that the king is a descendant of this union.12 The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church has had such a profound influence on Ethiopian society. “One cannot read Ethiopia’s political history discerningly,” said Girma Bekele,” without paying attention to the role that the church has played in shaping the country’s identity as Africa’s independent nation.”13 However, the EOTC has led to a syncretism of Christianity with African religion and Judaism.14 It’s because of this syncretism argues Rode Molla that the Western missionaries- specifically Lutheran Europeans- led the effort to renew the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church (EOTC). However, the idea of renewing the EOTC was met with resistance from local converts (new converts of Ethiopian leaders) and eventually led to the creation of the Lutheran church in Ethiopia, which is now known as the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus (EECMY). Molla argues in her article that the Ethiopian leaders persisted in their requests to continue as a separate church from EOTC and remained firm in their decisions to share the good news as a newly formed protestant church, which went against the wishes of the Lutheran European missionaries at that time. 15 Mola uses this interaction as a base to go on with her main point of why she is writing the article. She stated:
The EECMY was established through the mission organizations and converted indigenous believers, and that gave the church a complex background. Conversion and authentic experience to one’s ethnic, linguistic, and cultural experience conceived the EECMY’s holistic theology and reflection. I would argue that the foundation of the EECMY is in-betweenness that demonstrates its hybrid existence with both Western and African roots. The in-between approach of the EECMY could be a model to demonstrate how one organization, nation, church, or community may be able to flourish with intercultural competence beyond either/or identities. The church may be able to use its complex and in-between identity to resist identity politics in the age of neoliberalism.16
The second historical event that played a role in Ethiopia’s sense of pride and confidence was the country’s resistance to European colonization, particularly during the Battle of Adwa on March 1, 1896. This sense of pride in having a unique, undiluted form of Christianity was later fused with a broader sense of Ethiopian identity when the Ethiopian army’s victory over Italy in the Battle of Adwa in 1896. That victory was and continued to be a significant event, as it marked the first time that African forces had defeated a European power during the colonial era. This victory bolstered the confidence and pride of Ethiopians in their country and their religion.
The third historical period that contributed to Ethiopia’s sense of pride and confidence was the return to power of Emperor Haile Selassie. The emperor’s exile to England forcefully also gave rise to more distrust towards foreigners and their religions when Italy invaded Ethiopia later in 1936, also known as the Second Italo-Ethiopian War.17 The Italian invasion of Ethiopia lasted from October 1935 to May 1936 and resulted in driving Emperor Haile Selassie into exile for five years in which the emperor traveled to various countries seeking support for Ethiopia’s resistance to the Italian occupation. He addressed the League of Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1936, calling for international assistance to repel the Italian invaders. Despite his efforts, however, the League of Nations failed to take effective action18, and Ethiopia remained under Italian occupation until 1941.19 The experience of Ethiopians during those years-when Italians were in Ethiopia, especially the fact that Ethiopians were fighting from every corner and never giving up20 which then eventually leads to the Italians defeat for the second time and chased away from Ethiopia- added to already existed pride and being suspicious toward Westerners. “Because of the Patriots’ Resistance Movement during the Italian Occupation,” said Bahru Zewde, “Italian rule in Ethiopia was largely confined to the towns; hence it was mainly in the urban centers that the impact of the Occupation was felt.”21 When he returned to Ethiopia in 1941, the king was determined not to allow any foreigners to enter the country. Those experiences have contributed a lot of Ethiopians a sense of pride and also being suspicious of any white people, as Ethiopians called them “ፈረንጅ-Ferej”.22 When World War II ended Italians left the country, after the 5-year occupation,23 King Haile Selassie wanted to modernize Ethiopia.24 But when the king returned from exile in 1941, the sentiment of not trusting foreigners and their religions remained strong and even to the point the king had to craft the policy nationwide. The sentiment of not trusting foreigners and their religion that they bring along was very high at this stage. It was during this time that Mennonites were granted permission to enter the country and help the king in his efforts to modernize it. Being relief workers and trained personnel in different sectors was key to gaining access to the country, and that is exactly what the Mennonites used to enter the country.25 The Mennonite mission, which involved both development and evangelism, was in line with the imperial goal of modernizing the country. The imperial governments have been more accepting of the mission due to the alignment of the Mennonite approach with the development aspect of the imperial agenda, rather than their approach to evangelism.26 “ At the end of the Italian occupation when the progressive Emperor, Haile Selassie I, was restored to his throne, certain influential individuals in the government were instrumental in adopting a very cautious policy concerning the permitting of foreign elements in the country.”27
We don’t need to go too far back. However, if we look at our recent history in Ethiopia, we can see the reactions of Ethiopians who live both in the country and abroad toward westerners and how the western governments and their Media handled when the Ethiopian government was involved in a senseless war with the Tigray regional government, located in the northern part of Ethiopia. Many Ethiopians protested aggressively against foreign interference in a sovereign country. This immediate reaction towards the West, sometimes with unsubstantiated claims but usually with lots of facts, was natural for many of us.28 The people of Ethiopia are still upset about the attitude that many individuals in the global north hold towards those in the global south. This kind of racism is especially concerning when it comes from someone in a high position, such as the former U.S. President Trump, calling countries in Africa ‘shithole’ countries and the EU High Representative, Josep Borrell during a speech at the inauguration of a pilot program. Josep Borrell described Europe as “a garden” that needs to be taken care of by the privileged white people because the rest of the world is like “a jungle” that could invade the garden.29 According to Bekele Girma, if solidarity means believing that all humans are created equal and have the right to access the common good, then we need to address the issue of fair distribution of global resources within the current socio-economic system.30
All of these events have contributed to a sense of pride and confidence among Ethiopians, which in turn affects how they interact with foreigners and their efforts to evangelize in the country. We are products of our lived history and experiences. This sense of pride and confidence among Ethiopians developed over the years and shaped the habitus31 of Ethiopians. Ethiopians are often described as proud people, and this pride is not limited to their cultural and religious identity. An Ethiopian Christian habitus is one that enables Christians to act as if Christ died for us so that we are no longer alienated from God. Christian formation is key to how an Ethiopian Christian habitus is fostered. Many foreigners have worked with Ethiopians in different fields, including the ministry of health and other relief works, and they have found that the Ethiopians’ confidence and education have made working together much easier. Ethiopians are not intimidated by foreigners and their efforts to evangelize, and they are not afraid to critique them.
In conclusion, Ethiopia’s history of resisting European colonization and maintaining its own cultural and religious identity has played a significant role in shaping the country’s interactions with foreigners and their efforts to evangelize in the country. This sense of pride and confidence is evident in different historical periods and events, including the early Christianization of the country, the Battle of Adwa, and the exile and return to power of Emperor Haile Selassie. This history has created a culture that is proud of its identity and unafraid to resist foreign domination. The churches in the global north need to understand there is a hermeneutics of suspicion that is very important to understand Ethiopian perspectives and that hermeneutic of suspicion arises out of this Ethiopian habitus. This sense of pride, confidence and being suspicion to anything coming to the global north is not a threat to any kind of collaborations and partnerships but rather an invitation to know and realize the habitus from which Ethiopians think and approach different topics and answer any questions posed to them. And that awareness and knowledge will pave the way for much greater international collaborations and cooperation that are grounded in respect and openness.
Henok T. Mekonin, MATPS 2021 AMBS, currently works at AMBS as a Global Leadership Collaborative Specialist. Mekonin’s ministry is jointly supported by Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary and Mennonite Mission Network. He provides leadership for a partnership with Meserete Kristos Seminary. He is married and a father of two daughters. He is originally from Ethiopia and currently lives with his wife, Misgana, and their two kids in Goshen, IN.
Adejumobi, Saheed A. The History of Ethiopia. The Greenwood Histories of the Modern Nations. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 2007.
ALEMU, NEBEYOU. “How Amharic Unites – and Divides – Ethiopia.” African Arguments (blog), May 8, 2019. https://africanarguments.org/2019/05/08/how-amharic-unites-and-divides-ethiopia/.
Assefa, Lydette S. “Creating Identity in Opposition: Relations between the Meserete Kristos Church and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, 1960-1980.” Mennonite Quarterly Review 83, no. 4 (October 1, 2009): 539–71.
Bekele, Girma. “Globalization Echoes A Repetitive Story of Injustice.” Medium (blog), October 18, 2022. https://girmabekele.medium.com/globalization-echoes-a-repetitive-story-of-injustice-f8ba1a3d9180.
———. “Is Christian Imperialism Resurging and Tearing Ethiopia Apart?” Medium (blog), June 27, 2022. https://girmabekele.medium.com/andrew-decort-extensively-writes-on-issues-ethiopia-is-facing-with-the-expressed-interest-to-be-a-cf3b7802feaf.
Belcher, Wendy Laura, ed. The Jesuits in Ethiopia (1609-1641): Latin Letters in Translation. Translated by Jessica Wright and Leon Grek. 1st ed. Harrassowitz, O, 2018. https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctvckq54b.
BORRELL, Josep. “European Diplomatic Academy: Opening Remarks by High Representative Josep Borrell at the Inauguration of the Pilot Programme | EEAS Website,” October 13, 2022. https://www.eeas.europa.eu/eeas/european-diplomatic-academy-opening-remarks-high-representative-josep-borrell-inauguration_en.
Checole, Alemu. “Mennonite Churches in Eastern Africa.” In Anabaptist Songs in African Hearts: A Global Mennonite History, edited by John Lapp, 191–253. Simon and Schuster, 2006.
Eshete, Tibebe. The Evangelical Movement in Ethiopia: Resistance and Resilience. Reprint edition. Baylor University Press, 2017.
Gurmessa, Fekadu, and Ezekiel Gebissa. Evangelical Faith Movement in Ethiopia: The Origins and Establishment of the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus. Minneapolis, Minn: Lutheran University Press, 2009.
Hege, Nathan B. Beyond Our Prayers: Anabaptist Church Growth in Ethiopia, 1948-1998Iopia, 1948-1998. Scottdale, Pa: Herald Pr, 1998.
Heliso, Desta. “Were 750 Christians Really Massacred? The Truth About Ethiopia’s Recent Crisis.” Religion Unplugged, February 10, 2021. https://religionunplugged.com/news/2021/2/10/were-750-christians-really-massacred-the-truth-about-ethiopias-recent-crisis.
Jones, Pip, and Liz Bradbury. Introducing Social Theory. Third Edition. Cambridge ; Medford, MA: Polity Press, 2018.
Mishler, Dorsa J., and Mary K. Mishler. Invited by the King, 1999.
Molla, Rode. “Holistic Theology To In-Between Theology: Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus.” Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory 21, no. 1 (January 1, 2022): 202–2019.
Zeleke, E. Centime. Ethiopia in Theory: Revolution and Knowledge Production, 1964-2016. Historical Materialism Book Series, volume 201. Leiden ; Boston: Brill, 2020.
Zewde, Bahru. A History of Modern Ethiopia, 1855-1991. 2nd ed. Woodbridge, Suffolk: James Currey, 2016.
———. “The Ethiopian Intelligentsia and the Italo-Ethiopian War, 1935-1941.” The International Journal of African Historical Studies 26, no. 2 (1993): 271–95. https://doi.org/10.2307/219547.
 In their book Pip Jones and Liz Bradbury have discussed in greater detail what Bourdieu had meant by Habitus. The concept of Habitus was developed by social theorist Pierre Bourdieu (1930–200). Habitus is a concept which seeks to describe the way objective or material conditions of existence are internalized into a subjective disposition, a practical set of expectations, and an attitude to time which reflects the objective future as the field of possibilities. Other words, Habitus refers to the internalized dispositions, habits, and practices that shape an individual’s behavior and perception of the world. Pip Jones and Liz Bradbury, Introducing Social Theory, Third Edition (Cambridge ; Medford, MA: Polity Press, 2018), 132.
 The majority of Ethiopian Christians use hermeneutics of trust when they read the Bible. However, lots of Ethiopians, including Orthodox Christians, Muslims, and others, use some level of hermeneutical suspicion when they interact with foreigners and other ethnic groups inside the country for political discourse.
 Tibebe Eshete, The Evangelical Movement in Ethiopia: Resistance and Resilience, Reprint edition (Baylor University Press, 2017), 16.
 Lydette S. Assefa, “Creating Identity in Opposition: Relations between the Meserete Kristos Church and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, 1960-1980,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 83, no. 4 (October 1, 2009): 542.
 Wendy Laura Belcher, ed., The Jesuits in Ethiopia (1609-1641): Latin Letters in Translation, trans. Jessica Wright and Leon Grek, 1st ed. (Harrassowitz, O, 2018), 1–2, https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctvckq54b.
 Fekadu Gurmessa and Ezekiel Gebissa, Evangelical Faith Movement in Ethiopia: The Origins and Establishment of the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus (Minneapolis, Minn: Lutheran University Press, 2009), 131.
 Assefa, “Creating Identity in Opposition,” 542.
 The Constitution of the Empire of Ethiopia, 1931, the 1955 Revised Constitution of the Empire of Ethiopia, the Civil Code of the Empire of Ethiopia Proclamation, No. 165 of 1960 and other laws of Imperial Ethiopia.
 Nebeyou Alemu, “How Amharic Unites – and Divides – Ethiopia,” African Arguments (blog), May 8, 2019, https://africanarguments.org/2019/05/08/how-amharic-unites-and-divides-ethiopia/.
 The 1955 Revised Constitution of the Empire of Ethiopia, arts 125 and 126, respectively
 Assefa, “Creating Identity in Opposition,” 542.
 Girma Bekele, “Is Christian Imperialism Resurging and Tearing Ethiopia Apart?,” Medium (blog), June 27, 2022, https://girmabekele.medium.com/andrew-decort-extensively-writes-on-issues-ethiopia-is-facing-with-the-expressed-interest-to-be-a-cf3b7802feaf.
 Rode Molla, “Holistic Theology To In-Between Theology: Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus,” Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory 21, no. 1 (January 1, 2022): 202.
 Eshete, The Evangelical Movement in Ethiopia, 85.
 Bahru Zewde, “The Ethiopian Intelligentsia and the Italo-Ethiopian War, 1935-1941,” The International Journal of African Historical Studies 26, no. 2 (1993): 290, https://doi.org/10.2307/219547.
 E. Centime Zeleke, Ethiopia in Theory: Revolution and Knowledge Production, 1964-2016, Historical Materialism Book Series, volume 201 (Leiden ; Boston: Brill, 2020), 32, 46.
 Bahru Zewde, A History of Modern Ethiopia, 1855-1991, 2nd ed (Woodbridge, Suffolk: James Currey, 2016), 248.
 Ethiopians use the term “Ferej” or “ፈረንጅ” to refer to someone from outside of African continent, and this term does not carry any negative meaning. However, during the medieval period, the Arabic term “Faranj” or “Faranji” (فرنج / فرنجي) was commonly used to refer to people from Western Europe. This term originally referred specifically to the Crusaders from France, who were known as “Franks” to the Arabs. With time, the term “Faranj” became more widely used to refer to all Europeans, and it often had negative connotations. This reflects the historical tensions and conflicts between the Islamic world and the Christian West during that period.
 Alemu Checole, “Mennonite Churches in Eastern Africa,” in Anabaptist Songs in African Hearts: A Global Mennonite History, ed. John Lapp (Simon and Schuster, 2006), 207.
 Nathan B. Hege, Beyond Our Prayers: Anabaptist Church Growth in Ethiopia, 1948-1998Iopia, 1948-1998 (Scottdale, Pa: Herald Pr, 1998), 44.
 Checole, “Mennonite Churches in Eastern Africa,” 207.
 Zewde, A History of Modern Ethiopia, 1855-1991, 32–41, 56; Saheed A. Adejumobi, The History of Ethiopia, The Greenwood Histories of the Modern Nations (Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 2007), 100.
 Dorsa J. Mishler and Mary K. Mishler, Invited by the King, 1999, 130.
 Desta Heliso, “Were 750 Christians Really Massacred? The Truth About Ethiopia’s Recent Crisis,” Religion Unplugged, February 10, 2021, https://religionunplugged.com/news/2021/2/10/were-750-christians-really-massacred-the-truth-about-ethiopias-recent-crisis.
 Josep BORRELL, “European Diplomatic Academy: Opening Remarks by High Representative Josep Borrell at the Inauguration of the Pilot Programme | EEAS Website,” October 13, 2022, https://www.eeas.europa.eu/eeas/european-diplomatic-academy-opening-remarks-high-representative-josep-borrell-inauguration_en.
 Girma Bekele, “Globalization Echoes A Repetitive Story of Injustice,” Medium (blog), October 18, 2022, https://girmabekele.medium.com/globalization-echoes-a-repetitive-story-of-injustice-f8ba1a3d9180.