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Search The Fig Tree's stories of people who make a difference:

Visiting Ethiopian scholar recounts consequences of ideas, faith

by Evanne Montoya

Tibebe Eschete, Whitworth visiting professor
Tibebe Eschete challenges students to widen perspective.

In his transformation from a young Marxist revolutionary to a Christian professor and author, Tibebe Eshete has found complexity and simplicity in history and life.

As he interacts with the next generation of leaders, he wants them to see the world’s diversity.

Tibebe is a visiting history professor at Whitworth, filling in for professor Tony Clark, who is in China for a year.  He grew up in Harar, Ethiopia, and taught at Asmara University and Addis Ababa University before coming to the United States in 1993 to study.

After earning a doctoral degree in African history at Michigan State University, he taught at secular and Christian institutions—Missouri State University, Calvin College, Cornerstone University and Michigan State University.

Tibebe believes a narrow, local perspective is dangerous. Widening students’ perspectives informs and empowers them. Although his classes cover the depravity of humankind, he is optimistic because of his assurance of what God can do with people.

As he teaches about the genocide in Rwanda, he emphasizes that Rwanda is “a history of us.” 

He encourages students not to see these events as evidence of the evil of certain groups or historical figures, but as evidence of a potential for depravity in everyone.

Just as everyone has potential to do bad things, they also have potential to do great things.

 “I want students to see the power of the individual.  Martin Luther King, Jr. was one person, but had an enormous influence.  As Christians, we have great promises,” Tibebe said. “I want students to know they have the capacity to do great things.”

He knows the power of individuals to influence each other from two people who helped along his journey of faith.

Growing up in an Ethiopian Orthodox Christian family, his experience with church was centered on rituals and traditions, not on having a relationship with Christ. 

“When I joined the university in Addis Ababa, I had the little faith I picked up with my family and at church.  It wasn’t enough to sustain me in the barrage of new ideas,” said Tibebe, who struggled to hold onto his religion in his first year. In his second year, peer pressure, the intellectual culture and Marxism drew him away.

He was among the first generation of his family to go to the only university, Haile Selassie I University, which opened in 1961. As he and classmates studied, ideas of people such as Locke, Rousseau, Voltaire and Marx began to sink in.  “Ideas have consequences,” he said.

Students saw society, ruled under the monarchy of Emperor Haile Selassie I, as polarized between a few privileged people controlling political power and much of the land, and the masses.

While most ordinary people saw the situation as their fate, students believed society needed to be reordered and revolution was the way to achieve it, he said.

“It was a mistake,” Tibebe said, now aware of the danger of dislocation and destabilization from bringing hasty change to a society with a rich, complex history.

When the revolution began in 1974, students began demonstrating, and were joined by others—teachers, then taxi drivers and the military. “It was a chain reaction.”

The military told the emperor they wanted change, but would keep him in place.  Tibebe described the revolution as “a creeping coup.”  When the military gained control, they supported students’ ideals, such as redistributing land ownership, but soon the military abused its power, and the revolutionaries split.

Some supported the military, thinking they needed it to complete the revolution. Others believed it had shown its true colors and must be taken from power.

“We broke into two extremes, another tragic mistake,” Tibebe said. “The military solidified its power as leftist revolutionaries fought among themselves, brothers against brothers.  Friends imprisoned and killed one another.  I was imprisoned and tortured.”

Into this tumultuous time of his life 24 years ago when he was a university lecturer working on his master’s degree, God placed two individuals, he said.

Taeme Germay, an economics lecturer, went with Tibebe on a two-month government assignment—banishment—in a rural area.  Even when Tibebe made life in their small, one-room living area difficult for Taeme, Taeme was kind to him.  Tibebe did not respect Christians, but respected Taeme as an intellectual, and listened to him.

Tibebe said God began to work through Taeme.  By the time they returned to Addis Ababa, Tibebe was curious, intrigued that someone as rational at Taeme could be a Christian.  So he agreed to go to the International Evangelical Church (IEC) with him.  He wanted to see if other intellectuals believed like him.

The church’s U.S. pastor and members discussed the Bible in an intellectual manner.  He saw professionals, ambassadors and professors. He began to wonder: “Where have I been?  Why haven’t I seen this world?”

After Taeme finished his master’s and went to teach elsewhere, God brought a second person into Tibebe’s life.  Having “discovered something new,” Tibebe wanted to pursue it, so he continued to attend.  An usher, Evangelist Abere Darge, befriended him.

He was also a member of an underground Baptist church. The Marxist military government had closed churches. Because the IEC were mostly expatriates from Europe and the U.S., it stayed open.

The usher invited him to dinner, lunch and coffee.  Abere, who had only a seventh grade education, was not an intellectual, but Tibebe said he “saw the power of the gospel in this man, the love and simplicity of Christ.”

It was hard for Tibebe to extricate himself from the influence of Marxism, but Abere taught, supported and led him, eventually inviting him to the underground church.

Once faith became a part of Tibebe’s life, it affected all aspects of it. He realized if one person could change his life profoundly and help him see Christ, he could be that person for other people.

In Ethiopia, he created his own mission field, inviting people to meet, letting them come as they were without judging them.

From his participation in Ethiopia’s Christian movement, he felt God gave him experience to understand the era and a call to share the story in The Evangelical Movement in Ethiopia: Resistance and Resilience (2009).

His faith now informs his work as a professor: “God didn’t invest in me in vain.  I still want to do more with the Lord,” Tibebe said.

God changed the trajectory of his life.  Many of his companions at that time were killed. He wanted to stay and fight, but believes God had other plans for him.

Tibebe cares about Ethiopians in Ethiopia and in the Diaspora.  He has compassion and respect for people of his generation who are still influential.  He would like to reach them with the Gospel of Jesus that has changed his life.  

In 1991, the Ethiopian People’s Democratic Revolutionary Front, formed by students to fight the military, overturned the unpopular, discredited military government.

“Ethiopia has a long way to go still,” said Tibebe, who doesn’t know where he will go next.

 “The best place to be is where God wants me to be.  I will spend the rest of my life for God,” he said.

For information, call 777-4368.

Copyright © March 2013 - The Fig Tree