Many blog posts and online articles have been written tackling the question “Is Christianity a White Man’s Religion?” In fact, if you do a simple Google search of the question, majority of the articles you will get will be attempting to show why Christianity is not a white man’s religion.
The reasons often given are rather straightforward:
- Jesus was not European (white) but Middle Eastern (brown)
- Some of the earliest Christians lived in (north) Africa
- Some of the earliest, most influential Christian thinkers were Africans
- The gospel invites people from all tribes and tongues (and races)
For such a heavily denied notion, one can’t help but wonder why virtually no one is writing articles defending Christianity “as” a white man’s religion. Which raises the question: Why does this question remain popular if no one is explicitly arguing for a white Christianity? This apparent imbalance is the reason I think the answers often given (i.e. the list above) are less than satisfactory.
I am not saying that the answers are false. They are not. It is true that Christianity was in north Africa centuries before colonialism. Neither am I saying that the arguments they use are invalid. I just think that they fail to address the reasons many people still think Christianity is a white man’s religion in the first place.
Politics versus history
For the few people I have encountered asking this question, I’ve learnt that they are not so much interested in the history of Christianity as they are in the politics of Christianity. More accurately, they are concerned about the “spirit” of Christianity. This also explains why you will seldom find academic articles online arguing “for” Christianity as the white man’s religion.
So arguing, for instance, that Jesus was Middle Eastern does little to help the conversation because this fact does not address the real racial pain point behind the question. I really don’t care if Jesus was Middle Eastern because it is not Arabs but white men who brought the religion to Africa.
For many enquirers, the question often stems from a feeling that one’s African identity, language and forms of religious expressions are being treated as inferior, irrelevant and often dangerous. For instance, why are missionaries so quick to point out that the African names for God do not refer to the God of the Bible and yet don’t have the same reservations for other European names for God?
There is also the colonial baggage associated with the arrival of missionaries into Africa, and the biblical justifications for slavery in America that further made it difficult to disassociate the core teachings of Christianity from its cultural expressions.
A famous quote often attributed to Desmond Tutu is a good illustration of this “question behind the question” Tutu once said: “When the missionaries came to Africa, they had the Bible and we had the land.”
To respond to this statement with answers like “not all missionaries” or “the missionaries were not the colonizers” is to miss the point. Desmond Tutu was not presenting a doctoral thesis but expressing a mood, a feeling, a cultural reality not necessarily traceable to any single white person.
The (group of) people who brought Christianity to the continent are the same people who brought the troubles of colonialism. The least we can do is acknowledge this and be hesitant about rushing to split hairs. It is the same challenge African Americans face in the U.S. when they associate racism with the history of slavery. Pointing out that your great grand-parents didn’t own slaves does little to help the situation.
Further, the Christianity that many Africans encounter even today shows up dressed in many cultural norms and practices that can only be described as White, or Western. This, I believe, is the deepest root of the question “is Christianity a white man’s religion?”
When some cultures are more equal than others
How can I worship a God who seems to not even be aware that my ancestors existed before the gospel ever reached my country? Telling me that Christianity existed in Egypt doesn’t help me much because that’s not where my ancestors come from (Sub-Saharan Africa).
Saying I can’t use my native name for God and yet you have no problem using the name of God from Britain smells of double standards. The least you can insist on is that we all use the Hebrew Yahweh like the Jehovah’s Witnesses do. This way, it is clear from the onset that both the white missionary and his black audience are talking about a God who is foreign to both of their cultures.
How do I simply adopt the white priest’s collar, the white man’s hymns and the white pastor’s reading culture and discard my traditional religious dress or the oral means we used to pass on our faith? The “forms” of religious expressions matter.
Even when God instituted the religious rituals in Leviticus, they looked a lot like the rituals practiced by surrounding Ancient Near East communities. From the priests to the animal sacrifices. Why is it now impossible to reform and refine (redefine) the African religious expressions and yet it seems so easy to do the same to the bar songs (hymns) and the cathedrals of Europe?
Addressing the question behind the question
These, I believe, are just a few of the questions behind the question “is Christianity a white man’s religion?”. Many of the times the issue of Christianity as White Man’s religion comes up in the context of disenfranchisement and marginalization and feelings of disrespect for one’s African identity, roots and rituals.
This is why many African traditionalists have abandoned Christianity, not for atheism, but for the “religion of our ancestors”. They are not doing this because they have examined the two options and found the latter to be more reasonable. No, they are doing it as a form of protest.
They are making a statement that their history and pedigree matters and if this means that the God of the universe is against them for being born in Africa and having an African “accent”, then that God is not worth worshiping.
When Christianity is a white man’s religion
Christianity is seen as a white man’s religion because those who preach and practice it often ignore, shun and even demonize the African’s religious heritage and rituals. When hymns are the norm and African drums are suspect (charismatic), we have a problem. When solemn contemplation is considered holiness while the mourning dance is just plain disruptive, the double standard becomes too difficult to ignore.
Christianity is seen as a white man’s religion not because we don’t know Jesus was Middle Eastern, but because the European missionaries who preached it didn’t seem to think it made any difference and instead presented a Europeanized (whitewashed?) Jesus.
Christianity is seen as a white man’s religion not because we think it came to Africa late, but because those who preach it want to erase Africa in the name of a white Jesus.
Christianity is seen as a white man’s religion not because we don’t know about the intellectual prowess of Augustine, Athanasius and Clement of Alexandria, but because these names are unrecognizable as Africans because they reach us speaking English and espousing cultural norms that can only be described as European.
Christianity is seen as white man’s religion not because we think the gospel doesn’t invite people from all tribes and tongues (and races), but because those who practice this gospel seem to be obsessed with erasing our tribes, invalidating our tongues and only tolerating our Africanness at best.