“Christianity is the white man’s religion. The Holy Bible in the white man’s hands and his interpretations of it have been the greatest single ideological weapon for enslaving millions of non-white human beings.” — Malcolm X (Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X & Alex Haley)
While the idea that Christianity is the “white man’s religion,” “Africans were not Christian,” and that slaves were somehow “powerless and automatically converted to Christianity” dominate the historical and cultural imagination, many of these stories are incomplete and false. By continuing to perpetuate them, we are complicit in the centuries-old goal of whitening Christianity and history. We collectively suppress Blackness, silence the ancestors, and enable oppressive groups to dominate the historical narrative.
I do not say this to narrowly construct Christianity as the world’s savior, nor do I seek to repent for or mitigate Christianity’s sins. Its role in war, genocide, abuse, cultural destruction, inequality, devastation, division, and any other atrocities it or its followers may have committed cannot be denied, and self-reflection on the part of Christians is crucial.
But as Black Millenials we must critically engage with the religious and historical messages we have internalized, and Christianity contains histories.
The development of contemporary racial categories has directly fed the damaging disconnect between Christianity and the African Diaspora. The terms Negro or Colored have been insidiously used to linguistically conceal the role of Africans and Africa in the development of Christianity. By divorcing North Africans from the African diaspora, and artificially dividing North Africa from sub-Saharan Africa, these terms are wielded to erase the larger Black community’s connection to Christianity.
Significant institutional, theological, and doctrinal aspects of Christianity emerged out of the continent of Africa. As is the case with other ancient Near Eastern cultures, there are striking similarities between the Hebrew Bible (e.g. the Christian Old Testament) and indigenous African religions.
For instance, prior to the emergence of Judaism, the Dogon people of Mali migrated out of the Nile Valley. The Dogon creation mythology bears a resemblance to the creation narrative in the Old Testament, and the concept of resurrection appears in the ancient Egyptian myth of Osiris and Isis.
Drawing these comparisons are not intended to negate or dilute Biblical narratives, but to point to the complex relationships between the movement of people, culture, language, belief, and preserved histories.
Geographic locations in Africa, not Europe, serve as key settings in the Hebrew Bible. Egypt is mentioned over one hundred times and Ethiopia over forty. In Genesis 2:8-14, we learn about the significance of ancient Kush/Cush (south of ancient Egypt) and its relationship to the rivers of Eden.
Depictions and physical characteristics of figures in the Bible can become contentious, yet phenotypical Blackness is expressed as beautiful in Song of Songs 1:5. There are a range of visual representations and cultural depictions of Jesus throughout time, but the fabricated “blonde haired, blue eyed” image is biblically unfounded (Revelation 1:14-15). We must remember it is a cultural representation grounded in particular imperatives.
Christian history is inextricably linked to Jewish history. Most early Christians believed they were following the long-awaited Jewish Messiah (Isaiah: 53) who fulfilled the promise God made to Abraham. They believed that the coming of Jesus—the Messiah (the savior, the anointed)—identified him as a descendant of Abraham and would provide salvation to all people (Acts 4:10-12; John 3:16; and Galatians 3:16).
While Ashkenazi Jews dominate the cultural appearance or representation of Judaism, Ethiopian Jews are also a part of the Jewish diaspora, and still are present in the country. Ethiopian Jews referred to themselves as Beta Isra’eal or the “House of Israel,” and are phenotypically “Black.” Ethiopian Jews, today, possess an ancient spiritual literature and sacred ancient Semitic language that is called Ge’ez, and the language could be a predecessor to both Hebrew and Arabic. Yet the cultural representations of African and Black Jews are limited.
African philosophers and theologians became the primary contributors to shape foundational Christian doctrines, practices, and rituals of the early Christian Church.
Africans were also present at the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2:10. Therefore, Africans were charter members of the Church. The most basic theological concepts and vocabulary derive from Africans such as Tertullian (born in Carthage modern-day Tunisia), Athanasius (born in Egypt), and Augustine (born in Numidia modern day Algeria).
The New Testament, in fact, was established as canon in 397 CE in Africa at the Synod of Carthage. While scholars argue that Constantine I utilized Christianity for political gain, giving the Roman government an imperial religion, the idea that Constantine was solely responsible for the creation of particular Christian doctrines such as the Trinity (which existed prior) are historically irresponsible.
In 325 CE, the first great ecumenical council—meaning it held universal applicability—was called by Constantine. The council was held in Nicaea (modern-day Turkey), uniting bishops from North Africa and beyond to settle the debate about Jesus’ divinity. Accordingly, Africans participated in the establishing early creeds of the Church.
In 632 CE, as a result of the Arab invasions, Christianity was under siege in North Africa. Egypt transformed from a predominantly Christian country to a Muslim country. Scholars argue that Arab invaders were primarily concerned with cultural and political domination in Africa, whereas Europeans (later) would be concerned with its exploitation.
As a result of the spread of Islam and the Arab conquest of North Africa, Christianity began to almost exclusively thrive on the continent of Europe from the seventh century onward. This leads many to solely identify Christianity with Europe. This also led to the misconception that has persisted even up to the present day that Christianity is “the white man’s religion,” and that the spread of Christianity in Africa is the exclusive result of modern European missionary work.
The identification of Christianity with Europe and not Africa was propagated by white European scholars in modernity. After all, how could European colonists find biblical reason to enslave a “dark continent” that was “uncivilized” if Christianity’s true developmental, doctrinal, and theological history was revealed to be out of Africa? The truth is that Africa civilized Europe. However, Europe’s manifest destiny relied on the exploitation of Africa(ns) was concealed as “civilizing.” In The History and Heritage of African American Churches: A Way out of No Way, Dr. L. H. Whelchel contends: “thus, Africans, the historical parents of Christianity, now become the children.”
The Transatlantic Slave Trade’s usage of Christianity as a tool for conversion and legitimization was both transparent and political. Africans were sold a degrading and adulterated brand of Christianity that brutishly eroded indigenous rituals, practices, systems, beliefs, traditions, language, culture, collective memory and personal and tribal histories.
“Converting” Africans in America to the American Christianity created unanticipated moral and theological problems. If Blacks could be converted and baptized, then were they not created in the image of God (imago Dei, Gen 1:26–28)? Alternatively, the denial of baptism for the enslaved undermined the rationale for their enslavement. How could Africans become “civilized” and “enlightened” if they were not converted?
Passages such as Galatians 3:28-29 which states “there is no longer slave or free” because all “are one in Christ Jesus” directly contested slavery. Thus, alternative theological justifications became necessary. During our spirited conversations, a colleague, Rev. Paul Ford, has argued “the anxiety felt by many slaveholders and pro-slavery Christians had to do with the implications of baptizing blacks into a religion that subverted societal hierarchy. The tradition that developed around the ‘Curse of Ham’ was a tool to rationalize that – even though they were created in the image of God as were white people – blacks were ‘cursed’ and intended to live as a subservient race.”
These volatile verses of scripture undermine the myth of white hierarchy and the logic of enslavement. Clearly theological and so-called moral imperatives were superseded by economic interests.
Even as colonial Christians attempted to suppress indigenous spirituality and practice, African American slaves radically developed a liberating American Christianity. Although shackled, illiterate, and under resourced, African Americans were not powerless.
They thought theologically—recognized, reasoned, challenged, and generated ideas about God, the Bible, and their faith—about what the God of Moses had done for the Israelites. Black slaves identified themselves with the Israelites, who had been freed from Egyptian captivity (Exodus 13-14). Surely God was still acting in human history and would also deliver them, they reasoned.
Slaves identified with a deity who was born in a manger, mocked by leaders of his era, betrayed by a friend, and then crucified by Roman overseers was still committed to freedom and salvation that was applicable to their 18th century lives.
African Americans recognized the educational, social, economic, and political benefits associated with Christianity. Religious study provided the opportunity to read and write English. African Americans radically sought to maintain self-worth and fight for their self-determination even during the inhumanity of slavery through education and the formation of their own religious institution.
In Shoes That Fit Our Feet: Sources for a Constructive Black Theology, Dr. Dwight Hopkins remarks: “through scriptural insights, theological imagination, and direct contact with God, black bondsmen and bondswomen combined faith instincts from their African traditional religions with the justice message of the Christian gospel and planted the seeds for a black theology expressed through politics and culture.” By reconciling their spirituality with their material reality, African Americans created an “Invisible Institution.” Participants formed informal groups that were “invisible”—that is slaves, intentionally, met, organized, and practiced in secret, often quite literally in the bushes, and at night.
Invisibility was key to reducing white retaliation, punishment, and coaptation. They were expressive. They performed practices of singing, shouting, dancing, Holy-spirit possession, spirited testimonies, exhortation, and they preached freely.
The historical development of the Invisible Institution was also characterized by the integration of African religious traditions (e.g. herbalism and metaphysical conceptions of spirits and the ancestors). Slaves interpreted Western Christian tradition through their own lens, even as they practiced it often in an illiterate, oppressed context.
Rev. Gustavo Gutiérrez’s text A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation is widely credited as being the foundational text of liberation theology and some argue that he is the founder (or Father) of liberation theology. Liberation theologies, broadly, interpret Scripture through the eyes of the “least of these” (Matthew 25:40). While the scholarly vocabulary of—and formalized movements—associated with the “Social Gospel” and “liberation theology” may not have formally emerged until the 19th or 20th centuries, the attempt to only validate these discourses undermine African American Christian theological history and indigenous liberation theologies.
The quest for liberation is global, and surely oppressed groups, independent of one another, fought for and chronicled their liberation struggles. The legacy of the Black Church today derives from the legacy of the Invisible Institution. The modern Black Church is a collective institution comprised of Christian communities reflecting rich global histories fused with traditions, practices, and beliefs that were not the exclusive result of slave captivity. Blacks were present at the institutional founding of the Church and founded the oldest Christian communities in world. Christian history is Black history.
By Dilara K. Üsküp