Christianity the White Man's Religion?: African, Asian and Latin American Perspectives PART 2
“The goal of bringing minority Christians from the margins of the faith is not to topple and marginalize the White Christian, but instead to invite every people group to the table equally where Jesus alone sits at the head.”
As I laid out in Part 1, the idea that Christianity is the White Man’s religion is neither biblical nor historically accurate. Still, this conversation is incomplete if we just correct the myths with facts. In this post I’d like to highlight the following:
How colonization and traditional Christianity’s emphasis on the contributions of one group has helped to feed the “White Man Religion” narrative
Where we see God’s multi-ethnic vision for his church highlighted in Scripture
How Christianity benefits from diversity of thought
Evangelism and Colonization
One of the biggest historical challenges to the spread of Christianity has been the public relations problem of colonialism and evangelism [mainly during the 1700-1800’s] by Western nations. During this period there was a mixture of good and bad intentions that led to abuse by the hands of self-professed Christians in foreign lands. African leader Desmond Tutu sums up the prevailing attitude toward Western Christians on his continent by stating:
"When the missionaries came, they told me to close my eyes and pray. When I opened my eyes, I had a Bible in my hand, and they had our land."
For many, the evangelism experienced was more of a guise for expansion by wealthy western powers. So, with these skeptics the resistance to the gospel is not so much to Christianity but to colonization. The view remains: Colonize my land once shame on you... but you won’t colonize my mind with the ‘religion of the oppressor’.
Sri Lanka, an Asian country that has experienced colonization by three Western European powers in its history, is one of many countries going through a process of ‘decolonizing’ the church. For them, the process involves moving away from Euro-centric architecture, worship and church leadership, in favor of a more indigenous Christian identity.
Similarly, Puerto Rico is grappling with the role of the Protestant church in facilitating the Americanization of their island. Many view the Protestant missionaries that came to their land as the source of the spread of American values like individualism, English speaking, and consumer capitalism. Puerto Rican leaders now are drawing on the theological model of struggles against imperialistic powers in the Bible like Babylon, Egypt and Rome over the nation of Israel.
Traditional Christian Heroes All Have One Thing in Common
By no means did White Christian missionaries have a monopoly on bad behavior in foreign lands. However, the heavy emphasis on the evangelistic achievements of one group has helped to further this ‘White man religion’ narrative, and the negative associations that come with it.
Let's look at a short list of famed missionaries often highlighted in Western culture churches:
· David Livingstone - Missionary that ‘brought light’ to Africa [1841 AD]
· Hudson Taylor – Brought the gospel to China, where it had ‘never been before’ [1853 AD]
· Horace Grant Underwood - First Western missionary to Korea [1885 AD]
These are all White western gentleman who answered the call of God to go and preach the gospel in faraway lands long before travel and communication were easy. But so did these rarely if ever mentioned men of color who were missionaries before or during the same era of the great men mentioned above:
· Joseph Merrick – Freed Jamaican Slave who established the first Cameroon Church [1842 AD]
· Alopen (Persian monk) – First Recorded Christian missionary to China [635 AD]
· Yi Seung - hun – Established first Christian community in Korea [~1785 AD]
I once owned a biography of missionary to Africa David Livingstone that actually said he ‘brought light’ to the dark continent. Not quite. The light in Africa was turned on long before by the African leaders present during Pentecost in Acts 2:10, the Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts 8:27, the African church fathers including Augustine and Tertullian, and later by my Jamaican ancestor Brother Joseph mentioned above! The ‘light’ is not carried solely by one group. The narrative must be changed to match that of God’s.
God’s Vision for His Church
In part 1 we see throughout the Bible that God directly challenges racism and xenophobia in the nation of Israel. Thankfully he doesn’t stop there. In several other places in the text, we clearly see that when God describes his church it is decidedly multi-ethnic.
For example, in Acts 2 on the day of Pentecost, we see God takes the time to highlight some of the many nations represented from Africa, Asia as well as the Middle East. And in Revelations 7:9 God describes his worshippers as representing every nation, all tribes, all peoples, all languages.
One interesting account involves the well-known story of Jesus and the money changers in Matthew 21:12-15. The temple in Jerusalem was the place where people came from near and far to worship at the temple. In order to purchase animals to sacrifice, they had to change their money. These moneychangers were charging high conversion fees to profit off of people’s desire to make a sacrifice. Naturally, Jesus did not approve of the defiling of God’s house and drove them out.
It’s important to recognize that the people who would most be impacted by this were not the local Jews, but the foreigners from other lands (they were the ones who needed to change their money). Jesus wanted to remove the barriers to the temple against the poor and the multiethnic foreigners. In verse 13 he even says, “it is written, my house will be called a house of prayer”. Here Jesus is quoting Isaiah 56:7 where God says “… my house will be called a house of prayer…for all nations.”
Diversity of Thought
“The great drama of the gospel message is being revealed on the stage but no one seat in the auditorium provides the complete view.”
Here’s a challenge: See if you can find three friends that own a Bible commentary written by a person of color from the East. You won’t find many – and likely none at all because the vast majority of Bible commentaries [used both in the West and the East] were written by White Western males. As a response to this, we’ve seen in recent years the development of the Africa Bible Commentary, the South Asia Bible Commentary, the Asia Bible Commentary, and the soon to be released Arabic Bible Commentary. The names themselves, [pointing to a focus on particular ethnic groups rather than just the author's’ names] are an indication of what is traditionally considered a standard commentary.
Diversity of thought in Christian theology is important for both evangelism and for spiritual formation. As we’ve already seen, when the missionaries, heroes of the faith and source of scholarship betray a focus on white western culture, seekers outside that group may believe they must change their culture or find another religion. This is an unnecessary barrier to the faith. Additionally, those from non-Western cultures are concerned with issues that are not typically addressed in the Western church including the treatment of ancestors, honoring family of other faith traditions, injustice, poverty, immigration and slavery. And how much do we miss in the West, when we don’t hear from the Bible scholars born and raised in the Eastern cultures closer to that of the Bible than ours?
In the global phenomenon that Pentecostalism has become, we see what it looks like when the church becomes relevant, while remaining faithful to the gospel. Particularly in Latin America, there has been a mass exodus of Christians from the Catholic Church. As one anthropologist argues, “In only a century of operation in Latin America, Pentecostalism has more successfully Latin-Americanized than Catholicism has in five centuries”. The movement’s popularity can be tied to the focus on issues related to the poor, the use of indigenous leaders, the teachings on a personal relationship with God rather than through the typically European priest, and the embrace of elements of Latin American culture like music and emotional worship.
The overall takeaway is that far from being an objection posed by black nationalist groups, the perception of Christianity being best designed for ‘the White man’ has impacted the global church. As the body of Christ, this gives us a great opportunity to examine if we are in fact displaying and communicating a faith that is relevant in every culture. All Christians need to feel they have the option to be at home in their culture, and at home in Christ. As Pastor Robert Guerrero of Washington Heights in NYC always says,
“If the gospel makes you less Dominican something is wrong with that gospel."
Tell me your thoughts in the comments section!
Ciao for now!