Originally uploaded: 4th April 2019
I was challenged to do this piece a couple of months ago when a friend of mine, who identifies as agnostic/atheist, said I just don’t understand why black people are Christians. This challenged me to look at the relation between race and the Church with a new perspective. So the question that I have today and that I hope to answer with this piece is: Why doesn’t the church talk about racism?
In the months that I’ve had this blog, I hope to believe that there are two important elements that you’ve learnt: the first is religion and the second is race. Both have impacted my identity; both, however, are institutions.
Yes those things are institutions. I would like to think my faith is enough but it’s not. I would like to think that ‘we are all one race, the human race’ but the truth is both have been politicised. Politicised and turned into an institution.
The first meaning of the noun institution is ‘an organization founded for a religious, educational, professional, or social purpose.’ The second only affirms the first - ‘an established law or practice.’
Remember the saying “don’t mix church and state”? Too late.
So race and religion are institutions in their own right. Why are we talking about it? How do they congregate? Why do they congregate?
Both institutions - throughout history more obviously - have intersected at times and it is because of this intersection that I believe it is important that the church discusses race more openly. And more importantly accept the responsibility that the establishment of the church has had in upholding racism.
I want to say and disclaim that this is not a criticism, but this is a criticism. If I can rephrase James Baldwin, I love the church, and, it is because I love the church that I insist on the right to criticise it perpetually.
The church has been involved in upholding and advertising racism for centuries, the effects of which are still felt today by the generations it has affected. The first example of this is slavery. Religion was law at the time that slavery was established. And thus religion, especially scripture, was used and skewed not only to enforce it but to uphold it as a system.
The children of Ham.
You’re probably wondering what does this mean.
Well, the pro-slave religious argument begins by suggesting that black people were the descendants of Ham. Ham was one of the sons of Noah - the guy who built the boat - and if you carry on reading after the story of the flood you’ll find: one day Noah was drunk and naked in a field. His son Ham found him. To which Ham’s response was to go over to his other brothers and tell them, “Yo Dad’s drunk and naked” (contemporary interpretation). His brothers went over to their father, walking backwards – so they didn’t see anything – with a blanket to cover him. When Noah recovered he blessed his two sons for covering him but cursed Ham because he saw him naked: ‘I will now put a curse on Canaan!
He will be the lowest slave of his brothers.’ (Genesis 9:20-27)
This biblical story was one of the proslavery arguments; as accounted by Larry R. Morrison (yes, this chick is referencing her argument) Noah’s words were believed to be divine and thus slavery was ‘an accomplishment of Noah’s prediction’. Morrison goes on to illustrate that people interpreted Africans to be the descendants of Ham and because Noah did not remove the curse from his son and his future descendants’ slavery is to be ‘continued indefinitely’. For centuries this argument was believed.
In addition to this outrageous argument, religious pro-slavers also used the bible to reinforce slavery and to ensure that it was divinely internalised by black slaves. Come Sunday morning the slave masters gathered their slaves around the Word of God – ‘Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ’ (Ephesians 6:5). Hearing this, already internalising and converting to a religion that was foreign to them, slaves nodded in agreement. But how were they to do anything else when slave owners refused to educate their slaves in reading and writing for the fear that – in the words of W.E.B Du Bois – an educated Negro was a dangerous Negro. If they were to continue reading, they would have found that there was a note to slave owners as well – ‘And masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that He who is both their master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favouritism with him’ (Ephesians 6:9)
They censored the bible for their own selfish, imperialistic and superior gain. This is telling, it shows there is religious foregrounding in slavery and thus racism when it comes to the traditional religious structure.
But it wasn’t just within slavery.
Colonialism is the policy or practice of acquiring full or partial political control over another country, occupying it with settlers, and exploiting it economically.
Out of 54 countries in Africa, only two were not colonialized by the Europeans. I repeat again only 2 countries were not colonialized. I think when teaching about colonialism nobody really teaches about the damaging effects that happened/are happening because of this invasion. It's all about empire rather than imperialism, the commonwealth rather than colonialism. Sugarcoating it so that the bitter taste is overwhelmed with sweetness.
The effects of colonialism impacted my family directly causing many of my family members to have to fight for land that was rightfully theirs and being put in labour camps when they refused to do so. Millions of Africans were killed because of colonialism. Wars broke out. Families separated. Rape. Mutilation. Genocide.
One aspect of colonialism that we don’t speak about is the missionaries that were sent to Africa.
Europeans knew that Africa had many resources that they could use - no wrong word - that they could exploit. And so in the scramble for Africa when they reached the shore they were shocked to see what they believed was “primitive” and “uncivilised”. Colonialism did not just mean teaching European civilisation, it also meant reworking their religion. African religions were stripped out and overtaken by Christianity, the dominant religion in Europe.
That doesn’t sound so bad.
Colonialism took away and exploited Africa’s land, resources, people, culture and religion. They took away their identity. They said you gotta walk like me and talk like me but you’ll never be me.
Now, don’t get me wrong I understand people feeling called to do Evangelism. However I hope that it is not skewed and distorted like it was for the Europeans centuries ago. The Europeans sent missionaries to Africa believing they were bringing God to the land. But what they did was teach assimilation, tore down centuries of African civilisation - that was thrilling, records show, long before the invasion of the West - and labelled it all as sinful.
In the words of Jomo Kenyatta, the first president of the Republic of Kenya, ‘When the Missionaries arrived, the Africans had the land and the Missionaries had the Bible. They taught how to pray with our eyes closed. When we opened them, they had the land and we had the Bible.’ As the Kenyan Writer Mwende Katwiwa puts it, bluntly, 'The greatest lie colonialism ever told was that it brought God to our land' when in actuality they brought blood. I agree with her statement, they did not bring God to Africa; God is sovereign and omnipotent you cannot bring God somewhere where He already resides. Missionaries did not give Africans a choice, they gave themselves justifications. You cannot force Jesus down someone's throat.
Fast forward to today where, as much as we try to hide our face from it, racism resides in our homes. It has a comfortable seat at the table, follows you to work and kids to school but also sits next to you at church and smiles when saying God is good.
In summary, Christianity and the church had a massive part in what was two of humanity’s worst atrocities in all of human existence and we blame it on God. God who is benevolent? I’m sorry but even I find it hard to believe in an all loving God, when humans have forced the hand of God to sign a contract that would exploit the very humans that He created in His image. The truth is that I only picked up on two examples of areas that the church have been involved in, I really could have dived into the KKK or even the Crusades and even Christian terrorist attacks etc. But the conclusion remains clear, as a Christian that believes God is firstly love, humans have it twisted and I also believe that we need to take responsibility for it.
You cannot teach love while harbouring hate.