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Is Christianity just a "white man's religion"?
By Charles Gilmer, Impact Director

When you hear the name "Jesus" what images and thoughts come to mind?

Devotion to Jesus has been a large part of the African-American experience. The black church has been and continues to be a powerful force in the African-American community. But many are questioning the propriety of African Americans following Jesus. Should we, as black people, follow this Jesus?

Some suggest that Jesus was a foreign deity forced upon our forefathers and mothers. Others suggest that worshiping Jesus has been nothing more than a psychological narcotic to deaden the pain of our oppressed existence. Still others contend that our forefathers' worship of Jesus was merely a mask for the expression of more ancient religious practices, a cover for the practice of "traditional" African religions.

How should we view that influence as we approach a new chapter of our history? Much is being said, yet is what you've heard the truth? Let's, you and I, examine some of these perspectives about African Americans and Christianity.

The best historical record of Jesus' life is found in the Bible. One of the most frequently posed challenges is directed at this book.

Is the Bible credible? Isn't it just a European book that has little to do with our people?
The answer to the questions are, "Yes, the Bible is credible," and "No, it isn't a European book that has nothing to do with our people." Black people are referred to and appear on the stage of biblical history many times. Several works have been done to chronicle these instances.{1} One notable biblical character was Zipporah, Moses' Midianite wife. This means that Zipporah's father, Jethro, was also black.{2} In the New Testament, there are several characters whom scholars believe were likely black due to the location of their home cities. The most undeniable instance was Lucius' comrade in Antioch, Simeon, who was called Niger. Niger simply means "black." African nations and African people are quite prominent in biblical times. To say that the Bible is the white man's holy book or to suggest that it is European in origin or nature, is simply not taking into account the facts.

Isn't Christianity a late arrival in Africa? Isn't it a foreign religion to Africa and Africans?
In his book, The Early Church in Africa, Dr. John Mbiti outlines the fact that the message of Jesus penetrated Africa before it ever reached Europe. "Christianity in Africa is so old that it can be rightly described as an indigenous, traditional and African religion," says Dr. Mbiti.{3} The conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch described in the Book of Acts predates the apostle Paul's first missionary journey into Europe by a number of years. There is clear, historical documentation of the church in Africa by the third century. Christianity was the dominant religion in North Africa and most notably Egypt.

Egyptian and North African scholars such as Clement, Origen, Tertullian, and Athanasius are widely recognized as fathers of the church. By the year 300, Egypt had more than a million Christians. In the sixth century, Christianity spread to the Nubian Kingdoms, soon becoming the dominant religion. The Christian Nubian Kingdoms survived for 700 years, resisting attempted domination by Muslim conquerors for 600 of those years.

The Egyptian Coptic Church in the Sudan and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church still exist today. Though persecuted, their presence is testimony to the historicity of Christianity in Africa.{4} There is growing evidence that the long-standing presence of Christianity in the Nile Valley and in present-day Ethiopia provided a base for the introduction of Christianity in Southern and Western Africa. In summary, the assertion that Christianity is the "white man's religion" is neither historically accurate nor currently true. The first African Christians were not American slaves. The Christian heritage in Africa goes all the way back to the days of the Bible itself.

Well, didn't Christians start, perpetuate and defend American slavery?
First of all, slave trading was not introduced to Sub-Saharan Africa from Europe. Arab Muslims had been conducting a slave trade for hundreds of years before Europeans arrived on the west coast of Africa. Second, the slave traders themselves seldom claimed to be devout men, even though they came from "Christian nations."

In contradiction to this perception stands the life of a white Englishman named William Wilberforce. He led the fight against the slave trade in Parliament because of his commitment to Jesus Christ. His is an incredible story of sacrifice and dedication to truth and justice for African people. While it took his entire life to win this victory, win he did.

In the United States, Christians reacted to slavery in a substantially different way. While there was vocal Christian protest against the slave trade and much of the abolitionist movement was spear-headed by Christian people, there were also many Christians who defended slavery. The issue of slavery grew more divisive, and eventually most of the major Protestant denominations divided over the issue. This actually set the stage for the Civil War.

While many factors contributed to the onset of the Civil War, no one can argue that slavery was not a principle cause for the split of the nation, South from North. Many rightly contend that Abraham Lincoln's original objective in the war was not the removal of slavery from the South. Yet it is clear that as the war dragged on, he began to sense the larger drama that was being played out via the conflict. In his Second Inaugural Address, Lincoln spoke eloquently of his growing belief that God was judging the United States for indulging the wicked institution of slavery.

It is intriguing to note that our nation lost more lives in that one conflict than in all its other wars combined. Perhaps we can conclude that God did not turn a blind eye to the sufferings of the slaves, nor did He wink at the conduct of those who oppressed African people in America.

What was the attitude of the slaves through all of this? How could our forefathers embrace the religion of their oppressors?
Part of the rationalization of the slave trade was to "civilize" and "Christianize" the Africans. Missionary efforts among the slaves were allowed because owners assumed that Christianity would make slaves better workers. In the course of this instruction, the slaves discovered something. While the Bible did teach, "Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear," it also said, "And masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that he who is both your Master and theirs is in heaven and there is no favoritism with him."{5} They discovered that the slavery alluded to in the Bible was substantially different from what they were experiencing. Too many masters wanted their slaves to submit to the commands of Scripture but were unwilling to live by those commands themselves.

The slaves discovered this contradiction but did not allow that to interfere with receiving the transcendent truth of the Bible. In its pages they found hope, courage, strength and comfort. The Negro spirituals are the legacy of the faith of those who, from an earthly standpoint, had cause for despair. This faith enabled our forefathers to endure trials and hardships that we can only imagine. This faith inspired leaders to respond courageously to the problems of our people. These leaders were the likes of Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, and the thousands of former slaves who enlisted in the Union Army to fight for their freedom. The liberating dynamic of the Bible caused the Southern states to place restrictions on missionary activities among the slaves, forbidding reading instruction and limiting preaching by slave preachers. They also began to put restrictions on slave worship services.

The spiritual "Steal Away" signaled the calling of a worship service to be held in the "hush arbors" outside of the scrutiny of the master or his overseers. In these hush arbors (gathering places in the seclusion of the woods) our forefathers and mothers could revel in the truth that they were not brute beasts with no more value than an ox or an ass. No, the Bible taught them that they were children of the Most High God, citizens of His heavenly kingdom, and that they had inherent value as humans. When they entered into prayer and worship, they experienced a fleeting but galvanizing foretaste of an eventual eternal reward.

The slaves who turned to Jesus knew the difference between some of the versions of Christianity they were seeing practiced and the Christianity they were hearing described in the Bible. Hence the line in the spiritual, "Everybody talkin' 'bout heaven ain't goin' there." They chose to follow the Jesus they saw in the Bible. Jesus provided the hope and power they needed to survive slavery.

Wasn't the white church an accomplice to our ongoing oppression and isn't the black church a pacifying agent in our struggle for freedom?
Of course, neither the Emancipation Proclamation nor the North's victory in the Civil War ended our problems. After the hope and turmoil of the Reconstruction period, black Americans again found themselves being systematically and legally oppressed. Unfortunately, once again, many who claimed to be Christians were involved in the reign of terror, which sought to keep African Americans in their place. The Southern white church was at best silent, and at worse, actively defending the conduct of those who were marauding among, intimidating, and lynching our people. Very few black families today are devoid of horror stories of relatives and friends who were abused and/or murdered. Black societies and businesses were seldom allowed to survive.

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