The Misconception of Christianity as a Colonial Religion in Africa
In Africa, Easter is a welcome holiday for Christians and non-Christians alike perhaps more for motives of rest than for motives of religion and faith. Many educated urbanites dismiss Christianity as a dangerous colonial trickery which was meant to placate the African, to pave the way for his consequent plunder and pillage. The view that Christianity is distinctively a white-man’s religion may be prevalent but it is not new.
Jomo Kenyatta, a renown Pan-Africanist and Kenya’s first president is reported to have had a lukewarm view of Christianity, perhaps informed by the colonial experience: “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,” he is reported to have lamented.
For his 15 years as the president, he never once went to church.
Former South African President Jacob Zuma is known to have descried the negative influence of Christianity on the otherwise pristinely stellar indigenous African culture.
Walter Rodney, the inimitable academic and African historian, whose magnum opus, ‘How Europe Underdeveloped Africa inspired and informed several pre-colonial African revolutionaries,’ had a similar view of the matter:
‘The Christian missionaries were much part of the colonizing forces as were the explorers, traders and soldiers. There may be room for arguing whether in a given colony the missionaries brought other colonialist forces or vice versa, but there is no doubting the fact that missionaries were agents of colonialism in the practical sense whether or not they saw themselves in that light.’
Apart from the troublesome colonial connections, many Africans view Christianity as western and un-African. Jesus is viewed as a white saviour. The sacred text is seen as the ‘White man’s Bible.’ And Christianity is scorned as a white-man’s religion. This has spawned a form of evangelical activism, which, instead of preaching about sin and salvation, is focusing on Africanizing Christianity. Advocates agitate for the wearing of African attire in church. Instead of suits and tuxedos, believers must adorn African kitenges. It is some form of liberation theology; more political than it is theological.
Pastor Maponga, a rambunctious Seventh-Day Adventist pastor who preaches extensively in South Africa, is a little more radical. He passionately calls for the decolonization of Christianity, which he claims depicts a white Jesus and promotes a white culture.
It is his view, enthusiastically shared by many, that Christianity was not created to serve the black race, especially not in Africa. He laments that Africa is on a cross, crucified by the Western powers. The situation of race relations in South Africa is a very sensitive one and such teachings can be very popular and even more perilous.
But all these notions and ideas could be tolerated, even encouraged, if they were true. The problem is that they are simply not true. Christianity is not a white-man’s religion in a possessive, exclusive, even historical sense.
In fact, historically, an African is more Christian than the Caucasian. Africans embraced Christianity long before the light of the gospel shone on Anglo-Saxon soil.
In 2019, the Smithsonian highlighted significant archaeological finds in Ethiopia, highlighting the discovery of ruins of a Christian church, believed to be the earliest Christian church on the continent of Africa. The church was discovered 30 miles northeast of Aksum, the capital of the medieval Aksumite kingdom; an important empire that emerged within the first century.
When the materials from the ruins were carbon dated, researchers established that the church was built around 313BC. In contrast, the first Anglo-Saxon church is believed to have been built over two centuries later. St. Martin’s church in Canterbury was built in the sixth century and is the oldest church in England still being used. Many people believe it to be the oldest in the entire English-speaking world.
When St. Augustus crossed the British channel for an evangelistic trip in 597AD, he found that paganism was in the British air and was thriving well in the British soil.
But Christianity could have come to Africa, described in the Bible as the ‘land of Ham’, three centuries earlier than the erection of the church at Aksum. The conversion and baptism of an Ethiopian ‘eunuch’ is described in the Bible, specifically in the 8th chapter of the book of Acts. The eunuch was returning from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
In the same vein, there was a long history of settlement of Jewish believers in Egypt and one would expect this early Jewish influence to have also played a role. Jews flocked to the African city of Alexandria, the location of the celebrated medieval library and the ancient melting pot of culture and learning. It is from Alexandria, that the Septuagint, the Greek version of the old testament was written. In fact, the Bible, in Acts 18: 24, talks glowingly of ‘a Jew named Apollos, an Alexandrian by birth, an eloquent man,’ who was ‘mighty in the Scriptures.’
But who knows?
Maybe individuals like Symon of Cyrene, a Libyan who helped Jesus by carrying his cross on the Via Dolorosa, also played a role. During the day of Pentecost, there were believers who had come from ‘parts of Libya about Cyrene’. Might this not have been partly due to the work of Symon the Cyrene?
But Mark the apostle and the first writer of a synoptic gospel, is also said to have taken Christianity to Alexandria in the year 49AD. Athanasius, the foremost theologian of the trinity concept is acknowledged to have been short and ‘black.’ In fact, he was derisively referred to by opponents as the, ‘Black dwarf.’
This is not to mention Origen, Perpetua, Cyprian, and perhaps the greatest of them all, St. Augustine of Hippo. Hippo is located near the modern town of Annaba in present-day Algeria.
Thomas Oden’s book, ‘How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind: Rediscovering the western seedbed of Western Christianity,’ convincingly argues its central thesis.
Yet Christianity cannot be owned by the afro-centric romanticist. The gospel, like sun-light, appeared simultaneously in several places. Blacks cannot claim exclusive possession. Caucasians’ claim cannot bear the scrutiny of history. Greco-Romans had an influence but not exclusive or original. The only people who could make an original claim to Christianity are the Jews; but they cannot because they rejected it as a nation.
The Christian gospel therefore stands above petty race-wars.
While it is true that Christianity that re-entered the doors of the African continent appeared like a new idea, it was not really foreign in the sense that it was not organically or historically white.
Yet we have to admit that Christianity grew dim and almost disappeared in Africa in the intervening years. The causes for this disappearance are as baffling as the causes for the degeneration of art and learning in Africa.
But even in this African dark ages, the light of the gospel still flickered and smoldered without really going completely out. The Orthodox Tewahedo Church in Ethiopia is a case in point.
Though Christianity later became preponderant in Europe and America, the assertion that it is a white-man’s religion is neither historically accurate nor theologically correct. For as the Apostle Peter says:
“God is no respecter of persons: But in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him.” (Acts 10: 34–35-KJV)