Powered by Blogger.

Spiritual Colonialism

Spiritual Colonialism

As promised last week, I want to address the issue of spiritual colonialism. First, let me define what I mean by the term. Spiritual colonialism is the idea that one culture is spiritually superior to another. It suggests that one ethnic or cultural expression is more valid than another. Even more nefarious, it suggests that other ethnic or cultural expressions are evil or Satanic, thusly elevating their particular cultural expression as the only way.

It’s not hard to imagine which culture seeks to assert its spiritual superiority over others. It is not a new phenomenon, but it does seem to have deep roots, not just in this country but throughout history. This cultural colonialism permeates across denominational lines and various faith expressions within Christianity. It permeates theology in all of its expressions, practice and worship. What should be viewed as worship style instead gets labeled as “holy” or “demonic”.

Eurocentric Christianity has long asserted its dominance over the Christian cultural landscape. As colonialism was taking place —that great endeavor to conquer the world—Christianity was a part of the conquest. The colonizing European countries, with the distinct spice of superiority sought to save the degraded souls of the black and brown countries they were invading. This meant “saving” them from their “demonic” cultural practices such as drums, syncopated rhythms, indigenous styles of clothing and dress, and even indigenous languages. Let me illustrate this with a personal experience.

I had the opportunity to travel to Tanzania in the mid-2000’s. It was a phenomenal experience that I will never forget. Tanzania is a majority Protestant Christian country, but when we attended church there I was anticipating seeing and experiencing an authentic, African, Christian worship service. What I actually experienced however was a traditional, Euro-American worship service in Swahili. There was no clapping, no expression, no musical instruments except a piano, traditional hymns sung in European style in Swahili, and I was appalled. I was physically upset at what I was seeing because I understood that what I was seeing was a result of Euro-Christian brainwashing.

After service, back at the village where we were staying some of the members of the church came to present a mini-concert for us. It was a 180 degree turn! They had their hand drums, they were singing and moving rhythmically, with life and zest and everything I anticipated hearing from an African-musical presentation. Afterwards, a few of us approached them and asked, “why didn’t you sing like this during church?!” They appeared horrified at the question: “Oh no! We could never do that!” they responded. “Who told you that?!” we asked. Their response confirmed everything I had suspected. “We were taught this by the missionaries”. No further questions were needed. We didn’t need to ask where the missionaries were from or what exactly they taught. It was clear that they had received a fine dose of Euro-American Christian imperialism. They were fed this brand of Christianity that said that only European expressions of the faith were accepted by God. I wanted so badly to tell them that God desires them to serve Him as an outflow of their own cultural context. He is not offended by your music, your rhythm, your syncopation, or your instruments. Worship Him as you will and offer your praise to the Lord from the gifts that He has given you. While I was in a context of being in a black state, there is still much work to be done along the lines of deconstructing the mental and internal effects of colonialism in many of these countries.

Indeed, there is still much work to be done in deconstructing the mental and internal effects of African and Caribbean Americans in this country. I have been to countless churches that are still under the yoke of Eurocentric, white supremacist theology. We are made to feel like our musical expressions, our instruments, our dress, our expressions are evil and cursed by God. It is no coincidence that drums are central instruments in almost every indigenous culture around the world with the exception of most of Europe. It is also no coincidence that drums have been demonized in most Euro-American Christian denominations and expressions. It is no coincidence that suits and ties have become the standard of "presentable" attire for church. It is no coincidence that Euro-American hymns and classical music are viewed as the most sacred forms of music. This is oppression. This is spiritual colonialism, and I for one am ready to be free.

Toward a Black Spirituality

Toward a Black Spirituality

“I will not oblige to your colonized way of faith” Lecrae “Facts”

Several months ago I began to notice a trend among young black Christians and young blacks in general. The trend has been that more and more black youth are seeking alternative spiritual sources, be that within the Christian tradition or outside of it altogether. They have been on a journey to uncover an authentic black spirituality. I noted the intense struggle within them to express their faith in an authentically black way that not only was free of the dominance of white supremacy, but also was not rooted in slavery. This is partly personal observation and partly research based. It is a fact that blacks are leaving Christianity in favor of other religious expressions. It is my personal observation that this is because of a desire to find spiritual expression outside of the realm of a religion that is considered to be the “white man’s religion”. 

Let’s face it, the black church and its roots and history are a product of slavery. While many aspects of the black church retained elements of African spirituality, its evolution and development happened in the context of that strange institution. I sensed within them, and honestly within myself, a desire to seek for a faith and spirituality whose roots were free from that narrative. Is there a spiritual expression for the black man and woman that predates or goes beyond the experience of slavery? And can that expression be found within the confines of Christianity? Furthermore, how does one go about purging the vestiges of white supremacy and Eurocentrism from their Christian experience? Their nuances and depths permeate almost every denomination, every theological framework, every church and every religious institution. So I began to explore what spiritual expressions I could lay my hat on and call home in the context of being a proud black man in America. 

Ever since I heard Malcolm X utter the notion that Christianity is the “white man’s religion” and that it had no relevance to black people I began to question the legitimacy of Christianity for black people. Was this statement true or an exaggeration? Naturally, because it was Malcolm X saying it, I began to look at the Nation of Islam. 

Nation of Islam

While the Nation’s assertion that Islam was the original religion of the black man and that Christianity was a tool of the white oppressor was intriguing, it did not hold up to scrutiny. Christianity had indeed been used by white slave masters and slave traders to justify slavery, but it was not the message of Christ or faithful to His word. There was no doubt in my mind that this usage was a misappropriation of the gospel and therefore this critique could not be validated. There is also significant evidence and historical issue with the claim that all or even a majority of Africans brought to the Americas were Muslims. I loved the social critique that the NOI offered and the principle of self-governance and self-determination, but the theology, especially the dismissal of Jesus of Nazareth and His replacement with the person of Fard Muhammed was not something I could accept. There were also many iterations and “spin-offs” of the NOI, such as the Five Percent Nation of gods and earths, and the Moorish Science Temple of America that also fell short of filling the void. And so the journey continued. 

Black Hebrew Israelites 

In light of Kendrick Lamar’s latest album DAMN, I discovered that there were many black youth that were turning to Black Hebrew Israelites. I was intrigued and began to search to uncover if this was a legitimate outlet. First, it must be noted, that like Protestant Christianity, Hebrew Israelites are very multifaceted with many different groups, expressions, and belief systems within it. The basic idea is that blacks in America are direct descendants of the lost tribes of Israel, and even the tribe of Judah. They believe that after the Romans laid waste to Jerusalem in A.D. 70 that many Jews fled south to Africa as far as Ghana, and that many of the Africans that were taken as slaves during the slave trade were actually Jews. Furthermore, they believe that the original Hebrews were black. So the title Hebrew Israelite is more of an ethnic claim than it is religious. They believe they are ethnically descendants of the tribe of Judah or one of the lost tribes. Religiously, some groups still accept the Messiahship of Jesus while others reject it. 

I had no problem with much of this on some levels. I already believed the original Hebrews to be brown skinned people. I am always down for a good conspiracy, so I could even accept that the Jews had migrated to Ghana and some ended up in America. In fact, the presence of African Jewish tribal communities is very well substantiated and documented. As stated earlier, many groups accepted Jesus as Savior and Messiah so no problem there. But here is where I had to get off the train. Most groups believe that the reason these African-Hebrews were taken was because of the covenant curses found in Deuteronomy 28, particularly in vs 68 which says “The LORD will send you back in ships to Egypt on a journey I said you should never make again. There you will offer yourselves for sale to your enemies as male and female slaves, but no one will buy you”. In this context, they place the blame and rationale for American slavery on themselves and on God. On themselves because slavery happened as a result of their unfaithfulness to the covenant law of the Torah, and on God because God caused slavery as a punishment for the breaking of that covenant and as a means to awaken them to the true knowledge of themselves. I could not accept a rationale that places the blame of slavery on the kidnapped Africans (or Hebrews, whichever you choose) and exonerates the European perpetrators. Furthermore, the New Testament is clear that we are no longer under the Old Covenant but we are under the New Covenant sealed with Christ’s blood. Therefore, the Old Covenant curses no longer apply. I saw this movement as yet another attempt to find meaning and identity beyond slavery as ours has been ripped from us. 

I cannot say that I have yet landed at a conclusion. Where I have loosely pitched my tent is here: Christianity was African long before it was European. Go to any seminary or school of theology and take a “History of Christianity” course and that course will inevitably trace the history and growth of Christianity westward. It will trace how it spread from the Middle East to Europe and how it developed in Europe, which is again a vestige of a white supremacist, Eurocentric interpretation. However, the true history of Christianity actually goes south before it goes west. The seedbed of early Christian intellectual thought and development was in Africa. It was in cities in North Africa such as Alexandria and Carthage. It was in kingdoms further south such as Axum and Ethiopia. Christianity had become the official religion of the Ethiopian empire almost a century before it was adopted in Rome. This research and this simple fact gave me solace enough on which to rest my head. Christianity was not the white man’s religion. It had it origins before the existence of slavery and white supremacy. It had its thoughts and developments in Africa long before it became a power in Europe. 

If Christianity is in fact indigenously African, then the narrative that Africans were not exposed to it pre-colonial era or pre-trans-Atlantic slave trade is a myth. A myth may be too soft a word—it is a lie. A lie perpetuated by the mammoth of white supremacy. A lie that maintains that Eurocentric Christianity represents the highest realization of holiness and purity. It is this lie that I heard growing up that said that classical music is the music of heaven and that gospel, R&B, Blues, Jazz, Hip-Hop and anything else Black was the music of the devil. (Next week’s post will further discuss this type of spiritual colonialism). Because Christianity is indigenously African, it frees me from guilt about engaging with it while also engaging my blackness. They are indeed compatible. 

We are all searching for identity in a world where our cultures and languages of origin are unknown. But I am glad that I can still rest in the truth of Jesus, and the truth of the Christian faith while still being firm and bold in my blackness. I do not have to submit to the powers of white supremacy and Eurocentric thought and relinquish my blackness to be accepted by Christ. I am accepted for who I am. I believe God is still with me on this journey. May He be with you on yours. 

If you would like more information on early African Christianity I have included some great resources below. 

How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind -Thomas C. Oden

Black Thoughts

Black Thoughts

It was the spring of 2007. I remember it like it was yesterday. It was winter, and cold outside. The sun had already set on the day and classes were done. Students had gathered in the cafeteria to partake of dinner before heading back to the dorm to tackle homework. I remember sitting around the table with maybe 8-10 other people; some friends and others merely acquaintances. At some point during the evening the discussion turned, as it did most evenings, to discussions of race.

We were at an HBCU (Historically Black College or University) but race was still a hot button topic. Even at an all-black college the perspectives on race were as diverse as the ethnicities and countries represented there. Blackness is diverse. There were students from such a range of places as New York, California, Texas, Atlanta, Haiti, Jamaica, Bermuda, even a few from Canada and England. And so there were revolutionaries, Afrocentrists, jocks, venture capitalists, those coming from lower socio-economic backgrounds, and middle-class backgrounds, and upper-class backgrounds.

A young senator from Illinois that came into the national spotlight at the ‘04 Democratic National Convention named Barak Obama had just announced his candidacy for president of the United States. It was not just that he was running, but there was much speculation that he actually had a chance. The conversations around the cafeteria tables, at least at those of ours who cared, were now whether or not racism was a demon of the past. “Why are all you poets and artists always crying racism?” they asked. “Racism is a thing of the past” they would say. “The only thing holding black people back now is themselves”. It was an old argument, one that I had heard before. Bill Cosby went on a tour in the first half of the 2000’s carrying this very message, blaming poor blacks for their own problems and calling them to exhibit greater responsibility.  Indeed, there is an element of personal responsibility in all things. However, this view greatly diminishes what Ta-nehisi Coates describes in his book
Between the World in Me as the “plunder” that we have systematically experienced as black Americans. This plunder was not accidental, it was not by happenstance; it was planned and it was deliberate. We have been systematically and deliberately plundered since the day we arrived on this soil. 
This was my argument that evening. White supremacy is an all-encompassing force that impacts black bodies, black minds, and black being in a potent and visceral way.  In November of 2016 everything changed. America elected a blatant bigot, an admitted sexual assault offender, and alleged white supremacist into the most powerful office in the country. CNN commentator Van Jones correctly observed and asserted that the election was a “whitelash” against the presidency of Barack Obama. Neo-Nazi’s and bigots came out of the woodwork, emboldened by the fact that their man was in the White House. This event has awakened in America a new discussion on race relations in America. It should now be accepted what many of us have been saying for years: laws may have changed (and even those were suspect), but people didn’t. 
The problem was further compounded by the fact that 81% of those identifying as evangelical Christians voted for Donald Trump (see chart below), leaving many people of color that also identified themselves in those terms in a quandary: how could their so-called brothers and sisters in Christ so blatantly ignore this man’s racism, bigotry, and misogyny and proceed to vote for him anyhow? 
 Consequently there has been an explosion of black writing, consciousness and thought around the issues of race, religion and the role that we as black Christians play in that world. This blog will be an extension of that conversation. It will be an ongoing discussion on the intersections of race, religion, theology and society. You may be wondering, “what do religion and theology have to do with the current racial climate of the country?” It has everything to do with it because the current president commanded 81% of the evangelical vote
Just look at the numbers on this chart. Protestant Christians and White evangelicals voted for Trump at a greater rate than they have ANY other recent Republican candidate! Look at the disparity between White Catholics and Hispanic Catholics. There is a religious and theological problem among White Christians in this country that allows their consciences to be remain undisturbed by a candidate that made repetitive racist, bigoted, misogynistic remarks during his campaign and who we have on tape bragging on his sexual exploits. What is it about their theology and understanding of Scripture that permits this kind of alliance? These are some of the themes we will explore in this forum. 

The past couple of years have shown that there is indeed still a need for this conversation. What should the nature of the conversation be? Should it be one of fear and hatred? Should it be one of love and reconciliation? Maybe a combination of both...As James Baldwin said in his seminal book The Fire Next Time, racism is just as cancerous to white people as it is to black people. If it is not dealt with it will destroy them and America as a whole. Therefore this conversation is really about salvation—salvation from the original sin of racism and all its effects on all of us. 

My writing will hopefully be transparent, honest and real. I welcome you all to join me on this journey.