As we celebrate Black History Month in the U.S. each year, we often remind ourselves and others that “Black history is American history.” A reminder that we tend to offer less often is that Black history is Christian history, too. Although European colonization and the construct of Whiteness as justification for subjugation and exploitation of African peoples became the dominant lens through which Christianity presented itself in the Western world, the facts remain: Christianity moved from Africa to Europe, and not the other way around.
As late theologian Dr. Thomas C. Oden noted, “In ante-Nicene Christian history the flow of intellectual leadership moved largely from Africa to Europe — south to north — with Christian thought cradled and nurtured in Africa. This point must be savored unhurriedly: The Christians to the south of the Mediterranean were teaching the Christians to the north. Africans were informing and educating the very best of Syriac, Cappadocian and Greco-Roman teachers.”
This is easily recognizable if one simply pulls out a map of the continent of Africa. Although they wrote in Greek and Latin — the language of the Empire in their day — many of the early Church fathers were from Africa or the Near East: Clement, Origen, Athanasius and Cyril — all of Alexandria; Tertullian and Cyprian of Carthage (in Tunisia); Augustine of Hippo (in Algeria), and many of the Desert mothers and fathers, to name just a few.
But we can go back even further than what we refer to as “the Early Church.” Scripture itself takes place mostly in African lands (including the Garden of Eden), and is replete with the presence of African peoples who are integral to God’s story — including the Ethiopian eunuch, who as a Jew, brought Christianity to Ethiopia (Acts 8:26-40) and established what is now one of the oldest Christian churches in the world.
We may have missed this reality, however, because the images we have been presented with over the years have overwhelmingly represented biblical figures with light/White skin and European features — a blue-eyed, red or blond-haired Jesus. While it may be natural for people of different cultures to create images that reflect their own cultural norms, in the case of depictions of biblical and early church figures in European Christendom, these images have also served to both undergird the dangerous fiction of White supremacy, and to erase positive Black/African presence from Scripture and the history of the Church.
People have also been mislead by the often intentional “white-washing” of geography. Algeria, Libya, Niger, Egypt, Ethiopia — these are African countries that lie at the northern end of the continent. Further, before the creation of the Suez Canal, those lands now lying on the other side of the canal were connected to Africa. Therefore, among other things, it strains credibility that Christianity would not have spread from those places to other countries across (and deeper into) the African continent.
But political and religious rhetoric over the centuries has sought to disconnect these African countries — and what took place in them — from the African continent in the minds of people. This is largely because the idea of associating biblical lands and peoples with Black peoples could not be reconciled with the “chosen- ness” and supposed superiority of White European identity. European colonizers, and unfortunately, much of the Western Church, often wrapped their agendas of conquest and enslavement in a cloak of evangelism, and it became necessary to portray African peoples as “heathens” and “savages” to whom White Christians would bring salvation and civilization — and upon whom they could make a profit.
Why is this important? It is important because if we do not acknowledge and embrace that God’s story has always been a multicultural one, in which humans of every hue have intrinsic and equal value to God, we miss the creative gift that God has bestowed upon us through our diversity. If we do not educate — or perhaps reeducate — ourselves about the true context and history of Scripture and Christianity, so that we can be clear that Christianity has never been a “White man’s religion” to which every other culture and ethnicity should be expected to assimilate, we can never truly do the hard work of racial reconciliation. And we will never truly understand the work of social justice as central to the gospel of Jesus Christ, in whom “God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.” (2 Corinthians 5:19).
Grace and peace,