A monthly column that reflects on living in the Kingdom of God.
A popular claim that is increasingly made insists that Christianity is essentially a white man’s religion. The assertion is often made for personal, academic or contemporary reasons, and it is therefore vital to find out why this claim is believed before giving an appropriate answer.
As an example, a factual response on its own would probably not overcome the obstacles that exist due to a negative personal experience. Furthermore, many may have confused Western culture with the gospel, and as a result may have a partly or completely erroneous view of what Christianity is in the first place.
Whatever the reasons may be, it is vital to hear people out before launching an apologetic. After the listening part, what else would be helpful to know or say?
Perhaps most frequently spoken about is the church’s association with suppression of people during the colonial era generally, and the apartheid era in particular. At the Truth and Reconciliation hearings, church leaders across many denominational lines admitted as much.
In addition, the lack of contextualisation and the cultural baggage that went along with this is another frequently cited failing. As a result, the following quote is often mentioned, leaving no room for debate: “When the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land. They said ‘Let us pray.’ We closed our eyes. When we opened them we had the Bible and they had the land.” This speaks of a sinister plot to use religion as a Trojan horse for a takeover. Was and is Christianity a deliberate tool to oppress, deceive and control?
Importance of Church history
If all I had learnt about the missionary movement in Africa was from my history class at a secular university, I may well have reached that conclusion. This is why it is so vital for each successive generation to learn Church history. Without it, they are at the mercy of an often militant atheism that is determined to apportion the blame for the world’s ills squarely at the foot of religion, and Christianity in particular.
What I didn’t learn in my history class, but only later in Church history, was the incredible price paid to bring the gospel to Africa and other parts of the world. Consider the death toll of early missionaries. Malaria, in particular, made Africa the missionaries’ graveyard and in many instances whole families died as a result of exposure to this disease.
The average life expectancy of a missionary to Africa was eight years, and to West Africa, two years. This is illustrated in the following note written by a CMS Missionary to Uganda, Alexander Mackay, to his home committee: “I want to remind the committee that within six months they will probably hear that one of us is dead. But…when that news comes, do not be cast down, but send someone else immediately to take the vacant place.”
The truth of Mackay’s statement is evidenced in the results that followed: “Within three months one missionary was murdered, two had given up, another had contracted fever. Within a year two more had been killed. Within two years Mackay was the only one of the eight missionaries left alive in Uganda. He actually survived 12 years, dying of malaria at the age of 40.”
Andreas Riis similarly said: “Let us press on. All Africa must be won for Christ. Though a thousand missionaries die, send more.” Such self-sacrifice was not only commonplace among pioneer missionaries. Preachers sent out by John G Lake in the early part of last century pursued a missionary call into Africa’s interior despite running out of money and food, with many perishing as a result. Far from the self-serving and controlling narrative, the lives and deaths of many missionaries were in fact the polar opposite.
Roots of liberal democracy
A brief look at history would also challenge the idea. Sociologist Robert Woodberry was intrigued by the apparent connection between democracy and Protestantism. In a wide ranging dissertation that broadened into an extensive research project, Woodberry arrived at the following startling conclusion: “Areas where Protestant missionaries had a significant presence in the past are on average more economically developed today, with comparatively better health, lower infant mortality, lower corruption, greater literacy, higher educational attainment (especially for women), and more robust membership in nongovernmental associations.”A summation of his 14 years of research—published in 2012 in the American Political Science Review, the discipline’s top journal — has won four major awards… Its startling title: The Missionary Roots of Liberal Democracy.
“We don’t have to deny that there were and are racist missionaries,” says Woodberry. “We don’t have to deny there were and are missionaries who do self-centered things. But if that were the average effect, we would expect the places where missionaries had influence to be worse than places where missionaries weren’t allowed or were restricted in action.
“We find exactly the opposite on all kinds of outcomes. Even in places where few people converted, [missionaries] had a profound economic and political impact.”
There is one important nuance to all this: The positive effect of missionaries on democracy applies only to “conversionary Protestants.”
Protestant clergy financed by the state, as well as Catholic missionaries prior to the 1960s, had no comparable effect in the areas where they worked. Independence from state control made a big difference.
“One of the main stereotypes about missions is that they were closely connected to colonialism,” says Woodberry. “But Protestant missionaries not funded by the state were regularly very critical of colonialism.”
Woodberry therefore highlights Alice and John Harris, who photographed the abuses in Belgian Congo and made it known to the world. In Botswana, John Mackenzie was instrumental in helping to create a land protection agreement. In South Africa, Trevor Huddleston published Naught for your Comfort – a devastating critique on apartheid, which highlighted this unjust system to the world.
The coming of Christianity to Africa is frequently viewed as taking place from the 19th Century as the colonial expansion began. While the first missionaries to much of Eastern, Central and Southern Africa were almost always white Europeans, West and especially North Africa tell a different story. West African missionary endeavour was carried out both through European missionaries as well as former slaves returning to Africa from the Americas, as they resettled in Liberia and Sierra Leone.
North Africa however turns this claim on its head. Here, we see churches that were birthed from as early as Acts 8 (before the gospel had been taken to Europe) through the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch, as well as the church in Egypt shortly thereafter.
Church historian Peter Hammond summarises the state of the church in North Africa until the advancement of Islam in the 7th century: “At the time of Mohammed’s birth, Christianity had covered all of the Roman provinces of Asia, across the Caucasus to the Caspian Sea, Syria, the Holy Land and all of North Africa across to the Atlantic Ocean. Most of the Christians in the world lived in Asia and Africa…Some of the most famous early Church fathers were from North Africa: Clement of Alexandria, Cyprian of Carthage, Tertullian of Carthage, Augustine of Hippo, and Origen of Alexandria…All of these areas were conquered by the sword of Islam.”
Then there is the Bible itself. Far from being a man-made, Eurocentric document, Howard professor Cain Felder asserts that there are over 1 500 references to places in Africa in the Old Testament alone. Psalm 68:31 is a powerful prophetic declaration that African nations will turn to the God of the Bible: Envoys will come from Egypt; Cush  will submit herself to God.
Within the Bible, the gospel message powerfully overturns the exclusivist notion put forward. In Acts 17: 16-31, Paul preaches the gospel to Athenians who had never heard of Jesus Christ. In preaching to them, he gives us some valuable insights into the gospel. As he looked around the city, he became greatly distressed due to the idolatry in Athens. Before the gospel transferred our allegiance, idolatry was the norm, not only in the global South, but here in Acts 17 in Europe as well.
Nevertheless, there are seeds of the gospel that God has hidden in cultures across the world, as Paul discovered through the Greek philosophers he quotes here. What many missionaries discover is that God has been at work in the nations of the world long before they set foot there.
Thirdly, Paul’s gospel message implicitly gives the only true basis for establishing equality and destroying racism and every other ism – the truth that we are all made in the image of God and trace our beginning to one man.
Call to repentance
Finally, in view of Jesus’ atoning death, resurrection and return as coming Judge, Paul preached that all men everywhere must repent. The gospel therefore is a call to worldwide repentance for all people and all cultures. Every culture has to change to align itself with the gospel.
Both African ancestralism and Western narcissism are idols that must be dethroned. Even the Jewish culture of the day had to undergo radical change as the wall of separation between Jew and Gentile was broken.
Having said this, we must distinguish between western culture and the gospel. The two are not the same. A non westerner does not have to become a Westerner to become a Christian. In fact, with the global shift that has occurred in the last century, most of the world’s Christians are not Westerners, but Africans, Asians and South Americans.
In addition, historically-receiving nations are increasingly becoming sending nations. It is true that pictures of a blue-eyed blonde Jesus are not only inaccurate, but unhelpful for the cause of global Christianity. However, this is not merely a white to non-white problem. Several African churches for example insist that new members must adopt dress codes that the Bible does not, and Jewish believers in the early church would also insist on Gentiles taking on not only the gospel, but Jewish customs as well.
Perhaps the best summation of the global appeal of the gospel comes from an African chief who heard the gospel from David Livingstone. He replied: “All my forefathers have passed away into darkness without knowing anything of what was to befall them; how is it that your forefathers knowing all these things, did not send word to my forefathers sooner?”