Racial, Eurocentric Distortions and the Origin of Christianity

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By Tunji Olaopa

When colonialism came to Africa, it was founded on the vision of a civilizing mission that depicts the white as arriving in the continent to rescue Africans from savagery and barbarism. In his poem, “The White Man’s Burden,” Rudyard Kipling gave poetic voice to this mission by the European to civilize the Africans. According to him,

Take up the White Man’s burden –
Send forth the best ye breed –
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives’ need;
To wait in heavy harness
On fluttered folk and wild –
Your new-caught sullen peoples,
Half devil and half child.

The idea of the African who is “half devil and half child” gives voice to the ideology that sees the Africans as sub-humans with no idea of good and bad, of God, of culture and anything about the human progress. Colonialism, in the European imagination, was therefore a morally justified mission meant to help the continent to jumpstart civilization.

To facilitate the civilizing mission, there was first a Christianizing mission that saw missionaries from the West bringing the Gospel to Africa. In the hands of this missionaries, the mission was to save the soul of Africans, and introduce them to a God they are not aware of in their barbarism. The trajectory of Christian missions to Africa is part of the European appropriation of everything good about modernity which Europe is taken to have bequeathed to the continent. Africa did not only get civilization, Europe also brought God and Christianity. Unfortunately, there are so many historians and scholars who have perpetuated this narrative of the Western origin of Christianity. It is even sad that many Christian religious leaders are grossly unaware about the historical trajectory of the origin and emergence of Christianity, and its relationship to Africa. Most only know that the baby Jesus was desperately taken to Egypt. Yet the relationship of Christianity to Africa is much deeper and significant than what is portrayed in ideologies that bent historical facts to the mischievous intention of racism.

The bible is not just a theological book. It is equally a book of historical facts. From Antioch to Egypt, and from Galilee to Cush, the bible is a compendium of historical and spiritual drama that was essentially enacted in Asia (broadly construed—East Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, Central Asia and the Middle East) and Africa. And this goes beyond a mere geographical hairsplitting as Asia, being the largest continent, dominates Euroasia landmass which it shares with Africa and Europe. In fact, Sir Barry Cunliffe, argues that Europe is geographically and culturally “the western excrescence of the continent of Asia.” But this significant geographical fact is obviated in the Eurocentric appropriation of the cultural achievements of the Greek civilization, as well as the desire to appropriate Christianity as part of the Greek civilizational achievement. And no other fundamental theological authority than the Pope Benedict XVI, made this connection between Christianity and the Greek civilization; or what he calls “the synthesis between the Greek spirit and the Christianity spirit.” And it is precisely this synthesis that allows us to overlook the historical origin of Christianity in Asia, and focus attention on Europe where, according to him, Christianity derived its “historically decisive character.” It is the Hellenization of Christianity that actually gave birth to Europe.

For Pope Benedict XVI, this synthesis not only gives the Greek translation of the Bible its unique and significant theological authority, it also provides an inculturation model that allows Christianity to be adaptable into all cultures. Unfortunately, the Pope’s argument glosses over the historical imperatives of making Christianity through to its origin. For inculturation to be adequate, it must be achieved within the parameters of the adapting cultures. Founding Christianity’s strength on its synthesis with Greek civilization and the emergence of Europe could only be the foundation of a false universalism. Indeed, Christianity’s universal reach—through the decision to reach out to the Gentiles—got its initial push from Africa. Simeon Bachos, the Ethiopian eunuch, mentioned in Act chapter 8, is acknowledged as the first gentile Christian. According to the narration, the eunuch, a treasurer to Queen Candace, was returning to Meroe from Jerusalem where he had gone to worship. Philip, the evangelist, who had been instructed by the spirit of God to locate the eunuch, met him reading from the book of Isaiah. Philip explained the passage of the scripture to him, and the eunuch asked to be baptized. And the spread of Christianity beyond Asia had begun.

Yet, when the missionary journeys began in the book of Act, it was constructed around the metaphor of taking the gospel of Jesus to “Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and the end of the earth.” Unfortunately, Luke and most of the writers of that time conceived of Rome as the “end of the earth.” And so, all missionary activities and journeys ended in Rome, and transformed it into the epicenter of Christianity. And once the spiritual status of the Pope—as the Vicar of Christ—had become solidly consolidated, missionary activities began to outflow from Rome across the world; back to Asia where Christianity emerged, and Africa where it got its first gentile Christian convert. On the contrary, the formation and function of the five ancient patriarchates tells a different story. As an ecclesiological office, the patriarchate was founded on the basis of having had one of the apostles as their bishops: Andrew in Constantinople, Mark in Alexandria, Peter in Antioch, James in Jerusalem, and Peter once again in Rome. One crucial point from this is that four of the patriarchates were located in Asia and Africa; and only one in the west. But the more important issue is that the four patriarchates represents a much larger level of missionary activities than was represented by the narrative about Rome and the mission work to the rest of the world. Even the first seven ecumenical councils that defined the structure of Christianity were all held in Asia—the First Council of Nicaea (325), the First Council of Constantinople (381), the Council of Ephesus (431), the Council of Chalcedon (451), the Second Council of Constantinople (553), the Third Council of Constantinople (680-681), and the Second Council of Nicaea (787).

There is one lessons that this narrative tells us—Christianity is open to all races and all contexts. And that is despite the fact that it originated in Asia. What we can then call the decisive character of Christianity was not formed in Europe. It was formed all across the world, wherever Christianity took root from. We can simply then just dismiss the supposed western status of Christianity as one of the adaptive attempts of the Eurocentric ideology to own the Christian faith. Unfortunately, this spurious ownership was deployed for an end that is characteristically unchristian. The trans-Atlantic slave trade had a distinct “Christian” character as most of the slave owners were “good” Christians in strong standing in the church. Indeed, what has come to be known as the “Slave Bible” was an obnoxious falsification of the scripture in a way that justified slavery as a godly act. The missionaries that arrived on the shores of Africa also participated in the spiritual softening of the pagan blacks to pave the way for the colonialists. But when Philip met the Ethiopian eunuch, there was no hint of any racial pretension. All he wanted to do was speak about the love of Christ. And Philip also must have learnt one or two things in the conversation. God himself put Peter’s Jewish exclusivism to shame when he was preparing to meet Cornelius the centurion.

Why is this historical narrative important? It is definitely important not because of any need to ground the origin of Christianity away from Europe. On the contrary, it is to argue that founding Christianity on European trajectory undermine the understanding of its historical, cultural and theological depth, especially in its engagement with other cultures and contexts outside of Asia. In reaching beyond its Jewish context—in bursting the exclusivism that characterizes Judaism—Christianity ultimately found its expansive strength in dialoguing with other non-Jewish cultures and other contexts. It is precisely in that adaptive capacity that its universal strength lies, rather than in its insertion into a Eurocentric trajectory. We should not even reverse the racist logic of Eurocentrism and say that Christianity is an Asian religion. Essentially, Christianity is a world religion to the extent that it has a universal capacity to keep reaching to the end of the earth. And even at that, each context that Christianity reaches into also have shown the adaptive capacity to own the Christian faith. It is in this sense that European Christianity is different from Asian or African Christianities. Thus, the more Christianity reaches out across the globe, the more it becomes enriched by the multiplicity of cultures and worldviews that it encounters. The more the gospel becomes intertwined with the message of hope and of unity that each culture carries; and the unity of purpose that ought to encompass all humankind in relations with one another.

*Prof. Tunji Olaopa is a retired Federal Permanent Secretary and Directing Staff, National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies (NIPSS), Kuru, Jos (tolaopa2003@gmail.com tolaopa@isgpp.com.ng)