Decolonizing Christianity Part 1: Africa & Christianity

Over the past several months, a few friends and I have been discussing Africanness. Specifically, we have been thinking about, reading up on and discussing the place of Black Africa in the bible and Christianity. During this time, I have come to question a lot of things, get pleasantly surprised by others and in either case, resolved to do more than think of these things in private.

Modern history suggests to us that Christianity was introduced to Africa by European missionaries. European Christian missionaries (and here I limit my discussion of the subject to the Anglican Church to which I subscribe), we are told, first came to the continent between 1804 (when the Church Missionary Society began its missions in Sierra Leone) and 1877 (when they got to Uganda). Most, if not all of our understanding of Christianity today, comes from this perspective of history.

But Africa’s interaction with the God of the bibles we read started way earlier than this!

Right from Genesis, the bible describes the garden of Eden as being between Kush/Cush, Havilah, and Ashur (modern day Sudan, Eritrea and Ethiopia) – Read Genesis 2:10-14

Abraham, regarded by both Christians and Muslims as the father of their faiths, married (or had sexual relations with) two African women: Hagar and Keturah, both of whom were Hamites (a very fluid reference to black/North Africans. Present day Langi, Karimojong, Iteso and Kumam are descendent from Hamites).

Jacob, from whom the tribes of Isreal descend, had children with two Africans: Bilhah, who gave birth to Dan and Naphtali (Gen 30: 3-8) and Ziphah, who gave birth to Gad and Asher. Basically, at least four of the twelve tribes of Israel have African blood flowing in their veins.

Even if we skip over Queen Sheba’s romance with Solomon (which was different from Solomon’s marriage to an Egyptian princess recorded in 1 Kg 9:16 as well as v24) or Egypt being the place that saved our Saviour, we find ourselves in the Early Church talking about Phillip and the an Ethiopian (also known as the Ethiopian Eunuch) that is a treasurer to the Queen mother of Nubia, Candace (another amazingly powerful figure of whom our modern history has done very little justice).

As the Early Church was being set up, again, Africans and Africa were intimately involved.  Lucius of Cyrene, and Simon (who was also called Niger, i.e. the Black) are spoken of as part of the team who, together with Paul and Barnabas, strategised on how best to evangelise Africa (Acts 13:1-2). Of the 12 disciples, Phillip, Matthew and Bartholomew all travelled to Africa on missionary trips and founded churches there. In fact, Matthew and Bartholomew are believed to have been martyred in Ethiopia!

Even when it comes to theology, several central figures in Christianity were either from or educated in Africa:

Clement of Alexandria (150-215) was a Christian philosopher with a keen desire to win pagan intellectuals to Christ.

Origen (185-254), became the director of a catechetical school at age 18 and is famed as having been the most brilliant and influential Christian theologian for over 300 years. He was the author of the Hexapla, a theological work that compared six versions of the Bible.

Tertullian (160-225) was an influential Christian lawyer, Athanasius (296-373) Bishop of Alexandria. Referred to by his racist detractors as the ‘black dwarf’, Athanasius became famous for his insistence that Jesus was both God and man (an integral part of what makes the Christian faith).

Perpetua and Felicitas, some of the most famous female Christians in the early church and of whom the one of the oldest and most respected Christian texts was written (The Passion of Saint Perpetua, Saint Felicitas, and their Companions) were black women.

More pronounced in modern knowledge of Christianity, are Augustine of Hippo and his mother Monica.

These are just a few of many Africans involved in the gospel long before Shergold Smith and C. T. Wilson came to Uganda under the Church Missionary Society.

For me, coming to the realisation that the gospel brought to us by white men and women was actually forged in the multicultural experiences of multitudes, including black Africans was not just empowering and affirming, it was a reaffirmation of another fact: many of those that came to preach the gospel during the past two centuries did so under the banners of both Christ and country. They were not just missionaries, they were also colonialists, exploring Africa’s hinterland in the name of English, Spanish and Belgian monarchs. Their agenda was a mixture of Christian mission and imperial triumph.

If we as modern-day Africans are to unshackle ourselves of the yokes of colonial legacies, there is a need for us to vigorously re-interrogate the gospel and reclaim our rightful place in its history.

Yes, there are many of our communities to whom the message of Christ was Good News of which we had never heard before. But equally true is that our forefathers were as instrumental-perhaps even more so- in its formation as those that came to us with it. Far from being the ‘White Man’s Religion’, Christianity has traces of black Africa written in it long before it does white. This is both liberating and challenging. Liberating because I can stand side to side with my white brethren as beneficiaries in the faith. Challenging because to do that, I must rid myself of several lies told and taught to me and my forefathers (intentionally or not) by those that came to preach the gospel…and take our land.

My next thoughts are going to be about Decolonizing Christian Marriage.

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Written by Ganzi Isharaza (1)

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  1. Hi Ganzi
    Your essay is most enlightening as you have so carefully sought out the role African brethren played in the history of the gospel.It is true that we have to bring out the authentic narrative that the European missionaries have so much maligned over the centuries.Please read my piece,’We brought nothing into this world….’ I would love to hear your perspective on it.

  2. Great article Ganzi! I totally agree with you on these important matters. When you do serious research, you realise that there is a difference between Europeanised Christianity and the original Christianity for which many Africans (especially North/North-Eastern Africans) helped shape. And when you go to the times before Christianity, as you rightfully so mention here, several Africans and the land of Africa played a great role in shaping the Biblical narratives. I have written about these same matters in my upcoming paper. Let us get in touch.