Book Reflection | Is Christianity the White Man’s Religion?
I was originally going to title this article a “book review” but I decided to go with “reflection” instead because of a couple reasons. The first you ask? The author, Dr. Antipas Harris, was once one of my professors at Regent University. He has since moved up in the world, now as the President-Dean of Jakes Divinity School in Dallas, Texas. Yes, that Jakes. He also founded the Urban Renewal Center (URC) at my home church, the First Presbyterian Church of Norfolk (VA), which boldly sought to challenge and change the conversation in the City of Norfolk (and perhaps the nation itself) we have about race, racism, inequality, and racial reconciliation. In fact, it is largely because of the URC and the many town hall-style panel discussions that Harris participated in, that the need for a book like this arose.
Second reason. In case you were not aware, I am NOT a person of color. I am a white man. One might think this would disqualify me to reflect on Harris’ book, but one would be mistaken on that point, because although I lack the experiences and perspectives of a person of color, I do not lack a relationship with a Savior whom people of color also call their Lord — people who I call my brothers and sisters. In fact, it is precisely because of my relationship with Jesus, that I take seriously the work of racial reconciliation that needs to be done in this country (if not the world), because it is the work of Christ. I believe that Jesus calls all people to repentance, first to reconcile ourselves with God, and then with each other.
Putting in the work requires us to have awkward and uncomfortable conversations about theology and politics that need to be had in the public square — which is exactly why this book is such an important contribution to the work of racial reconciliation. Of course some people believe that Christianity should keep its voice silent on these issues, because historically speaking, white Christians used their religion to perpetuate systems that oppressed people of color for hundreds of years. Christianity was used as the means to serve colonial ends: to control people groups so that markets could be controlled. This is exactly why some even think of Christianity as the white man’s religion, because it has been white European colonizers who have used Christianity in the worst possible ways.
The problem this poses for people who become aware of the history of Christianity, is that it forces one to reevaluate where they stand in relation to Christianity. Why would anyone want to be associated with an organization that has been a party to evil? Why should anyone trust clergy, who have twisted scripture to theologically justify slavery? Why would anyone worship a God who has allowed his followers to take and beat slaves into submission? Simply reflecting on these three questions alone, one would be forgiven for taking a skeptical stance towards Christianity… if not walking away from it entirely. In fact, many already have.
As Harris details in his book, many in the black community have gravitated towards African-centered ideologies upon leaving Christianity. There is a strong urge to embrace precolonial systems of thought that tend to be pagan by emphasizing one’s connection to their ancestors, to spiritual forces, to Nature, and so forth. But there is also another urge to take back the Judeo-Christian narrative by viewing black people as either a lost tribe of Israel or descendants of ancient Hebrews, and thus black people are entitled to a particular covenantal relationship with God. Harris feels that these movements not only suffer from faulty notions of what Christianity truly is, but they also offer solutions that do not lead to reconciliation and wholeness in our communities. This brings us to the core argument of the book.
The argument Harris employs in his book can be thought of as making two broad strokes in so far as portraying Christianity as “the white man’s religion” is concerned: (1) it is historically false, and (2) it is theologically false. That may sound blunt, but the reality is that negative views of Christianity need to be addressed and shown to be standing on naive preconceptions and empty rhetoric. Harris did exactly this in the book by painting a historical and biblical portrait of Christianity that is full of color.
Concerning (1), Harris cites a number of examples that falsify a historical whitening of Christianity. For instance, did you know that the apostle Mark was black? Or that African Christians were among the earliest adherents? In fact white Europeans — especially the ones we consider to be “colonial super-powers” (the Spanish, English, Portuguese, Dutch, and French) — had very little if anything to do with Christianity during the Apostolic and Patristic Ages, which is the time period in which virtually all of the core theological doctrines were established. The schools of thought during Christianity’s formative centuries were all located in the Middle East. Even if we consider the Roman Catholic Church as the locus of “White Christianity,” then even it did not become so until the Great Schism of 1054.
Regarding (2), this is where some may feel the debate cannot be settled with facts, because theology often depends on hermeneutical principles that are driven by presupposition. The reason why two different people can read the same passage and come to different conclusions has nothing to do with the text, but the lens through which we read it. Slave traders had a vested interest in perpetuating slavery, and so they sought to interpret the Bible in such a way to justify its practice. But even with that understanding, the problem does not go away. As many critics have elucidated: if God is all-loving and is anti-slavery, then why didn’t he simply command the ancient Israelites to abolish slavery? Why instead do we find passages that make provision for slavery? Take the following passage for instance:
“‘Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves. You may also buy some of the temporary residents living among you and members of their clans born in your country, and they will become your property. You can bequeath them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life, but you must not rule over your fellow Israelites ruthlessly.” ~ Leviticus 25:44–46 (NIV)
To be honest here, one need not have a vested interested in the slave trade in order to see how this passage is pro-slavery. Many historians, textual critics, and theologians have attempted to deconstruct passages like these to offer reasons why to us it seems pro-slavery, when really it is not. For starters, the Hebrew word for “slave” in the passage above is amah, which is better translated as “handmaiden” (see for yourself). It is understood here that men and women working in this capacity became slaves in virtue of being in a kind of perpetual debt bondage. They needed a roof over their head and food on the table, which they could not provide for themselves, and so they would relinquish their personal freedom to gain these things. Does that sound like the Chattel Slavery of the American South?
This brings me to my next point, which is to answer the earlier question of why God didn’t command the Israelites to abolish slavery. Many who stand in moral judgment over the Bible by pointing out that God never says “thou shalt not hold slaves” or “thou shall liberate all of your slaves” often overlook a key theme in the overall narrative. How? By focusing solely on what God has said (or not said), one can miss what God has done.
The God I read about in the Old Testament delivered the Israelites from slavery, which decidedly puts God on the side of Abolition. Consider also the numerous times God reminded the Israelites of this fact (e.g. Exodus 20:2, Deuteronomy 6:12), and so we should be led to ask why. I think perhaps God was telling the Israelites two things: (A) you are to remember what it was like to be a slave, so you better not treat your slaves like the Egyptians treated you, and (B) I can send you back into slavery just as easily as I brought you out of it!
If your reaction to this analysis is “wow I never thought of it that way,” then you will be enriched by the analysis that Harris himself offers, because he attacks these sorts of criticisms of Christianity with rigor and force! But he does not turn his gaze away from the vital in-house (albeit in-church) discussion we need to have about these issues as well.
For too long the so-called “Conservative Evangelicals” have painted themselves as the “moral majority,” and our country as a “Christian nation.” And yet, it is from this group that the Black community sadly faces some of the strongest opposition in their pursuit of justice and equality. Why is that?
If you find the phrase “Black Lives Matter” to be infuriating, then you need to pick up a copy of this book IF you truly believe that God is on the side of the oppressed. The reality is that while many of my black brothers and sisters are screaming in order to have their stories heard, they are being silenced by my white brothers and sisters who scream “All Lives Matter” back at their faces. Often this is accompanied by lectures about “personal responsibility,” and prescriptions on how the black community ought to behave and act.
Speaking personally to my white brothers and sisters, can we not see how patronizing (and borderline racist) that is? Where do we get off thinking it is our place to tell black people how to live, even if we think we are in the right? If you really feel that all lives truly do matter, then I should hope we would listen to the struggles of our black brothers and sisters and offer them help… not our armchair advice.
Another theological point of contention is that we often hear “racism is a sin issue, not a skin issue.” The perspective Harris offers in response is that while he is in church or at school he is not profiled, but as soon as he steps out of those venues and onto the street, he is profiled. And so while Harris does agree that racism is a sin issue, he cannot avoid those who see him as just another black man, even though he is an accomplished professor and theologian. Harris cannot help but wonder, upon being pulled over by a police offer or when jogging through a neighborhood, if he will become just another statistic.
The challenge facing white Christians is not to simply help Harris (and by extension all people of color) feel welcome in our churches, but to feel welcome in our nation! This challenge is upon us because Christ himself has entrusted this world to us, and has commissioned us to transform the world with the Gospel. The Gospel is not a political movement in which we must pursue certain ends (such as ending abortion), but a personal movement predicated on restoring our proper relationship with God and between each other.
Part of restoring this relationship means that if we want to make America great again for all lives, then we need to come to terms with our national sins, even if we were not party to them. We need to recognize how laws and systems have historically allowed white people to pursue every opportunity to become successful, but have disadvantaged black people pursuing the same opportunities.
Harris has shared his own family story regarding this, because his grandfather fought in WWII and was entitled to the G.I. Bill, but was one of the millions who was never able to utilize it because of systemic racism. Although Harris is personally successful today, how much more successful could his broader family be had his grandfather gotten an education and a well-paying job?
One might say, “I feel bad for you Dr. Harris, but I was never party to the institutions and systems that held your grandfather back, so I don’t owe you anything.” But imagine how much more meaningful it would be to say, “wow Dr. Harris, maybe I should contact my government representatives to see what courses of action we can take to help descendants of black WWII veterans out.” Which response to you is more motivated by the Gospel?
“Is Christianity the White Man’s Religion?” is available from booksellers now. Click the link to purchase or read additional information from the publisher.