Please Stop Whitewashing Christianity

When the Academy of Motion Picture and Science announced early this year that only white actors and actresses were among those selected to be chosen for an academy award for the second year in a row, it ignited a firestorm.

It resulted in the resurgence of the social media  hashtag #OscarsSoWhite and raised a bevy of concerns about the lack of diversity in motion pictures.[1]

“Whitewashing” is the purposeful exclusion of ethnic minorities in mainstream leading roles, leaving them only to play supporting or villainous ones. It goes back as far as Elizabeth Taylor playing the role of Cleopatra in the 1960s, and sadly, over a half-century later, whites are still cast into minority roles.

It’s a shameful depiction and representation of people of color that exposes the underlying racial prejudice of Hollywood, and in the words of Dr. Michael Eric Dyson, it feeds into the perception that “black people just don’t quite measure up.”

It’s Crept into the Church as Well

Sadly, however, the practice of whitewashing has subtly crept into Christianity. Whitewashing Christianity occurs institutionally and structurally when the contributions of the African Diaspora to theology, ethics, and culture are largely ignored, and the influence of people groups of European descent are accentuated.

It demonstrates the implicit cultural and historical bias within conservative Evangelical communities and bolsters the notion that people of color will remain unequal to our white counterparts, regardless of our credentialing or accomplishment [2]

Maybe you are curious about the whitewashing of evangelicalism or are suspicious about its existence. If so, here are three areas where we see such whitewashing in the evangelical community.

1) Conservative Evangelicals Tend to be More Informed about European Participation in the History of Christianity than we are of African Involvement.

As one noted scholar stated so eloquently, the prominent distinguishing factor of African-Americans is the history of social, economic and political oppression that they have experienced based upon color discrimination.[3]

Such oppression has lead to systemic and institutional racism, violence, and discrimination, but it’s also contributed to the widespread ignorance of the African-Americas influence in this country.

It can be equally true within evangelical circles because many of my white brothers and sisters are largely ignorant of the Christian communities that thrived in Africa following Christianity’s inceptions.

North Africa

In North Africa, Christianity spread more broadly and more quickly than other parts of the Roman Empire, and as one scholar noted, it was through Africa that Christianity became the religion of the world.[4] It’s credited with nearly half of the most prominent church leaders in the first few centuries, and a fair number of them were fairly dark in complexion. The Gospel found one of its surest homes until it grew weaker because of internal doctrinal schisms and Islamic conquests sweeping the region.

Nubia

A little further south in Nubia, Christianity continued to grow rapidly in the region and archeologist discovered that his splendor was similar to Rome. The first non-Jewish Christian in the New Testament, The Ethiopian Eunuch, who came to faith in Acts 8, was a high-ranking member of Queen Candace’s court, represented the ancient Nubian civilization.

It continued to flourish into the 300s and 400s and became a predominately Christian nation, when it’s ruler, who practiced human sacrifices at the time, converted to Christianity in the 400s.

Nubians accepted Christianity without the sway of Roman influence and clung to it tenaciously despite organizational weakness and Islamic conquest in most of North Africa. It would eventually succumb, but it was a brilliant Christian civilization that remained largely forgotten until archeologist discovered it’s remarkable accomplishments in the second half of the 21st century.[5]

Abyssinia

Abyssinia, or Ethiopia, in East Africa, holds a very significant place in Christian history. Christianity became the religion of Ethiopia around the same time that it became the state religion of Rome. It accepted the same doctrines of North Africa while formally recognizing the Councils of Nicea (325 A.D.), Constantinople (381 A.D.), and Ephesus (431 A.D.). Ethiopia may have been the most open and ready nation in which Christianity has ever taken root. When Islam began to spread, it was Ethiopia that fought for the rights of oppressed Christians in foreign lands and it’s the first Sub-Sahara nation to accept Christianity.[6]

We cannot become a victim of European historiography that exclusively acknowledges its own cultural and historical contributions, then assumes that the resulting ethnocentric position represents the only history worth engaging. Such philosophy only reinforces the false assumption that our history is substandard to other cultures in general, but to the dominant culture in particular.

2) Whitewashing has Crept into the Ivory Towers of Many Conservative Evangelical Seminary

Minority students in conservative evangelical seminaries have unwittingly experienced the effects of this phenomenon, as well. While being educated in some of our schools, minorities will study the Apostolic Fathers, Ante-Nicene Writers, The Medieval Church, Scholasticism, the Reformation, the Enlightenment Church, Modern & Post-Modern Churches, but have little to no working knowledge of African-American history, especially key periods and social movements in African-American Religious History.

They have no working knowledge of the history of Christianity in Africa (i.e. North Africa, Nubia, Abyssinia, etc.), the African-American Church, the Reconstruction period, The Great Migration, the Civil Rights Movement, the rise of Black Nationalism, nor have they read any books by contemporary African-American authors. Because of this many graduates and find themselves largely unequipped to minister in minority context because they lack a socio-historical lens to pastor people of color.

What’s even more unnerving is the growing number of African-Americans, especially in Reformed circles, who will not listen to sermons by black pastors unless they’ve received a stamp of approval from an evangelical Christian leader, blogged for TGC, are a part of Acts29 or the Southern Baptist Conference, or have preached in the reformed conference circuit. It’s saddening.

3) Whitewashing Implies that Being a Christian Means Assimilating into the Dominant Culture.

At times, many White Americans assume that “being Christian” means assuming into the values and norms of the majority context, and some of the same members object when ethnic minorities seek to learn more about their heritage and focus much of their effort on the betterment of their own people.

As lovers of Jesus who are unified by his atoning work, we cannot define unity in terms that suppress rather than welcomes brothers and sisters discovering our cultural heritage.  As Christians, when we recognize the credence of other ethnicities and the value of their distinctive customs, lifestyles, dress, food preference, and particularly their economic and political beliefs it causes us to appreciate God using them as agents of gospel witnesses in their communities.

At times when minorities assimilate into the dominant culture and dismiss their cultural heritage, it leaves them unable to culturally connect and find solidarity with marginalized communities.

Takeaway

There’s much that we can talk about regarding this subject. Instead of whitewashing, let’s give credence to the contributions of minority cultures to Christianity and western civilization as a whole, and reverse the effects of whitewashing by affirming Paul’s great call for racial, social, gender, and cultural equality (Gal. 3:28) in Christ Jesus.

Talk to you soon.

Grace and peace.

[1] http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/la-et-oscars-so-white-reaction-htmlstory.html
[2] LANE, E. B. (1997). THE AFRICAN AMERICAN CHRISTIAN MAN: RECLAIMING THE VILLAGE. DALLAS: BLACK FAMILY PRESS, 156.
[3] IBN, 24
[4] USRY, G., & KEENER, C. S. (1996). BLACK MAN’S RELIGION: CAN CHRISTIANITY BE AFROCENTRIC? DOWNERS GROVE, IL: INTERVARSITY PRESS, 33
[5] Davidson, Basil. Africa in History: Themes and Outlines. New York: Collier, 1991. 102
[6] Hansberry, W. L., & Harris, J. E. (1974). Pillars in Ethiopian history. Washington: Howard University Press.

Ernest Cleo Grant, II

Ernest Cleo Grant, II (@ernestcleogrant) is the Lead Pastor of Epiphany Fellowship Church of Camden, a graduate of Reformed Seminary (D.C.), and is currently completing his Doctorate of Education from Stockton University. He and his wife Sarah have been married for almost a decade and have two children( Amaela and Chancellor). He's an avid reader, a community advocate, and has bylines in The Witness, Christianity Today, The Star-Ledger, Desiring God, and other publications

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