“Let My People Think and Reclaim Their Heritage: On Dr. Umar Johnson’s False Christian Historiography”
For many contemporary African and black people, the Christian religion has betrayed them. I understand their discomfort, frustration, and refusal not to embrace a religion that was used to enslave their ancestors and colonize their people. Logically, the issue lies in African religious historiography and (Western) Christianity’s historiography, respectively. My goal in this brief post is not to proselytize anyone to Christianity; rather, I’m concerned primarily with the urgent matter of the historiography of the Christian religion and its intimate connection to Continental Africa. It is a matter of historiographical truth and Christianity’s historical African antecedents.
Through my writings, I’ve been attempting to inform and educate my black and Haitian brothers & sisters that our African ancestors did not encounter Christianity when they first came to the Americas and Saint-Domingue (modern day Haiti) as slaves. Christianity blossomed in Africa in its first 600 years, and that Africa has the most sustaining Christian tradition in the world–beyond its Jewish origin. African Christianity gave birth to Western Christianity, and it is the seedbed of Christian thought, as well as scholasticism and philosophy in the West. Christianity is not a foreign religion in Africa nor should it be considered a foreign faith to the people of African descent in the Diaspora.
The African continent is the most diverse continent in the world. Considering Africa is the birth place of humanity and first human civilization, it is reasonable to affirm that Africa is the root of all the languages spoken in the world, the genesis of our multicultural world, and the ground of our ethnic and racial diversity. Africa is also the home of many religious traditions such as African traditional religion (i.e. Yoruba, Vodou), Christianity, Islam, etc.–these three are some of the most ancient religious traditions in the Continent.
Let me say this again that White Europeans did not invent Christianity. Christianity is not a White Man’s religion. Yes, white slave masters, slave traffickers, and colonizers (some were even christians) have (mis)used Christianity and misappropriated Christian teachings to enslave, colonize, and oppress the Africans and their descendants outside of continental Africa. Nonetheless, there’s a big difference between African Christianity before slavery and colonization and Christianity after and during slavery and colonization. The Christianity of the European colonizers and slavers should not be understood as biblical Christianity. The Christianity of the Empire contradicts the ethical virtues and moral teachings of biblical Christianity. Christianity, as it was practiced both by the slave master and colonialist, falls short of ancient African Christianity. The difference between the two includes theological, moral, ideological, political, cultural, pedagogical, and philosophical aspects.
It is good to underscore that the earliest Christian theologians who have framed the fundamental Christian doctrines and the most lofty theological categories, such as the deity and pre-existence of Christ, were Africans. In fact, it was a theologian from Africa who articulated the most theoretical concept in Christian theology: the doctrine of the Trinity. The greatest theologian in Christian history was born in Africa. His name was St. Augustine of Hippo.
Further, Ethiopia has the oldest Christian church and monastery in the world. Coptic Christianity is one of the earliest expressions of ancient Christianity. Guess what? It is still practiced in Ethiopia. Christianity has endured a long tradition of ritualistic alistic practice, liturgical exercise, and theological reflection before it made its way in the West.
Finally, it is historically implausible and false that Christianity was europeanized/westernized at the Council of Nicea in 325 AD. The most influential Christian thinkers who debated on and legitimized the key doctrines (i.e. divinity and pre-existence of Christ, the trinity) of Christianity were African theologians; they were not Western and white theologians.
Christianity is an African heritage that Africans in the continent of Africa and the people of African descent must reclaim. Yet they must decolonize, deconstruct, and de-westernize its current form and expression. To make it their own again, they must indigenize and contextualize the Christian faith so it could make sense in their culture, traditions, identity, and their way of life. Christianity, in fact, is an African faith when considering its rich historical tradition (and trajectories) and cultural experience in the Continent, as well as the African DNA on both ancient and modern Christianity in the world.
***One of the central reasons thinkers like Dr. Umar Johnson is so misinformed about the African historical antecedents of Christianity lies in the exclusion of ancient African Christianity in the theological curriculum and the invisibility of Africa in Christian historical narratives in the West; correspondingly, there lies two other inseparable problems: the construction of an exclusively European/Western-centered Christian epistemology, and the lack of engagement with the intellectual works produced by black and brown scholars, biblical scholars, and theological thinkers in contemporary scholarship.