In one form or another most of us have encountered this question; that Christianity is not an African religion, that we Africans abandoned our gods in favour of the white man’s religion, that our traditional religious practices were good enough but then we embraced Christianity because of the goodies it came with.
My real encounter with this question came when I was a 1st year student in Russia. The few Russian friends I had made kept inquiring about my religion and when I mentioned that it was Christianity they would feel like the answer was not complete. They would comment that Christianity was the religion brought by the white man and so I should tell them my ‘African religion.’ I could not, Christianity is what I knew and still know to be my faith. From their comments I could tell that they could not reconcile the fact that I was a Christian, and I later realized that ‘being a Christian’ meant different things to us.
But it is a fair question and it deserves a fair response. Is Christianity a white man’s religion and can Africans claim it to be theirs too?
This question is a subject of controversy especially for black supremacists who will tell you Jesus was darker in complexion and not Caucasian or light skinned as portrayed in many paintings. This and other racial notions can influence the way we receive Christianity but let’s set that aside for now.
How did Christianity reach Africa?
The first presumed instance of Africa’s encounter with Christianity happened in the first century, recorded in Acts 8:26-40 when Philip was led by the Holy Spirit to meet the Ethiopian eunuch. He preached to him the good news about Jesus, the eunuch converted and was baptised. Philip was teleported by the Holy Spirit to Azotus while the eunuch went back to Ethiopia.
The eunuch was also a government official and he believed God (he had actually come all the way to Jerusalem to worship) meaning his conversion may have had an impact in Ethiopia but we cannot tell if there was any impact to other countries around Ethiopia.
We simply cannot tell if Christianity reached Kenya, Uganda, Somalia or any other sub-Saharan African nation in the first century. Of course back then most of Africa was divided into kingdoms and not countries as it is today and also we cannot tell whether Ethiopia was the size it is today.
According to historians Egypt and other North African countries received the gospel in the first century. This is about 500 years before Islam.
The facts above leave us with one choice and it is what we already know; that Christianity came to us by a missionary, who was white.
The missionary and the colonialist
Soon after the missionary another white man came and it quickly became apparent he was not after our souls but our beautiful land; he was eager to conquer it and call it his own. The problem is the missionary and the colonialist looked the same, spoke the same language and seemed to read from the same bible.
And so Christianity came to us with some baggage, and what was in the baggage did not smell good. They say the white man asked the African to pray, when the African opened his eyes he had a bible in his hands and the white man had the land. This may be another reason why some Africans rejected Christianity and even violently fought it. Still the gospel took root in Africa, a testimony that this was God’s doing.
As I continued my education in Russia, I kept looking for a response for my Russian friends who thought I had hijacked their religion. The traditional religion in Russia is Christian orthodox, the Russian Orthodox Church. It is the state religion and it is deeply entwined in Russian history dating as back as about 1000 AD. So traditionally my friends were Christians but none of them attended church regularly, some had never been to church, they would not say they practised the faith or were born again, all they knew is that they were Christians.
‘So how can an African boy come all the way from Africa and say he is one of us. He should have an African religion with those weird practises like chanting, calling spirits, magic and cannibalism or something like that.’ They thought.
I had to understand where they came from. But let us consider a few thoughts about a faith I have come to treasure.
Who owns Christianity?
Who owns it? Who has exclusive rights to it? Who are the major shareholders? Who can claim it to be truly theirs, the Jews, the apostles? Well, I would bet that the one who gave it a name has the full rights to it. Christ, Jesus Christ is clearly the true owner of Christianity. Actually Christianity means Christ like. It means we receive him in our hearts and he gives us his Spirit which teaches us to be like him, to love others, to fulfil his purpose and to be his light in this world.
We were created by him, for him and that is why he came to reconcile us back to himself when we strayed. We are his and all this belongs to him. No man should lay claim to it.
How did it spread?
Christianity was entrusted to faithful men called the apostles who went about preaching it and turning people to God. Some went to Israel as it was then and others went beyond. As it is recorded in Acts 1:8 the mandate was to be witnesses of the gospel in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth.
Africa is represented in the ‘end of the earth’ here. Jesus himself said this words which means he foresaw the gospel reaching Africa which also means the white missionary was just fulfilling God’s purpose. He was not bringing us his religion but was being a witness sent by Jesus.
Apostle Paul preached mainly to the gentiles, he went up to Athens to preach the gospel (Acts 17:16-34). I think the people who lived in Athens were Caucasian (white). This might not have been the first instance of Christianity reaching Europe but it demonstrates to us that the gospel reached Europe because someone took it there. Other faithful men passed on the gospel from generation to generation to the point when missionaries came to Africa.
The point is that the gospel has been passed on by faithful men and it can be traced back to Jesus himself. Are we actively and intentionally passing it to the next generation?
Why Africans embraced it?
Many people often ask about how our ancestors who never heard the gospel will be judged. I believe that our God is just and that no one will feel victimised or wrongfully judged in the end. Romans 1:20 says
20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.
14 For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. 15 They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them 16 on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.
These verses assure us that our ancestors will be judged based on the law of God that was written in their hearts and the God they clearly perceived through ‘things that have been made’ which is nature. Those who heard the gospel will be judged by the gospel of Jesus Christ.
I suppose most of our ancestors believed in a supreme being and maybe ‘nature revealing God’ explains why most African ‘gods’ were found in mountains, rivers, lakes, forests, rain…..etc.
For those Africans who embraced Christianity, they found that the ‘unknown god’ they sought in nature was being revealed to them as Jesus, they found the god they were looking for. It resonated in their hearts, the Holy Spirit bore witness and they became Christians
They also found out that they could have relationship with their God through Jesus Christ. Am sure it thrilled them to know that God through his son had actually come down to earth and lived among men, revealing the heart of God, loving people, performing miracles, turning people away from sin and ultimately becoming a sacrifice in order to save them. What can be better than that? Definitely no African traditional religion can beat that.
We owe our faith to no one but Christ. We are his younger brothers and sisters, his friends, his servants. No one group is closer to him than another, no person can claim him more than another and certainly no colour has more priority to him than another; only children of God, now called sons and daughters, free to worship him and enjoy all his promises.