On the trail of the African roots of Christianity
Some scholars say racism has fashioned what most Blacks believe
Ralph Basui Watkins, Ph.D., associate professor and dean of African American Church Studies at Fuller Theological Seminary, is a minister at the First A.M.E. Church in Los Angeles. An unconventional preacher, he has taken excursions to Africa to seek out the truth about the religion he has followed so closely all of his life. When he began to investigate African spirituality and the roots of biblical texts, his discovery changed his perspective.
“I struggled with the condemnation or the thought that somehow Africans did not know God until missionaries showed up,” he said. “My initial question was there in John 1. If God was there in the beginning, and beginning is in Africa, how was God in Africa? I failed to believe that God showed up when missionaries showed up.”
With further research, he found that many of the Western stories and concepts in the Bible were perverted African tales and ideals. So now he challenges his congregation members to investigate the true roots of Christianity. Reconciling both Western religion with that of Africa-based spirituality is a challenge for the professor, but in all that he does, he seeks the truth and acknowledges that racism has kept him away from the spiritual truth for too long.
Speaker-researcher-Egyptologist Ashra Kwesi agrees that due to colonialism many people of African descent have been robbed of their true ancestral spiritual knowledge. Through images of White divinities, White supremacist thinking was forced on the spiritual psyche of Blacks, thus psychologically and spiritually oppressing them.
“They created the concept of ‘God’ in their likeness in the spiritual subconscious of Black people,” said Kwesi. “So in order to make a slave… they made sure that the deity was in their image… as [Pan-Africanist historian] Dr. John Henrik Clarke would say, through their system of racism and White supremacy, they colonized the afterlife.”
Kwesi believes the world’s religion comes from ancient African spiritual practices, written on the walls of pyramids, temples, and tombs throughout the continent. However, because of racism and colonialism, those ideals were transformed to what society now understands to be Western religion.
Some Black theologians, scholars and researchers agree that it is through religion and spirituality that the system of oppression continues to manifest itself within Africa and African Diaspora.
George M. Fredrickson, author of “White Supremacy: A comparative study in American and South African history,” explains that White supremacy refers “to the attitudes, ideologies, and policies associated with the rise of blatant forms of White or European dominance over non-White populations.”
Dr. Francis Cress Welsing, known for her controversial “Cress Theory,” contends that White supremacy is a “global power system” that is controlled by the socially dominant race (or ethnic group) in the world that oppresses non-Whites to the supreme domination of Whites.
Neely Fuller, noted scholar and author of “The United Independent Compensatory Code/System/Concept,” writes: “The value of any ‘religion’ should be determined by how it affects people in the way that they relate to each other, as well as all that is in the universe.”
But according to researchers, racism through religion has done a disservice to people of African descent on a massive level, expressing that the Westernized religion has indirectly enslaved Black people.
Africana Studies professor at California State University, Dominguez Hills, Salim Faraji, Ph.D., believes White supremacy to be a living, breathing philosophical ideology and method that has and continues to separate Black people from embracing their own divinity. He says Europeanization of religion has, over the years, conditioned the Black mind to “accept inferiority and view the Western world as the apex of human civilization and culture.”
“White racial superiority continues to traumatize African Americans psychologically because it suggests that the only way to access the Divine is through European culture, literature, theology, aesthetics and concepts of God,” he explained. “In fact the highest form of self-hatred is to be repulsed by your own culture’s concept and understanding of the Divine.”
African Americans are a colorful people, who claim some of the most phenomenal talents, elaborate philosophies, and eccentric belief systems. One thing about Black religion and spirituality is that we know how to have us some church.
From the dancing and singing to the worshiping and preaching, when we get down, we get down. It would almost be appropriate to say that in church, temple, mass, mosque and whatever other service you can think of, we always seem to welcome in the spirit of the Higher Being, the ancestors, or respective spirits.
Church is a wonderful place for Christians, where people are healed, delivered from their past excesses, meet their mates, learn the scriptures and get doused in the Holy Spirit. Often, movies and critics mock such church happenings with exaggerative skits and scenes that demonstrate ladies dancing down isles and people falling to the ground, convulsing as if enduring a holy seizure. But some would credit the jokes to lack of understanding, or even to fear.
The Pan African community is rich with a history of freedom-fighting and change-making, from Nat Turner’s insurrection to Marcus Garvey’s international Back to Africa Movement to the Civil Rights Movement. What many of these moments have in common is that they all encompassed a religious aspect that allowed their participants to connect spiritually to the struggle afoot.
The Ambo people in Zambia call the Creator Cuta; the Bacongo people in Angola call him Nzambi; the Digo people in Kenya call God Mulungu; the Kpelle people in Liberia call the Almighty Yala; and the Ndebele people in Zimbabwe call the All Knowing Unkulukulu. These are but a few names our brothers and sisters in the Motherland call the being whom most of us call God. Living worlds apart, yet connected through ancestry and even spirituality, African Americans have long been consciously disconnected to whom we used to call God.
The great mysteries of Jesus have boggled minds for centuries and even to this day scholars look for answers about the one they call the risen savior. Christianity in its diversity has another group of believers. Some would argue gnosticism isn’t quite Christianity due to its variety of beliefs that view Christ in an unorthodox way.