A White Man's Religion?

Ministry in the urban context comes with its own set of challenges. Among them are the objections to Christianity that run deep within inner-city communities of color. As I pastor in a neighborhood made up largely of ethnic minorities, it is not uncommon for me to hear someone dismiss the Christian faith purely because it is perceived to be “the white man’s religion, meant to oppress ethnic minorities.” It is important to note that this characterization of Christianity is not completely unfounded.

For centuries, not all, but many, white western Christians have conquered, colonized and enslaved people of color all in the name of their God. The Nazis in Germany, who advocated for white supremacy, used the Bible and their faith to justify their actions. In the United States it is well documented that large groupings of Christians promoted slavery then segregation based on the narrative that black Americans were under the Biblical curse of Ham and therefore were not as valuable as their white masters or neighbors.

And yet, it is more than simply the history of white evangelicalism that makes this objection understandable. Consider the visual representations of Biblical characters produced by majority-culture Christian publishers. Almost every children’s Bible story, classical painting or portrait of Jesus makes the Christian faith appear as though it belongs solely to a blond-haired, blue-eyed people group of Scandinavian or English descent. What these images communicate, subtly and perhaps unintentionally, is that God is white, that He came for white people and that whites alone will be blessed and see victory over sin and death.

Therefore, what is most discouraging is not the objection to Christianity that is found in communities of color, but the fact that the objection is a false conclusion built upon the very real sins of Christ-followers of a lighter skin tone.

The truth of the Christian faith is that it began with a people in the Middle East, making their skin tone brown and not white. The Messiah who came to die and take away the sins of the world was born a Jewish man in an area between Syria, Jordan and Egypt, most likely making Him also someone of brown complexion. Perhaps the first Gentile convert to Christianity was an Ethiopian man who had black skin and is rumored to have been responsible for starting the first churches on the African continent. The elder board at the first church established in Antioch, where people were first called Christians, was made up of Middle Eastern brown-skinned men and a black-skinned man from the African territory of Niger. Many of the early church fathers and theologians who compiled the Bible, planted churches and developed Christian thought were brown-skinned North Africans (Tertullian, Origin, Athanasias, Augustine). Perhaps the most accurate claim to be made about the roots of the Christian faith is that it began with brown and black-skinned people.

The reality of Christianity is that God never wanted His family to be one ethne (people group) or skin tone, and the truth is that He will not stand for attempts to make it such. The book of Revelation gives us a picture of the Kingdom, which will be as He said. It is beautiful in its diversity, with people from every tribe, nation and tongue. The Christian faith is one for every man and woman that places their trust in Jesus, regardless of ethnicity and skin color. May we all work at proclaiming and displaying such a reality.

John M. Ames is the church planting pastor of what is now Faith Community Church in Providence, RI.