I recently got back from an amazing week in Bahia, north Brazil. As cliché as it may sound, it’s an amazing place with a rich culture and a unique spirit. Bahia is an area where the majority of the population are descended from enslaved Africans. I immediately felt at home there, more at home than I do in the average British city. I was surrounded by Afros, dreadlocks, brown skin, food that tasted strangely similar to the Caribbean stews my Mum cooks at home and men that appreciated me post-tan (been trying and failing to get to Lupita levels of melanin).

On my second day there, I went to a Samba dance/workout class. Now, I usually avoid gym situations like the plague, being naturally averse to other people’s sweat. Like, I genuinely am disgusted by people who drip sweat from their head – which is most men (wipe yourself down before you hug me please), and I visibly shudder when I have to go near anyone who has anything more than a gentle post workout glow. This class was great though. I was working every muscle, had a lot of fun, felt absolutely no judgement about the fact that my melanin had not conferred any dancing ability to me and samba’d my non rhythmic self for 2 hours. It was all going so well, until we approached the end of the class. Our super energetic teacher summoned us towards the band at the front of the room who had been drumming us through the class. I was a bit bemused, but whatever, I samba’d my way over to the drums. She knelt to the floor in front of the drums. I knelt too  – figured this was our final stretch or cool down. Then before I knew it, she was bowing in front of  the drums, arms outstretched, wailing and arching her back.

Hold up. Wait a minute. Let me put some Jesus in it.

I finally cottoned on to the fact that this was some kind of religious activity. Which I respect, but I wasn’t about to be involved in. So I stood up and shuffled to the side.

Later, she explained that she was a daughter of Oshun, (one of the Yoruba deities or what is believed to be a manifestation of God) and that the drumming and dancing was used to summon the Orisha (spirit).

And what is strange about this? She is after all, an African descendent practising her religious lineage.

The history of the intersection of Europeans with Africans is the same in Brazil as anywhere else in the modern world. There are nuances , but the story of deceit, cultural stripping ,rape, whipping, forbidding traditional religions, segregation and hierarchy enforced amongst Africans based on their proximity to whiteness follows the same pattern it does anywhere else.

Unlike my home country of Jamaica, where the majority of the country is Christian and the traditional African religions are shunned by a sizeable amount of the population (although definitely practiced by some), Brazil has a strong tradition of syncretism. The basic definition of syncretism is the amalgamation of two or more religions. In the case of Brazil, Christianity, mainly Catholicism – which arguably is very different from mainstream Christianity, is blended with traditional African religions. The Yoruba religion has different Orishas – manifestations of the supreme being, and people can be daughters and sons of these various orishas. Many slaves were adherents of this religion but were banned by the Catholic church from following it once they arrived in Brazil. To maintain their practice enslaved Africans combined elements of the Yoruba, Bantu and Fon religions known overall as Candomble, with Catholicism.  The ritualism and worship of dead saints in Catholicism lends very well to the reverence for ancestral worship in the traditional African religions. The belief systems, although very different, have enough similarities that allow for their amalgamation.

Strangely to me at first, some of the followers of Candomble in Brazil that I spoke to, identified as Christian  and Candomble. One man simply said “Candomble is first because it is the religion of my ancestors, but I’m a Christian as well”.

I thought a lot that week about how I as a black Christian related to traditional African religions. Had I been taught to fear them more than other religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism? Did I think they were ‘more’ evil? Had I ignorantly referred to them as voodoo simply because I had very little understanding of the practices? The answer to all these questions is, yes.  I can accept that one of the functions of white Christianity was to instil a level of disdain for traditional religions that was part of an entire system created dehumanise people of African descent.

What does this mean for black Christians? If we understand that our receiving of what is termed  ‘The Gospel” – good news, was actually part of a package of what was admittedly bad news for anyone who shared our skin colour, is it necessary for us to reject it?

Firstly, religion being a cultural baton that is passed down through generations doesn’t appear logical. The idea that because my ancestors worshipped a certain way I should naturally follow it, although superficially compelling, seems a completely illogical way to decide on a belief system. There are many things our ancestors believed about a lot of things that we now question, regardless of our ethnic or cultural background. Few people would suggest that because Irish people once believed in leprechauns that Irish Christians are rejecting their ancestry. Clearly, Candomble is seen as a more sophisticated belief system than leprechauns, but the logic that ancestral belief trumps all, fails.

I realise that although I’ve been brought up in a Christian family, I don’t really see Christianity as something that was simply passed down to me. In fact, I think if I had done, I would be a lot more resistant to following it. Undoubtedly the fact that I was exposed to it contributed to my acceptance of it, and it’s obvious that parental beliefs influence children hugely, but most importantly I felt that it was ultimately an individual decision about a belief system.

Secondly,  suggesting that because a religion was initially presented via oppressive means automatically means that the belief system is inherently false is again, illogical. If we reject Christianity, it cannot be on the basis that we came into contact with it in a less than favourable way. Parts of West Africa were exposed to Western medicine via colonialism, but it would be ridiculous to suggest that we reject every aspect of Western medicine simply because our initial contact with it was via colonialism. A system, be that belief system or other, must be judged in and of itself and that is outside the scope of this post.

Before slavery and colonialism and the rise of the Roman Catholic church, Jesus was not white, and Christianity was not synonymous with white supremacy. Jesus was the son of poor woman who got pregnant out-of-wedlock, part of a minority group living under Roman colonial rule. James and John were anti-Roman activists who had a supernatural experience and laid down their placards for preaching.

One definition of colonisation is ‘to appropriate for one’s own use’, and Christianity has been and continues to be colonised by white supremacy. It manifests not only in the historical and present abuses of black bodies in the name of Jesus, but also in the continuing demeaning of black cultural traditions and black self-worth in our own practices of faith. From white Christianity’s refusal to address their racism, to pictures of white Jesus in majority black churches, to black Christians being guilted into accepting their oppression in exchange for a blessing in the afterlife – the manifestations are endless.

In an age where so many young black people are rejecting what they see as a failed faith, a relic of slavery that they cannot in good conscience engage with, the black church must be rigorous, evangelical even, in its attempts to contend for the faith. Decolonising Chritianity is part of our missionary work.  Practically, that means rejecting extra-biblical traditions that are founded on white supremacist ideology.  It’s simple things like not having only Brad Pitt lookalikes when we visually represent Jesus to our congregations, especially our children. It’s more complex things like dealing with the questions our young people might have about how Christians relate to social justice movements, and being open to supporting black theologians in their attempts to understand how our story as black people is positioned in the grand story of redemption. The problem of pain and suffering in the presence of a loving God transcends race and culture, and becomes even more poignant in the recent history of African peoples. It’s challenging ideas that European art traditions have an inherent holiness that African ones are excluded from. It’s lovingly speaking out against voices that suggest that to be proudly black and a devoted follower of Jesus is oxymoronic.

Individually, it starts from a place of accepting that our own blackness is purposefully designed by creator God.  It is not an aberration or variation of whiteness. It is not ‘other’. The Biblical declaration is that God created from rich, brown earth, sons and daughters of glory. The story of redemption IS our story, as much as anyone’s and we must reclaim it.

michelle o

As far back as I can remember, my dream life has included an old Edwardian house with a massive back garden, 2 very cute children, and a very tall husband with kind eyes. The recurring image is generally of us, in the garden, him making mud pies with the kids and me pouring glasses of homemade lemonade into tiny plastic cups for them. It’s all very idyllic and archaic. Nowhere in this image is me hurriedly pouring the lemonade with a pair of A and E scrubs on, kissing my husband on the cheek and grabbing a child in each arm to hug them as I rush out the house to work.

The probability is that my future life is far more likely to be similar  to the second image, than the first.

The working mum isn’t a really a ‘thing’ anymore, is it?
Not many people raise their eyebrows  at the idea of a working woman having a couple of little ones at home. In a lot of circles, it’s assumed that you will go back to work after pregnancy, possibly take a year or two at the most.
All except conservative Christian (or other religious) circles.

Recently my denomination voted against women being ordained as ministers. It was a controversial vote mostly split along cultural lines. Many of  those in the West tended to be more in favour, and non- Western countries tended to be opposed to it. I haven’t studied it enough to make any informed commentary and so maintained a fairly neutral position although my natural tendencies lean towards being pro-ordination.

Aside from discussions about ordination, I was interested in the conversations about the different roles of women and men in the home and society. I’ve found Christian men have much more of a tendency to be in favour of my 1950’s daydream than other men. In fact, one of the women who spoke against women’s ordination stated that despite her current leadership position in a church organisation, that (loosely quoting from our denomination’s most important female leader) ‘her highest calling will be when she is a wife or mother’. Although I agree with the quote she used in it’s correct context –  I found it firstly, dismissive of those women who will never be called to be a wife or mother, and secondly, rooted less in sound theology and more in Victorian idealism.

The idea that your most important life work is to love and influence your immediate family is one that I subscribe to – but this is equally true of men and women. Interestingly enough, this argument is never used to prevent married men from occupying positions of leadership or demanding jobs even though the Biblical imperative to take care of your home first is actually directed at men and not women.

The concept of men going out to work and women staying at home is fairly modern concept. In times past, especially the time period  in which the Bible was written, men, women and children often worked alongside each other in the family business, women sold their wares at the market, and the concept of a ‘stay at home mum’ vs ‘working mum’ was non-existent. Women often worked from home, or took their children with them as they worked outside the home. Everyone pitched in to make enough money or produce for the family to survive – the family was a working unit.

My Mum worked in a demanding and fairly high powered job  for most of my childhood and I don’t feel like I missed out because she wasn’t “there” as much as she would have been if she had stayed at home. Like most Mums she’d managed the art of being ever present even in her absences. Sometimes she would bring me into work with her during school holidays and seeing her as a black woman in a senior management position was extremely empowering for me. I would sit at her desk in her office, spin around in her big chair and pretend that I was the boss.  I have no doubt that a major part of my confidence and success came from seeing my Mum at work. Also, I was fortunate enough to have great nannies who looked after me and my brother and my experience of the world was enriched by my time with them – I consider them to be part my family.

If I’m honest, if  I ever do have children  I do want to be at home, at least when my children are young. I’m even warming to the idea of home schooling. I’m uncomfortable with the idea of a stranger spending more time with my children at a young age than me, even if my own childhood experience of that was great. But if I am called to work outside of the home, that does not make me less ‘virtuous’ than if I stay at home.

I refuse to believe that God wanted me to get a medical degree simply to pass time while I wait for the right man to whisk me off my feet and provide me with an expensive set of cooking utensils to facilitate his fabulous career. I’m also very confused as to why women who are significantly more intelligent, innovative and able than some men shouldn’t share this with the world but instead should feel some sort of moral burden to stay at home, concocted from a hodgepodge mixture of Victorian ethics and misused Bible texts, instead of discovering the cure for sickle cell. Lastly, the idea that being a stay at home Mum isn’t a job in itself, is insulting. If a woman stays at home both parents are working – one is working inside the home and one is working outside. Both are equally viable choices that families should make for themselves – without being made to feel guilty for either.

What do you guys think?

rosaparksnah

Now I don’t advocate it, but watch any Tyler Perry movie and at least once, the “strong black woman” will pop up.

Typically the strong black woman has been through the fire, the flood and the broke black man. And the absent baby daddy. And the son who is a drug dealer who gets shot and gives his life to Jesus at the end of the film as he limps down the aisle while the strong black woman (who on top of her many responsibilities, also leads the church choir), sings her heart out.

You’ll often find this phrase circulating in memes round the internet. Black woman are STRONG. We are the originators of human life. The incubators of resilience. Black men ‘need’ a ‘strong black woman’ to lean on. White men who make videos about how much they love black women make various allusions to their ‘strength’.  This is seen as a positive thing. After everything we’ve been through, the double oppressions of racism and sexism, the constant invalidation and erasure, still like the phoenix, we manage to rise from the (strong) dark ashes.

Can I be honest? I think the ‘strong black woman’ stereotype/archetype is actually emotionally, spiritually and physically dangerous for black woman. View Post

black church hug

There’s a great hashtag trending on twitter at the moment called #BlackChurchSex. No, it’s not some kind of strange niche fetish involving black people and pews. It’s shedding light on the cultural attitudes towards sex and sexuality within the black church and hopefully, what we can do to encourage better ones.

I actually believe that this is probably one thing that the black and white church has in common – warped, unbiblical views of sexuality that are rooted in a history of misogyny and misunderstanding of God’s intention for our sexuality. As far as the black church, things are complicated even further when we add the historical disrespect of black bodies and sexual abuse of black bodies during slavery and colonialism, often at the hands of ‘Christian’ masters, in the formation of our attitudes towards sexual behaviour.A natural response to black sexuality being treated as cheap is to enforce a legalistic code of conduct around our sexuality that encourages ‘sacredness’.

One thing that stood out to me from the hashtag were the stories of sexual abuse at the hands of ministers and and authority figures. Thankfully, I’ve never personally encountered what most would consider serious sexual abuse, but I did have an incident where a man who was known for being predatory sat me on his lap and started touching my thigh (I was 9)  and I was chastised for kicking him and running out the room. Yeh, I kicked him – and I still maintain that it was the right thing to do.

Unfortunately, the prevailing attitudes in the black church tend to foster a culture of shame and secrecy when it comes to anything sexual. I know other women who were treated inappropriately by the same man, but felt extremely embarrassed about informing the relevant church authority. Fortunately for me, I was young and had a great relationship with my parents, so I didn’t feel the pressure of having to deal with that situation after it happened – they did it for me. For the other women who were in their 20’s, they didn’t have that luxury. It doesn’t help that the close environment of the church means that the person who abuses you might well be the uncle, cousin, brother or sister of one of your church leaders.

The sexual abuse that is rampant in the black church cannot be examined in isolation. The entire sexual formation of black people as they grow up in the black church actively encourages an environment where sexual abuse can grow.

Not least on the list is the head-in-the-sand attitude we have towards sexual desire. Granted, I absolutely discourage people from being very open about the particulars of their personal sexual history, unless they feel moved to do so. I tend to believe that the modern tendency to put your sexual past and present on loudspeaker is pathological, but I do believe that there needs to be a culture where general discussion about sex and sexuality is welcomed and encouraged.

Denial of human sexuality, particularly women’s sexuality is part of the reason why sexual abuse and sexual immorality run rife. You cannot address a problem when you are constantly ignoring it’s existence.

The basic teaching in many churches on sex and sexuality is:

1)Don’t have sex until you’re married.

2)If you do have sex as a woman, you are slightly damaged. As a man, we kinda expected it anyway, don’t worry – you can still marry a virgin.

34)Don’t worry either ladies, God forgives you even if the good men won’t, but don’t get pregnant.

4)If you do get pregnant we will disfellowship you. The guy might get disfellowshipped also, but YOU will suffer everlasting shame while he might well go on to marry a ‘virgin’ in the next couple of years.

5) Don’t sleep with the Pastor. If he abuses his power and position of authority to sleep with single women in his congregation, it’s because they lured him with their Jezebel charms.

6) Men can’t really control themselves, so women, the onus is on YOU.

7) Gay is bad. With no further commentary.

With attitudes like this, is it a wonder that we have so many women getting pregnant outside of marriage? Is it a wonder that most of our young people aren’t abstinent or celibate? Is it a wonder that sexual abuse goes unpunished and ignored? Is it a wonder that men who are sexually abused feel ashamed to admit it? Is it a wonder that many of those who don’t have a heterosexual orientation instead of going to the church for help, reject faith altogether?

There are simple solutions though. The first is proper training of Godly, committed church leaders on Biblical principles of sex and sexuality. In a culture where so many negative attitudes have been formed, there needs to be formal, intentional training about sexuality.It is not something we can afford to leave to chance.  This includes a complete departure from any teaching that encourages men to feel like their sexuality is something the do not have any ability to steward and any teaching that suggests that women are inherently less sexual than men. It also includes focusing on wholeness rather than simply dodging sin.

The second, is churches enabling and empowering parents to teach their children these principles, including confidence in their own sexual choices and how to articulate when someone makes them feel uncomfortable sexually.

The third, is a zero tolerance policy on sexual abuse. All leaders should have appropriate government checks before being placed in any position. Any leader that sexually abuses a child or a member of the congregation needs to step down immediately and be reported to the appropriate legal body.

The fourth, and most important is an emphasis on the heart of the gospel – God’s love redeeming all our brokenness. And none of it being too broken for him.

Our sexuality is a key part of who we are, and today more than ever, the church cannot be a relevant force to share a gospel which encompasses the totality of human experience  while it refuses to deal with this issue.

atheism meme

I remember the end of the first year and beginning of my second year of uni. I remember sitting in church, shivering, in the the midst of one of several seasons of doubt,and realising that this was it. I didn’t believe in this anymore. In between the stories of resurrection, talking animals and parting seas,I had found the ridiculous. I imagined telling my parents that this faith that they had grounded their whole lives on, that they had taught to my brother and I and practiced with consistency was something that no longer seemed plausible. I felt a sense of relief – no more confusion or questions. No more guilt over sins. No more struggling against the part of myself that wanted to do the wrong thing.

I had awkwardly a few years earlier, asked a friend at the time, “Do you ever doubt whether God actually exist?”. She looked at me strangely.”No..” she said, and shrugged.It was then that I decided that doubt wasn’t something that a lot of Christians coped very well with.

How I regained my faith is another story, but I will say that nothing miraculous happened (in the traditional sense of the word), there were no angel sightings, voices or divine coincidences.

Throughout my experience with faith though, I’ve had more than one person ask me how as someone who appears to value reason, I can believe in the God of the Bible. There are a host of websites which give reasons for faith, who offer answers for the difficult bible passages and scientific questions, and they do it far better than me.

What I do want to challenge, is this idea that the majority of people who identify as atheists are atheist because of some sort of rigorous thought process.

There is a new atheism that peaked in popularity a couple of years ago, before it’s patron saint -Richard Dawkins, went a bit doo-lally. The new atheism revels in painting believers and belief as a festering pustule of dangerous stupidity that has come to a head, and must now be eradicated from the planet if human beings are to ever progress. It delights in taking passages out of historical or social context, painting every moderate believer as a potential extremist, and making massive overreaches from science into philosopy. It prides itself on reason and intellect, and scathes at anything that hints at the spiritual.

But a lot of atheists are more apathetic than atheist. It’s become almost a badge of honour for 20 somethings to smugly proclaim that they are atheist. They are above the infantility  and naivety of virgin births and bearded prophets, but when you start to probe more carefully you find that their atheism isn’t very well substantiated. Not that there aren’t very good arguments against belief in God – there are – but they’re not familiar with most of them. They aren’t budding Bertrand Russells. They haven’t read David Hume and the New Testament and then come to a conclusion. Given the fact that belief in the existence or non existence of a God or gods could potentially be a life-defining decision, they haven’t given it much thought at all.

You see, some atheists tend to paint the decision to believe in a faith as an one that primarily rests in our emotions or as a result of cultural norms. It’s comforting to think that Sky-Daddy watches over you and there is something more than atoms, cells and oceans. I would argue though, that our natural instinct to self determination and our dislike of guilt are emotions that are just as powerful, if not more so.

It’s not the idea of God that is necessarily offensive to some of us, it’s the idea of a God with rules.  There is a reason why many of the new atheists tend to be less vociferous about Buddhism and some of the Eastern religions. They would contend that it’s because these religions are the most peaceful, that monotheistic religions cause wars and tragedy, (Which frankly, is a load of bunkum. People cause wars, many wars have little to do with religion and are largely cultural or economic with religion as a scapegoat)

I think a large part of the reason is that these religions appear (on the surface at least) to come with far less difficult terms and conditions. Western middle class interpretation of Buddhism appears to be mostly confined to meditating, various attempts at vegetarianism and a sense of ‘being a nice person’. This is a lot more simple and less guilt inducing for the average young westerner. If they discovered that included in Buddhism was no sex before marriage, no alcohol, modest clothing, some variation of kosher food laws, Saturday night clubbing being frowned upon, no lying under any circumstances, and a duty to actively share your faith with people you meet, they would have far less interest in Buddhism. (I can’t remember enough from R.E school lessons to comment on how many of these things do apply to Buddhism and to what degree)

Few people, even atheists, have a problem with spirituality, as long as it doesn’t prevent them from doing all the things they want to do or encourage them to do things they don’t want to do. Simply put, even if Christianity was true, many of them wouldn’t want to believe. This assumption that atheism or belief is solely to do with reason, logic and intelligence  or lack it, it simply that – a massive assumption.