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.

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I love learning about different religions. I’ve always been fascinated by faith and non-faith, from the colourful polytheism of Hinduism to the strict monotheism of Islam, right down to the secular humanism that rejects both. R.E was one of my favourite subjects at school and I distinctly remember one of my best grades was a project I had to do on Judaism in year 9. I remember working particularly hard on it simply because I found Jewish culture fascinating – maybe even attractive. I admired their pride in their cultural traditions, I loved the beauty of the language of the Torah and the Talmud, and I so badly wanted to experience Shabbat at a synagogue.(It’s still on my bucket list).

I would never date a Jewish man.

Strange? While I love learning about different faiths, I am adamant that the faith I believe in is the truth. Arrogant,some would say. But not only do I assert that what i believe is the truth, I fully expect other people who have different faith backgrounds to assert the same thing, and I have no problem with that. After all, what is the point of faith if it is half hearted? How can something shape the entire fabric of your life, right down to the clothes you wear and the food you eat, and be a ambiguous wandering in the direction of a possible certainty. No one’s giving up bacon based on a vague inkling. And I’m certainly not refraining from sex before marriage because of a hunch I got a few years ago that it could possibly be a good idea, sorta, depending on what cereal I ate yesterday. Erm, no. There’s got to be certainty on that one. View Post

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There’s nothing superficially controversial or disagreeable about the sixth commandment. Thou shalt not kill. Pretty self explanatory, right? And pretty much everyone – Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, agnostic, humanist,  or atheist would say that on a day to day basis this commandment not only makes perfect sense, but is easily kept by all of us who haven’t been arrested for manslaughter recently.

It’s never that simple though, is it?

In fact, for a commandment that on the surface would appear to be one of the most unifying across faith or non-faith practices, it’s perhaps the most divisive.

I’ve never really given much thought to whether this is a commandment I keep or not. It’s one that I tend to think I can comfortably tick off my “generally good human being by other human being standards” list, and concentrate on the more tricky ones like not coveting my neighbours stuff.

For some reason , when I thought about this post though, the phrase that came to me was ‘self harm’. Not self harm in the literal physical sense, which is generally precipitated by psychiatric illness and is tremendously distressing both for both those who self harm and their loved ones, but self harm in a a completely different sense. I thought about all the times that I’ve quieted the voice inside of me that knows the right thing to do. The times when God, my conscience, and all the warnings of my those who are maybe a little wiser and older than me sound in my head, but I quickly push them into that dark space that quietly lingers when you’re in the middle of some mess you know you shouldn’t be in the middle of. Because those are the times when little pieces of you die. Those are the times when in some form, you allow that self destructive side of you to win.

And it dawned on me that a simplistic understanding of ‘thou shalt not kill’ only focuses on abortion clinics and serial killers whilst completely missing the point.

I don’t want to think about this commandment only in the negative. I want to ask myself, how do I aid in the Divine willing to affirm life in every human being, including myself?

If I care about aborted fetuses but I am unmoved by police brutality or Syrian refugees, and have no compassion for a single mother on benefits, have I understood this commandment? If I care about Syrian refugees, but I find it easy to destroy someone’s reputation with gossip, have I understood? And if I appear saintly to others but secretly allow habits and behaviours to creep into my life that are destroying me from the inside out, have I understood this commandment?

I so wholeheartedly believe that God wants us to see more than murder in this. That more than the command to not kill (the most accurate translation is actually “thou shalt not commit unlawful murder” – there are far too many grisly bits in the Bible for it to mean anything else), is the command to seek the source of life and love, and then share that with those around us in the way that we live.

“Whoever drinks from the water that I shall give him, shall never thirst again. But the water that I shall give him shall be a well springing up into everlasting life” ~ John 4:14

How are you affirming life today?

Copyright creative commons

Copyright creative commons

I posted this last night on Facebook...”Let me get deep for a minute…someone on my Instagram said something similar: People sometimes take ages posing for the perfect selfie…It’s not an accurate depiction of how they look from every angle. Likewise, what you see of someone else’s life is only one angle.

It’s easy to envy because you can’t see from the back or the side.

You’re single, they’re engaged – you don’t know their relationship issues. They have a great job, you can’t seem to get a foot up – you don’t know that they’re lonely and cry at night. They’re pretty, you might not be as conventionally good looking – they might be racked with poor self esteem.

Trust what God has for you. Trust the process. Trust that everything is not always as it seems. Don’t trust Facebook lives. Be happy for others, be content with what you have.”

I didn’t post it as a type of agony aunt to the masses type thing. Actually, it was more of a reminder to myself.

You see, I had spent a substantial part of the hour or so before I wrote that status wallowing in a rather large, depressing vat of my own self-pity. Inside the vat was a large glass of mango juice and a packet of salted peanuts to aid me in quest for pessimism and discontentment. There were also a few tears. And a couple of “it’s not fair and I’m not talking to you..” moans to God.

Life isn’t always a bed of roses. Sometimes, it can feel like a series of very unfortunate events, while everyone else’s life appears to be a series of extremely pleasant coincidences.

Fear, worry and anxiety are generally rooted in things that haven’t happened yet. It’s true, there are things that happen to us that are awful, that stretch and pull at us until we feel like we’ve reached our limitations and won’t ever be able to bounce back, but often a lot of our anxiety is rooted in what hasn’t happened yet. Either things that we want to happen but we’re scared won’t happen, or things that we don’t want to happen and are scared will happen. The truth is that a lot of the things we fear will happen probably won’t. A lot of the things that we fear won’t happen probably will. And even if things do or don’t happen, we often get through them a lot better than we thought we would.

It doesn’t help that a lot of our fears are informed by ideas about what we ‘should’ be doing, or what ‘should’ be happening to us, based on the people around us. One of the curses of social media is that we can easily access snapshots of peoples lives. Instead of seeing these snapshots as exactly what they are – snapshots, we often subconsciously choose to see them as live movie reel of someone’s life.

I’ll be honest – there are things I’m scared won’t happen. I’m scared I’ll never figure out an exact career path. People around me seem to be settled and convinced about what they want to do, and I still don’t know whether I want to be a GP, a surgeon or neither. I’m scared that I’m not using my skills enough, that I’ll look back in 10 years and not have achieved the things I want to. I’m scared I won’t ever get married and have a family but everyone around me seems to be getting married at the moment.  I’m scared that I won’t ever become the type of person I want to become – that all the character flaws I’m trying to overcome will just stick with me forever.

There are things I’m scared will happen. I’m scared that my loved ones will get ill. I’m scared that I’ll lose people that are important to me. I’m scared that I’ll make a wrong decision about something important and ruin my life. I’m scared that I’ll say something incredibly stupid at the wrong time to the wrong person and get myself in a whole heap of trouble I can’t get out of.

I’m sure you have your own set of fears, and I’m sure some of my fears might seem  a bit silly to you…I would probably agree with you, and there are a couple of simple solutions I use to try and let go of my fears and practice being content:

1) Truth

I sometimes have to remind myself of the truth, even speak it out loud to myself… No, so and so’s life is not perfect because no one’s life is, despite her Instagram page being perfect. Yes, you haven’t figured out your entire life yet, but you’re only 25, that’s an unrealistic expectation. No, you are not an unattractive person – you have enough friends and people that care about you to know that that’s not the case. Nope, God doesn’t only care about perfect people, so quit running away from Him. Truth challenges the false ideas we often have about our present situation.

2) Counting the good things.

Occasionally when I’m feeling absolutely rotten, I take out my hands and stick them in front of me just like we did when we were kids, and count things I’m grateful for. If it’s a really bad day, I start with the basic things – I’m alive, I have food, I have clothes. I always run out of fingers. I always realise that I have far more to be grateful for that I realise.

3)Faith.

Personally, I believe that no matter how many bad things happen in one day, and no matter how rubbish my life may appear, God can use these situations for my good. The good might be a stronger character. The good might be a lesson that can translate into a new career path. The good might be a better relationship than the one I left. The good might even be the ability to offer comfort to someone else going throughout same thing in the future.

So Facebook friends, Instagram buddies, and Twitter comrades – don’t look at my life and think it’s perfect, and don’t look at anyone else’s life and think it is either. And when you’re tempted to compare and be despondent, remember, count the good things, have some faith and add a big dollop of the truth.

What are some of your fears? What are some of the ways you try to stay content?

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.