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.