The Decolonization of Christianity Is Not Complete

For Black History Month, I’m profiling individuals who work in religious arenas for reparations to Black Americans. Last week, I featured Gregory Thompson, a former pastor and the founder of Voices Underground, a nonprofit creative firm that helps communities recover, interpret and honor their African American histories. This week, we hear from Ekemini Uwan, a co-author of the book “Truth’s Table: Black Women’s Musings on Life, Love, and Liberation ” and co-host of the “Truth’s Table” podcast.

Uwan’s work centers on theology, culture, race and politics. She is also a charter member of the International Civil Working Group of the Permanent Forum for People of African Descent at the United Nations. Uwan’s parents immigrated to the United States in the early 1970s from Nigeria. She is part of the Ibibio ethnic group and grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. In December, Uwan spoke at the United Nations in Geneva, asking that Catholic and Protestant churches be included in plans for global reparations. I talked with Uwan about her address, her work toward reparations and her Christian faith, which she understands to be the motivation behind her work. Our conversation has been edited for concision and clarity.

Tish Harrison Warren: Your speech on the U.N. floor was titled “Churches Owe a Debt.” Why was it important to you to highlight churches’ complicity in white supremacy and racial violence?

Ekemini Uwan: Because I am a Christian and because I love the church, it gives me more credibility to call the church to account. Love covers over a multitude of sins, absolutely. But love also holds accountable. Love also exposes deeds that are in the dark and brings them into the light so that we can have not false peace, but true peace.

Sin always has communal and generational impact. It always has ripple effects. And those need to be remedied. Particular things need to be repented particularly. We need to put abundant resources behind that. We have got to be able to render an apology and render the fruit of repentance to those who have been oppressed.

There are so many people who believe that Christianity is the white man’s religion directly because of what happened with slavery, with colonialism, with the controlling image of white Jesus and how that has been used to subjugate and to oppress African people and African-descended people across the world and nonblack people of color, too.

Warren: What are some ways that the Catholic Church and the Protestant church were complicit in racial violence?

Uwan: Both churches were primary vehicles through which the trans-Atlantic slave trade, chattel slavery, colonialism and imperialism spread. This was done through theological and ecclesial malfeasance, via the Doctrine of Discovery — which is what laid the groundwork for the subjugation of Indigenous people in the United States and African-descended people and Africans.

Mark Charles and Soong-Chan Rah wrote a book called “Unsettling Truths: The Ongoing Dehumanizing Legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery.” They do a great job of breaking down the Doctrine of Discovery, explaining that it was a set of legal principles formulated in the 15th and 16th centuries that governed European colonizing power.

In 1452, Pope Nicholas V issued the papal bull Dum Diversas. That decree granted permission to King Alfonso V of Portugal to invade, search out, capture, vanquish and subdue all Muslims and pagans, anybody who was non-Catholic or not a Christian. It granted permission to Alfonso to subject these people to perpetual slavery.

The language it uses of “pagans” and “enemies” reveals the implicit and explicit dehumanization and denial of the image of God within African people. It viewed them as only worthy of exploitation via perpetual slavery. That is how we got the groundwork for the trans-Atlantic slave trade and colonialism.

Katharine Gerbner’s book “Christian Slavery”highlights how Protestant Christians weaponized the Christian faith and the Bible against enslaved Africans. Anglicans and Dutch Reformed and Lutheran slave owners in the Dutch West Indies — all the way up to Virginia as well — conceived of their Protestant identities as fundamental to their status as enslavers. They constructed a caste system based on Christian status in which “heathenish” slaves were afforded no rights or privileges.

Protestant enslavers knew that Christian conversion and baptism were incompatible with slavery, so they excluded the enslaved from the Christian faith. Then, if enslaved Africans did come to faith, they would say, “Your faith only frees your soul, not your body.” So, your soul is free in Christ, but we get to own your body.

Then, there’s the controlling image of white Jesus. My parents and my grandmother had to contend with being colonized people by the British. To this day, my grandmother has the picture of white Jesus given to her by a missionary. Patricia Hill Collins in “Black Feminist Thought” defines controlling images as anything that’s used to justify, perpetuate and normalize subordination.

I have seen the harm white Jesus can and does do to one’s psyche, to one’s self-estimation. What does it mean to serve a God that looks exactly like your oppressor? What does that mean for me as a person who’s made in the image of God?

Warren: I know people who perhaps morally understand that reparations are needed, but feel they are unworkable practically. Could you speak to that?

Uwan: We really have to get imaginative about what this can look like. You’re going to need all hands on deck: economists, ethicists, theologians, historians, sociologists, psychologists.

Reparations have to include a symbolic and material scope.

What does it look like to not only repent, but to also have landmarks and statues to be able to mark the sites of violence and sites of empowerment where enslaved people rose up and fought to free themselves? What does it mean to be able to mark those realities all over the United States? That’s symbolic.

The material scope would include land and a check. I’m not an economist, so I can’t go much further into that. Reparations must include restitution, compensation, rehabilitation, satisfaction, cessation — and guarantees of nonrepetition. We have to have a guarantee that what has happened before is not going to happen again, and that it’s not going to evolve with time, as we see happening with mass incarceration, which has evolved from slavery, with time and with systems, in very subversive ways that are not always so obvious to people.

I think you need reparations on the federal, state and the local level. But we also need it on the global level. The global is much more important than anything else, because, on the global scale, we can bring in the British monarchy, the Vatican, and Protestant churches collectively, insurance companies, railroad companies, universities, everybody who had a hand in slavery, colonialism, imperialism and the subsequent harms that have come from that. There needs to be some sort of global repository where there is a process that redresses all of these things. Then maybe they can be distributed through respective federal governments.

I think it’s ironic that oppressors and enslavers can be so creative when it comes to wickedness. So creative! They created race in order to oppress people. And then when it’s time to remedy, when it’s time for reparations, all of the sudden, there’s no imagination: “Well, how could this ever be done?”

The oppressors were very indiscriminate with their oppression. They were snatching and trafficking Ibibio people — my people — from their soil, from their land, from their country, from their culture. Mothers stripped from their nursing children indiscriminately and trafficked.

Now, when it’s time to talk about money and land and those things, why is it, all of the sudden, they’re being very particular about who gets the compensation?

I think that is just a reflection of a scarcity mentality that does not reflect the abundance that we have in God and the abundant forgiveness and repentance that God has called us to. It reflects a lack of love more than anything.

White slave owners did get reparations because they had to emancipate enslaved Africans. They were paid $300 per enslaved person that they emancipated. That was a lot of money back in 1862. African Americans have demanded reparations since the colonial era. They petitioned for freedom dues. They sued former enslavers for unpaid labor and asked for land to start their lives as free people who wanted to thrive.

So this is not new. I’m carrying on a tradition that’s been passed down to me, to our generation. This is something that has been happening in this country for some time. And it was the oppressors who were given reparations.

Warren: How has your ethnic and cultural heritage as an Ibibio woman informed your thoughts on reparations?

Uwan: Being born and raised here but also being descended from the Ibibio people, I see myself as one who bridges both ethnic groups, Africans and African Americans. I think it’s important for people to understand that folks were stolen from Nigeria, Ghana and Cameroon — all of these countries and many more. They came from a land and belonged to a people. There were relatives lost forever. Sometimes people forget that.

People talk about enslaved Africans as if they come from some foreign planet, as if they didn’t belong to a land and to a culture, as if they didn’t have relatives whom they loved, as if they didn’t have spouses, as if they didn’t have children they were separated from. And as if those people who were left behind did not and do not still grieve and mourn their lost relatives. I can tell you that they do. I’ve heard the oral history from my own family. There’s real pain there — real trauma that West Africans, particularly, feel — behind the trans-Atlantic slave trade and U.S. chattel slavery.

Warren: You have discussed how much evil has been perpetrated against people of color in the name of Christianity. How have you been able to remain a Christian knowing this painful history? Why do you remain in this faith?

Uwan: In my book, there’s a chapter called “Decolonizing Discipleship,” which I wrote because I saw the ways that people were falling away from the faith or disgusted with the faith because of the atrocities that I mentioned earlier.

For me, it’s about reorienting myself on what is true, what is factual. Jesus was, is, a historical man who lived and walked this earth. He is a brown-skinned Palestinian Jewish man, even now. That to me is fundamental to the faith.

A lot of what has been perpetuated in the name of Christianity is actually a counterfeit Christianity. And people need to repent and believe the Gospel, the true Gospel of Jesus of Nazareth, not the white corporate Jesus of our own making. What I’m trying to do in my public work is to help people to do that.

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