By Eden Zekarias
If you ask most people today where the first human being was found, chances are they can probably tell you Ethiopia. What’s not so widely known is that Ethiopia remains home to the the oldest Christian tradition in the world. The ancient kingdom of Axum (located in modern-day Tigray) began the practice of Christianity as early as 1 AD, preceding Europe by 3+ centuries. Outside of Ethiopia, this knowledge has been buried, due to the global Europeanization of Christianity and the hegemony of Catholicism.
Colonization has taken a religion produced by Africa, and disfigured it to colonize and enslave Africans. I will demonstrate this claim as evident using historical record from the continent, and throughout the Americas. First, it is to be understood that European missionaries began coming to Africa in the nineteenth century with more than mere charity. The following quote by South African bishop and humanitarian Desmond Tutu best conveys this truth, “When the missionaries came to Africa, they had the Bible and we had the land. They said ‘Let us pray.’ We closed our eyes. When we opened them, we had the Bible and they had the land”. Meanwhile, in East Africa the Ge’ez Bible was slowly aging as the world’s oldest Bible. Perhaps it should have been screaming, “Go back! We have already one.”
Missionaries arrived with supremacist myths of wayward Africans needing both their salvation and civilization. Rather than respecting the people to whom they were visitors (or not–as in the case of settler colonialism), they desecrated existing spiritual relics. Instead, replacing them with a blue-eyed Jesus. On many accounts, missionaries worked alongside poachers and colonizers who murdered Indigenous people, while dismissing them as a voodoo-worshiping and backwards people.
Roman Catholic King Leopold II of Belgium is a prime example of white supremacy cloaked in the rhetoric of mission work. From 1885-1908, Leopold’s reign of terror ensured in the Congo, murdering over 15 million Congolese people. This act of genocide is often referred to as the African Holocaust. In his 1883 “Letter to Colonial Missionaries” he writes the following to his readership,
“Your principal objective in our mission in the Congo is never to teach the niggers to know God, this they know already. Have courage to admit it; you are not going to teach them what they know already. Your essential role is to facilitate the task of administrators and industrials, which means you will go to interpret the gospel in the way it will be the best to protect your interests in that part of the world. Your knowledge of the gospel will allow you to find texts ordering, and encouraging your followers to love poverty, like “Happier are the poor because they will inherit the heaven” and, “It’s very difficult for the rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
It is important to note the specific verses knit-picked by missionaries, as the explicit ends are to make Africans submissive and malleable to European control. On the other side of the world, slave masters were petrified by the mere though of enslaved Africans gaining literacy and obtaining a Bible. They feared the liberating messages of resistance found in Exodus, where Yaweh delivers Moses and the Israelites from slavery. Such fear was warranted, as powerful Africans such as the preacher Nat Turner used these verses to free our people. It was through bloodshed that Africans collectively educated themselves and one another, in spite of laws that made reading punishable by death. Seeing this as inevitable, slave masters panicked and adopted the agenda highlighted by Leopold above.
Distorting Bible verses remains a key component in enforcing African inferiority. One of the most commonly utilized verses can be found in Genesis 9:25-27: “Cursed be Canaan! The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers. He also said, ‘Blessed be the Lord, the God of Shem! May Canaan be the slave of Shem. May God extend the territory of Japheth; may Japeth live in the tents of Shem and may Canaan be his slave’.” Whites claimed the curse of Canaan to be the curse of dark-skin, and therefore a divine justification for slavery. Beating into the psyche that God Himself wants Africans to suffer.
Still, such missionary-colonialism is not unique to Africa. Though the origins of Christianity itself are indeed African, we may find this across the so-called “Third-World”. Throughout the 1400s in South America, Hernán Cortés and Spanish conquistadores slaughtering Aztec people under the slogan “For Gold, God, and Glory.” Move up to North America and stumble upon the nineteenth century text “Manifest Destiny”, a declaration justifying the murder of First Nation people. In this document, settlers claim it is God’s will for colonial expansion to take place “from coast-to-coast” by any means necessary.
The fact that Europe has perverted a religion it did not even produce is all the more bewildering. Such falsification of Christianity accounts for why many conscious Africans today hold the belief that Christianity is “the white man’s religion.” We must stop giving such credit to Europe, as mass genocide is the sole reason for such myth parading as fact. We must undo this miseducation process, that even in our quest for de-colonizing leaves us hook-winked. This subversive process, that even in Ethiopia (the land of origins) we find images of blue-eyed, blond-haired Jesus holding a significant space.
Let us instead look to the walls of monasteries at Bahir Dar. Walls that have been covered with paintings of African Christianity for centuries pre-dating European presence.
We must re-claim African history on a global scale, looking onward to Psalms 69:31 “Princes shall come out of Egypt; Ethiopia (Africa) shall soon stretch out her hands unto God.”
Ed.’s Note: The writer is on an internship at The Reporter.