The Answer Is No: A Review of "Is Christianity the White Man's Religion?"
By Charles Lattimore Howard
Is it possible that context—timing and location—influence how we receive the books that come across our eyes?
I opened Is Christianity The White Man's Religion: How The Bible is Good News for People of Color by Antipas L. Harris during the anxiety-filled days of social-distancing and in the wake of national attention-grabbing news stories about Ahmaud Aubrey and George Floyd.
This is an important and timely book. It is not perfect. What book is? Indeed, I have my own critiques around aspects of the text, but Harris has entered the broader intra-Christian dialogical space with a crucial update on a long-held question. And where he is speaking from is a critical aspect of what makes this work so powerful.
Dr. Harris is the President and Dean of Jakes Divinity School—as in Bishop T.D. Jakes. Full disclosure, I am a fan of Bishop Jakes. I hold him as one of the most effective preachers and culture shapers of our time. In the Black Church History courses that I teach, I find myself pushing back on the unfair labeling of Jakes as "just another prosperity preacher." He is not. He is much more, but that's another article for another time.
Still, the perception that Jakes is among the notoriously non-activist televangelist and/or Trump-enabling and supporting evangelical part of the church sadly exists. And for someone in Jakes' camp to write a book like this is a very important push back against the accusation of inactivity and lack of care for the violence against Black bodies that is often aimed at Black Megachurch leaders.
Harris wades into the same difficult waters that have swept many young Christians away from the faith before—the tension of Christianity not just being a White person's religion, but a religion that actively participates in the oppression of Black folk.
Harris wades into the same difficult waters that have swept many young Christians away from the faith before—the tension of Christianity not just being a White person's religion, but a religion that actively participates in the oppression of Black folk. He wades into these same waters, but he is further down the river—for holding these questions in the 2020s is different than it was in the previous century.
Harris answers the question posed in the title of the book (spoiler alert: the answer is "No") by demonstrating the beautiful and often forgotten aspects of Scripture and early Christianity that point to the integral and perpetual presence of people of color and Africans. He speaks of the role Christianity has played in the ongoing liberative project of those of African descent/ascent in the U.S. He speaks of the role the faith plays in our daily lives today. Stories that are not new or groundbreaking but are nonetheless powerful and often forgotten or intentionally written out of the story.
Answering the question "Is Christianity the White Man's Religion?" demands a three-fold answer by my count:
- Naming the Black presence in Scripture.
- Naming the Black presence in Christian history.
- And perhaps in the most consequential answer for Harris' audience, naming the un-Christlike posture of many contemporary white Christians.
This posture (Harris describes it as "God and Country") is somewhere between an indifference to the societal difficulties facing Black lives, and a hostile white supremacy.
This is where I was most (pleasantly) surprised by this book. Harris calls to task well-known individuals like Franklin Graham for the role they have played in pushing Black folk away from the faith through their "God and Country" posture. Harris writes,
"They integrate party-based politics with faith claims. They mount pulpits and other media platforms with disparaging speeches against people who are fighting for justice. Greed often substitutes the well being of human beings as a central focus of ministry. This was the case during slavery and Jim Crow, and it is sometimes the case today. Some prominent Christian leaders such as Franklin Graham launched attacks on the social movement of Black Lives Matter. It is appalling that the leader of one of the most significant refugee support ministries would have a kneejerk reaction that disregards human suffering. Instead of trying to understand the outcry that black lives matter equally with white lives, Graham posited a counter proposal, "All Lives Matter!" Others simply stood by idly."
It is no small deal that an author writing a book with InterVarsity Press would push back on someone like Franklin Graham. And there is so much more to say, so much more on which to check Graham and many others like Jerry Falwell, Jr. Indeed, I wish Harris had been far more explicit in his conviction of President Trump, but this is an important step in an intra-Christian conversation that hasn't been had nearly enough. White supremacist, Trump-supporting conservative Christians are slowly rotting the church. Or put more gently, we are losing a generation of young Christians because of them.
White supremacist, Trump-supporting conservative Christians are slowly rotting the church. Or put more gently, we are losing a generation of young Christians because of them.
Yet there is another, more complicated question addressed in this book—or should I say, other tension-filled waters into which Harris wades. The book doesn't just wrestle with a theological or religio-historical question about the Black presence in our faith. It also explores why young Black people are drawn to other, "alternative religions."
This exploration stems from a series of conversations and experiences the author had which he describes early in the book. The phrase, "Christianity is the White Man's Religion" is a refrain many in the Black community have heard from non-Christian brothers and sisters since this country was founded. And this position is most put forth by Black Nationalist traditions like the Nation of Islam or some of the Black Hebrew sects—traditions with complicated histories that are a very important part of African American history.
This is the space in which I would most push back on Dr. Harris's beautiful text. To be clear, I loved this book, and I will use it my future classes. Yet, I didn't love the way he portrayed groups like the Nation and these other "alternative religions." Maybe this is just because I'm a lefty chaplain in a cosmopolitan space, but it felt like Harris presented these traditions as threats. And I get that. We don't want to lose our youth to another team. We don't want people to walk away from Christ. Yet, I wish Harris saw these other expressions as co-laborers for liberation and potential religious interlocutors, and not just as spiritual threats.
Let me dig deeper. We have inherited and internalized a part of the Christian nationalism that is the poison the Franklin Grahams of the world are spewing. Graham's version is laced with whiteness and Americana. Ours is simply a desire for the Church to win. We tolerate other faith traditions as long as you stay over there and don't try to poach our kids. We are allowed to proselytize you, but you can't do that to us.
There is a tension here, isn't there? We celebrate religious liberty in the country, yet we believe that our way is The Way. To be clear, I believe that our way is The Way. So how do we navigate this tension? One way is to not see non-Christian entities as threats, or as bad or evil. I'm not totally sure what that looks like, but it starts with respect.
We tolerate other faith traditions as long as you stay over there and don't try to poach our kids. We are allowed to proselytize you, but you can't do that to us.
Harris wrote just four short paragraphs in his section on the Nation of Islam. He barely mentions the role the Nation has played in the formation of Black identity (in and out of prison), in the liberation movements of the 20th Century, in Black education and more. Further, he forgets to speak of Black Muslims in broader Islam.
In his section on African Spiritualties he makes a passing reference to the movie Black Panther and to Beyoncé as drawing young people to a range of spiritual expressions rooted in traditional African beliefs. Again, there is so much more to be said and written here, not least of which the role that African spirituality has played in the formation of contemporary expressions of Christianity in our country.
This belittling dismissal of non-Christian traditions is also a part of the catalyst for the cooling towards our faith by many young people. Again, this is a very difficult space to occupy—the maintenance that salvation is found in Christ, while also respecting and even appreciating other traditions. This isn't "all roads lead to the same God," rather, it's extending the same dignity that we are asking white Christians to extend to us.
This book will be shared on corners and in barbershops and by grandparents to grandchildren who will ask the enduring question on the front cover. It should also be shared with callous "conservative" white evangelical Christians whom, I would argue, are a far greater threat and far stronger reason for our youthful flight than the Nation of Islam. Still, Harris has written a timely and important book that I celebrate and strongly recommend.
The Rev. Charles L. Howard, PhD is the University Chaplain at the University of Pennsylvania, his alma mater. Prior to his return to Penn, he served as a chaplain in hospice and hospital and as a street outreach worker to individuals experiencing homelessness in Philadelphia. His writing has been featured in such publications as Black Arts Quarterly, Black Theology: An International Journal, Daily Good, Urban Cusp, Sojourners Magazine, Christianity Today's Leadership Journal, Chronicle of Higher Education, The Huffington Post, and Slate. He is the editor of The Souls of Poor Folk, which explored new ways of considering homelessness and poverty, The Awe and The Awful, a poetry collection and Lenten Devotional, Black Theology as Mass Movement, a call to theologians to expand the reach of their theological work, and Pond River Ocean Rain, a small book about going deeper with a big God. Chaz has taught in the College of Arts and Sciences and in the Graduate School of Education at Penn, as well as at The Lutheran Theological Seminary of Philadelphia. He shares life with his beloved wife, Dr. Lia C. Howard and their three daughters. He sees his vocational calling to be to work for a communal increase in joy, peace, justice and love.