“The church in the colonies is the white people’s Church, the foreigner’s Church. She does not call the native to God’s ways but to the ways of the white man, of the master, or the oppressor. And as you know, in this matter many are called but few chosen.” Fanon, Wretched of The Earth (42)
Although Fanon’s anticolonial body of work was written in the twentieth century and in the Algerian colonial context, his words resonate in the twenty-first century, particularly with regard to the white evangelical and multiethnic church contexts of America. It is a lamentable fact that the church was the primary vehicle through which colonization spread on the African continent and beyond. Presently, many white evangelical churches continue to follow in the footsteps of their settler ancestors, planting churches in urban areas that resemble colonies.
It is true that Jesus Christ our Lord commanded us, saying, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:18-19). But the questions intruding upon us are these: What kinds of disciples are being made? Do the minds and the lives of these urban disciples reflect a baptism of faith in the marginalized brown-skinned Palestinian God-man, Jesus Christ, who was bludgeoned and hung naked on that rugged cross at Calvary? Or does their baptism reflect faith in a capitalist white Jesus, clothed in a Polo blazer, khakis, and loafers? There are grave consequences for worshipping the latter, which is no more than an idol (Exodus 20: 3-4), and discipling people of color to do the same.
Given the ubiquity of white supremacy in this nation and the church’s role in perpetuating it in the past and present, the time has arrived for the church to implement decolonized discipleship: rescuing people of color from contempt for their skin, hair, body, and culture and bringing them into delight in and love of who God created them to be ontologically. Decolonized discipleship honors God as the wise Creator, while urging believers of color to be conformed to the image of Christ through the indwelling work of the Holy Spirit.
What is Colonization?
Colonization is a violent process whereby colonialist settlers invade the land of native people in order to dispossess and plunder it through rape, genocide, and other egregious acts of violence against indigenous people. Those who survive are oppressed, conscripted to second-class citizenship, and forced labor on their own land due to the implementation of systemic racism.
Another aspect of colonization, germane to our discussion here, requires the degradation of the natives’ culture, language, customs, and personhood. “In the colonial context, the settler ends his work of breaking in the native when the latter admits loudly and intelligibly the supremacy of white man’s values.” (Fanon, 43). Consequently, the minds of the oppressed have been colonized to such a degree that they internalize this colonialist white supremacist ideology and begin to loathe themselves, their culture, and their traditions, simply because these are theirs. Colonization is inherently violent. Those who were not felled by genocide are left to discover that a psychological war was waged for their minds, at the very moment the settlers’ footsteps marked the sanguine soil of their native land. This is the psyche of the colonized mind: always at war with itself.
Where it concerns believers being discipled in an urban context, the minds of these young disciples can bear an uncanny semblance to the colonial mindset of natives whose land has been colonized. Not unlike the colonized natives, urban disciples are trained, implicitly and explicitly, to disdain their own culture, traditions, and appearance. Implicitly, they are taught that only white men have “solid theology,” because those are the only theologians read and quoted by the urban disciple-maker. Explicitly, they are told that their exuberant worship is too emotional, their style of dress too loud; that the music they choose to listen to, whether it be Christian hip-hop or not, is unredeemable; that their fluent command of African American vernacular English is unrefined and simple; that their bodies are only valuable insofar as they can be fetishized and objectified. The urban disciples’ embodied blackness is treated like something to be managed, not delighted in.
Black women, in particular, bear the brunt of this last message, finding themselves located on a continuum of objectification, vacillating between hypervisibility and invisibility. Hypervisibility maps onto black women with regard to the commodification of their bodies, stereotypes about hypersexuality, mannerisms, speech and the infamous “angry black woman” trope. These false notions that fuel the hypervisibility black women experience also create the precondition for invisibility, which is a form of exile. Black women in their individuality are rendered invisible precisely because they are too visible within their white evangelical or multiethnic church context. All that is perceived of them are the fictitious characterizations projected onto them regarding their personhood.
One way this manifests itself in the church is in the onslaught of biblical manhood and womanhood teachings. These teachings are extrabiblical and center on white middle-upper class norms, communicating to male singles that they should look for, desire, and pursue a marriage partner who embodies the characteristics of a “biblical woman.” As a consequence of this legalistic teaching, black women are implicitly taught to assimilate and aspire toward whiteness. Black women within white and multiethnic church spaces are systematically eliminated from the marriageability pool, rendered invisible by their black and non-black male counterparts because they do not fit the white, middle-class profile of a “biblical woman.”
The colonized mind is a telltale sign that the urban disciple has been indoctrinated with a false theology that derives from the Empire instead of from the Kingdom of God. Empire theology is focused on the temporal without regard for eternal things, which are unseen. It only serves the interest of the powerful, maintains the status quo, and perpetuates the demonic narrative of white superiority over against those in the margins. Empire theology prances around like an angel of light; it cloaks itself with a domesticated gospel void of self-sacrifice, but inwardly it is a ravenous wolf. It requires nothing of its propagators and everything of those on the margins to whom the theology is given. It ensures that the first remains the first and that the last remains the least.
In contrast, kingdom theology is governed by an inverse inertia that holds eternity in view, where the last is first (Matt. 20:16), the poor in spirit and in the world are heirs of the kingdom (Matt. 5:3; Jas. 2:5), and everyone, regardless of status, is to look out for the interest of others (Phil. 2:4), love their neighbors as themselves (Matt. 22:37-39), and love God in both soul and body through the indwelling of the Spirit that empowers sons and daughters of the kingdom to kill sin (Matt. 22:37; Rom. 8:13; 12:1). Consider Esther, who had a choice to make: would she continue to “pass” by concealing her Jewish ethnic identity in order to reap the earthly benefits of proximity to the Empire and the king of said Empire, or would she forsake it all, risking her very life to reveal her Jewish ethnic identity, in order to save her people from the impending genocide? Through God’s providence and Esther’s brave act of solidarity with her people over against the Empire, the trajectory of redemptive history continued unabated, making way for the King of Kings, Jesus Christ’s advent and the inauguration of His kingdom.
What is Decolonization?
“Decolonization is the meeting of two forces, opposed to each other by their very nature…’the last shall be first and the first last.’ Decolonization is the putting into practice of this sentence.” (Fanon 36, 37) Like colonization, decolonization involves two aspects at work simultaneously: the first is decolonization of the mind, which starts by calling the colonial situation into question. The second aspect is when the natives actively turn the colonial structure on its head, so that the once colonized natives gain their independence.
As mentioned previously, colonization is a violent process, and its antipode, decolonization, is equally violent. The minds of the natives are colonized when they internalize their oppression, become self-hating, believe they are inferior to the colonizer, and assent to their colonization, viewing it as a virtue instead of seeing it as a vice fashioned in the depths of hell. The antithesis of the colonized mind is the decolonized mind; the latter is the locus of our interest. Decolonization of the mind is not achieved through osmosis. It does not occur organically and it is not passive. Decolonization is always active, intentional, and requires resistance against the colonial structure of subjugation. Colonization—like every other sin—does not remit with time; it is a wicked and all-consuming force that is only stopped when decolonization efforts meet colonization with equal force.
White supremacy is a global project. Consequently, America is a white supremacist nation as a function of this reality; and this means that we, people of color, have all had our minds colonized to varying degrees. Through our educational system, whether it be private, public, or homeschooling; through media, doctrine, and iconography in churches, we have all absorbed a message of disdain for our melanin, bodies, and culture. This is why decolonization must be an essential part of discipleship.
We can begin to decolonize our discipleship first by remembering that Christianity is an Eastern religion. We should thus be intentional about learning about church history and how the gospel took root in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Grievously, it is a little-known fact that the Ethiopian Church was the impetus for the Protestant Reformation. Reading Bible commentaries, books, articles, and theology written by women and men who are natives and descendants of Africa and the Middle East, which are the historical settings of the Bible. Men and women like, Tokunboh Adeyemo, Mignon Jacobs, and Judy Fentress Williams. We must also sit at the feet of our Asian and Latin American sisters and brothers, so that we lay hold of the catholicity of the church, which will remain out of reach so long as the colonial mindset persists.
Secondly, we need to evaluate whether or not the theology we subscribe to in our churches derives from the Kingdom or the Empire. Here are a few questions to ask yourself: Does this theology call me to a deep love for God that causes me to pursue holiness and radical love for my neighbor? Does this theology benefit the privileged at the expense of the marginalized? Is this theology good news for everyone, regardless of their racial and socioeconomic status? Does this theology cause me to look in the mirror and marvel at God’s handiwork instead of despising my reflection? When I close my eyes and picture Jesus, do I see a white man or a brown-skinned Palestinian man? Your answer to each of these questions will indicate whether or not you have been indoctrinated by Kingdom or Empire theology.
If we take colonization and decolonization out of the realm of sociology for a moment and think about them in a theological sense, we realize we have all been colonized by sin, without exception. In Genesis 3: 1, 4-5, we see Satan, the chief colonizer, deceive our first parents, Adam and Eve. Instead of thinking God’s thoughts after Him by taking dominion over the serpent (Gen. 1:26-28), Adam and Eve sealed their colonization and that of their posterity when they ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, plunging us all into sin, death, and misery.
When we think about the eternal consequences of our transgressions (Rom. 6:23), we see that colonization by sin is violent indeed. Decolonization is equally violent, and that violence was visited upon the body of Jesus Christ who—of His own volition—laid down His life so that we would no longer be colonized by sin. Every laceration, welt, contusion, and gash from the crown of thorns embedded on His head was endured by Jesus for our salvation—or our decolonization—if you will. The Holy Spirit continues the work of decolonization within us by empowering us to kill indwelling sin as we are renewing our minds and being conformed to the image of Christ.
Analogically, we must account for white supremacy in our discipleship efforts, so that the urban disciple is cared for in body and soul. The disciple-maker must instruct the urban disciple as an embodied soul whose life was purchased by the finished work of our embodied Savior, Jesus Christ. We are not Gnostics. A disembodied savior is no savior at all. In the words of the African theologian, Athanasius, “What is not assumed is not redeemed.” Our bodies matter. Our hair matters. Our complexion matters. Our facial features matter. Our physiques matter because Jesus Christ united humanity with His divinity. Our bodies and souls reflect the image of the embodied One who is interceding for us now. Decolonization is a lifelong process; the race is not given to the swift but to the one who endures until the end.