Part 1: The Caucasian Christ
One of the first places to which the Gospel message spread after the Apostles were scattered was Africa. The North African coast, Egypt, and Ethiopia were the main hubs of Afro-Christianity for centuries before the Europeans came and spread it deep into the bush. When Christianity was in North Africa and Egypt under the Roman Empire, it retained its uniquely Judeo-Roman Mediterranean flavor and belief systems.
Despite popular conceptions, the African Church has by no means been irrelevant or without a major role. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church sent missionaries to the Council of Florence in 1441 to discuss reunion between the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches, and currently the African wings of the Anglican and Catholic churches are the vanguard in resisting the liberalization of the Western Church.
Despite this, the African Church is rarely discussed or examined. Most likely because there are no major theological works other than perhaps the Desert Fathers of Egypt, nor any infamous saints. Moreover Europe, not Africa, has been the center of global Christianity for the previous millennium. Despite this Eurocentric emphasis on the church during the last millennia, the twenty-first century may be the century of transition, the Christian Church being no longer centered in Europe, but overwhelmingly dominated by the non-European components. Therefore it is critical that European Christians understand the dynamics and nature of African Christology.
In Europe, the Christ-God is defined by His power, authority, majesty, and lawgiving. In Africa is the exact opposite. Africa has little comparative history in dealing with mighty monarchs and grand hierarchies that would naturally lead black Christians to appreciate such majesty and hierarchy. In contrast, Jesus Christ is defined in and by His meekness. But it is not even meekness as many dissident European Christian groups would define Him. Groups such as the Amish, evangelicals, and Mennonites attempt to emphasize the humble, suffering lowly Jesus in contrast to Roman Catholicism’s imperator of imperators. African Christology takes it to the next step. The Catholic Bishop of Ghana, Charles Palmer-Buckle, describes the African view of the Christ-God: “As a Ghanaian, one of the things we cherish is the family. And many people feel Jesus as a member of their family. People like to relate to Jesus as they relate to a member of the family.”[1. Diane Stinton, Jesus of Africa: Voices of Contemporary African Christology (Orbis Books; Maryknoll, NY, 2004), p. 143]
The centrality of African Christology sees Jesus as a loved one and member of the family, the community, and the collective. Christ is defined by the concepts of companionship and personal relationship, rather than seen as an overarching figure of authority. In Africa it is kinship, not kingship. Mary Savio, a nun of the Little Sisters of St. Francis in Uganda, described Jesus Christ thus: “He’s my brother! He’s the God-made-man who unites us all into one family of God and who leads us to the Father. He is my brother, he’s my friend, king and spouse, as a religious sister.”1
African society is defined by a “unity of life” which, “in sharing in this one life, is the first link which unites members of community.”2 Jesus plays into this dynamic by service the role of “mediator,” nurturing and advising rather than ruling and conquering. In short, the African approach to Jesus Christ is through a very matriarchal understanding of the world, standing in contrast to the very assertive, masculine role in which European civilization places Jesus.
The Africans of today, much like the Europeans of old, found membership and belonging in the membership of the commnity. There is an unbreakable metaphysical essence that binds the individual to the family, the family to the tribe, the tribe to the larger African family, the larger African family to the human family, and the human family to the eternity of the cosmos. The church. by consequence, is to then be viewed as a “family, not in the Euro-American sense of the nuclear family, but rather in the Negro-African sense of the large family which includes even cousins, distant cousins, and can go as far as to integrate friends and acquaintances . . . even the dead are a part of it.”[4. Ibid., p, 145]
Communalism is the staple mark of African society. This leads Jesus to be defined as a key member of the family. Whereas Jesus in European society is defined by His political and ecclesiastical roles, in African society, this is more overlooked in exchange for the dynamics of kinship. Bible references to Jesus’s lineage, circumcision, virgin birth, and familial relationships reinforce the African presuppositions about the Christ. These actions and connections emphasize His humanity, His connection to the greater human family establishing a close-knit religious group.
For the African, Jesus’s emphasis on the universal is very important. The fact that Jesus came originally for the Jewish people, along with His close familial lines of lineage, shows not only that He has strong familial ties that bind, but also that His ministry to the Gentiles evinces His commitment to the greater “human family.” If Christ is the head of families and the mediator and member of a family, then one can become a sibling by grace to the Christ-God. Furthermore, since Jesus is the member of the family and yet the firstborn of the new covenant, He is the “big brother” to every African Christian who needs relief from suffering, defense in a time of need, and advice and wisdom amid confusion or trouble.
Both African and European societies view blood-ties as essential to membership in the collective. However, the difference between the two is that European civilization has placed an emphasis upon patriarchy whereas African society has placed it upon the feminine and matriarchy. In African mythology and legendry, for example, there are no major examples of the exaltation of the individual and his romantic struggle over the obstacles of the world. In European society this would make Jesus Christ fit into a folkish pantheon of heroes such as Beowulf or Hector, but not so in African lore.
Politically speaking, when this interpretation of Jesus is applied, it naturally syncretizes to liberation theology and democratic socialism. The inner solidarity of the struggling class or downtrodden individual is the solution to the problems created by the collective. The family and community operate as a single functioning entity, rising and falling together.
Perhaps the strangest interpretation by Africans of Christianity is the concept of Jesus as a mother figure. Not only is African Christology heavily laden with matriarchal images, references, and presuppositions, but it furthermore amplifies this by explicitly attributing maternal attributes to Jesus Christ. Kenyan Catholic clergyman David Kamau described this maternal emphasis: “A mother is one who is concerned about the children. Actually, mother is the immediate person that the children will go to. They will never fear a mother. . . . So I think Jesus is a mother, in that sense, he understands us, he is very close to us, and therefore you should not be afraid of going to him.”3
Though this African-matriarchal Christ is unlikely to spur Christians to sally forth and reconquer the West, it is still a genuine form of Christianity, extremely entrenched and unlikely to be uprooted anytime soon. Take, for example, the plight of Ethiopian, Nigerian, and Sudanese Christians who at present form the geographical arc of black Africa against the advances of Islam. In Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania, the Christians are leading the charge against the infiltration of social liberalism that seeks to normalize homosexual behavior.
For better or for worse, African Christianity is deeply entrenched in sub-Saharan Africa, highly motivated to fight for Christ and unwilling to bow before Islam and secuarism’s global march of conquest. Black Christianity is unlikely to produce a massive global awakening in the way that European Christianity did, but what it does provide is a means for the Gospel to retain a modicum of global power. With Christianity reclaiming its lost position in Russia and the conversion of China becoming more inevitable, African Christians will cease looking to the liberal Episcopals, Lutherans, and Presbyterians for leadership and rather respect the more masculine Russian Orthodox, the Catholic Indians, and the neo-Protestants of China to provide global leadership in the fight against Islam and atheism.
From a geopolitical point of view, black Africa, by remaining Christian, shifts its geostrategic value away from serving the remnant of the British Empire or providing fertile grounds for Walmart expansion. Instead it plants itself strategically in a point to serve as important ideological and religious proxies of Russia, and perhaps a future Christian China.
Just as the once anti-American communist bloc is now evolving into the anti-American Christian bloc, so once the global ties of the Non-Allied Movement, Third World Solidarity, and anti-colonialism could soon be used to unite black Africa, a future Christianized China, and a staunchly Orthodox, nationalist Russia against a revived jihadist Islam and radically secular West.
Despite being located in Africa, Egypt has traditionally been treated as an entity unto itself. Even in the modern world it is heavily influenced by African, European, and Islamic cultures, along with its own indigenous traditions, and it should be treated as a separate entity. Yet it is still African.
Jesus Christ in the Egyptian tradition shares many similar traits to the pagan god Horus, god of the sun. The Egyptian mythological views on the sun are not the only ones that can be applied to Christ. The Romans saw many parallels between Sol Invictus and Jesus Christ as well. These parallels have led many skeptic-scholars to conclude that tales of Jesus Christ’s divinity are based upon Egyptian cult mythology, rather than an independent and true fulfillment of Hebraic prophecy.
Nonetheless, Jesus Christ in Egyptian culture works as a stand-in for the Horus mythology and Osiris cult. Horus and Osiris, god of the dead, both have traits and stories that are analogous to the life of Jesus Christ. Therefore pagan themes such as the resurrection of Jesus Christ synthesized with the resurrection narrative of Osiris.
When Christianity came to Egypt, Jesus Christ became a more convicting and powerful fulfillment of Egyptian mysticism. Much like in Nordic society, where Jesus Christ ascended in their religious life because He was stronger than the old gods, so also in Egypt, Christ was the more powerful and greater rescuer for the Egyptian people, long fallen away from the height of their national imperial power. With the death of the glory of Egypt’s power in antiquity, so went with it the power of their old gods – and the Christ-God has returned back to the land of the Nile to redeem it.
Despite this deep root inside Egypt, Coptic Christianity has taken a serious beating thanks to Islam. Since the fall of former President Hosni Mubarak and the end of nationalist/Baathist rule in Egypt that was replaced by the short reign of the Muslim Brotherhood, the social trends have begun to take Egypt away from its pluralistic historical view of itself and instead placed it on course to become staunchly Islamist. Ba’athism and Christianity worked hand-in-hand, and Egyptian Christians were welcomed as a unique and noble part of Arab/Egyptian identity under the Ba’athists. However, once the jihadists began to gain momentum, this unique view of Egyptian identity is, at least for the moment, on the way out.
Read Part 3: Jesus Christ of the Orient