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Why it's time to correct our teaching of church history

The Black Lives Matter movement is calling on societies to repent of the way black, asian and minority ethnic (BAME) people have been whitewashed out of national histories. But Dr Peter Harris says this challenge also applies to common re-tellings of church history

George Floyd’s tragic death has highlighted again the deadly use of force by some police officers when arresting black suspects. The impact of Floyd’s death has been global with Black Lives Matter (BLM) protestors taking to the streets of the world’s cities. But the BLM movement is not only concerned about black people’s deaths during arrest or in custody. It is also intent on exposing the racist history that underpins Western societies, of which Floyd’s death is a contemporary symptom.

Western societies are therefore being called upon to act in two ways with regards to their histories. First, to acknowledge and repent of the racist deeds of their forebears such as colonialism and slavery. (The toppling of the statue of the slave trader Edward Colston into Bristol Harbour was an act of acknowledgement and contrition) But also, secondly, to repent of the racist way in which BAME people have been whitewashed out of national histories. Hence the petition on change.org calling for black history to be made compulsory in British schools

As Christians who believe that all people are made in God’s image, we ought to be the first to stop any form of discrimination in a peaceful, lawful fashion, whether that discrimination is the complete absence of BAME people from the Church of England’s diocesan episcopacy, or the split on ethnic lines in some parts of British evangelicalism. One question we need to ask is this: do we, as the British Church, present our theological history in a way that gives fair weighting to the role of people who if they lived in Britain today would be considered BAME? Perhaps academic writing does. But I don't think our sermons, online articles or popular books do. We need to retell the story inclusively for the popular audience. Such a story would have to include three world-changing contributions of North African and African American people that have also impacted British church history.  

       

If Jerusalem was the birthplace of Christianity, then North Africa was the Bible Belt of the ancient world. It was also one of the intellectual hubs of early Christianity, producing such luminaries as Clement, Origen, Athanasius, Cyril, Cyprian, Tertullian and Augustine who forged doctrines, often in the face of persecution and heresy, that are the basis of our faith today. For example, Tertullian (c.160 – c.225 AD), who was born in Carthage, Tunisia, introduced the term trinitas to capture the idea of God as one substance but existing as three distinct persons. Athanasius of Alexandria (c. 296 – 373 AD) defended the belief that Jesus is fully divine against the Arian heresy that held that Jesus was created by God the Father. Arguably, one of the most influential theologians of all time was Augustine, bishop of Hippo (c.354 – c.430) whose ideas exert great influence today. Born in modern day Algeria, it is to him that we owe the Christian doctrines of original sin, predestination and free will. Thus, whenever we recite the Nicene Creed or affirm in other ways our beliefs in the Trinity, the full divinity and humanity of Jesus, original sin and human free will, we are giving voice to an orthodoxy that can be found in the scriptures, but which was articulated and preserved by North Africans. But how many of us already knew their names?

If you are a Pentecostal, you belong to the largest Christian denomination in the world. You also belong to a denomination in whose foundation African Americans played a decisive role. William Seymour, an African American, was the pastor of the church in Azusa Street, Los Angeles, and with the help of his wife Jennie, was the leader of the revival that began in 1906 that led to Pentecostalism. The revival was characterised by many spiritual manifestations such as healings and people speaking in tongues which was believed to be evidence of the baptism by the Holy Spirit. So concerned was Seymour about not becoming a celebrity and taking God’s glory that he preached with a wooden crate over his head.

After the Azusa Street revival petered out in 1909, the fire of Pentecostalism was kept burning by many African American Christians in the southern states. From black southern Pentecostalism emerged the first Pentecostal denominations, including the Assemblies of God which is today the largest global Pentecostal denomination, and which is thriving in the UK.

The final example is the theological impact of Dr Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks. Both were responsible for rousing the African American church into playing its significant part in the Civil Rights movement. The idea of churches engaging in social action might not strike us in Britain as revolutionary, but that is precisely the consequence of the impact of King and Parks. For much of the 20th century, American and British evangelicalism stepped back from demanding social justice to focus exclusively on Gospel-preaching. King and Parks joined theology and politics back together because they believed in a God who intervened in history, the final stage of which was a united humanity. King’s pacifist methodology of protest came not from America or Europe, but from the influence of the Hindu Indian Mahatma Gandhi whose non-violent movement had won freedom for India from the British Empire.

Historical narratives help to formulate individual and national identities. They tell us where we come from and help to explain our worldviews. Black, Asian and people of other ethnicities have played an integral part in British history and the history of the British church. Systemic racism and day-to-day racism operate on the belief that BAME people at best can be tolerated in Britain and at worst that they do not belong and need to be removed. By re-telling our theological histories inclusively, we as a Church can play our part in affirming that British identity, whether secular or theological, is an equally shared identity of many ethnicities who shelter under the Union flag.     

Dr Peter Harris teaches the history of Christianity at Lucent University and is the author of The Rage Against the Light: Why Christopher Hitchens was Wrong.

Premier Christianity is committed to publishing a variety of opinion pieces from across the UK Church. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the publisher

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