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The nagging sense that Christianity is the white man’s religion is an earnest question—and often an objection—voiced on the block, in the barbershop, and in scholarly debates. With our culture eager to be on the right side of history, this question is no longer exclusive to Black folks or other ethnic minorities.

White people, especially millennials and Gen Z, are reluctant to embrace a faith that even remotely feels like a tool for past or present oppression. Whether any of this language describes you—and even if it doesn’t—I’m glad you’re considering this important question. Done rigorously and honestly, this inquiry can lead you to firm faith. There are three general reasons that lead people to wonder if Christianity is the white man’s religion:

  1. History of Oppression. Under the banner of Christianity, African Americans have suffered tremendous pain and evil, from the appalling horrors of chattel slavery to the physical and psychological violence of Jim Crow segregation. How can African Americans embrace the same faith that was complicit with such evil?
  2. Whitewashed Jesus. The image of Jesus I saw while growing up—including in my home—was of a European man with blond hair and blue eyes. If the cornerstone of Christianity is depicted falsely, is this faith really relevant to the core concerns of Black people?
  3. Lingering Apathy Toward Racial Justice in the Church. As our broader culture grapples with the deaths of unarmed Black people at the hands of police, there is both apathy and hostility toward notions of racial justice throughout the American church. While our world seeks progress on these issues, many churches seem slow to take up the charge.

These reasons tend to overlap and merge. If Christianity has been used to oppress us; if Jesus is essentially European in appearance and concern; if Christians today remain apathetic toward our plight in this life; then isn’t Christianity the white man’s religion? Can such a faith truly be good for Black people?

Learning from Frederick Douglass

While Malcolm X is the Black historical figure known for levying the charge that Christianity harms Blacks, it’s Frederick Douglass roughly a century earlier who best guides us toward an answer. Douglass was both a Christian and a slave—and later an abolitionist, unparalleled orator, and lay preacher.

Douglass had tasted the truth and goodness of Christianity. Yet at the same time, he experienced the physical and psychological trauma of enslavement at the hands of a master who brandished Christianity to legitimize owning him. This dissonance haunted him. We can learn from how Douglass understood both his Christian faith and the abuses inflicted on enslaved people in the name of Christianity.

In the appendix of his first autobiography, filled with unflinching honesty about the suffering he endured at the hands of Christian slave owners, Douglass distinguishes between Christianity in its true essence and Christianity in its abusive distortion. I encourage you to read his words carefully, even if you’ve heard them before:

I have, in several instances, spoken in such a tone and manner, respecting religion, as may possibly lead those unacquainted with my religious views to suppose me an opponent of all religion. To remove the liability of such misapprehension, I deem it proper to append the following brief explanation. What I have said respecting and against religion, I mean strictly to apply to the slaveholding religion of this land, and with no possible reference to Christianity proper; for, between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference—so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked. To be the friend of the one, is of necessity to be the enemy of the other. I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land. Indeed, I can see no reason, but the most deceitful one, for calling the religion of this land Christianity. I look upon it as the climax of all misnomers, the boldest of all frauds, and the grossest of all libels.

Do you hear it? In essence, Douglass provides a 19th-century answer to our question. Christianity isn’t the white man’s religion, because what his slave owners practiced wasn’t biblical Christianity but a distortion condemned by the very Bible they perverted. If you wish to grapple fully with the question of whether Christianity is the white man’s religion, then Douglass is a required teacher with a bracing lesson: to answer this question genuinely, you must distinguish between the Christianity of Christ and the Christianity of this land, between Christianity proper and its cultural distortions.

What his owners practiced wasn’t biblical Christianity but a distortion condemned by the very Bible they perverted.

Douglass’s example and exhortation show how to disentangle rather than deconstruct. Through careful disentangling and patient recovery, we find that Christianity uniquely speaks to the concerns of Black people with experiential and historical foundations that have empowered our people for centuries.

Faith That Cares for Body and Soul

Part of this disentangling and recovering comes from careful attention to history. Recall that slave owners wouldn’t permit major portions of the Bible to be taught to slaves. Consider that many slave owners resisted evangelizing slaves and baptizing them in the American colonies, for fear that they would then demand the dignity and equality befitting all God’s image-bearers. Such historical realities highlight Christianity’s innate concern for both soul and body, the world to come and the world we inhabit now.

By and large, slave owners knew that enslaved Africans in the colonies would discover in an uncensored Bible divine encouragement and empowerment for their full dignity and liberation. The majority of white Christian denominations understood the stakes: baptism into full membership in the church would affirm slaves’ full humanity and equality.

So slave owners and white churches sought to feed enslaved Africans a distorted faith—a white man’s Christianity—since true Christianity would’ve disrupted their systems of oppression. Do you see the horrific irony? They excised large portions of Scripture and pushed misreadings at the expense of what it actually emphasizes: God cares for both soul and body and is committed to holiness, righteousness, and justice for all people (Ps. 89:14).

Maybe the Christianity you’ve experienced is wedded to the functional denial of racism, or the knee-jerk proclamation that all lives matter, or a general disregard for the plight of Black people. Such sentiments produce an all-too-real effect: the foreboding sense that on the flesh-and-blood concerns of Black people, Christianity has nothing of substantive value to say—it is impotent and silent.

The witness of history is plain: white Christians in America have often tolerated or participated in slavery, segregation, and racial inequality. While many Christians have fought such evils because of their faith, too many others have twisted their faith into a rationale for maintaining racism’s status quo.

This is where Douglass’s model of disentangling is vital. The plainest reading of the Scriptures shows us that Christianity is not impotent or silent—it speaks with the God-breathed words that drove our ancestors to seek both spiritual and physical freedom. To a world that often demonizes blackness, assigning an inherent biological or cultural inferiority to those of African descent, Christianity declares all people are made in God’s image (Gen. 1:26–28). Those who enslave other people, then, are nothing less than ungodly (1 Tim. 1:10).

To those wondering what God desires—and to those who remain apathetic to pressing social issues—the Scriptures call us “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Mic. 6:8). To those wondering if God cares for the plight of their people, Christianity gives us Christ himself, who understands suffering, grants salvation, and charges us to love God and to love our neighbor as ourselves. To a world seeking to usher in its sense of perfect justice in the present, Christianity tells us God will do this fully and justly on an appointed day (Acts 17:31). This is good news for all people, and it is a vision of life and faith that speaks to the lingering pain of Black experience in America.

You don’t have to abandon the faith to critique its abuses of Black people—in fact, the greatest critiques against Christianity’s distortions are Christianity lived faithfully and Scripture read plainly. Though it has been muzzled and twisted, God’s Word continues to speak to our grittiest concerns.

Recovering Our Enslaved Ancestors’ Testimony

The phenomenon of disentangling biblical Christianity from its distortions is the only way to understand one of the most miraculous developments in modern history: enslaved Africans’ widespread embrace of the religion of their oppressors. Countless enslaved Africans saw past slave owners’ malicious misreadings of Scripture to gaze on—and embrace—the Christian faith. In the very faith misused to dehumanize them, they uncovered God’s affirmation of their humanity, his call to seek equality, and his saving revelation in Christ. So they carried their lament, scars, and trauma to heaven’s throne. Patiently and prayerfully, they searched the Scriptures and disentangled the true faith from its heinous distortions.

When it comes to the history of Christianity and African Americans, it’s understandable to focus on the abuses we’ve suffered in the name of the faith. There are many. We must reckon with this pain both for our healing and for our learning. But history is emphatic: the story of Christianity and Black people is more than a tale of our oppression. It’s a story that contains multitudes, a story of suffering and triumph, of unspeakable pain and unshakable faith.

If you’re African American or of African descent, you have a great cloud of ethnic witnesses, many of whom tasted suffering but found in the salvation of Jesus and in Scripture transformational hope for this world and the next. Black believers like Martin Luther King Jr., Sojourner Truth, and Fannie Lou Hamer left an indelible mark on history by battling for justice and righteousness because of their faith, not despite it.

The story of Christianity and Black people is one of suffering and triumph, of unspeakable pain and unshakable faith.

If you’re on the edge of deconstruction—or have already made the leap—recall the cloud of ancestral witnesses who testify of Christ, not because of the coercion of the white man or colonialism, but because Christianity is true and good for all people.

I encourage you to reflect deeply, read prayerfully and widely from voices old and new, and converse communally before writing off the faith that carried our ancestors through harrowing trials with their dignity intact.

African Roots of Early Christian History

Another concern often arises from African Americans toward this religion of their ancestors. Even if Christianity has helped our people, is it natural to us—or is it just the legacy of colonization?

The massive popularity of Marvel’s 2018 Black Panther film, and the recent rise of African spiritualities among Black millennials, are linked to this question. Both reflect, in different ways, a growing desire among younger African Americans to recover their ethnic heritage—to “decolonize” from beliefs that prize Eurocentric cultural norms and return to one’s African or ancestral roots. Religious groups like the Black Hebrew Israelites capitalize on this impulse by claiming to offer a religious identity natural to African Americans, unstained by white people and the abuses of Christianity.

Of course, God loves ethnic diversity, designing and prizing it to the point of including it in the renewal of heaven and earth (Rev. 7:9). But this is not merely a matter of future hope—just look at Christianity’s origins, specifically in Africa. You don’t need to abandon Christianity to discover your African heritage; you need to discover Christianity’s African roots.

Consider that one of the three epicenters of early Christianity was Alexandria, located in Egypt. Many of the most formative Christian figures were African, from seminal theologians like Tertullian to Augustine to the faithful female martyr Perpetua. Christianity in Africa long predates chattel slavery and European colonialism. Places like Ethiopia and Sudan were home to thriving Christianity as early as the fourth century.

The late scholar Thomas Oden put it powerfully: “Cut Africa out of the Bible and Christian memory, and you have misplaced many pivotal scenes of salvation history. It is the story of the children of Abraham in Africa; Joseph in Africa; Moses in Africa; Mary, Joseph and Jesus in Africa; and shortly thereafter Mark, and Perpetua and Athanasius, and Augustine in Africa.”

Savior Who Cares and Knows

Historical and biblical answers to the haunting question of whether Christianity is a white man’s religion are important. But this question isn’t resolved through information alone. We’re not brains on a stick, after all; we’re creatures of desire, led by our hearts, which means our motives and impulses are knots of complexity and brokenness that require careful reflection. So as you wrestle with the question, will you interrogate the cultural narrative and heart impulses that make you think Christianity belongs to whiteness?

The image of white Jesus is so off-putting because it suggests that Jesus doesn’t understand or identify with any of us of non-Anglo descent. Yet Jesus himself drew near to those whom the world forgot and despised. Jesus himself felt the horrifying sting of injustice and suffering. Jesus himself suffered for our sake. There is no other religious figure who can so empathize with the pain and grit of human experience, including the story of African Americans over the centuries.

I urge you to freshly examine Jesus of Nazareth, as revealed in the Gospels, the singular figure who by his unjust suffering, his solidarity with the lowly, and his sacrificial love has been the living proof to our people that Christianity doesn’t belong to the white man, but to the risen God-man. He is the ultimate proof that God knows us, sees us, and loves us.

Editors’ note: 

This article was adapted from Claude Atcho’s chapter in Before You Lose Your Faith: Deconstructing Doubt in the Church (The Gospel Coalition, 2021), available for preorder. We invite you to join us—either in person or online—for TGC’s 2021 National Conference. All registrants, including those who register for the livestream, will receive six free books, including Rebecca McLaughlin’s The Secular Creed, Trevin Wax’s The Multi-Directional Leader, and Before You Lose Your Faith, edited by Ivan Mesa. Learn more.

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