As white supremacists rally to Donald Trump - including those masquerading under the smoke screen of "Christian" family values organizations such as Focus on the Family, Family Research Council and American Family Foundation - one myth being peddled is the myth of "White Christianity" that ignores the historical roots of Christianity. Likewise, it ignores the reality that wherever white Europeans took Christianity, it more often than not coincided with the elimination or enslavement and exploitation of native populations and the sometimes ruthless suppression of indigenous religions. Indeed, even papal declarations supported slavery. A piece in The Daily Beast looks at this myth that ignores the death and destruction that went hand in hand with the spread of Christianity by European missionaries and conquerors. Here are excerpts:
On the first day of the Republican National Convention congressman Steve King suggested that white people had been responsible for humanity’s greatest achievements including, among other things, the spread of Christianity.King argued: “I’d ask you to go back through history and figure out, where are these contributions that have been made by these other categories of people that you’re talking about? Where did any other sub-group of people contribute more to civilization?” When he was pushed about whether or not he meant Caucasians, King responded, “Than western civilization itself that’s rooted in Western Europe, Eastern Europe, and the United States of America, and any place where the footprint of Christianity settled the world.”
King is woefully underinformed about the contributions to human knowledge made by non-Caucasians. He seems to think that “Western Civilization” is monolithic and white. He is willfully blind to the way that the accomplishments he is focused on were often achieved using non-white slave labor or financed using natural resources stolen from colonized peoples. Is it really a “white accomplishment” if it is financed and earned by non-whites?
Perhaps the most egregious error here is the assumption that Christianity was spread by white people. Because if Christianity is the linchpin in his view of history and accomplishment, I have some bad news for him.
Jesus and the twelve disciples were all Jews who lived in ancient Palestine. The majority of Jesus’ first followers were fishermen from the Galilee region. In movies and in European artwork Jesus is regularly portrayed as Northern European, but this doesn’t make it so. No matter how hard Megyn Kelly argues this point. On the basis of skeletal remains, physical anthropologists estimate that the average first-century Galilean male was around 5’ 4” and 136 pounds. If we take ancient style as our guide they are likely to have sported dark hair and a beard, and possessed deeply tanned skin.
Paul, the self-appointed “apostle to the Gentiles,” was originally from Tarsus, an ancient university town in what is now south-central Turkey. He was a Roman citizen, which more than his race guaranteed him higher social status in the world of Jesus’ day. But like the other apostles he was likely to be a darker-skinned Mediterranean Jew.
Augustine, Catholic saint and arguably one of the most influential thinkers in human history (to say nothing of Christian theology), was also not white. He was born and lived the majority of his life in North Africa. A more accurate (albeit extremely flattering) portrait of him can be found on the John Nava tapestries in Los Angeles. He looks a lot more like Denzel Washington than you probably imagined.
The truth is that if what King means by white and western is European and pale (put otherwise, people Donald Trump might allow to immigrate here), none of the first followers of Jesus or many of the key figures in the first four hundred years of the Christian Era would qualify. These are the people without whom Christianity wouldn’t exist.