Is Christianity a ‘white’ religion?

Prayer Book: Arganona Weddase (The Harp of Praise) by Baselyos in the Lasta region of Ethiopia Late 17th century. Source: http://www.metmuseum.org

You just need to look at all the steeples on a European skyline to see the profound impact Christianity has had on Europe. And Europe has had a pretty profound effect on Christianity, too — take the Reformation, for example! But to call Christianity a ‘white’ religion, or a ‘European’ religion is, in my opinion, stretching the bow a little too far.

Here’s something I read in an article by the wonderful Clifford Geertz the other day:

“…it is possible to suggest a few characteristics of the contemporary [global religious] scene … that seems at once as something rather new under the sun and logical extensions of settled trends.

Of these, I will mention here only two, though they are but part of a much larger social picture and they rather come down to two ways of saying the same thing: (1) the progressive disentanglement, for want of a better word, of the major religions (and some of the minor ones – Soka Gakkai, Mormonism, Cao Dai, Bahai) from the places, peoples, and social formations, the sites and civilizations, within which and in terms of which they were historically formed: Hinduism and Buddhism from the deep particularities of Southern and Eastern Asia, Christianity from those of Europe and the United States, Islam from those of the New East and North Africa; and (2) the emergence of religious persuasion, inherited or self-ascribed, thinned-out or reinforced, as a broadly negotiable, mobile and fungible, instrument of public identity – a portable persona, a movable subject position.”

From “Shifting Aims, Moving Targets: On The Anthropology Of Religion”, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 11:1-15, 2005.

Now, I don’t want to be too tough on Geertz in particular — this is not a deeply argued piece, but I think it belies something that I’ve been getting whiffs of as I’ve started reading about the anthropology of religion; that Christianity is seen as a white, European (and in the quote above North American) phenomenon.

To say that Europe was the “places, peoples, and social formations, the sites and civilizations, within which and in terms of which” Christianity “was historically formed” just seems like bad history to me. Jesus was an Israelite. A Jew. He, and all his early followers lived in the Middle East. The ‘sites and civilisations’ which were foundational to the Christian religion were not European. The early Christian church flourished in the Near East and North Africa. Constantinople was the seat of Christian religion for a very long time. Did you know there is an indigenous Indian church (Mar Thoma) that predates the arrival of colonial Europeans? It traces it’s history to the missionary journey of St Thomas.

Moreover, I find it wildly entertaining that Geertz suggests that the displacement of the major religions from “the places, peoples, and social formations, the sites and civilizations, within which and in terms of which they were historically formed” is “something rather new under the sun”. For it was no European writer, but the ancient Israelite author of the Book of Ecclesiastes (Chapter 1 verses 8-10) that he is quoting indirectly:

“All things are wearisome;
more than one can express;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
or the ear filled with hearing.

What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done;
there is nothing new under the sun.

Is there a thing of which it is said,
‘See, this is new’?
It has already been,
in the ages before us.”

Prof Geertz, I do not think the displacement of religion from the places in which they were historically formed is rather new under the sun at all.

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2 responses to “Is Christianity a ‘white’ religion?

  1. I am sure there are much more dense academic discussion on why people might think of Christianity as particularly white/ modern, this particular article that I remember as being at the back of a first year reader of mine is what most came to mind.
    Gewertz, D. and F. Errington (1996). “On PepsiCo and piety in a Papua New Guinea “modernity”.” American Ethnologist 23(3): 476-493.

  2. Natalie Swann

    Thanks Tracey – I’ll see if I can chase up that article!

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