Malcom and the “White Man’s Religion”

One Christianity’s fiercest critics in recent history was none other than Malcolm X.  Malcolm himself was a very religious man who admired and revered many figures in the Christian faith.  He also was very familiar with the faith itself.  His father was a pastor and Malcolm has spent much time studying the bible.  This meant when he gave his scathing condemnations, it wasn’t coming from someone who was ignorant to the faith, but had knowledge and experience of it.  One of his most famous accusations is that Christianity is a “white man’s religion”.  Naturally, the theologians of the time dismissed the racially charged claim, claiming that Christ came and died for all nations, and that Christianity was to be spread to all races.  As true as that may be, I think it’s clear that they didn’t understand what Malcolm was saying, and it may also be true that Malcolm may have misunderstood Christianity. 

So, what did Malcolm mean when he called Christianity a white man’s religion?  Well, ultimately, he meant that Christianity suites the white man’s needs.  The Christian religion meets the needs of whites who feel their culture is the standard for how to judge all people.  Therefore; God, Jesus, and anything that was meant to be good was represented as “white”, and anything that’s bad was represented as “black” (Cone, pg. 155).  In the hands of white people, Christianity was used to exalt white people and degrade black people.  All the holy figures of the people were depicted as white when they were put in images, and the devil of course was to be thought of and represented as black (Cone, pg. 170).  The bible being interpreted by white people was used to dehumanize other people groups and allow whites to conquer and enslave them for their own purposes (Cone, 166).  This was the Christianity that Malcolm saw.  He saw a Christianity that was birthed through white people’s eyes and understandings of the bible, that was used to fulfill their own selfish needs.

When thinking about Malcolm’s claims, it’s hard to disagree.  The Christianity that was in America had come here entirely by white people, and any interpretation they would get from the bible would be through a white person’s perspective.  Even after interaction with other races, Christianity was still used and understood in a way that suited white people’s needs.  Having all the imagery and metaphorical language praising “whiteness” and shunning “blackness” also has a magnificent psychological impact on people, and Malcolm saw this clearly.  Considering all this, it was very clear to Malcolm that Christianity is a white man’s religion through and through.  How could a black person find anything in such a belief system?  All the images were of white people, the sacred text was used to oppress black people because of their skin color, and the only theological ideas they accept are those that benefit white people.  As compelling and devastating a picture Malcolm has painted as Christianity being a white man’s religion, maybe there was something Malcolm was missing.  Maybe there’s a way for black Christians to maintain dignity and still call themselves Christians.

I think our first step of resistance against Malcolm comes from the history we find in black people during their experience in America.  One thing we see is that through their time here, religion has always played a formidable role in motivating resistance and inspiring hope (Wilmore, pg. 69).  Beyond that, Christianity itself was commonly at the heart of motivating brave black leaders. When looking back at the history of black resistance against white oppression, we see that Christianity many times was a key motivating factor that gave black people the courage and strength to resist and fight for the freedom they deserved (Wilmore, pg. 81).  It is true that whites used Christianity to oppress blacks, but it’s also true that blacks used Christianity as means of liberation.

Beyond the inspiration blacks individually drew from Christianity, the black church has consistently been on the front lines fighting for freedom for the black people.  It has also been a pioneer and on the cutting edge of resistance movements for blacks.  A major way it was able to do this was because its independence from the white church, which allowed the black church to attend to the specific needs of those blacks in their communities (Wilmore, pg. 121).  There’s also theological points in the bible that blacks focus on that white Christians may have overlooked in the past.  One thing was the theme of justice in the bible and God’s promise to bring justice against any person who goes against his commands (Wilmore, pg. 98).  This would involve God bringing justice down on all the unrighteousness of the oppressive white people.  Besides just justice, black people also focused on the message of freedom in the gospel itself (Wilmore, pg. 102).  Freedom wasn’t something just for white people or just the soul, but black people saw the gospel as giving freedom to all people right now on earth as well.  Even more than that, some black Christian leaders, like Marcus Garvey, have pushed for black people to start seeing God as black (Wilmore, pg. 178).  This was an attempt to make God more familiar to black people.  

As legitimate as Malcolm’s insights were of Christianity, it can be seen that he may have gone a little too far. Christianity has been a religion that whites have used for their own needs, but it’s hard to deny the way it has genuinely and authentically spoken to blacks as well. It has been a crucial source of motivation for black leaders throughout history. The black church has been on the front lines fight against white people and their oppression of blacks. There are also theological messages in the text itself that would condemn the actions of white Christians and side with the cries of oppressed black people. As much as Christianity is a white man’s religion, it can also be said to be a black man’s religion.

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