I have travelled to many different countries in Africa and this is one of the most common questions that I get the most about Christianity. Given the mixed legacies of Christian missionaries, the painful history of colonialism and slavery; the persistent nature of the question is understandable and expected. To give a reasonable answer to this question, one has to embrace its complexity and appreciate the force with which it resonates in the social imagery and in the current lived experience of many Africans.
The origins of Christianity show, however, that it is not a Western religion. To be a Christian means to be a follower of Jesus Christ, who was not European, but Middle Eastern. The early followers of Christ were Jewish and were responsible for spreading his message to the different parts of the world because they had learnt from him that his invitation to follow him was universal in scope. It was for everyone belonging to every culture and ethnic group in the world. The idea is that the Church, those who believe in the message of Christ, will be a body of people that are culturally diverse according to God’s design and desire. The message of Christ is for everyone in the world in order that God may receive his glory in the vision that was articulated by the Apostle in Revelations 7:9-10: “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb”
In many parts of the world, including Africa, Christianity has been experienced painfully, unnecessarily and unjustly as a Western religion. The term “West” is a construct that has shifted meaning based on the history of empire-building and the change of human civilisations in the world. “West” eventually came to mean more than a geographical demarcation which includes “old Europe”, Western Christendom and wherever Greco-Roman people and cultures find themselves in the world today. “West” also has a philosophical dimension that is undergirded by ethnocentrism and a “centering” of these “Western” cultures at the expense of other world cultures. Historically, “western Cultures” wrongfully became a standard of civilisation, rationality, the measure of beauty etc. Unfortunately, Christianity as explained and practised by some missionaries at the time, was also wrapped up in “Western culture” when it arrived in many places in Africa, serving the imperialistic ideals of Western countries in this form.
It is this aspect of the question that gives power to the association between Christianity and the West and is largely responsible for the view that Christianity was just an ideological tool that was used to disrupt African civilisations and progress. This was an abuse of what Christianity is. To commit theft of African resources, to enslave people, to assume sovereignty over people, to commit epistemic injustice against them while undermining their right to self-determination, to centre the world around one “Western” culture… This is not biblical Christianity, but an abuse of it. True Christianity brings freedom and hope, because it is God’s story, good news for all people of the world.
Is Christianity a Western religion? No, it is about following Jesus Christ and believing in him for salvation. Unfortunately, the history of Christianity also contains the history of the failures of us as his followers to always present his message clearly and justly. May God heal the hearts and memories of those who incorrectly experienced Christianity as anything else other than what Christ intends. May Christ use us as his body to answer this prayer.