Interview: Vince Bantu Talks Global Christianity and the Myth of a White Man’s Religion

Vince Bantu
Vince Bantu.

Dr. Vince Bantu currently serves as assistant professor of Church History and Black Church Studies at Fuller Theological Seminary’s Houston campus. Bantu is also the director of the Meachum School of Haymanot. He also holds a Ph.D. in Semitic and Egyptian Languages from The Catholic University of America.

Faithfully Magazine interviewed Bantu via phone about his work, his latest book, A Multitude of All Peoples: Engaging Ancient Christianity’s Global Identity, and the idea of Christianity being a White man’s religion. The transcript below has been condensed and edited for clarity.

In your Ph.D. studies, you combined your work in Semitic and Egyptian languages with African Christianity and social identity. What were you originally intending to do with your studies in Semitic and Egyptian languages and what first interested you in the topic of African Christianity and social identity?

That’s a great question. Well, it really kind of coincides with some of the stuff I was just sharing. I had this passion for studying. But again, I came from an urban and Black context where, in my church and community, theological education was not something that was available. In college and then Gordon Conwell, that just opened me up to the whole Evangelical world that I didn’t even know was out there. And again, I had been walking with Jesus since I was six years old, but I hadn’t heard of Evangelicalism or the academic institutions because it’s almost like they float in different worlds. And again, I came from a more blue collar world.

As an undergrad and at seminary, I was really discouraged and concerned about the fact that theological education really is not available and just doesn’t connect to low income communities and marginal communities. I really had a heart for that, and that’s another one of my big passions I try to devote myself to is specifically providing theological education in an accessible and contextual way to marginalized communities. That’s kind of my big passion and that really came to me when I was in seminary. I went to Gordon Conwell urban campus because they had a focus on exactly that – on providing contextual education to marginal communities in inner city Boston. I just loved that context. And that’s when the Lord really told me he wanted me to go to do that from my own life.

One of the things I loved about it was not only that it was a very diverse faculty and student body and that it was located in an urban environment, but also that the curriculum was very contextualized. I think that’s something that we as a global church really need to start taking more seriously, is not only having diverse bodies and personnel in our churches and in our institutions, but having contextual methods of doing theology and ministry in worship, rather than just kind of imputing one particular version of Christianity or theology into another place.

I felt the Lord telling me he wanted me to go into theological education, especially for marginal communities, and in contextual ways. But then my question was, Okay, well, I definitely didn’t ever think I was going to go to college, let alone graduate school. Now you want me to go to doctoral school? What am I going to get a doctorate in? I’m gonna go get a PhD and then teach for the church in the hood. What am I going to get it in? So I took this class on early African Christianity and went to Egypt and I became enthralled with the early history of African Christianity. I was already sensitized to issues of missiology, contextualization, cultural identity, and cultural captivity. I was sensitized to the perception that Christianity is a Western or White religion. But most of those kinds of conversations usually happened in the modern era and venue. My assumption was that Christianity is for everyone and should be contextualized and de-westernized or de-Eurocentrized, if that’s a word. But the majority of the history of Christianity was that it eventually came from the west to the rest.

When I first realized that, actually, Christianity has been a global religion from the beginning and it was in Africa, it was in Asia, way before European colonialism, I was taken with that. And I was like, Man, we don’t talk about that! Again, most of the conversations around racial reconciliation and contextualization, they’re usually focused on issues of the modern world without that kind of historical background. So, I wanted to go get a PhD in [early African Christianity] and teach that history, because I think that would change our perception of Christianity if more of us knew that history. Even people with degrees and even people with theological education, or people in ministry sometimes don’t even hear about this history, because it’s suppressed.

I ended up going to Catholic University because they have this department of Semitic and Egyptian languages and even though it’s technically a language department, most of the people that come out of that department like me end up teaching in church history or religion. I see the languages as a means to an end because every historian works with languages. I mean, that’s the bulk of the work, is reading texts in the original language and translating and interpreting it. And so, that department at Catholic was really one of the best in the world, definitely the best in this country, that specifically focuses on the history of Christianity, and languages. They’re specifically African and Asian Christian languages, you know, like Armenian, Ethiopic or Ge’ez, Coptic, Syriac, you know, and even the Arabic text is almost exclusively Christian Arabic.

You’ve been in the church and in academia, so I’m sure that you’ve run into quite a few misconceptions about global Christianity. What’s one that’s seems to come up frequently among your students or people in the pews, and why do you think that’s the case?

Probably the biggest misconception that I encounter is that Christianity is a White man’s religion. And it might be worded differently. But I think that some version of this misconception is really common. I think the people that this misconception is most lost on or most invisible to is usually the people who fit that description, who are White Western people. It’s sort of like when you try to explain White culture to White people, it’s like trying to explain water to a fish. And usually, people of color usually have a better sense of White culture is more than White people do because it’s the dominant culture. And so, in the same way, usually White Western people don’t have an acute sense of this perception that Christianity is a White man’s religion. But again, most human beings are brown, yellow, red or black. And most of those people very much are familiar with this perception – whatever moniker you use, whether it’s “American,” “Western,” “White,” whatever – that’s a common perception in Asia or Africa or indigenous communities is that Christianity is a White man’s religion.

“With African descent people and with indigenous descent people, it makes all the sense in the world because of the ways that Christianity has been used historically and is still being used by the dominant culture to marginalize and subjugate African and indigenous people. It makes all the sense in the world why those people would see Christianity as a White man’s religion that is in and of itself a mechanism of oppression and subjugation. Western colonialism was hand in hand with Western Christendom.”

This is a very, very common misconception and addressing that misconception is probably my biggest ministry. Defending the gospel in the face of that is really my main ministry, both as an academic and in ministry, and it really touches on both because, especially in the Black community, there’s a lot of different groups that I encounter and engage with – Hebrew Israelites and the conscious community and various Black Muslim/Islamic communities, five percenters, and people who practice indigenous African religion, all various different groups. But I also work with a lot of indigenous and native communities who also deal with this perception, which is, again, a huge obstacle to the gospel among indigenous communities. And it makes sense. With African descent people and with indigenous descent people, it makes all the sense in the world because of the ways that Christianity has been used historically and is still being used by the dominant culture to marginalize and subjugate African and indigenous people. It makes all the sense in the world why those people would see Christianity as a White man’s religion that is in and of itself a mechanism of oppression and subjugation. Western colonialism was hand in hand with Western Christendom.

When many people of African descent think of Christianity, they think of slavery. I was in Senegal last year and the oldest church in that country is actually connected to a slave castle. And so, Christianity entered West Africa, through European slave traders, who were mastering and kidnapping African people en masse in the name of Jesus. And then indigenous people, when they think of Jesus, when they think of Christianity, the first thing they think of is the Trail of Tears and the decimation of their people and the spread of disease and mission schools where they were rounded up and herded and prohibited from speaking in their own language and practicing their own culture and told that their salvation lies in becoming White and becoming European and that becoming a Christian and becoming European were hand in hand. And so again, it makes all the sense in the world, why people see it that way.

I think the only other thing I would add to that, the reason for that misconception is, again, the fact that the alternative stories have not been shown as much. People think, Well, that is the totality of Christian history, and that Christianity has only been this kind of Eurocentric oppressive thing. But, history really helps to counteract that and say, well, no, actually, long before slavery and European colonialism, there were African Christians all across the continent of Africa. And same thing in Asia well before European colonialism. There were Christians across the whole Asian continent that have believed in the gospel freely and owned it and continued realize it in ways that were unique to their culture. And this happened not only before European colonialism, but it even happened before most of Europe was even Christian.

In the introduction of your book, you make a very profound point that we should never think of Christianity as becoming global but that it has always been a global religion. You challenge the work of contemporary missiologists who seem to state that the growth of Christianity in the global south is a 20th and 21st century phenomenon, which ultimately has a Western-centric view of Christianity. Can you speak on where this Western-centric view came from, and why it’s pervasive in much of the West?

A Multitude of All Peoples Vince Bantu

The point that I’m making – I think even many missiologists would agree with – is that Christianity is not entirely new to a lot of these areas around the world. In the 20th century, Christianity really has shifted. It has declined very much in the global north and it has grown in the global south. It really has grown and reached areas that it hadn’t been in before – parts of Africa and parts of Asia, the Americas, and Pacific islands. I think in that regard, it’s understandable to talk about Christianity as becoming or expanding globally, in a major way. I think where it can be damaging though is when we use the word “becoming,” or when we talk about it “becoming global.” I think that exacerbates the idea that up until the 1800s, Christianity was pretty much just in Europe and in North America, and that was the first time that it had ever entered into non-Western contexts. For many of the non-Christian communities that I do a lot of work with in the Black community, that only exacerbates their contention against Christianity. If someone says, “Well, look at all these global examples of Christianity in the 20th century,” then they can point and say, “Yeah, but that came through western missionaries with western colonialism, so even though it’s being practiced by non-western people, it still came from western people.” And again, this is not just in the Black community, but for many people around the world, it’s a huge barrier. Converting to Christianity is seen almost akin to converting to Western culture and Western civilization.

I can’t tell you how many people I’ve talked to and just said, “Well, yeah, did you know there were Christians in Tibet in the 800s? Did you know there were Christians in China in the 600s? Christians in India in the 200s? Did you know Ethiopia was a Christian nation in the 300s?” And so many people, even from other parts of the world, don’t even know this history. That’s why I think that’s the danger when we use the language of “becoming.” We have to be very careful about how we use that wording because that will make people think that Christianity was White and then one day it became global. We should never forget that Christianity was among African, Asian, and Middle Eastern people groups from the very beginning and it still is in many of those places.

“We should have a mind for being concerned about the degree to which as Christianity is spreading into new areas that it hadn’t before in the non-western world, at how often it’s a very westernized version of Christianity rather than being contextualized and owned in indigenous ways.”

We should have a mind for being concerned about the degree to which as Christianity is spreading into new areas that it hadn’t before in the non-western world, at how often it’s a very westernized version of Christianity rather than being contextualized and owned in indigenous ways. That is another reason why it’s helpful to look at both ancient and modern indigenous mission movements and indigenous expressions of Christianity. Because history shows that the more that Christianity is really owned by indigenous peoples is the degree to which it’s going to last for the long haul. Whereas when Christianity is just kind of being practiced in a very foreign way, then that’s not taking very deep root but that’s a shallow root that can impede the growth and the sprouting of the gospel.

Could you name a story or two from the history of global Christianity that have been especially impactful for you in your walk with the Lord? Something that has been spiritually formative, and perhaps connect this to why it may be important to how Christians should approach “our history” as not just dates and names.

Shenoute of Atripe

There’s so much, honestly. I would reference probably the two most important theologians that wrote in African and Asian languages. One would be Shenoute the Great or Shenoute of Atripe who was the greatest writer in the history of the Coptic language. Egyptian Christianity was really kind of the doorway to Africa because it was through Egypt that Christianity really spread into other parts of Africa. It was in Egypt that you first had Christian theology being written in indigenous African languages. And Shenoute was the greatest writer of that language. So he really is one of the most important figures for early African Christianity. One thing that really is encouraging spiritually about Shenoute and his writings is the way that he completely married together concerns for theological orthodoxy with issues of social justice and right praxis. Shenoute was vehemently concerned about teaching the monks in his monastery what right theology was and clarifying heretical theology. But he was also really active in calling to justice a lot of the wealthy in his community that were oppressing the poor, and even his monastery was a haven for many poor people.

A lot of the pagan religions were not only teaching false worship of idols and false gods, but it also was disproportionately common among the wealthy and the privileged. Whereas Christianity didn’t require any financial means to be able to engage in that religious practice, but it was more open to all people of all socioeconomic classes. So the monasteries became these places of not only spiritual nourishment and discipleship but also economic empowerment, where people who normally may not have had a vocation or may not have been literate became literate and or gained a vocational skill. It was a 360 degree, holistic empowerment, both spiritually and socially.

When we look at Scripture, the two biggest sins and the two biggest concerns are, number one, idolatry, and number two, oppressing the poor. And so the flipside of that are the two greatest commandments that Jesus gave us: love God with everything you got and love your neighbor as yourself. The reason that’s encouraging to me is that in today’s day, I find it really hard, honestly, to identify as a Christian in the 21st century with most Christian solutions or movements. Just to generalize, I feel like a lot of Christians and denominations and churches and seminaries tend to focus on one of those or the other. We’re either going to focus on the truth of the gospel and being in right relationship with God and having orthodoxy, or they focus on human flourishing and human dignity and issues of justice and the marginalized and the oppressed and making things right. It’s really encouraging to me to see that in an early African Christian context there was more of a sense of the biblical reality of the inseparability of those things.

The other one that I would mention – I would say that the most prominent early Asian theologian was Ephrem the Syrian. Just like Shenoute was for the Coptic language, Ephrem was the same for the Syriac language. And also, just like Coptic and Egypt were the gateway to African Christianity, the Syriac speaking culture and language (which is in modern day Syria and Turkey and Iraq) was the gateway in which Christianity spread across the continent of Asia. Syriac speaking Christians were the ones who brought the gospel along the Silk Road, throughout the Persian Empire across Central Asia, and then all the way into East Asia and all the way down into the subcontinent and India. It was the Syriac language that carried the gospel all over the Asian continent.

The greatest, most formative writer in that language was Ephrem the Syrian. He wrote so much theological poetry. Even that, in and of itself, is empowering and really awesome to see that the difference from western counterparts. Ephrem and Syriac Christians communicated theology and orthodoxy through poetry. That was the means by which they did both theological and worship life. These things were meant to be sung in churches. These poems he wrote were called madrase. They were a unique style of musical, communal, interactive public poetry, that were actually originally used to communicate heresy and to communicate kind of a syncretic version of Christianity that was blended with Zoroastrianism. Ephrem the Syrian grabbed hold of that cultural art form and he reappropriated it. To this day, he is the greatest author of that literary genre. He repurposed it and used it as a mechanism to communicate orthodoxy, and he wrote a whole series of madrase against heresies, and he wrote a madrase on faith and a madrase on paradise and virginity and the nativity and all these different topics. They’re just a really beautiful, very spiritually nourishing way of doing theology that focuses less on our ability to cognitively understand and bind God and the things. Ephrem’s approach is more that the Creator, Aloho, as he says in Syriac for God, speaks and communicates to us through symbols and what he calls raze in Syriac. The main ones are the Bible and creation. And that really connects with many other cultures, like indigenous and other cultures that have much more of a mind for the way that creation speaks.

I think that is encouraging to me and speaks to the ways in which we can really appropriate and embrace a lot of the things that maybe have been seen as “demonic” or “ungodly.” I mean, I grew up in the 80s and 90s, one of the early hip-hop generations, and I remember when Christian hip-hoppers were first being critiqued, and people were saying, “Oh, you can’t do that! That’s ungodly. That’s not something that can be redeemed.” Also, Ephrem’s raze, or his symbolic approach to theology, is very encouraging to see how God speaks through His Word and through creation and how all these things are speaking the mysteries of God and how we really stand under God rather than standing over him. Theological discourse is not standing over the Scriptures and over God attempting to get them in a box. But rather, if we stand under and we just drink, as Ephrem says, we drink from the fountain of the mysteries of God. Those two things have been really encouraging and nourishing for me.

As a professor who is steeped in discussions of global Christianity, what would you say in response to someone who says that they are “simply doing theology” in contrast to “Asian theology” or “African theology?” Is there such a thing as a bare theology?

That’s a great question. There’s definitely no way to do theology in an acultural way. We need to remember that theology is essentially a human endeavor. It’s helpful to maintain the distinction between theology and revelation. As Ephrem says, through Scripture, through creation, through the Holy Spirit, and through the fullness of revelation which is in Jesus Christ, these are ways that Aloho has communicated the mysteries or the revelation of who he is to us, and that is something that is not culturally specific or relative. It is the truth for all times in all places. But I think that many of us in the Evangelical world forget that though the gospel is universal, that does not necessarily translate to theology being universally standardized. Unlike revelation, theology is a human work. It’s a human response to what God has done in Jesus.

Andrew Walls gives that great analogy of the theater where God communicating to us through Scripture, through the Spirit, and through the gospel is the play that’s on stage. The church is all looking at the same play, but we’re looking at it from different perspectives, and our perspective is going to change how we receive and respond and understand it. That doesn’t mean that the play is pluralistic or has multiple meanings, but it means our perspective will be different and and limited. All of us in the church are sitting from one perspective and that one perspective changes how we see things and also limits how we see things. So all of our theology is situated in our seat in the theater, and our seat in the theater is our culture and our place in history. So there’s no such thing as an acultural theology, just as in there’s no such thing as acultural food.

One of the biggest problems, especially that we face today, is that whiteness functions as this invisible modifier, that things that are White in culture take on the position and role of having this presumed or this alleged culturally objective standpoint. Whereas things that are non-White – things that are Asian or African or indigenous – those things are seen as being “cultural.” And so we’ll say, “Black theology,” or “Asian theology” “Minjung theology,” “Hispanic theology,” or whatever. But we don’t say things like “White theology.” And I think that’s very problematic when we don’t name everything. I mean, we have two options. We can either name everything or we can name nothing. Christena Cleveland talks about this in in her book Disunity in Christ, that psychologically, we’re all wired to categorize things. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s bad when we do things inappropriately and when we’re stereotyping things inappropriately or in ways that we decide what someone else is, rather than letting a community decide who they are. But at the same time, human beings are wired to categorize things in our brains. And also, God intended for all of us to be a part of cultures, right? He said, “Be fruitful, and fill the earth and subdue it.” And that’s the cultural mandate. And in Genesis 10 you have the Table of Nations and then even in Acts 2, the Holy Spirit falls and every tribe and tongue is heard and expressed, and the same thing in Revelation 7. Cultural difference and distinction is for everybody, not only for non-White people. All theology is cultural. Again, Walls makes that point as well. He says all churches are cultural churches, but we don’t talk and think in that way.

I was just talking to an African American brother who works in a predominately White denomination. He was telling me that he’s in charge of mobilizing the “ethnic churches.” And I was like, “What does that mean?” I know what it means. And you know what it means. But, that’s so damaging for this denomination to talk in that way. This African American man is actually in charge of all not just African American churches but all non-White churches in this denomination. And we do this all the time. We use phrases in conversation, like “ethnic foods.” Like, “Oh, I love ‘ethnic food,’ and “I went to this ‘ethnic restaurant.’” And what we mean by that is anything that’s not White. It could be Mexican, it could be Korean, it could be Indian, but “ethnic” is a stock word for non-Whites. And what that reveals is the idea that non-White cultures are culturally specific, while White culture is just objective, they’re just “normal.” And that is really, really dangerous, because, again, it assumes that White people have the all-seeing eye, that they have this supra-cultural, like it’s above culture.

We limit Black theology by calling it “Black” and say, “Well, it’s ‘Black theology.’” So it’s limited to the perspective of Black people, and Asian, and Latino, and so on, and so forth. But we don’t call Jonathan Edwards or John Piper, or Tim Keller, or Martin Luther “White theology” or “German theology” or “White American theology.” We don’t add those same modifiers.

We do this with theology and with churches. We limit Black theology by calling it “Black” and say, “Well, it’s ‘Black theology.’” So it’s limited to the perspective of Black people, and Asian, and Latino, and so on, and so forth. But we don’t call Jonathan Edwards or John Piper, or Tim Keller, or Martin Luther “White theology” or “German theology” or “White American theology.” We don’t add those same modifiers. White people and people of color all do this. We all perpetuate this White normativity. And so, I think it’s really important that we understand that theology is a human response to what God has done in Christ. That means that it’s essentially cultural because all humans have a culture and all humans are affected and influenced by their culture.

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    Written by Timothy I. Cho

    Timothy Isaiah Cho is Associate Editor at Faithfully Magazine. Timothy’s bylines have appeared in Religion News Service and Reformed Margins, and he has been interviewed for several podcasts including Truth’s Table and Gravity Leadership Podcast. He also runs a personal blog on Medium. He received a Master of Divinity from Westminster Seminary California and a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from U.C. Berkeley. Email: timothy.cho (at) faithfullymagazine.com

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