The global anti-racism protests of the last few weeks call us as a Church to an examination of conscience, purification of memory and to concrete acts of reversal that can speak with credibility to a world that is wounded and broken.
The healing must begin with changing the mindset that fuels racist thinking and white supremacy. The Church is thus challenged to examine how her teaching, practices and belief systems have contributed in creating the mindset of superiority of the white race over other races and her role in the enslavement of blacks and denigrating blackness.
According to John Calvin in his famous Institutes of the Christian Faith, there are two questions that everyone must answer: “Who is God?” and “Who am I?”
He proposes that if we get the first question wrong, we will definitely get the second one wrong, as well.
Christian anthropology has been developed from the perspective of a Western epistemological framework about what it means to be human. The white color-coded humanity has been projected as the universal standard.
It is not surprising that the images of God on which Christian anthropology was built were images of a white God and of a blond and blue-eyed Jesus. These are the images that still dominate the liturgical space in Africa today. Our missal, office of the hours, vestments and liturgical arts are, for the most part, white and Western.
It is not surprising that the African notion of what it means to be human, and the black cultural representations of God, were all affected negatively by the narrative of contamination attached to the African humanum and the African accounts of God.
Africans had to be saved from heathenism and their worship of false gods (through Western Christianity and theology); from barbarism and uncultured mannerisms (through Western anthropology); from the kind of society and culture that were judged to be backward, uncivilized and doomed (through Western sociology); and from poverty (through Western modernity and development designs).
I think the greatest challenge facing all religions, including Christianity, is that they created false images of God. We have painted the picture of a God designed by us to reflect our own image and likeness. We have limited God to our narrow cultural and doctrinal systems.
This human, cultural and political design of God has misled people sometimes to invoke the name of God to justify narrow human ends that do not rise up to heaven in praise to God.
We used the name of the Christian God, for instance, to justify Trans-Atlantic slavery and oppression of blacks, colonialism, racism, war, violence, cultural erasures, oppression, injustice and abuse.
We have used the name of God to promote division, segregation, political ideologies, false religiosity and false piety. In the name of God, we have condoned the oppression of the poor, covered up terrible evils of sexual abuse in our Churches and societies and propped up misrule and justified religious wars and intolerance.
Indeed, for many of us black people, the worst racism committed by Western Christianity in Africa is the presentation of a white God to Africans and the denigration and derision of our cultures, our religious systems and our ancestral ways of life as pagan and contaminated.
As children in catechism classes and in our children rosary groups, we learned that our African ancestors did not know God and that Africa was covered in darkness and wallowing in falsehood and paganism until Westerners came to rescue us with their white religion.
All the images of the saints and models of holiness presented to us as children were of white people, and the names we took at baptism were not the names of our ancestors but the names of white saints.
Unfortunately, these realities are still used to socialize and initiate young Africans today into the faith, leading to false historical consciousness, and spiritual alienation.
The Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples still designates Africa as a mission land. And even though Africans lead most of the dioceses and religious orders on the continent, in reality the local churches of Africa are still colonies of Rome and most of the religious orders are controlled by their Western motherhouses.
All these take away the agency of local bishops, pastoral agents and episcopal conferences in shaping the future of the church in Africa. They also undermine the autonomy of Catholic universities and seminaries in Africa in designing and shaping the education and socialization of Africans into the faith.
The Catholic Church has begun to recognize the agency of African cultures, intellectual history, and spirituality in the beliefs and practices that Africans embrace today as Christians.
However, the long history of the contaminating narratives associated with our history and culture have contributed a great deal to how Africans are perceived today in the church and how African worldviews and narratives are treated when it comes to questions about morality, sexuality, and life in the Church and society.
Can people suffering racism today find hope in our Churches? And what does hope look like for those who are hanging and slowly dying on the Cross today before our eyes, like George Floyd? I argue that the Church can help bring hope at this time of pain and anxiety.
The Church exists as a space of belonging where all God’s people can find a home. She serves as a place of education where people unlearn false realities and embrace the truth of God. This can help them discover the beauty of diversity through the Trinitarian model.
In this kind of space, people are inspired to embrace those ethical choices that are driven by gospel values and that help bring about in history the fruits of the reign of God. The hope that the Church can help give to the world is a reversal of history.
The Church is a space for reimagining a better possible world where people are moved to embrace life-giving choices that make the saving and transforming grace of the Risen Lord concrete in people’s lives and cultures.
This saving hope is particularly needed in those places where people are deeply wounded by injustice and the painful consequences of oppression and suffering.
Hope is a movement that shows people in their lived realities that their history is not contaminated, but a reversal that is real in an experience of redemptive history today.
Christian hope is not an idea or an ideal. It is a concrete emergence of a new agency and a new experience of triumph and release from the chokehold of history for those who have been battered by racism and other social evils.
In order for this hope to come upon the earth, there is the need for the Church and all of God’s people to move away from pleasant poetics of hope to a prophetic praxis of hope.
The pleasant poetics of hope is the all too familiar reaction to social problems where Church leaders and ministers use moral suasion and spiritual platitudes to drown the historical injustice and deep human pain borne by those who suffer.
Such condemnations and sermonizing are appealing to the ears, but end up being only empty rhetoric that might temporarily raise people’s hope for change. Ultimately, they fail to show how change can actually come about.
It is similar to the preaching that many of our ancestors heard in the slave plantations which spoke to them of a God who is pacified by their suffering and who accepts their death as an offering similar to that of God’s crucified Son.
The pleasant poetics of hope also sometimes speak of repentance and of why black people should take responsibility for their lives. However, it fails to speak of conversion of hearts for those who benefit from white privilege and a white-coded Church.
It does not show how the Church could begin a process of reforming our institutional culture and hierarchy of power and privilege, which are often coupled with political ideologies and systems of racism, oppression and neo-liberal capitalism.
Pleasant poetics of hope is a false hope because it fails to address how to change those factors that have conspired to bring the sad circumstances under which blacks and people of color have suffered for centuries. The pleasant poetics of hope is an empty religious noise that often ends up emptying the Gospel of its force, saving truth and power.
The prophetic praxis of hope, on the other hand, is the commitment by the Church and all her members to become the architects of a new future. It is born of an ecclesial practice that, by its very character and manifestations, is a re-imagination of a new future, a new possible world and a new possible Church.
It inaugurates a change in attitude and behaviors through the conversion of hearts. The prophetic praxis of hope leads to a change in mindsets, change in our ecclesial priorities and practices, and change in the Church’s teaching, institutional culture and hierarchy of power and privilege so that she can become truly a poor and merciful Church.
It leads to a firm resolve and commitment to turn our anger and outrage into daily acts of reversal of history by working for the realization of a just and peaceful world for all of God’s people, and especially the marginalized.
An essential part of this kind of hope is that it is prophetic and praxis-oriented.
It is prophetic because it requires listening to the cries of blacks. By correctly reading the signs of our presents times and embodying the pathos of the poor and the broken throughout her systems and structures, the Church becomes a credible site for reimagining a different world, while amplifying the voices of the poor in a noisy world.
As a prophetic hope, the ministers of the Church and all Christians must become architects of a different future.
This means that the cries and anguish of the long-suffering black race and the victims of history must inform our Church’s central mission. It means that our liturgies must celebrate the diversity in our traditions and provide a space to lament for those who have been held down by the injustice partly started and legitimatized through our Church teachings.
Hope is also praxis because it is concerned with constructing a new pathway of reversal through a conscious counter-witnessing that is capable of changing the status quo. This hope is also the message that can strengthen the agency of the oppressed to become architects in their own history.
What this means in actual fact is that the Church commits herself and her members to a new way of life, a new institutional culture, a new ethics and a new moral and spiritual journey that will transform the inner life of the Church, the hearts of all men and women and bend the arc of history in the direction of love, justice and peace for all.
Stan Chu Ilo is a Catholic priest of the Diocese of Awgu (Nigeria) and research professor of World Catholicism and African Studies at DePaul University in Chicago (USA).