Editorial: Free the mind, decolonise religion

Today, Africans are still fighting wars of religion, wars horribly similar to those that devastated Europe for centuries. (AFP)

Today, Africans are still fighting wars of religion, wars horribly similar to those that devastated Europe for centuries. (AFP)

Africa is struggling to decolonise itself – to remove the remains of a system of structural oppression that has left most of Africa underdeveloped and most of its inhabitants desperately poor. Many “liberation” governments that took over after colonialism came to its official end have turned out to be as bad as the colonial powers when it comes to development and uplifting the poorest among their populations – doubtless because they reproduced colonial forms of power and control.

They gave them a new coat of paint before going on to oppress and exploit the people as viciously as ever, or if unable to exploit them, left them to rot in their own poverty.

Yes, real decolonisation is needed. But few of those calling so stridently for decolonisation (in our universities, particularly) have taken much notice of a form of religious colonisation that still holds large number of Africans in bondage.
That mental colony is Christianity in most of sub-Saharan Africa.

Further north, one could speak of Islamic colonialism. The colonisation of large parts of North Africa by Islam, however, took place nearly a century and a half ago. Christian colonisation took place more recently, largely within the past 200 years. Thus it should be remembered as clearly as we remember, say, the Dutch arrival at the Cape, or the massacres perpetrated by the British in what is now the Eastern Cape, or the deals done by white elites to exclude black people from any meaningful political role.

Christianity was an integral part of the process that reduced so much of Africa to near-slavery and produced certain forms of “whiteness” as the goals Africans would have to reach if they were to become “civilised” and fully human in the eyes of the white West.

Why have those attempting to dismantle the power structures and skewed patterns of ownership left by colonialism paid so little attention to religious beliefs that are undeniably a colonial legacy, and are arguably as damaging to African souls as apartheid was? The religious colony has barely been evaluated, let alone deconstructed – and certainly not uprooted or countered ideologically as comprehensively as it should have been.

Today, Africans are still fighting wars of religion, wars horribly similar to those that devastated Europe for centuries. In Nigeria, for one, Islamic militants are at war with everyone else, and the suffering of people continues in the most appalling ways.

Christianity, having passed its phase of imperial expansion, sells itself as a doctrine of love and hope (and sometimes profit) and is not so much at war with other religions as it is at war with the very people it claims to want to enfold in the love of God. An obvious example is Uganda, where the homo-hating propaganda of right-wing American Christians has been eagerly assimilated by many government and public figures, including the media, and is being used to make a misery of the lives of gay and lesbian people.

  Elsewhere, too, as we report in this edition of the Mail & Guardian, the internal wars of religious bodies are still burning at high heat: the Anglican Church, for one, is at war with itself over whether the marriages of gay and lesbian people can be blessed in its hallowed spaces and by its ordained clergy.

Sadly, this is a sign of progress. The debate may drag on for another few decades, as the debate about the ordination of women did and does, but at least it’s happening. In most other Christian denominations the discussion is simply not taking place: it has been shut down by the hierarchs.

We are still talking about sexuality and identity in terms of sin, disobedience to “God’s law” and what is “natural” or “unnatural”. These are the terms of an oppressive, policing ideology, not those of freedom and truth. Imagine if we still assumed that women have almost no rights at all, because the Bible, which can barely conceive of female self-determination, tells them to submit unquestioningly to their husbands. Remember the old Dutch Reformed Church interpretation of Genesis that enabled it to claim that the “sons of Ham” (that is, black people) are destined by God’s will to be servants forever?

No, we have managed to shake off those ideological shackles. We have come to see where such religious views endorse oppression both physical and spiritual. There are countless examples of the ethical content of Christianity being discredited by discourses that privilege, instead, human rights and freedom from oppression.

Such counter-drivers can even come from within religion: Christianity itself was a key force, historically, in the movement to end the colonial practice of slavery, even though the Bible itself is quite complacent about the idea of owning slaves. Christian leaders, acting on their religious beliefs, played a vital role in South Africa’s struggle for freedom, as they did in the American civil rights movement.

We need to go further, here in Africa, as we continue to decolonise the continent, and as we strive (in Bob Marley’s words) to emancipate ourselves from mental slavery. None but ourselves can free our minds.

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