Earlier this week, a story about a missionary killed by arrows made headlines. Details revealing the circumstances around the death of John Chau were not without context, but rather a recent chapter in the long and violent history of colonisation.
Despite government bans on visiting India’s North Sentinel Island, previous visits where Chau was rejected by the Sentinelese people and previous attacks of “visitors”, Chau chose to go and “save” the Sentinelese through the words of Jesus – which resulted in his death.
Forcing religion on others in a “noble” effort to “save” is rooted in the colonial notion that part of “the white man’s burden” is to bring primitive natives to the light of Christ. This unproven, supremacist rhetoric is still alive in contemporary mission work – knowledge I acquired as an indigenous person and a former Christian.
I was born in Kenya to a Christian family. I believed so much in God that when we emigrated to the United States, I gifted my favourite uncle a Bible so we’d be together forever eventually in heaven. As a devout Christian, I wanted to “spread the good news of Jesus” and save souls from eternal damnation. He still credits me with getting him “saved”.
The church was both generous and familiar to my family in the States. An enjoyable custom during the holidays was participating in holiday gift drives for children in distant parts of the world (usually hosted by international groups like Unicef that partner with religious entities).
I was participating in such activities in Sunday school one week when I struck with a frightening thought: “What if the kids who receive these Bibles can’t read them because they’re in English?” Remembering when I first came to the US and could not really speak or read English, I worried that children in non-English speaking nations wouldn’t be able to either, and subsequently stay unsaved. My next thought was: “What if they can read English, but the Bibles never make it because the pilot crashes the plane?” I wondered if their inability to read the word of God would condemn them to eternal damnation.
I was horrified by my thoughts. Horror turned to shame when I asked such questions of elders and was told I “needed to have faith” or “pray about it”. Shame turned to curiosity when I realised no one was willing to, or could, give me a straight answer as to why we were sending English Bibles to non-English speakers.
This was the moment I became conscious that my religion contained contradictions that my faith was too narrow to bridge. I continued to pray and attend church, but I couldn’t let go of the questioning. I wasn’t able to find answers in the Bible, so I began to read other books and seek out other sources.
I found information on Christianity and colonisation, about missionaries and the ways they “saved” my ancestors (with Bibles, violence, subjugation and the intentional dismantling and/or demonisation of indigenous belief systems). I learned of those who resisted. I was thrown into utter confusion when I realised I came from a family that had participated in anti-colonial struggles, yet proudly displayed portraits of a white Jesus at home. I read about Christian history in Africa pre-dating colonialism, but also how the version of Christianity in many places in Africa today is linked to right-wing American evangelicalism.
I do not want to oversimplify people’s histories, religious and cultural affiliations, and choices. But in my experience, reconciling my faith, findings and the ahistorical ways the church operates today, was not an option. Soon I stopped going to non-mandatory church activities, reading the Bible and eventually, praying to Jesus. Maybe my faith was always fickle, but either way, those strange, seemingly childish thoughts in Sunday school changed my life.
I still have a complicated relationship to Christianity. Most of my family is actively Christian (even if some have other beliefs and understandings that Christianity would reject). My parents still attend church and I often join them when I am home. I’m not sure if it’s out of habit or familiarity, but part of my attendance is rooted in wanting to sit intentionally and curiously in a space full of so many colonial contradictions that still offers hope for people across the world; a place that once offered me hope (it was over the course of two years in scattered church visits that I wrote the piece “The Gospel of Colonisation” exploring my story).
I’ve had difficult, enlightening and saddening conversations with family members about Christian faith, traditional religion and colonisation, and it is through them that I am often reminded that the body of colonialism, especially its strong religious arm, is still very much alive.
During the so-called post-colonial, neocolonial and neoliberal eras, colonialism has so deeply entrenched itself that many fail to recognise, let alone mount resistance against, its ongoing presence. For years, I’ve said that while colonised nations received independence, very few have actually taken steps towards decolonisation.
So when I came across Chau’s story, I was emotional. I was angry that some outlets were unable to look at Chau’s death through an honest, historical lens, choosing instead to frame it as a murder, rather than an act of survival by those whose sovereignty was under assault. I was sad that the Sentinelese could vanish from the Earth if Chau had exposed them to disease. But all in all, I wasn’t in the least bit surprised that stories like this are still occurring all over the world.
Mwende Katwiwa is a storyteller/poet, artivist and writer. They write under the pen name FreeQuency
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