How Christianity's roots in Africa help racial reconciliation in America

NEW YORK — Striving to explore the roots of the church in Africa, a crowd of diverse scholars and Christian influencers gathered in the Central Presbyterian Church on the Upper East Side in November to remember the life and legacy of the late Dr. Thomas C. Oden.

Four keynote speakers and 14 panelists spoke to dozens of eager listeners at the symposium hosted by the Center for Early African Christianity at Yale. They reflected on Oden’s determination to “get on the right side of truth.” Oden was a prolific scholar who shifted from being a liberal protestant at age 40 into an evangelical who became interested in researching the early church in Africa.

“I became deeply invested in listening carefully to the classical Christian consensus… of the ancient Christian writers and their interpretation of Scripture,” he said in a 2015 interview to Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Many speakers and friends of Oden such as Dr. Robert B. George of Princeton University and the late Dr. Lamin Sanneh of Yale University (who died in January of 2019) said, that in the later days of his life, Oden came to the realization that many church-goers carried a misguided view about the roots of Christianity. They noted that many people believed that Christianity was birthed largely from people of European descent, but Oden reversed that notion saying that many contributions into Christian scholarship and practice were formed in Ancient Africa. An Oklahoma man with a PhD from Yale University, Oden’s books such as, “How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind” helped scholars and theologians rediscover African Christianity and thereby pointed to ways spiritual renewal can take place within the church.

Bishop Emilio Alvarez, a scholar and commentator on the intersection of religious education and theology in America, uses Oden’s work to reconstruct the mindsets of Afro-Latino communities of faith.

“Is Christianity a white-based religion?” a student of Alvarez’ asked.

He suggested that many minorities are conflicted by the idea that some Christians have helped bring about human freedom and progress while other Christians were involved in slavery. And while Christianity is a religion for slave or free, some speakers noted that many Africans and African Americans felt Christianity has been sometimes considered a “white man’s religion.” Attendees at the Oden Symposium believe that notion needs to be shattered because it is a false notion. They also believe shattering the false notion can bring reconciliation and unity within the church.

“The institution of slavery did not spring out of Christianity,” Alvarez said. “Christianity was there from the beginning.”

During Oden’s research of Early African Christianity, he visited places like Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Algeria. Oden found that some of the oldest written form of African music was planted in Ethiopian chants and dances dating back to the 14th century.

Oden’s books, “How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind” and “The Songs of Africa: The Ethiopian Canticles” were among two of many resources that scholars referenced when discussing Oden’s legacy. The books and scholars point to church fathers such as Tertullian (c. 160 - c. 225) of Carthage, Athanasius of Alexandria (c. 296 - 373) and Saint Augustine of Hippo (c. 354 - c. 430) who affected the Christian tradition.

Panel speaker David Bailey, director of Arrabon — a ministry that strives to shape worshipping communities to value and cultivate the flourishing of all people — gave insight into conversations he has had with African Americans.

He said that students felt as though the same people who created slavery were the same people who “gave them Jesus.”

“But, Jesus was there from the beginning,” Alvarez responded, before asking a question:. How can the church change these false-beliefs and begin to form reconciliation?

Oden had the courage to break free from his original beliefs and rediscover truth. And speakers said that now it is time for the church to do the same. Some of the scholars said the church has to change its belief that Christianity is eurocentric and should embrace the idea that African played a role in Christianity from Ethiopia to Egypt in Ancient times. They say it also has played a significant role in the evangelical and Episcopalian boom across the African continent today.

Professor of Theology at Baylor University, Dr. David Wilhite sat on a panel with four other leaders and told listeners that there is a great need for white evangelicals to break “tradition” and be willing to listen to the “wider-body.”

“To think that any one group has all the right answers is of course ethnocentric and an antithesis of the gospel,” Wilhite said.

But it is not the responsibility of white evangelicals alone to shatter traditional beliefs — it is also critical that those of African heritage reconstruct their perceptions of early Christianity.

“Tom helped people to remember that Africa is there,” one speaker said. “Because God is who he is, and he chooses who he wants to accomplish his purpose. And Tom devoted strength, time and passion to see this be true in Africa.”

Goldene Brown is a senior majoring in journalism at Olivet Nazarene University in Illinois. She is also an alumna of the NYC Semester in Journalism (NYCJ) program at The King’s College in the Fall of 2018, where she also interned at the New York Daily News.