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Christianity in Colonialism in African Literature, Essay Example

Pages: 5

Words: 1478

Essay

In the corpus of studies on religion and literature, non-Western literary texts, especially African texts, are rarely engaged. This body of literature often remains solely within the confines of post-colonial studies in which African literature is extensively considered and assessed (van Klinken, “The Black Messiah,” 131). However, the majority of post-colonial scholars reflect a secular bias, thereby exhibiting a disregard for religious facets of African literary works. Upon examining African texts, the relationship between traditional African cultures and missionary Christianity figures prominently, especially during the epoch referred to as decolonization (van Klinken, “The Black Messiah,” 131). It is unequivocal that religion is firmly embedded in African literary circles, and the works that African scholars produce are both edified and informed by religious traditions, ideas, tropes, imagery, and concerns (van Klinken, “The Black Messiah,” 131). Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, along with a variety of poems penned by African authors, convey how fiction can be used as a platform to confront the hardships and oppression caused by European colonization and the imposition of European culture and values on Africa ones. Christianity figures prominently in colonial discourses, and it presence in African poems and narratives functioned as a tool of domination and dyadic mechanism through which colonialism could be understood in relation to African spirituality. While

Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart reflects how Christianity functions as a prism through which colonialism was critiqued and lambasted by African authors. The novel takes place during the latter half of the nineteenth century as the British expanded into Umuofia. It is told from the point of view of Okonkwo, a venerable tribal leader who decried the changes being made to the Ibo people. Ultimately, he commits suicides because of his inefficacy against the encroachment of the Europeans (Williams, Beyond Jerusalem). It is unequivocal that the spread of Christianity in the region fomented tensions and hardships because it demarcated various forces of colonialism and foreign presence dominating a foreign space and eradicating indigenous cultures and traditions. Achebe created various brands of missionary Christian representations and images in Things Fall Apart, many of which are paradoxical to on another. While the Christian missionaries sought to build mission schools to properly educate local African children, thereby contributing to the development of civilization vis-a-vis literacy and religious conversion. However, they were also limned as menaces to African societies and cultures, as they represented the root cause of African families to be torn asunder. Ultimately, Things Fall Apart underscore the tensions and hardships faced by the indigenous peoples as Christianity disseminated and brought with it colonial rule and Western hegemony. Indeed, African civilization “fell apart” with the encroachment of white settlers, who were viewed in a dyadic fashion as “civilized” because of their Christian faith.

Achebe contended that indeed there existed a mutual interest for forging a relationship between the white man and the missionaries and indigenous peoples. Achebe perceived it as a triple relationship that caused problems amongst family members and the various clans, which divided the entire continent of Africa as articulated by Obierika who opined to Okonkwo:

How can he when he does not even speak our tongue? But he says that our are bad; and our own brothers who have taken up his religion also say that our customs are bad. How do you think we can fight when our own brothers have turned against us? The white man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won   our brothers, and our clan can no longer act like one. He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart. (Achebe, Things Fall Apart.”).

Through this quotation, Achebe summarizes the core of his criticism of missionary Christianity and colonialism. Colonists and missionaries degraded the indigenous African peoples and culture. missionaries taught the indigenous peoples not only how to live and pray according to Christianity as their new religion but also how to directly insult their prior customs, spirituality, values, and religion. Thus, Achebe took issue with the fact that Africans did not learn religion and culture for the very first time as a backwards, uncivilized peoples from the civilized Westerners. Rather, they already had them firmly in place prior to the arrival of the western colonizers. As such, Christianity functioned as a tool of domination over indigenous culture, which Achebe deplored.

Leopold Senghor’s poem “Prayer for Peace” further touches on the theme of religion and Christianity in European colonialism of Africa in an adverse manner. Senghor attempts to articulate his affinity for France as the country that provided him an education and enabled him to follow his professional dreams while also remaining true to his native African roots. The realization that the author’s friends had extirpated for colonial France rather than for their native country Senegal. As such, Senghor prays to Jesus in the aftermath of Paris, the capital of France, being liberated, prior to his realization that Africa as a continent continues to be crucified by colonial hegemony for centuries. As such, it is clear that Senghor speaks out on behalf of Africa with regards to colonialism through the language and lexicon of religion and Christianity. He states, ” For it is necessary for You to forget those who exported ten million of my sons in the pestilent holds of their ships that killed two hundred million” (Senghor, “Prayer For Peace”). The narrator begs for forgiveness from god for the European overlords who have so brutally subjugated the African peoples and forced them to join the slave trade. He decries the fact that Europeans have crucified Africa through colonialism, yet Africa still remains alive and strong despite such oppression and reduction.

Christian tropes and iconography deployed to both critique yet comprehend European colonialism is further developed in Brutus’ poem entitled “Our Aims, Our Dreams Our Destinations,” which examines the social and political injustices occurring South Africa because of European colonialism. The speaker begins the poem stating “Our aims our dreams our destinations/Thought reconstructed in vacuity/A dialogue:/But God doesn’t answer back.” The word “vacuity” suggests that he feels emptiness in his relationship with the Christian God because God never listens to his prayers, nor does God alleviate the suffering of the South African people. This one-way dialogue manifests itself in the speaker’s observations of the horrors which are palpable and poignant to human senses. As such, the Christian God, the speaker argues, retains the capacity for people to self-inflict damnation. This poem explores the fundamental causes of suffering in relation to Christian beliefs. The suffering refers to the horrors he witnesses as a result of colonialism, and the speaker inquires, “Why are sighs and blood extorted from us?” Such questioning of God suggests a rejection of Christianity because of its association with European oppressors who inflict such suffering. Interestingly, the speaker uses the trope of Jesus Christ impart a message to South Africans suffering under apartheid. He states that humans share a special link with Jesus because of his “splendid destiny” and his “shared enterprise” with humanity. This notion that all people suffer for the sins of others would alleviate South Africans because it suggests that their pain, suffering, and horrors exist due to the sins of their European overlords. As such, the speaker deploys irony vis-a-vis Christian tropes and iconography in order to expose the vagaries of European colonialism.

Christianity, proselytizing, and imperialism retain a significant place in the corpus of African literature penned by African writers. Missionaries time and again struggled to convert Africans to Christianity because they remained steadfastly tethered to their own spiritual beliefs. Nonetheless, they sought to both “civilize” and Christianize pagan indigenous peoples and Africans. The majority of African writers educated by missionaries, however, believe that the missionaries sent to Africa sought to spread Western education, religion, values, and civilization while eradicating the barbaric and backwards African culture. While colonists and missionaries alike grappled with the processes associated with evangelism, they also catalyzed conflicts, divisions, and other issues that continue to hamper African society today. As such, Christianity derailed the indigenous way of life by stripping natives of their unique and homogenous identity once they became subsumed by Western culture and values. Poems and narratives offer scathing critiques of Christianity and the role it played in the colonization of Africa, as it functions as a trope for the vagaries of colonialism from and African perspective as it is part and parcel of dyad of civilized/uncivilized paradigm often used to describe African cultures versus western cultures. Christianity provides a poignant mechanism through which African colonial oppression can be understood despite the fact that it is often ignored within scholarly epistemologies.

Works Cited

Van Klinkem, Adriaan. “The Black Messiah, or Christianity and Masculinity in Ngugiwa Thiong’o’s The River Between,” Published in Emma Mason (ed.), Reading the Abrahamic Faiths: Rethinking Religion and Literature, London: Bloomsbury, pp. 131-142.

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