By Terence Chandra
“What business do you have with a white man’s religion?” a classmate once asked me in a small-group discussion I’ll never forget. It was Introduction to Sociology in more ways than one. She was an aboriginal Canadian and I am of Indo-Caribbean descent — the child of parents who emigrated from the former British colony of Guyana in the late 1960s. Although the discussion took place roughly two decades ago, I believe I can, with a fair degree of accuracy, offer a summary of the counter-argument I gave at age 18.
“Christianity isn’t a white man’s religion,” I said. “It emerged among first-century Jews and took hold in the Middle East and North Africa before it did in Western Europe. Today, Christians form a sizable percentage of the world’s population — the majority of whom inhabit the global south. I see no contradiction, therefore, between my skin color and my faith.”
That, at least, is the gist of what I said, albeit in a more heated and less polished way.
Now that 20 years have passed, I will cede my old classmate a point: While Christianity may not be a white man’s religion, its explosive, global expansion in the 15th-century and beyond is undeniably tied to European colonization. And, to put it mildly, it wasn’t always pretty.
My ancestors came to British Guiana in the early 19th century from India. The English promised these dirt-poor peasants a better life as workers on sugarcane plantations that, before the Abolition Act of 1833, were sustained by the labor of African slaves. Those who survived the brutal crossing through the Indian Ocean, around the Cape of Good Hope, and then across the Atlantic quickly learned that there was no hope of ever returning home. Although legally free, they lived the rest of their lives in debt slavery — working as the Africans once did on plantations owned and managed by their European masters. At some point in my family’s history, one or more of my ancestors abandoned their Hindu faith, taking on the faith of the plantation owners. It is for this reason (at least historically speaking) that I am a Christian — specifically an Anglican.
This raises a number of important questions: Can Christians like me — Christians whose ancestors were exploited by the same nation that introduced them to the gospel of Christ — find a true home in Anglicanism? Or, to phrase the question using the language of Martin Luther King Jr., can “the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaves owners” ever “sit together at the table of brotherhood”? Can such a vision be realized here and now, or can it only exist in the minds of dreamers like King and the civil rights activists whom he inspired?
Sadly, there seem to be many today — both outside and even within the Body of Christ — who regard King’s dream as unrealized — perhaps even unrealizable. As a case in point, consider “Can My Children Be Friends with White People?” by law professor Ekow N. Yankah (The New York Times, Nov. 11, 2017).
Yankah’s piece was prompted by a conversation with his four-year-old son regarding the violence of Charlottesville — which, at the time, played repeatedly in a 24-hour news loop. This conversation naturally led into a broader discussion of race relations and, eventually, a discussion on friendship.
He clarifies precisely what he means by true friendship: “Meaningful friendship is not just a feeling. It is not simply being able to share a beer. Real friendship is impossible without the ability to trust others, without knowing that your well-being is important to them.”
True enough. His understanding of friendship sounds a lot like what King had in mind when he spoke of sitting together at the table of brotherhood. Sadly, however, Yankah suggests that such fellowship between whites and people of color is, at this time in American history, nearly impossible: “Against our gauzy national hopes, I will teach my boys to have profound doubts that friendship with white people is possible.”
Some might consider his position radical and dangerous. Others might consider it understandable (especially in light of the violence in Charlottesville). I cite the editorial to make a point: there seems to be a growing tendency to consider statements such as “We’re all the same on the inside” or “We’re all a part of the human race” as platitudinous and naive. So, I ask again: Is racial reconciliation impossible?
As a baptized member of the body of Christ; as a person of color in the Anglican Church of Canada, I am compelled to believe that reconciliation is possible. The sons of slave and the sons of slave owners can indeed sit at the table of brotherhood: not merely in the noble dreams of a great Baptist pastor and civil rights leader, nor merely one day in the kingdom of God, but here and now, in the ordinary, flawed, prosaic lives of our little church communities.
Racial reconciliation — a foretaste of the kingdom of God — can happen around the Communion table and in basement Bible studies, in youth-group devotions and Sunday afternoon potlucks. I have white brothers and sisters in Christ — intimate friends I both admire and trust — with whom I have shared many a personal struggle. Indeed, 13 years ago, within the very walls of an Anglican church, I stood before my bride (a Canadian-born woman of European descent) and made the most sacred vows one can make. As we looked into each other’s eyes that day, skin color (and even past historical injustices) were the very last things on our minds.
Please don’t think that I believe this with naive simplicity. I am not saying that what happened in the past can or should simply be forgotten. The transatlantic slave trade was a brutal historical reality. Indeed, in some of the churches that I have visited throughout the Caribbean, there still exist grand balconies where slave families once sat, segregated from the free white people, a perpetual reminder of the church’s complicit role in the slave trade. Indentured laborers like my ancestors were indeed worked to death on sugarcane plantations in the West Indies. Residential schools — established and operated by the Anglican Church — did, in fact, uproot aboriginal people from their language and culture. These things need to be discussed.
I am also not suggesting that we simply ignore the racial (shall I say?) awkwardness that exists within some of our churches here and now. My younger cousin once complained of how the congregation in his Anglican parish in Ontario casually self-segregated each Sunday morning, with all the white people sitting on one side of the church and everybody else sitting on the other. When he approached his priest about this, she frankly admitted that she didn’t know where to begin in addressing the issue. Can you honestly blame her? And I’ll never forget my first Sunday in a parish where I served some years ago, when a parishioner approached me after the service and, without a hint of irony in his voice, complimented me on how well I spoke English.
I am suggesting that racial reconciliation is possible, but only at considerable cost to those who want to make reconciliation a reality and, ultimately, only through the person and work of Christ himself.
As St. Paul writes to the church in Galatia, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28-29). This beloved verse finds a counterpart in at least two other letters (1 Corinthians and Colossians), strongly suggesting that it was liturgical formulation dating back to the first decade or two of the Church’s existence. In each iteration of this affirmation, the emphasis seems to be placed on the word Christ.
In Christ, different people are brought together, united in a new identity that overcomes the old. It’s not as if racial or ethnic differences are annihilated. Baptized Jews do not cease to be Jews; baptized Gentiles do not cease to be Gentiles; males remain males and females remain females. These identities are retained, but they are transcended and overcome by a new identity — one centered on Christ crucified.
It is in fellowship with the suffering Messiah — the one who loves even his enemies with a self-sacrificial love — that we find our new identity. It is through baptism into his life, death, and resurrection that we — the sons of slaves and the sons of slave owners — can all sit together at the table of fellowship.
The Rev. Terence Chandra serves with his wife, the Rev. Jasmine Chandra, in Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada. They are both community priests at Stone Church, an Anglican Church based in the urban core of their city. You may follow their ministry at Pennies and Sparrows.