In talking with a missionary to the island country of Haiti once, he mentioned the concern that some of the Haitian people looked upon Christianity as a “white man’s religion”. Given the oppressive actions of certain Europeans in that nation’s history, I can appreciate the cultural context that led to this point of view. It is a shame how those who claimed to follow Jesus have sometimes strayed so far from His teachings, both throughout history, and even today. What was presented to Haitians in centuries past was often not the fundamental teachings of Jesus.1
However, despite the historical context, following Jesus is not – by definition – a “white man’s religion”. Yes, those of European descent have created their own versions of Christianity, just as I’m sure cultures from other parts of the world have done to some extent. But, there’s no real debate on the facts, here: Jesus, along with His early disciples, were clearly Jewish. They were from a Semitic people group: descendants of Abraham, and residents of what we today call the Middle East. While some of them visited Europe (along with other regions), they were called from their previous lives in the land where Jesus taught. They looked like Middle Eastern people (and not the “Swedish Jesus” that is sometimes shown in children’s books, with blond hair and fair skin) because that is where they – and probably their ancestors for many generations – were from.
The Bible indicates that God planned things this way, starting the message of salvation with the Jewish people (of which Jesus was a member by blood, through both His mother and His adoptive father), and then sharing it with the rest of the world.
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.
Romans 1:16 NASB
However, this faith (which is really distinct from a “religion”, at least the way that the Bible describes that in James 1:27) wasn’t meant to remain with the Jewish people. I find it impressive how diverse the audience was at Pentecost, when a significant early message about Jesus was preached (less than two weeks after He returned to Heaven).
They were amazed and astonished, saying, “Why, are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we each hear them in our own language to which we were born? Parthians and Medes and Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the districts of Libya around Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—we hear them in our own tongues speaking of the mighty deeds of God.”
Acts 2:7-11 NASB
There appear to be not only hearers from Jerusalem, but visitors from Africa, Europe, and Asia (as we define those continents today). So, launched from the intersection of 3 major continents, the Gospel was off to a pretty good start. God’s plan was already working to accomplish what Jesus had prophesied in John 3:16, where the rest of us (including those in the Americas, Central/Eastern Asia, Australia, and everyone in-between – even scientists and adventurers in the Antarctic) were part of the “recipient list” for this good news.
So, let me offer a few thoughts to various groups in the world today, who have had their viewpoint of Jesus’ message tainted by this concept of a “white man’s religion”.
If you happen to be of European descent, remember that you don’t own this faith. God wisely chose a small people group in the Middle East to change the world. Had He chosen an economic or military superpower (of which there have been many in history), that nation might have thought that salvation was their idea, or that they changed the world through human might. The role of every Christian is to share and reflect the message of Jesus. Our purpose is not to add extra rules to it, distort it to meet a personal goal, or clobber other people with its message. In fact, passages like 1 Corinthians 5:12-13 suggest that trying to judge sins outside of the church may be getting things out of order. Tell people about Jesus (and why they need to be saved from their sins), and then help them walk His path of righteousness (not yours).
If you have avoided learning about Jesus, because of what “white” people have done with His message (although no skin color has a monopoly in history on distorting the word of God, I’m afraid), go back and see what Jesus and His disciples actually said. Find a translation in your own language and read the un-filtered words of Jesus (in the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, which are called “gospels” because they contain good news – the meaning of the word “gospel”). Read the further details that Jesus’ followers – inspired by God – wrote in the rest of the New Testament. (These writings can be found in the Bible after the book of John.) Read the history of God’s faithfulness to humankind through the Old Testament. Don’t rely on what you hear or see from imperfect followers of Jesus; instead, find out the ideal that they are trying to meet, as well as the mercy that Jesus gives to all of us – even when we fail.
If you are a descendant of Abraham by blood, check out His special message to you, too. God had special blessings for both Isaac and Ishmael. I believe that their descendants can appreciate the message that God delivered (via millennia of Middle-Eastern history), in a way that those from other nations can’t fully appreciate.
Jesus’ message may be controversial, but it was never meant for just one people group. Let us never corrupt His message for the world with any human bias or imperfectly-constructed “religion”. Instead, let us show how He offers hope to everyone, no matter where we are or who our family is.
Scripture quotations taken from the NASB. Copyright by The Lockman Foundation.