The history of Christianity has a number of major black marks that critics often use to delegitimize or attack it. Christianity’s connection to Western colonialism has become a common area of tension in our faith for some in the academic world. Before getting into the argument and analyzing it, it’s important to understand what exactly colonialism is. For clarity’s sake, I will use colonialism as a broader term, encompassing a similar term: imperialism.
Colonialism, while not exclusively limited to Western Europe over the last five centuries, primarily refers to the colonization of Africa, the Americas, and parts of Asia by world powers such as Britain, Spain, and the U.S. These countries travelled to “new” lands, bringing their socio-economic structures, their religion, and oftentimes force to bring “civilization” to Indigenous peoples around the world. Along with their homeland’s institutions, colonizers (to borrow a term from Marvel’s Black Panther) brought harsh enforcement of their own beliefs and values, eliminating the personal liberty of those they colonized.
The three colonizing nations mentioned above all brought a version of Christianity with them as well. As some ministers and priest from Europe and the U.S. attempted to bring the gospel to peoples that had never encountered it before, the powers that be pushed for forced conversions and baptisms to bring their new subjects to heel. While the number of individuals claiming to be Christians rose dramatically, the Indigenous peoples effected and critics of colonial activity grew to hold contempt for these “Christians” and their oppressive religion.
Due to the indisputable historical fact that these events occurred and the extended timeline in which they did, many have come to view Christianity as inextricably linked to, and even indistinguishable from, colonialism. Logically, spreading the gospel, or trying to convince people to become Christians, is itself a form of colonialism. Therefore, proselytizing is morally wrong.
If Christianity was merely a tool for colonialism, then it would be of little use to bring its message to the world. If Christianity’s mission was to spread capitalism, democracy, and set up Western political power structures then I would completely agree with the aforementioned critics’ assessment. But Christianity is not colonialism.
Jesus Christ came to our world to live a perfect life and die a death he did not deserve for our sake, for our sins. All this he did to provide us a way to be reconciled with the God who created us. Some of the things that Jesus commanded us to do include: love God with all our heart, soul, and mind (Matt. 22:37), love our enemies (Matt. 5:43-48), forgive those who wrong us (Matt. 18:21-22), and humble ourselves (Matt. 23:12). What he never said was that his followers should start Western capitalistic democracies across the world.
Jesus was not concerned with human governments in this way. Jesus was and is concerned with changing individual hearts and souls and bringing them into right relationship with God. That is Christianity in its most basic form. The Church, better labeled as Christendom by existential philosopher Soeren Kierkegaard, has not and does not always focus on this as its ultimate goal.
Christendom’s historical actions (which include the Crusades, the Inquisition, and global colonization) only have bearing on the heart of Christianity when those actions are following the teachings and commands of Christ. In the case of colonialism, Western Christendom failed miserably to care about that which Jesus cares about instead opting to stockpile more and more power for itself regardless of the human cost. In fact, the colonizers’ treatment of Indigenous peoples shows that they, objectively, held views of humanity and the gospel that contradicted anything that the Lord they claimed to believe in ever said.
The gospel is not colonialism. The gospel is not the oppression of people different than us. The gospel is not making the world “more like us.” The gospel is simply the following words of Jesus: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” (John 3:16-17, NIV).