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God is Not a White Man: Spiritual Formation Book 8

"I studied Theology... Despite the fact that most of the world's religious people are not white, we learnt very little about the theological thinking and experiences of Black and brown people."

Chine McDonald is director of Theos, an organisation which provides research and opinion on the place of religion in society. She moved to the UK from Nigeria at the age of four. McDonald has been involved with the Evangelical Alliance, Christian Aid, and Greenbelt, as well as working as a journalist, so she has some wide-ranging experiences within the Christian and secular culture.

This book uses stories from her own life, and historical examples, to illustrate the problem of racism in the church. She focuses on the British church in particular, although she refers to American events too.

What are the main themes of this book?

McDonald's argument is that white people - men in particular - have been assumed to be superior. They are regarded as more intelligent, more authoritative, more attractive, and even more godly. Where there is a culture like this, it is almost inevitable that God will be represented as a white man.

This leaves Black people, especially Black women, feeling like they do not reflect the image of God. They are often excluded from white church spaces, their theology is regarded as unimportant, and they face constant questions about their right to belong.

Chine McDonald says that the church needs to recognise that this happens, and continues to happen. We need to address the faulty assumptions that have led to this situation, and change our theology and practice.

What did you like about the book?

I thought the chapter about her university experiences was the most interesting. She studied Theology at Cambridge, and was one of very few Black students there at the time. Looking back, Chine McDonald reflects on what the curriculum left out: the racist views of many of the philosophers they studied, for one thing; and any mention of Black or African theology, for another. I, too, had never heard of Anton Wilhelm Amo, a Black man who became a philosophy professor at the University of Halle in 1736.

It would have been interesting to hear more about how McDonald's theology has expanded since her university days. How easy was it for her to redress the balance by discovering more Black theologians? 

A later chapter deals with Black spirituality a little, describing it as avoiding "the separation of the sacred from the secular"(p226) but admitting that conservative Black churches can be unwelcoming for those who aren't "heterosexual, male and able-bodied"(p227). McDonald's role as a trustee with Greenbelt festival suggests that she has sympathy with more liberal views, which must add complexity to an already difficult position. At one point she admits that, "a part of me feels like, by following the Christian faith, I am betraying my people," (p138) as she reflects that many Black women have abandoned Christianity in favour of traditional religions which empower women more. That must be a hard tension to live with. I would have liked to hear more about how she, and other Black women, deal with that.

What did you find difficult?

In her introduction, McDonald talks about "a series of revelations - light-bulb moments in which my eyes have been opened to the reality that I am 'other'." (p17) She then describes times when she felt like she really belonged, but concludes that she was "lulled into a false sense of security" and that those instances were "merely illusions". The reality is the murder of a Black man or the report uncovering racial injustice.

I was surprised that she identified the evil as "reality" and the feeling of welcome and belonging as merely "illusion". It seems to me that both are real. I can certainly sympathise with the feeling that the evil outweighs the good, but, as far as I could tell, she was saying that her good experiences didn't even exist. She was just fooling herself.

Of course, I'm aware that white people have, far too often, erred in the opposite direction. We have seen the small things which have improved, or the one Black woman who has achieved a position of power, and let ourselves believe that equality is real, and the stories of prejudice are just an illusion.

Perhaps the latter is more dangerous. And yet, as Christians, we are required to believe that both ultimate good and unspeakable evil are really real - neither is an illusion. Surely our view of racism should do no less.

Did you learn something new?

I felt like McDonald's writing made clear that there were several different facets to her experience. I drew out three main ones:
  • the experience of being Black in a majority-white country
  • the tension of being an immigrant and feeling caught between two cultures
  • the effect of racist and white supremacist actions and attitudes
Interestingly, she didn't seem to distinguish between these herself. For example, she tells a story of drawing a self-portrait, aged 5, with blonde hair and blue eyes, and being dismayed to realize that she didn't actually look like that. I assume that, had she been living in Nigeria, she wouldn't have had that experience - it was mostly to do with everyone around her looking different. But McDonald immediately follows that with stories of unpleasant occurrences after the Brexit vote, which clearly were racist - as if they are exactly the same thing.

Obviously the different facets do overlap and interlock. Chine McDonald talks movingly about her marriage to a white man, and her sometimes conflicting thoughts about this. Some of these are about race - has she, too, bought into the narrative that white is better? Others are cultural - does having a British-sounding surname mean she has severed ties to her Nigerian identity?

I don't think I'd realized how many factors were involved in making someone feel 'other', before I read this book. I felt like she was inclined to ascribe most of them to white supremacy, though, which I wasn't sure was always helpful. Of course, when the idea that whiteness is better is a constant background hum, it's difficult to know how much to ascribe to it.

Will you do something differently?

One chapter was headed, "Africa is Not a Country". In it, McDonald laments the "single story of Africa" that is presented in the West - that of "a continent that is backwards, uneducated and superstitious" (p94). I was challenged to find the stories of "creativity, innovation, excellence, dignity and resistance" (p118) that she refers to.

The internet makes these stories much more accessible than they used to be. I discovered,which has a huge amount of information. On Facebook, United States of Africa regularly posts vintage photos and postcards which show the beauty and diversity of African people. And on a more theological note, the Dictionary of African Christian Biography provides a quarterly journal by email, which I occasionally remember to read when it lands in my inbox.
Leading a Sunday school which is more than 50% Black, I have become more mindful about the illustrations and images I use. It's definitely a challenge to try and counteract unconscious bias - especially as most of us don't want to admit, even to ourselves, that we might be racist in any way. And from what McDonald says, there is a fine balance between admitting and atoning for the past, and recognising that we still have work to do in the present. It seems like there are many different opinions about how much of one we should do, and how much of the other.

What is one thing you will remember?

Chine McDonald tells the story of the Wales Window in Birmingham, Alabama. It is a good illustration of both the hatred and the hope in the Black story. In 1963, white supremacists bombed 16th Street Baptist Church, killing four Black girls and injuring many others. In Wales, an artist named John Petts started a subscription to fund a new stained glass window for the church, featuring a Black Jesus and the words, "You Do It To Me". Queues of people lined up to donate, and the money was raised quickly. 

Magic City Religion has a beautiful picture of the window, with details about the political symbolism. It also shows the very white Jesus portrayed in the other windows of this historic Black church. After reading God is Not a White Man, that certainly makes you squirm a bit. And I think sometimes we need to squirm.


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