Athanasius – The Hidden Jewel of Christian History in Africa

As a Black man or more accurately an Afro-Caribbean man who is also a Christian, I constantly encounter members of my Black community who have a lingering anger and sometimes downright vitriol toward Christianity and the Christian faith. Many of them still carry the wounds of atrocity passed down from slavery that many of their ancestors had to bear. And in some cases, admittedly, they too are still bearing. There is a strong absence of forgiveness, which stems from that dark time – demonic time, to be truthful. The hurt would consistently recite a script similar to the one below about the historical account of Christianity toward Black Africans. It may take on this form:

“The White man, Christian Colonizers who took our African ancestors to the Americas, so they can enslave us, change our names, and colonize the New World, which didn’t belong to them but the Native Indians. The only reason that we as Black Africans are Christians because the White man forced it on us. Christianity is a White man’s religion. You are in bondage to accept this system. You must be liberated to our African Blackness and royal history.”

Often, the question is asked of me, Denley, how can you follow a White man’s religion? This question initially troubled me early in my faith, because I couldn’t reconcile the God and Christ I love with the atrocities of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade during the 15th century and its ongoing impact today like racism that intractably followed. (Sometimes I feel and sense in some ways that organized sports within the United States especially is a beautified and tamed version of slavery.) Colonization and many cases, genocide of the American Indians (Central, North and South Americas) was done seemingly under the divine imperative, beginning with Christopher Columbus, to explore God’s creation in authority of Jesus Christ.

It didn’t help matters that the Western Christian artwork and images were only White. Not to mention, the textbooks on theology were just as telling of the impact of slavery. These books just reinforced anonymity and the under representation of Blacks and minorities in scholastic guilds and circles of seminary. Of course, it seemed like Black or African participation in theology was salvaged by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., which some Christian sources cited some of Dr. King’s prolific writings. It would seem that the contributions of Africans or Pan African descent begun in the 20th century. I felt that Christians of African descent brought nothing into the development of our early Christian faith especially theology.

This began a personal movement of studying and researching. I studied the movement of the early Christian church from the 1st Century. I encountered active African characters such as the Queen of the South (Sheba) mentioned even by Jesus in the Gospel of Luke; the Ethiopian Eunuch (who might have started the Ethiopian Church) and Simon the Black in the Book of Acts (a leader in the Early Church); and Tertullian of Carthage in North Africa (who provided the theological concept of Trinity, three in unity). My readings over Christian timelines and history allowed me to stumble upon the “Black Dwarf” who was the most beloved saint of the Early Church among both Eastern Church (Egypt, Ethiopia, Middle East, Eastern Europe etc.) and Western Church (Western Europe, North Africa etc.) His name: Athanasius – The Hidden Jewel of Christian history in Africa.

Who was Athanasius? He was considered as one of the great Church Fathers or even greatest Church Father of all time. (A Church Father was someone who was a key leader of a church or group of churches and in the forming of teachings to protect their churches from false teachings.)

Athanasius was born between 296 and 298 in Egypt to a Coptic family who were seen as a lower class. He understood Coptic and Greek language and studied in Alexandria, which was the intellectual centre of science, mathematics, philosophy and theology of its ancient day. Athanasius was a brilliant man. However, the two of the most distinguishing features of Athanasius was that he was short and dark-skinned, which afforded him the name “Black dwarf” reported by many historians including highly acclaimed historian, Justo Gonzáles. Admittedly there has been recent debates if Athanasius was a Black man as we know it today. There are some who say he was not Black based on the fact that he lived in Alexandria, Egypt (modern day Cairo) a cosmopolitan centre where the skin complexion of many Egyptians of that time varied from fair skinned to dark skinned and every shade between.

There are others who say he was Black because he was born into a Coptic family who were more likely to be dark-skinned based on the fact that Coptic had interactions with the Nubians who were dark-skinned where its region known today as Sudan. Although it is job of scholars to discover and reason out the evidence, this debate is not my concern. My main concern is that Athanasius is not European but African – specifically Egyptian of North Africa.

It’s worth noting that it was only when the British colonized Egypt in their illustrious history the political demarcation of the Middle East came about, which created an artificial separation culturally from Africa. Egypt today is not seen as part of Africa but as part of the Middle East. However, during Athanasius’ time that was not the case.

Like the ancient bishop or pastors before and after him such as Tertullian and St. Augustine respectively, he deeply impacted our understanding of our faith in Jesus. There are many things that Athanasius taught to develop Christian theology in Egypt (before the country was conquered by the Mohammedans in the 7th Century and became Muslim in its belief and culture), the Roman empire after the Emperor Constantine and today, which many of us as Christians are not aware. The main teaching that stood out would be the incarnation. This simply means that God took on our sinful humanity as his own (without sinning himself of course). God became a human being without diminishing his divinity or being God.

Athanasius taught in an ancient Egyptian world with competing creation myths (like Isis and Osiris) and worldviews that the invisible God who created the universe and all the creatures within including human beings became of one of his visible creatures – a human being. Jesus – far above Adam as the first human being – became a human being (who was Jewish) without ceasing to be God to heal (atone) and make peace (reconcile) with our human nature to God. This is when he lived ad died without evil (sin) for our individual and collective evils (sins) and was raised to life again (resurrected). Athanasius helped organized and clarified our understanding of Jesus of Nazareth in both East, West and Coptic Churches as the One unique being who was and is fully God and truly human at the same time.

What makes Athanasius a significant jewel for the Christian community especially the Black Christian community is Black History month. Many times when Black Christians and Christians in general celebrate Black History month, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is the poster child. I am not diminishing the work and teachings of Dr. King. He is part of our Christian heritage not just Black heritage. However, how much more impactful to a lay Christian to know Christian scholarship of African descent goes back to the Ancient Church? How much more impactful to know that the Church in ancient times was more inclusive than thought and was not divided among race? How much more impactful to know that there was a hidden jewel who shined brightly reflecting the truth of Christ against false teachings like Arianism, who make Jesus Christ not God but a lesser being like the Jehovah Witness today teach? How much more impactful to know that Athanasius has helped us as Christians identify all 27 books of the New Testament that we still read today?

February tends to be a significant month when usually Ash Wednesday tends to fall. This is a forty-day period of fast known as Lent, which Catholics, Coptic, Orthodox and many Protestant churches religiously practice. Many Christians are not aware that Athanasius was the one who developed this kind of fast as a spiritual practice and discipline to prepare new Christians in the last 40 days for their baptism on Easter Sunday. Today Lent is practiced as a spiritual discipline of restraint and sacrifice for new and seasoned Followers of Jesus or Christians alike. There is no doubt this period of time significantly impacts the way Christians practice their heartfelt devotion to their Lord Jesus Christ.

Where Black history dwindles to a history lesson of Dr. King or for many Blacks who are against Christianity, a history lesson of how the Black community overcame the White man or European Christianity. Athanasius broadens or lexicon of Black history and it is rebuttal against many Black intellects who say Christianity is birthed out of the mind Europeans. No! Athanasius strongly influenced the teachings of Western European Christians. He influenced the devotion of most all Christians: Coptic, Catholic, Orthodox and Protestants etc.

As a Christian of Pan-African descent, a part of the African Diaspora, it is encouraging to know that Africans had a role in the development of our theology and devotional practices, so that the Gospel could be spread with more unity. This is especially true with Athanasius. I encourage more of my people to dig deep or deeper into Church history over 2000 years and not just the last few hundred years to the slave trade. Church history is just not an extension of Western European history. It is God’s people history beginning with the Jewish people and now including all ethnicities, which I am a part of and thankful for. As Paul, the Apostle, a Jewish Christian wrote most of the New Testament, aptly put it, “Christ is all in all [ethnicities and races]”. This a truth to and for those who love Jesus albeit imperfectly irrespective of our race and ethnicity. That is the Church. Athanasius is a jewel that helps reflect the light of ethnic and racial diversity in the Christian faith – mined from Africa. I hope this thought as encouraged you as it did me.

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