Desmond Tutu once said, “When the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land. They said, ‘Let us pray.’ We closed our eyes. When we opened them we had the Bible and they had the land.” Tutu describes how many black Africans feel about the Bible. That white colonialist settlers used the Bible to exploit black South Africans. That the Bible is basically European propaganda.
This sentiment is popular in South Africa, which of course gained independence significantly later than most other African countries. On the university campus where I serve with The Bible Talks we regularly meet skeptics who ask, either in their hearts or aloud, “Why should I trust a colonialist Bible?”
The love of darkness drives skepticism, not a love of the truth
Unbelief Goes Beyond Anger at Colonialists
How should we, who firmly trust that the Bible is God’s word (2 Timothy 3:16), answer this skepticism? Before suggesting an answer, it’s worth remembering that unbelief is never merely intellectual (John 3:19-21). Jesus taught that the person who refuses to trust the Bible because of ‘evil colonialists’ is nonetheless enslaved to evil (John 8:34), which she does not want to turn from. The love of darkness drives skepticism, not a love of the truth.
But it’s crucial to answer the skeptic in a way that shows genuine concern for him as a person – a person whose family may have suffered due to the evils of colonialism.
Is there any truth to Tutu’s quote? Yes. Many white settlers did use the Bible to exploit black Africans. But why should we write off the Bible because of them?
With that in mind, what shall we say? Is there any truth to Tutu’s quote? Yes. Many white colonialists did use the Bible to exploit black Africans. But why should we write off the Bible because of them? In fact, I’ll argue below that the evils of colonialism actually confirm the truthfulness of the Bible. But before we consider that, let’s get one thing straight: the Bible was not created by Europeans.
The History of the Bible
As most of us know, the Bible existed well over a thousand years before Jan Van Riebeeck settled in the Cape, in 1652. It was of course originally written in Hebrew and Greek, with a bit of Aramaic. Not English. Or Afrikaans. It’s not a European book. The Hebrew Old Testament was translated into Greek (the Septuagint or LXX) in Alexandria, Egypt, which is obviously part of Africa. And the Bible (at least parts of it) presumably reached Africa – what is now Ethiopia (see Acts 8:26-40) – before it reached England. Anyone with a basic knowledge of history and a shred of intellectual honesty knows that white settlers did not create the Bible to exploit Africans.
Anyone with a basic knowledge of history and a shred of intellectual honesty knows that white settlers did not create the Bible to exploit Africans
That said, some white settlers did use the Bible to justify their evil. For example, here in South Africa, J. D. Du Toit, a theologian, used the creation account in Genesis 1 to justify Apartheid. He is one tragic example among many. So, case closed? No. The evils of colonialism actually show the honesty of the Bible.
The Honesty of the Bible
I’m sure you’d agree that it’s possible for someone with bad motives to twist your words, to give your words a meaning that you never intended. This happens regularly. Newspapers do it to politicians they don’t like. Therefore isn’t it possible for colonialists to twist the words of the Bible? To use the Bible to say something God has not said. Twisting Scripture is not just possible, it’s a certainty.
The Apostle Peter, in 2 Peter 3:16, warned his readers that, “There are some things in them [the Apostle Paul’s writings] that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures.” Some colonialists twisted the Scriptures to suit their own evil desires. That doesn’t mean the Bible itself is untrue. If anything, it shows that the Bible is true.
Twisting Scripture is not just possible, it’s a certainty
Why Did Colonialists Twist the Scriptures?
Why did the colonisers twist the Scriptures? It’s fairly obvious. They were driven by greed. Hunger for money. Lust for power. The Lord Jesus of course warned against greed (Luke 12:13-21). And who can deny that greed, that inward desire for more and more, drove the colonialists to do all sorts of evil, just as God, speaking through the Apostle Paul, warned of in 1 Timothy 6:10, “The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.” Reading King Leopold’s Ghost, for example, is like watching 1 Timothy 6:10 in living colour.
Not only does the God of the Bible condemn greed and accurately describe how greed drives other evil, he diagnoses the source of colonialism (and all evil)—the human heart. Many people think that we do evil because of something outside of ourselves. But if it’s true that only outward circumstances – like poverty – drive people to steal and exploit others, then colonialism never would have happened. No, Jesus diagnoses the source of evil in Mark 7:20b-23: “For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”
Not only does the God of the Bible condemn greed and accurately describe how greed drives other evil, he diagnoses the source of colonialism, and all evil—the human heart
But Weren’t the Colonialists Christians?
Exploitation, stealing land, etc. is exactly what you’d expect if Jesus’ words are true. Now, you might be thinking, “Hold on – the colonial settlers who exploited black South Africans were all Christians!” But this further affirms Jesus’ truthfulness. After all, Jesus, in his famous Sermon on the Mount, warned his disciples, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognise them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:15-16). We could say some colonisers came in sheep’s clothing. They looked like Christians. But they were fake Christians. Wolves. Jesus warned about such people and promised that there would be many false Christians:
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness” (Matthew 7:21-23).
Jesus warned about religious hypocrites, false prophets and fake Christians, which is what many of the settlers were. So if anything, shouldn’t the evils of colonialism cause us to more firmly trust Jesus’ words?
I trust you see the point. Jesus warned about religious hypocrites, false prophets and fake Christians, which is what many of the settlers were. So if anything, shouldn’t the evils of colonialism cause us to more firmly trust Jesus’ words? Jesus, the hero of the Bible, is actually the answer to colonial oppression. In fact, he is the answer to all oppression.
The Hero of the Bible
Before Jesus was born his mother Mary rejoiced in God her Saviour. In her song, she rejoices in how God will liberate Israel through her son, Jesus: “God has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate” (Luke 1:51-21).
At that time in history, God’s humble people, Israel, were suffering under the oppressive Roman government, colonisers, if you will. Jesus’ mission was to free his people from oppression. In Acts 10, the Apostle Peter preaches to Gentiles in which he summarises much of Jesus’ earthly ministry, “He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him” (Acts 10:38).
How did people respond to Jesus? Some rejoiced. Some were disappointed because he did not deliver them from Roman rule. The power-hungry religious leaders felt so threatened by Jesus that they oppressed him, as Scripture foretold (Isaiah 53:7). They handed him over to Pontius Pilate, the cruel governor who crucified him.
Paradoxically, the moment when Jesus’ oppressors, appeared to have conquered him – his death on the cross – was the moment of his victory over the domain of darkness
Victory over Oppression
But paradoxically, the moment when Jesus’ oppressors, appeared to have conquered him – his death on the cross – was the moment of his victory over the domain of darkness (see John 12:31; Colossians 2:15). At the cross, Jesus died the death that evildoers like us deserve. And he did this to liberate all who trust him from ultimate oppression, from slavery to the devil (the ultimate oppressor who stands behind all human oppressors). From slavery to death. From slavery to sin. As we know all too well, the political liberators on this great continent need to be liberated themselves from slavery to sin.
Jesus, the King of God’s kingdom, is the answer to colonial oppression. When he returns to judge the world with justice, he will overthrow proud, unrepentant oppressors and raise up the humble, all those who trust him.
We all Need to Repent and Believe
Which side of King Jesus are we on? We probably haven’t acted as devilishly as the King Leopolds of this world. But our hearts have also been driven by greed, just like the colonial oppressors. If we haven’t yet repented and believed in Jesus, we’re still in the devil’s grip. But King Jesus promises to forgive the sins of each person who trusts Him and submits to his loving, liberating rule.
When Jesus returns to judge the world with justice, he will overthrow proud, unrepentant oppressors and raise up the humble, all those who trust him
So yes, Desmond Tutu is kind of right – some European colonialists took land and gave African people the Bible. But if we open the Bible, we’ll see that it’s trustworthy and that Jesus, the hero of the Bible, is trustworthy. Our God promises those who trust in his Son, Jesus Christ, a share in his Son’s inheritance (Hebrews 10:34; 11:14-16). This promise includes land that can never be taken away.