Western Religion in Colonial and Postcolonial Life

I wanted to address a secondary feature of Fanon’s chapter “On Violence” from The Wretched of the Earth, namely the role of religion and religious language in the process of decolonization and the postcolonial life (which will potentially feature in a larger project for me). I recognize that this is not exactly a central aspect of his argument, but I do see religion featuring prominently in several works that we’ve read so far (Things Fall Apart, “The Headstrong Historian”, Petals of Blood), and I think it bears addressing here.

Several times throughout the first chapter Fanon uses explicitly religious language. He describes decolonization, for example, with the phrase “The last shall be first,” which itself comes from the Gospel of Matthew (2). He seems to be, in my view, attempting to coopt religious language for anticolonial purposes, or perhaps implicitly arguing that true religion finds its home in decolonization (though, given Fanon’s later statements on Christianity, plus his violent vision of decolonization, the latter seems unlikely). When he later addresses religion more directly, he is clearly quite critical. He says, for example, “The Church in the colonies is a white man’s Church, a foreigners’ Church. It does not call the colonized to the ways of God, but to the ways of the white man” (7). A few lines later he indicts this exclusivity by adding ironically, “And as we know, in this story many are called but few are chosen” – another reference to Matthew. We also see him needle religion again two pages later, when he says, regarding the suffering of the colonized subject, “No sermonizer on morals, no priest has ever stepped in to bear the blows in his place or share his bread” (9). For Fanon, Christianity has failed in the colonies because it has become inseparable from the colonizer, and from whiteness. It is, in this light, merely another tool among many to oppress and harm.

However, it’s worth briefly looking more closely at Fanon’s specific criticism, as I think it might give us some insight into the contradictions of religion in postcolonialism. He doesn’t appear to indict Christianity for its explicit religious content, but rather because of its subservience to colonialism. The problem on page seven, for example, is that Christianity in the colonies is teaching the ways of the white man instead of the ways of God. It’s notable that the thing he describes as “eternal” in the minds of colonizers is not something specifically religious, but rather “Western values” (11). They have replaced religion.

These few examples (independent even of Fanon’s intentions) give us a small picture of the troubles with religion in colonialism, and also a potential way through them. Christianity has an obviously complicated role, fraught with trouble, in colonialism and postcolonialism. Things Fall Apart illustrates the problem well: it was simultaneously an oppressive and destructive force for many, and a beacon of hope for some (notably, society’s outcasts). The tension appears significant for writers like Achebe and Adichie, who remain (or were raised) in Christianity, yet also want to acknowledge its problematic history. Fanon’s own willingness to criticize religion while simultaneously borrowing its language illustrate the in-between nature of the problem – something we see more directly in figures like Nwoye in Things Fall Apart or Michael in “The Headstrong Historian.” Their struggle to find true African expressions of formerly Western religions is something I’m interested to see explored in other works, and I wonder if it’s possible to fully separate something like Christianity from the “Western values” that brought it to Africa. It’s something that appears to play a role in Munira’s life in Petals of Blood (having only read a quarter of the novel so far), so I look forward to seeing what Thiong’o adds as well.

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