Deep in a forest in the Congo, revolutionaries might be singing this song now:
Bakatwela ne mu maloko
Anu bwa Nzambi wa bankambwa a
Bupika bwetu bwakajika
Bantu ba bungi bakabenga
Bakalonda bilele biabo
Kabena bapeta lupandu
They trapped and beat us,
They even threw us in jail.
Only by the god of our ancestors
Our slavery ended.
Many people rejected the black prophet.
They followed their own wills.
They will not be saved.
Who is this “black prophet” the song refers to? It’s likely Simon Kimbangu, whose followers believed that the Garden of Eden was in Africa, and that Jesus was black and would return as a black man. The “prophet” could also refer to Patrice Lumumba, who shot by a firing squad only months after taking office as Prime Minister in the Congo, and after saying in his inaugural speech (June 30, 1960): “We are proud of this struggle, of tears, of fire, and of blood, to the depths of our being, for it was a noble and just struggle, and indispensable to put an end to the humiliating slavery which was imposed upon us by force.”
The slavery itself, documented in King Leopold’s Ghost, included punishment for not harvesting ivory from elephants, and even greater punishment for failing to extract the required quota of sap from rubber trees. Those who weren’t murdered often had their hands chopped off. The image of Leopold and each of his soldiers was of a white man in power, one with the ability to enforce his will by any means possible, and did not hesitate to do it. Later (1964) Malcolm X would refer to Lumumba as a “the greatest black man who ever walked the African continent.” And Malcolm X famously proclaimed that American blacks needed to reclaim their dignity and power from whites “by any means necessary.”
Lumumba’s body was twice exhumed by Belgians, cut up with a hack saw, and then dissolved in sulfuric acid. The news of this double insult to his body soon surfaced. A revolutionary song describes Lumumba’s torture, his body being hacked apart, and then immersed in acid. (“They killed Lumumba and smashed his flesh/They put it in acid and it burned/They killed Lumumba and pulled out his eyes.”) The revolutionaries remember Lumumba’s death as a personal thing, an attack on their freedom and their future. Every torture they had endured under Leopold’s reign was represented in Lumumba’s body, as though he—Savior-like—bore their punishment. Moved from his burial spot, as the early slaves had been moved from their homeland; beaten, as had so many during the Middle Passage; hacked into pieces, like slave families divided; flesh eaten by acid, like so many slaves who simply disappeared, and like all who lived under King Leopold’s merciless reign.
In Lumumba’s body and in his death was the history of Africa. In his words was its hope, as written to his wife only days before he died: “I prefer to die with my head unbowed, my faith unshakable, and with profound trust in the destiny of my country.” Patrice Lumumba was thirty-five, two years older that Christ was when he was crucified. As Lumumba grew in Congolese memory from a man to a martyr, his wounds became Africa’s, and the revolutionaries praised him as they would a god: “Bena Congo tudilayi Lumumba wetue.” Congolese, let us shed tears for the praiseworthy Lumumba.
The films Malcolm X and Lumumba have become part of revolutionary training in the Congo. It was not just Belgians who arranged for Lumumba’s execution, however, it was also C.I.A. operatives, concerned with his ties to the Soviet Union. We were not so far past the McCarthy years to be free of a global conspiracy view. Many Americans pictured a monolithic Communism spreading from China through Viet Nam and Russia, and metastasizing in Africa. At this time of ignorant imagination, many saw revolutionary movements (including Civil Rights) as linked to Communism. LDS apostle (later president) Ezra Taft Benson said this in 1968: “The so-called civil rights movement as it exists today is used as a Communist program for revolution in America” (Ezra Taft Benson, Civil Rights: Tool of Communist Deception, 1968, p. 3).
On the other hand, Black pastors like Dr. King, Dr. Cecil Murray, and others were aware of the importance of dignity. Liberation theology invited black churches into political activism, where dedicated ministers could work to serve the poor and oppressed and to emancipate the disenfranchised, as Christ did. Often, leaders in black liberation theology portrayed Jesus as a dark-skinned revolutionary.
Mormon missionaries in the DR-Congo mission are met by ministers of home grown religions that preach an African Jesus. “Jesus was black,” they say, and demand to look at the pictures the missionaries carry. The pictures are the standard ones we see in all LDS churches and temples—all of them portraying a white Jesus.
“Do you think Jesus was white?” these ministers ask.
“No,” the missionaries are likely to say. “He was a Jew. His skin was probably dark.”
I have finished reading The Color of Christ by Edward Blum and Paul Harvey. I’ll have reviews up shortly (but will not review it at BCC, leaving that for another Perma). Reading the book was revelatory in many ways, and left me thinking about the implications of our having the familiar white Jesus even in African temples and church buildings. Particularly where white conquerors have committed atrocities, and where revolutionaries still meet to sing about a black prophet, do we have an obligation to expand our artistic view of Christ? Are we reinforcing a message that whites will lead and teach and blacks must learn from us? Can we make necessary modifications without meeting opposition from those who want Jesus to look like them?
I won’t provide an answer, but I invite discussion. And feel free to look at the trailer for a film which will provide more material on the Congo and Mormonism: www.heartofafricafilm.com .