Christianity is an imported religion to anyone who’s not from the Middle East. This may be a historical fact, yet it’s often overlooked. I am reminded of it by V. S. Naipaul’s reflections on “the faith of the heathen convert” in his 1961 travelogue of the West Indies, The Middle Passage.
“Indian girls not good.”
Naipaul is being led through the Guyanese jungle by two Amerindian teenage boys from a local Christian mission. One of the boys says he wants to marry, but not an Amerindian girl: “Indian girls not good. They don’t know anything.” By anything the boy means, of course, anything of Western civilization.
“The missionary must first teach self-contempt.”
For anyone outside the eastern Mediterranean to embrace Christianity wholeheartedly, must they inevitably renounce something of their own heritage? Is there something fundamentally alien to the land in which it lies that a British country church is full of references to Middle Eastern places and people?
Naipaul was reflecting on the more visceral import of Christianity from a colonizer to the colonized, and from the slave-owner to the slave. Christianity was initially a racial faith in the West Indies. It enabled the European plantation owners to divide the population into (white) Christians and everyone else.
“The Berbice slave rebellion of 1762 was a war between Christians and rebels. The captured rebels were tried for ‘Christian murder’.”
This reflection of course makes the conversion to Christianity across the entire ex-colonial world problematic. Is it a final vestige of European domination? Can it ever be detached from that history? And to what extent is the Christianity of Britain a vestige of its subordination to Rome?
All quotes: V. S. Naipaul, The Middle Passage, p. 160, Picador, 2001