Carlotta Morrow keeps taking up the mantle on Kwanzaa. I am thankful for her work. I wish the African American church could read/hear her en masse. I also hope my brothers and sisters in Christ outside of the African American community will take this issue seriously. It is another layer of deceit that stands in the way of the true Gospel in our community. I hope you too will gain and understanding of this issue so that you might be ready to speak with knowledge and sensativity to African Americans who are taking Kwanzaa and substituting it for or mixing it with Christ.
Below is my response to questions on Kwanzaa from David Roach, writer for BP News (www.bpnews.net). The article by Mr. Roach is posted as “Black SBC pastor & prof: Kwanzaa not rooted in faith,” December 21, 2005. Based on e-mails I have received from friends in response to the article, I thought it might be wise if I made public my full response to the writer’s questions. This is not intended to be a full analysis of Kwanzaa.
(Author’s Note: Since the publishing of the original article, two very good works have been published that are great resources for helping the church think her way though the issues of Kwanzaa, religious pluralism, and African American syncretism in the church: The Decline of African American Theology: From Biblical Faith to Cultural Captivity (IVP Academic, 2007), by Thabiti Anyabwile, and Experiencing the Truth: Bringing Reformation to the African American Church (Crossway, 2008), Anthony Carter, ed. These books would make great Christmas gifts for lay-leaders in your church.)
Some Christ-Centered Thoughts on Kwanzaa
© Eric C. Redmond, 2006.
1. Can a Christian celebrate Kwanzaa without compromising any biblical principles?
I think African-American Christians must recognize that Kwanzaa is not a simple appreciation or reaffirmation of one’s ancestry. There is a development of self-worth based on one’s ancestry inherent in the system. While it is good to recognize the majesty of the image of God in all people, Kwanzaa overlooks the depravity within a culture or cultures.
This is understandable in that African-Americans, as a collective body, perceive themselves as oppressed, displaced or negatively characterized by Anglo-American culture. In doing so, African-Americans have worked hard to teach their children and grandchildren that African-Americans are not constitutively less intelligent, moral or attractive than people of Anglo-American decent. But countering the affects of negative stereotyping and brainwashing by means of self-appreciation is different from what is practiced in Kwanzaa. African-American Christians must recognize the majesty of the image of God in man, the depravity of all cultures, and the worth of any person in Christ alone.
2. Are the values celebrated in Kwanzaa consistent with Scripture?
On first look, it would appear that the Nguzo Saba (seven guiding principles) has three items that would correspond to New Testament teachings: Umoja (Unity), Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility), and Imani (Faith). Yet, upon closer analysis, we find that the terms within Kwanzaa differ from the terms of the New Testament, even as much as the Catholic concepts of justification and grace (i.e., the Sacraments) differ from the Pauline concept of forensic justification. For example, Unity, in Kwanzaa, centers around the family, irrespective of the spiritual status of the family members. The unity is for the sake of the “community” – the African-American community alone. This is not the mysterious unity of being members of one another provided by the Holy Spirit across ethnic lines, nor is this the practical working unity of believers together for the exaltation of Christ through the Gospel to all people. Similarly, Kwanzaa’s Faith is based only in past triumphs of people of African decent. It is not a faith with God as the object, nor as the Providential One who accomplishes the salvation of a people in spite of themselves and their opposition. One must un-package each term within a practice to see if it is “Christian.”
3. Can celebrating the heritage of one race of people help to build up the body of Christ, or does it cause division more than it helps?
I think the over-celebration of a heritage is detrimental to the propagation of the Gospel within a culture. For example, I serve in a predominantly African-American congregation. If I celebrate African-American History Month in our songs selection in February, my non-African-American members can celebrate with us. But if I call for African dress as part of the worship services, or select only Negro Spirituals for the music the rest of the year, then a portion of my congregation is not actively participating in our celebrations because one race is given preference over another.
If we then were to say that this is only a problem in mixed-ethnicity congregations, we come to the same problem within the larger Body of Christ. That is, we force separations based on ethnic-practices, or at least we ask people of other ethnic backgrounds to worship with some discomfort, or to over-identify with another ethnic group. Either way, this makes ethnicity have priority over the Gospel. To see this, one may need to think in terms of Indian and Pakistani rather than in terms of Anglo-American and African-American.
But we also must be careful to recognize that in any geographical region in any time period, the majority culture is “celebrated” daily, intuitively, subtlety, and naturally by minority cultures. Evidence of this is the drive of minority cultures to be “Harvard-educated,” or members of a country club, which are both germane to the Anglo-American culture, or their disdain (read “jealousy”) when a member of the minority culture is accepted into and promoted within the majority culture. Why should someone be called a “Tom” or an “Oreo,” as in the case of Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele? Why shouldn’t he simply be ignored as one “confused?” (This is not to suggest that Lt. Gov. Steele is confused.) The epithets are jealousy-laden.
In an oxymoronic fashion, further evidence can be seen when someone within a minority culture succeeds in opposition to the majority culture. For example, Tiger Woods is the hero of African-Americans because of his victories in a “white” sport. O. J. Simpson was perceived as beating “the system.” Colin Powel and Condelezza Rice are recognized as not having held the Cabinet posts traditionally held for minorities. These examples demonstrate that the majority culture, and exaltation within, is still celebrated as ultimate.
Again, not to belabor the point, but the majority culture is celebrated by virtue of being in the majority and not having to adapt or change for anyone else. This can be just as detrimental to seeing the Gospel reach all nations.
4. Is there any way for Christians to use Kwanzaa as an opportunity for evangelism?
Kwanzaa would have to be divested of its meaning in order to be used as an evangelism opportunity, in terms of practicing Kwanzaa. One would have to remove the emphasis on ancestors, then change the definitions within the Nguzo Saba, in order to provide an evangelism tool. However, as much as Paul made a bridge from the Epicureans’ and Stoics’ unknown God to Christ, I think one can build a bridge from human-centered self-determination to Christ-wrought triumph, in an attempt to biblically contextualize the Gospel for a practitioner of Kwanzaa. This is a unique opportunity for African-American believers.
Rev. Eric C. Redmond is author of Where Are All the Brothers? Straight Answers to Men’s Questions About the Church (Crossway, 2008).