Thirty years ago Pope John Paul II chose Cameroon as the location to apologise to black Africa for the involvement of white Christians in the slave trade. This time, it is Pope Francis who uses Sub-Saharan Africa as a backdrop to speak out against colonialism.
Last week in his inaugural trip to Africa (he leaves Central Africa Republic today), Pope Francis criticized “new forms of colonialism” that exacerbate the “dreadful injustice of urban exclusion.” The pontiff also condemned unjust distribution of land, poor housing, etc. “These realities … are not a random combination of unrelated problems. They are a consequence of new forms of colonialism”.
However old or new, colonialism and sub-Saharan Africa are now intrinsically linked. The policy or practice of a wealthy or powerful nation’s maintaining or extending its control over other countries, especially in establishing settlements or exploiting resources is ongoing.
For centuries after Christopher Columbus “discovered” a new continent, European nations exercised genocide on the First Nations people of the Americas, all the while importing a workforce to exploit stolen lands. The justification for this inhumane institution lay within the Church’s own ideology. Slavery was part of the Christian God’s plan, colonisers contended.
Readings of the Bible allow that both the Old and New Testament give permission to hold others as slaves. In the Old Testament, God and the Patriarchs approve. As for the New Testament you need only read this. Slavery was not an anti-Christian institution. It was just the opposite. Furthermore, it is impious to say slavery is anti-Christian because such a conclusion contradicted God’s teachings.
Both Pope John Paul II and Pope Francis’ statements are a testament to the immeasurable and enduring damage that colonialism and transatlantic slavery had on Africa. But Pope Francis’ covert finger-wagging to African leaders for their role in what the pontiff called “new colonialism” seems like an apt distraction from the “old colonialism” the Church has yet to answer for.
In truth, the peculiar institutions informed European settlements on both sides of the pond: Africa and the Americas. In the name of their European monarchs and with the blessing of the Church, colonisers pillaged human resources from Africa for 315 years. Over 12 million black bodies were transported to the New World. Millions died on the way. Upon arrival, enslaved Africans built the colonies from scratch. The first buildings Europeans erected were churches, of course. Most slave-holders were Christians, and some were even members of the clergy. Even Christian missionaries to the colonies owned slaves. The profitable slave trade filled the Church’s coffers. The gold-laden Vatican itself is a repository for the spoils of slavery and colonialism. As a number of American churches and Christian colleges such as Georgetown and Princeton confront their historical and financial ties to the slavery, the Pope’s head remains firmly planted in the sand.
Pope Francis, like his predecessors on visits to the New World, made no mention of the racially-based evils which begat colonialism. Slave-decedents still congregate at the bottom of the socioeconomic scale in most of the Americas, alongside survivors of Indigenous genocide. These realities are not a random combination of unrelated problems. They are a consequence of “old colonialism”. The legitimate grievances of slave-descendants provide nothing more than roadkill for the Popemobile.
Meanwhile in Africa, Europeans graduated from kidnapping humans to plundering physical resources after slavery was abolished. European powers and the USA gathered in Berlin in 1884 to slice up African land (and its precious commodities) among themselves. By creating unnatural borders, Europeans split African families apart and fueled animosity among opposing tribes. Today, with Europe’s grip loosening, China has moved in as chief “foreign investor” in Africa. Millions of dollars in profits at stake, and none of it, it seems, trickles down to the slums of Nairobi where Pope Francis made his anti-colonialism allocution.
The Church of Rome conceded that the African slave was a human being in 1839. Then-Pope Gregory XVI did not mince words. Almost two hundred years and millions of deaths later, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church descends on colonised African nations to lecture on “new colonialism”. Africans and Afro-descendants are still reeling from the “old colonialism”. A number of Christian churches are only now beginning to discuss reparations. Before Pope Francis can implore progress by addressing unfair distribution of land and resources among Africans, the Vatican must rediscover Christ’s teachings and answer for the consequences of its own colonial sins.
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Rachel Décoste is a motivational speaker and software engineer in Ottawa, Canada. Ms. Décoste has been a community activist since her youth, working with organizations such as Children’s Aid Society, the Famous 5 Foundation, and the Black Canadian Scholarship Fund, to name a few. Her commitment has not been limited to local activities: she has traveled abroad to provide aid in South and Central Americas. In 2008, Ms. Décoste worked on then-Senator Obama’s presidential campaign and again in 2012. Ms. Décoste was named in Ottawa’s Top 50 Personalities by Ottawa Life magazine. Web: racheldecoste.ca Twitter: @RachelDecoste
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