On the first day of the Republican National Convention congressman Steve King suggested that white people had been responsible for humanity’s greatest achievements including, among other things, the spread of Christianity.
It came about during an appearance on MSNBC when a panelist commented on the lack of diversity at the convention. King argued: “I’d ask you to go back through history and figure out, where are these contributions that have been made by these other categories of people that you’re talking about? Where did any other sub-group of people contribute more to civilization?” When he was pushed about whether or not he meant Caucasians, King responded, “Western civilization itself that’s rooted in Western Europe, Eastern Europe, and the United States of America, and any place where the footprint of Christianity settled the world.”
There’s so much to dislike about these statements that it is difficult to know where to begin. King is woefully underinformed about the contributions to human knowledge made by non-Caucasians. He seems to think that “Western Civilization” is monolithic and white. He is willfully blind to the way that the accomplishments he is focused on were often achieved using non-white slave labor or financed using natural resources stolen from colonized peoples. Is it really a “white accomplishment” if it is financed and earned by non-whites? But, let’s face it, he’s not the only white person assuming credit for the work of an African American this week.
Perhaps the most egregious error here is the assumption that Christianity was spread by white people. Because if Christianity is the linchpin in his view of history and accomplishment, I have some bad news for him.
Jesus and the 12 disciples were all Jews who lived in ancient Palestine. The majority of Jesus’s first followers were fishermen from the Galilee region. In movies and in European artwork Jesus is regularly portrayed as Northern European, but this doesn’t make it so. No matter how hard Megyn Kelly argues this point. On the basis of skeletal remains, physical anthropologists estimate that the average first-century Galilean male was around 5-foot-4 and 136 pounds. If we take ancient style as our guide they are likely to have sported dark hair and a beard, and possessed deeply tanned skin.
Paul, the self-appointed “apostle to the Gentiles,” was originally from Tarsus, an ancient university town in what is now south-central Turkey. He was a Roman citizen, which—more than his race—guaranteed him higher social status in the world of Jesus’s day. But like the other apostles he was likely to be a darker-skinned Mediterranean Jew. Among the early converts to Christianity described in Acts of the Apostles is a eunuch from Ethiopia. The man was visiting Jerusalem for religious reasons and was on his way home when he encountered Philip the Evangelist (another Israelite follower of Jesus). We might deduce from the fact that he was a eunuch that he was likely to have been a slave, but he was also wealthy enough to ride in a chariot and travel. What Paul and the eunuch have in common is that they wouldn’t meet the membership requirements of even the most laissez-faire white pride group.
Augustine, Catholic saint and arguably one of the most influential thinkers in human history (to say nothing of Christian theology), was also not white. He was born and lived the majority of his life in North Africa. A more accurate (albeit extremely flattering) portrait of him can be found on the John Nava tapestries in Los Angeles. He looks a lot more like Denzel Washington than you probably imagined.
The truth is that if what King means by white and Western is European and pale (put otherwise, people Donald Trump might allow to immigrate here), none of the first followers of Jesus or many of the key figures in the first 400 years of the Christian Era would qualify. These are the people without whom Christianity wouldn’t exist.
Of course even talking about race trans-historically is problematic. Because definitions of race are culturally and historically determined it’s anachronistic to transpose modern categories into the ancient world. Modern anthropologists no longer see race as a biological category of people, but rather as a biocultural category that mixes genetic and anatomical data with economic, political, and social data.
But if the definition of non-white is “darker skinned than Northern Europeans” then it’s time to face facts: Christianity wasn’t spread by white people.