White people, let me put your minds to rest: we black people are now actually just taking the piss (that’s British for ‘making fun’). Truth be told, after the new millennium arrived with its proclamations of post-racial global harmony, a memo was sent out to all members of the Secret Negro Council of Doom to test the limits of your political correctness. First ‘Project Black President’ was completed with surprising ease. Also, the world’s most successful movie franchise is to be commandeered,with Stringer Bell being lined up to give James Bond some soul power. Now, we are launching ‘Operation Black Pope,’ which will be followed by a black Princess of the British Royal Family (Harry will eventually succumb to the all-conquering booty of Agent Minaj) and finally there will be a remake Snow White starring Serena Williams as the ‘fairest of them all.’ If all this is completed without riots breaking out from Surrey, England to Springfield, Missouri then we will reveal it has all been an elaborate ruse, tell our agents to step down and celebrate the end of all racism.
In all serious though, last week was marked by a fascinating response to the emergence of two West-African cardinals as the favourites to replace the departing Pope Benedict: Nigerian Francis Arinze and my fellow Ghanian Peter Turkson. At one end of the spectrum came the shouts of support from those who view such a move as heralding a new, progressive, cosmopolitan era for this archaic institution. At the other end, the darker corners of the internet have lit up with talk of prophecies regarding a black Pope bringing on the apocalypse. Both positions quickly collapse under the weight of their own contradictions. The belief that the appointment of a black man to the papacy signals a liberal move for Catholicism ignores the rabid fundamentalism prevalent in African religious discourse. And those who see oncoming end-times in the prospect of ‘His Holiness: the accursed son-of-ham‘ have forgotten, not only their senses, but also the litany of cataclysmic catastrophes presided over by white popes, who, in their infallible wisdom, managed to shut their eyes to the Holocaust and Transatlantic Slave trade amongst others.
For myself, the image of a black African man wearing that extravagant holy hat would be interesting for a few reasons. Firstly, just take take a second to imagine Mel Gibson’s reaction! Secondly, a black Pope would, in a general sense, help break down assumptions of normative white authority. There have in fact been previous African Popes (their exact level of pigmentation is in dispute) but such is the racial framework that we exist under that the idea of an African pope seems more shocking now than it did in 189 AD. Finally, I think that with a black West-African Pope would come the required scrutiny of the role of the church in not just Sub-Saharan Africa but also the entire Global South.
The main argument raised in support of Arinze or Turkson, has been that the Catholic church is growing exponentially in Africa, Latin America and South-East Asia, so the church establishment should reflect its followers from the Global South. Yet why is the church more popular there than in Europe where it was born? Christianity in Africa is defining legacy of colonialism. This is not a meant as an attack, after all as a black British citizen, my whole existence is the result of the colonial experiment. But it is an important lens through which to view the narrative of Christianity in the Global South: at its Genesis, Christianity was a tool used by foreign powers to subjugate a people and facilitate their exploitation. Since then, the religion has been embraced, adopted and adapted in Africa. Anyone who has ever been to a service in the motherland knows it is a totally different beast to Sunday at your local parish church. In Ghana, biblical slogans adorn everything that moves, from the public buses to the ice cream sellers, providing the people with the hope, the comfort and the resolve they need to continue with what can be very difficult lives. Christianity has been the sole source of joy for millions of people who suffered the poverty of post-colonial Africa.
However, with the 21st Century comes the rising wave of economic power in the Global South. The growth of Latin America and South-East Asia is well documented but over the next five years it is actually Africa that is expected to be the continent to grow faster than any other. Where will the church fit in this new context? Christianity, especially Catholicism has a habit of exalting the poor instead of eradicating poverty. My Granddad always told me the easiest way of eradicating poverty is actually to just give women their rights. Take any impoverished village and give its women full control over their reproductive and educational rights, and it will be a different place in two generations. As Africa hopefully starts to take greater control of its abundant resources and moves away from widespread poverty, will the Church be assisting or obstructing this progress? Will it continue to set up endless orphanages or will it allow women birth control? Will it just provide HIV/AIDS treatment clinics or will it accept condoms can stop this spread in the first place? Charity has always been the main purpose for the church in Africa but the time must come when Africa neither needs nor wants that charity anymore.
There have been many wonderful priests, especially Catholic priests, who saw religion not just as a comfort blanket for the poor but a vehicle for social justice. These believers in liberation theology inspired many in Latin America by not just praying for the poor but marching with them, fighting with them, even dying for their cause. The likes of Gustavo Gutierrez and Oscar Romero were criticised and ostracized by a Church that claimed they were being too political. This only showed the Catholic church to be, like most things that claim to be apolitical, just a friend of the status quo. With a black Pope would come renewed questions about the church’s role in Africa and Latin America in the 21st Century? Will it mobilize its massive support in these regions to take action to enrich their material as well as spiritual lives? Or would a black pope just be a hip, urban makeover for a Church whose reputation has been dragged through the gutter over the past few decades. I, for one will be as interested in this question as as I will be in seeing who JJ Abrams casts as Emperor Palpatine in his new Star Wars movie. There is a pretty good look-a-like whose schedule has just freed-up. Joseph Ratzinger dueling with Harrison Ford could be coming to a cinema near you soon.