One of the greatest failures of man in regard to religion is that religion is often judged by the character of its followers and not by the content of its doctrine. Religion is often judged more by how its adherents act than how the doctrine they follow instructs them to act. Conversely, one of the greatest failures of the religious believer is their failure to understand that the religion which they adhere to is often judged by how they themselves act. The results of both of these failures can be disastrous. The failure of man to accurately judge religion can lead him to develop opinions of that religion that are based on a small number of interaction with that religion’s followers. Similarly, the failure of religious followers to follow their doctrine as closely as possible leads to a general distaste for, and distrust of, that religion. Malcolm X embodies both of these aspects in his relationship with Christians. Almost all of his interactions with Christians were a negative experience for him and, as a result, he spent the majority of his adult life in hatred of Christianity. On whom is the blame to be placed for this attitude of Malcolm X’s? The blame sits squarely on the shoulders of American Christians who treated him with such contempt simply because of the color of his skin and nothing more. Speaking of himself, and more broadly the African-American race as a whole, Malcolm X says that “the religion of Christianity had failed him.” (Haley, 1965, pg. 365) Even a casual examination of some of the events in Malcolm X’s life will reveal this to be a very true statement. Malcolm’s first interaction with Christianity is when he was a young child. His father was an outspoken black man, speaking against the mistreatment of blacks by whites. He was a devotee of Marcus Garvey, founder of the “Back to Africa” movement. One day, a group of white men in robes threatened the family, saying that the good, Christian white people wouldn’t stand for what Mr. Little was teaching. These “good, Christian white people” subsequently burned their house down, threatened their life, and eventually murdered Earl Little, Malcolm’s father. Now, if this is Christianity, as displayed by its followers, can one blame Malcolm for his hatred against the religion? The very core of Christianity, as taught by Christ, is love and servitude. “Love thy neighbor as thyself” is one of the most preached doctrines of Christ, and one of the most told stories is that of Christ washing his disciples’ feet. Here are examples of the love and service of Christianity that, if practiced by these men, were Malcolm exposed to at such an early and impressionable age, he may very well have become a Christian himself. But what was the “Christian” doctrine that these men practiced? Instead of love and servitude, it was the polar opposite; these men preached and practiced hatred and superiority. It was this “Christian” doctrine, which was in actuality the polar opposite of what Christianity should be, that so repelled Malcolm X. Later, Malcolm would say of Christianity that “Christian love is the white man’s love for himself and for his race.” (Haley, 1965, pg. 237) Based on this experience, it would have to be concluded that this is true! The Apostle Paul, who penned the majority of the New Testament, wrote several times of the responsibility that Christians bear by proclaiming themselves as such. One example, from Second Corinthians chapter five and verse twenty, is when Paul writes to the church in Corinth that “we are ambassadors for Christ”. What is the meaning of this statement? This means that those who voluntarily live their life under the banner of Christianity are essentially responsible for displaying Christianity to those with whom they interact. This is the very role of the ambassador – to essentially be the mediator between two parties. The ambassador must represent that which he is an ambassador for to those who know nothing, or very little, about those who sent him. While he was in Africa, Malcolm X talks of the American ambassadors to Africa who tried to portray that civil rights were essentially a non-issue in America; that white and black were getting along just fine. He talks of his detest and disgust for these ambassadors because they were not accurately portraying the plight of the American black man to the African black man. Is this not how he felt about these “Christian” ambassadors? While they were supposed to be ambassadors for Christ, they were ambassadors for white supremacy and hatred, which is what provoked Malcolm to proclaim that “Christian love is the white man’s love for himself and for his race.” (Haley, 1965, pg. 237) When Malcolm X was in prison he was exposed to the teaching of Elijah Muhammad and his organization, the Nation of Islam. It was here that his conversion began from a street thug in Harlem to a civil rights leader and activist. Malcolm was turned on to the NOI because of their teaching of black supremacy, and it was this that gave him his greatest platform against Christianity. Malcolm began to see in only black and white, with Islam being black and Christianity being white. It was for this reason that, “Instead of appealing to listeners' Christianity, as even previous separatist leaders-such as Turner and Garvey-had done, Malcolm X urged blacks to abandon their faith and follow Elijah Muhammad into the Nation of Islam (NOI)”. (Miller, 2004, pgs. 207-208) Malcolm began to see Christianity as the white man’s religion, and Islam as the black man’s religion. As he put it, “America needs to understand Islam because this is the one religion that erases from its society the race problem.” (Haley, 1965, pg. 340) An even better understanding of how Malcolm felt can be gathered from his statement that, “Christianity is the white man’s religion.” (Haley, 1965, pg. 241) The experiences that Malcolm had with Christianity had convinced him that Christianity only contributed to the race problem, and, again, on whose shoulders should this blame be placed? As in the first case, the blame here has to be placed on the American Christian. Had the American Christian, specifically the white American Christian, read the Bible, which is his manual for living, he would have come across John chapter one verse nine. In this verse John says that "[Jesus Christ] was the true Light, which lights every man that comes into the world”. Now, what does this verse imply? The implication here is that Christ is the answer for all men, not just white men, or American men, or white American men. Combine this with the Christian’s responsibility to be an ambassador for Christ, and his goal is clear: live your life for Christ and display and tell of his love to every man. “Every man” would include Earl Little and Malcolm X. It would be this failure of Christians that would lead Malcolm X to hate Christians, the United States, and the governing bodies of both. As one author puts it, “it is clear that when Malcolm said Christian, American, or American government, he was talking about whites”. (Rodgers and Rogers, 1983, pg. 112) The last command that Jesus gave to his followers before His ascension was to “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature”, which is found in Mark chapter sixteen and verse fifteen. If the words of John were not enough for the Christian, then this command of Jesus would prove more than sufficient that blacks and whites are both to be recipients of the love of Christ. Malcolm X once said in a speech that “This Christian American white man has not got it in him to find the human decency, and enough sense of justice, to recognize us, and accept us, the black people who have done so much for him, as fellow human beings!” (Haley, 1964, pg. 254) While he is guilty of broad-brushing Christianity as the religion of whites and the source of oppression, the Christian is far more guilty of failing to live out the teachings which he claims to follow. It would be hard to argue that the attitude of many Christians against blacks – hatred and white superiority – lead to the attitude of Malcolm X against Christians – hatred and black superiority. Malcolm X would later have a falling out with the NOI and convert to Sunni Islam. He would make a pilgrimage to Mecca, several tours of Africa, and start his own organization, the Organization for Afro-American Unity, or OAAU, before being assassinated in February of 1965. In the last couple of years of his life, he would become much more of a centrist, acknowledging that not all white people were racist and evil. While the NOI can be held responsible for his assassination, the American Christian can be held responsible for pushing him into the NOI. As Christianity has always been the dominant religion in America, odds alone are in favor of Malcolm being a Christian if only Christians had been loving and serving toward Malcolm and his family. However, because of their failure to do, and even hatred for blacks and their belief in supremacy over them, even if indirectly, they pushed him toward his extreme views and ultimate demise. Malcolm X was not around long enough to see how his views may have continued to evolve. It is not unlikely that he would have worked with Martin Luther King and created what would have amounted to King squared. Imagine the power of such a force! The life of Malcolm X should be a reminder to all Christians today of the importance of being an ambassador for Christ, living a life of love and service, and teaching his doctrines to every man, not just those who one deems “worthy” of them. After his conversion to Sunni Islam, Malcolm X made a statement that should provide a sobering warning to Christians. He said that “If the so-called “Christianity” now being practiced in America displays the best that world Christianity has left to offer – no one in his right mind should need any much greater proof that very close at hand is the end of Christianity.” (Haley, 1964, pg. 369) In the end, I think that even Malcolm recognized that the “Christianity” that he had spent his life railing against, the “Christianity” that he had been exposed to throughout his life, was actually not Christianity at all. As one author points out, “Both Christianity and the Nation of Islam have saved thousands of poor blacks from the snares of vice-ridden neighborhoods”. (Painter, 1993, pg. 436) The shame of it all is that it was too little and too late. Malcolm X had already spent most of his life in disdain for “Christianity’s double standard of oppression” (Haley, 1965, pg. 364) This double standard was of course freedom in Christ, except for blacks; equality in Christ, except for blacks; and most importantly, love in Christ, except for blacks. The life of Malcolm X should prove to Christians today the importance of being ambassadors for Christ, as Christ instructs, not as they see fit. The life of Malcolm X is very much a tragedy because it was all so avoidable. Let us hope that, in this regard, history does not repeat itself.
Haley, Alex. (1965). The Autobiography of Malcolm X. New York: Ballantine Books Miller, Keith D. (2004). Plymouth Rock Landed on Us: Malcolm X’s Whiteness Theory as a Basis for Alternative Literacy. College Composition and Communication, Vol. 56, No. 2, pgs. 199-222. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/4140647
Painter, Nell Irvin. (1993). Malcolm X across the Genres. The American Historical Review, Vol. 98, No. 2, pgs. 432-439. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/2166842
Rodgers, Raymond and Rogers, Jimmie N. (1983). The Evolution of the Attitude of Malcolm X toward Whites. Phylon (1960 - ), Vol. 44, No. 2, pgs. 108-115. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/275022
NG, LR, NCU, USAR
My collection of personal papers written over the years