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Black SBC pastor & prof: Kwanzaa not rooted in faith

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)—Having taken a close look at Kwanzaa, they’re opting instead to celebrate their Christian faith, a black Southern Baptist pastor and Southern Baptist seminary professor told Baptist Press.

Kwanzaa’s celebration of African American culture should not take precedence over the traditional observance of Christmas, the two men said.

“I think African American Christians must recognize that Kwanzaa is not a simple appreciation or reaffirmation of one’s ancestry,” said Eric Redmon, pastor of Hillcrest Baptist Church in Temple Hills, Md., a predominantly African American congregation.

The concept of self-worth based on one’s ancestry is inherent in the system of Kwanzaa, and perhaps can reflect “the majesty of the image of God in all people,” Redmon said. But he noted that Kwanzaa overlooks the depravity that can arise within any human culture.

Kwanzaa was founded in 1966 by a black activist, Ron Karenga, as a Dec. 26-Jan. 1 celebration of African American heritage. Timed to serve as an alternative to the commercialism of Christmas, Kwanzaa was based on various elements of the first harvest celebrations widely observed in Africa. Kwanzaa is celebrated by 1.6 percent of consumers, according to a 2004 survey conducted by the National Retail Foundation.

The name Kwanzaa is derived from a Swahili phrase meaning “first fruits.” The seven letters in the word Kwanzaa correspond to seven principles on which the observance is based: unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith.

“I personally do not celebrate Kwanzaa,” said Ken Fentress, dean of intercultural programs and assistant professor of Old Testament at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. “While the seven principles of Kwanzaa appear to be positive in what they affirm, I reject the ideologies of its founder Maulana Ron Karenga. He has toned down his rhetoric in recent years in order to make Kwanzaa more appealing to African American Christians but initially he was very anti-Christian in his perspective.

“I prefer to celebrate the principles of biblical Christianity rather than the principles of Kwanzaa because I embrace the biblical foundation of the Christian faith,” Fentress said.

Karenga was a prominent personality during the black power movement in the 1960s, according to The Dartmouth Review. In 1965, Karenga founded the United Slaves Organization, a group that rivaled the Black Panthers on the UCLA campus and was more radical than the Panthers. In 1969, two members of Karenga’s group shot and killed two Panthers who had verbally attacked Karenga.

Karenga was sentenced to one to 10 years in prison in 1971 on counts of felonious assault and false imprisonment stemming from a May 9, 1970, incident in which Karenga and two others allegedly tortured two women with an electrical cord and a karate baton because Karenga believed they had attempted to kill him by placing “crystals” in his food and water.

After being released from prison in 1975, Karenga served as head of the black studies department at California State University at Long Beach from 1989-2002.

Karenga has voiced hostility toward western religion, including Christianity and its concepts of human sinfulness and belief in God. Western religion “denies and deminishes human worth, capacity, potential and acheivement,” Karenga wrote in his 1980 book, “Kawaida Theory.” “In Christian and Jewish mythology, humans are born in sin, cursed with mythical ancestors who’ve sinned and brought the wrath of an angry God on every generation’s head.”

In recent years, Karenga has toned down his anti-Christian rhetoric, arguing in “Kwanzaa: A Celebration of Family, Community, and Culture,” that it “was not created to give people an alternative to their own religion or religious holiday.”

Still, from Redmon’s perspective, Kwanzaa’s seven principles are at odds with the Bible.

“On first look, it would appear that the seven guiding principles have three items that would correspond to New Testament teachings: unity; collective work and responsibility; and faith,” Redmon told Baptist Press. “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 … differ from the Pauline [Apostle Paul’s] concept of forensic justification.”

Kwanzaa’s concept of faith “is based only in past triumphs of people of African decent,” Redmon said. “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.”

A celebration of African American culture and countering negative stereotypes can help unify Christians of all races, but the way in which Kwanzaa celebrates African American culture is detrimental to cause of Christ, Redmon said.

“Countering the effects of negative stereotyping and brainwashing by means of self-appreciation is different than what is practiced in Kwanzaa,” he said. “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.”

While advising Christians against celebrating Kwanzaa, Redmon said it can provide an occasion to present the Gospel to African Americans who embrace the observance.

“As much as Paul made a bridge from the Epicurian and Stoic’s 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,” the pastor said. “This is a unique opportunity for African American believers.”