Cecil, Colonialism, and Christianity

August 07, 2015

As I returned from South Africa, news erupted about the killing of a protected lion in neighboring Zimbabwe. Known as Cecil, poachers apparently lured the lion out of Hwange National Park so that a wealthy dentist from Minnesota could kill Cecil and take the lion's head home as a trophy. The dentist reportedly paid $50,000 for a license to hunt a lion (but was not supposed to kill a protected one). A couple of locals involved with the hunt have been arrested and officials in Zimbabwe would like the dentist to return to face charges as well.

The attention to Cecil's death outweighs its importance, especially considering the little attention given to the human rights violations of Zimbabwe's government and its dictatorial leader Robert Mugabe. Yet, the case of Cecil raises important questions about the continuing colonial mindsets of some western elites. Unfortunately, some Christian leaders in the U.S. not only hold such colonial views but even defend the hunting of lions like Cecil.

Big game hunting in Africa has long been a past time of wealthy, white, warmongering elites from the U.S. and Europe (I'm looking at you, Teddy Roosevelt). Ironically, Cecil was named for British colonist Cecil Rhodes, who founded the racist territory of Rhodesia (which was later replaced by Zimbabwe). The white racist who recently killed nine African Americans during a church service in Charleston owned a jacket with the flags of Rhodesia and apartheid-era South Africa sown on it.


I didn't see any lions in South Africa, but I did see one a couple of weeks earlier in Omaha (for a much cheaper price). Today, nearly two-thirds of all African lions killed are by wealthy Americans - and it's an unsustainable pace of killings. Tens of thousands of dollars are spent on each hunt, all in hopes of gaining a trophy to look impressive in one's office.

Apparently some guys believe bigger trophies on their walls mean they are manlier (their outward bravado, therefore, may mask an inner lack of confidence or a desire to overcompensate). Ironically, killing a lion is hardly impressive given the role local trackers play and the general timidity many lions have toward humans. Seriously, if you want to be unimpressed by a lion killer, check out a hilarious photo post by a writer who went on a safari.

I didn't see one of the so-called "big five" hunting targets during my time in South Africa (but I did see a sand statue of one on the beach of the Indian Ocean). While there, though, I heard stories about the history of colonialism in the land and the rise of apartheid. Both systems were supported by white Christians in the name of God. I heard similar stories of Christianity and colonialism in Cuba, and saw other signs of it in Guatemala. I hope we can learn from the mistakes of the past. The past, however, is not yet past.


Consider the case of former U.S. Representative Paul Broun, a Republican from Georgia. A Southern Baptist who often mixed his faith into his political rhetoric, he quickly became a Tea Party star with his acid tongue. His congressional office featured lots of hunting trophies, including a lion he killed in Zimbabwe. Fortunately, Broun lost the Republican primary for U.S. Senate last year.

Or consider the case of Paige Patterson, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Texas. With the news coverage of Cecil's killing, the Baptist Press (the news arm of the Southern Baptist Convention) highlighted Patterson to defend big game hunts. He's gone hunting in Africa about 20 times, and the piece included a photo of him with a trophy in Zambia (which was once part of the territory of Rhodesia). He's previously written about killing a lion in Africa, making it sound like a macho and spiritual mission.

At first glance it may seem a bit odd Patterson invests so much money and identity in being an African big game hunter. However, the image of the "great white hunter" captures his theology well. He tries to justify his hunts by using them as evangelistic outreach in messages, but colonists historically tried to baptize their exploitations with a few revivals.

Patterson co-led the fundamentalist shift in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) by preaching a literalist interpretation of scripture that favored privileged, white males. He later pushed the SBC to withdraw from the Baptist World Alliance (BWA) all because the global body wouldn't let the all-knowing SBC run everything. The garb of a colonialist hunter fits Patterson quite well.

As I entered and exited the convention center in Durban, South Africa, each day for the Baptist World Congress (the BWA's major gathering held every five years), I walked past a stature of a white rhino. It's one of the "big five," and one of the two Patterson hasn't bagged (what kind of wimp has only killed 60 percent?). I enjoyed the powerful statue.

The symbolism inside was even greater: thousands of people from more than 80 nations gathering together as one body. Multiple languages brought praise in worship songs, scripture readings, and Bible studies. That's what Christianity should look like. You won't find it with a gun, nor by playing colonial games.

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