In this long–read, guest writer Anthony Reddie unpacks the meaning and history of Black theology. 25/08/2020
Who is the ‘Black’ in Black theology in Britain?
Black identities have always been diverse and complex. They defy any simplistic ways of categorising people. The term Black has to be understood within the context of Britain and the tradition of identity politics that emerged in the 1970s. So, the term ‘Black’ does not simply relate to skin colour, but is rather also a political statement relating to one’s sense of politicised marginalisation within Britain, i.e. being ‘Black’ in this context is not just about those who are of ‘African descent’ living in the UK. It also relates to other non-White groups who suffer and experience racism.
Using the term ‘Black’ is to identify oneself as on the alternative side of the fence in terms of what is considered acceptable, when juxtaposed with the dominant Eurocentric ways in which we see and understand what it means to be authentically British.[i]
This tradition of political mobilization around the once maligned and socially constructed term of Black has its roots in the political left and the rise of coalition politics in the 1970s.[ii] Whilst Black theology in Britain has been dominated by Black people of African and Caribbean descent, Asian scholars like Inderjit Bhogal,[iii] Mukti Barton,[iv] and Michael Jagessar[v] have made an impressive and much needed contribution to the development and refining of this theological discipline. In using the term ‘Black Theology’, we mean a radical rethinking of how we conceive of God and Jesus in light of the ongoing suffering and oppression of Black people in a world run and governed by White people. Black theology identifies God, revealed in Jesus, as committed to liberation and freeing Black people from racism and oppression.
The roots of Black theology arise from the lives of enslaved African peoples in the so called ‘New World’ of the Americas. Enslaved Africans in the Americas and the Caribbean, through their introduction to Christianity by White slave owners, latched onto the inherent liberative aspects of the Bible – in particular, the decisive intervention of God on the side of the oppressed in the Exodus narrative. In this biblical narrative God demands that Pharaoh ‘let my people go’. So, God was not seen as neutral nor distant. The key texts in Black theology remain the early work undertaken by James H. Cone, who is still seen as the founder and the greatest of Black theologians. Cone’s early books were Black Theology and Black Power, A Black Theology of Liberation and God of the Oppressed.[vi] In all three texts, Cone identifies God with the suffering and humiliation of Black people. When he asserts that God is ‘Black’ he is identifying God with those who are marginalized and oppressed, for whom the term ‘Black’ has always been linked with negative connotations and demonic imagery. God in Black theology is the active force that overthrows injustice and releases the captors from their oppression.
Black theology seeks to promote the significance of Black people within the sacred story of God’s interaction with humankind (i.e. the Bible) and as a means of promoting ideas of reconciliation and living together in unity, in a world that transcends racism.
Cain Hope Felder, a famous and respected African American New Testament scholar, in his commentary on the Pentecost narrative, identifies the references to Mesopotamia, Pamphylia, Egypt and parts of Libya near Crete[vii] as being places connected with Africa. Felder states that
Indeed, the physiognomy of the Elamites of Mesopotamian archaeological reliefs shows them to have been a dark-skinned people with hair of tight curls. The modern academy has unfortunately zealously sought to “whitewash” all inhabitants of the ancient “Near East” in the vicinity of the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers.’[viii]
Felder and others[ix] are asserting both a Black presence in, and a Black African-centred form of interpretation for reading the Bible.
The implication of this is that there is difference at the heart of the biblical story. The people are transformed but these differences – the uniqueness of their identities – do not disappear. These Black theological readings show that many of the people in this story are Black, so being Black is important and should not be relegated or downplayed, as being of no consequence or value.
Just as the Incarnation – Jesus’ historical presence in the world – shows that being flesh, being human and living in a particular time and space (a context) is important, so too does Pentecost. Pentecost shows that the Holy Spirit does not eradicate our differences; rather, the Spirit celebrates them.
But life in Spirit (i.e. living as Christians) is about being one in Christ, in fellowship with each other. Being in community with each other and with Christ can take us beyond what it means to be linked to a particular identity – in this case, being Black. The status that is often linked to particular identities (being male, or being a Jew, for example) is exploded. The Spirit does transcend all this (Gal. 3: 28). There is, therefore, a tension between these two differing ways of seeing identity. One, that in Christ, the differences around ethnicity or gender are overcome and made irrelevant; but also the counter view, that in Christ we come to celebrate those very things as essential parts of who we are. Black theology seeks to look at how we live together as people across our differences of ethnicity and cultures, class and economic disparities.
A short contemporary history of Black theology in Britain
In one sense, the birth of Black theology in Britain occurred when enslaved Africans such as Mary Prince,[x] Olaudah Equiano,[xi] and Ignatius Sancho[xii] began to write their memoirs in the eighteenth century. The more contemporary development of Black theology in Britain emerges from a generation of Black pastors and ministers (predominantly in the Anglican and Methodist churches) who, whilst in the throes of reflecting on their ministerial practice, began to speculate on the possibility of creating a Black British theology of Liberation. Religious practitioners such as Gus John, Robinson Milwood, David Moore, and Wesley Daniel,[xiii] who were either in pastoral ministry or students at college/seminary, remain the early pioneers in the development of Black theology in Britain. Black theology as a literary form in Britain is less than 50 years old.
These unstinting and unwavering stalwarts did not occupy academic positions, nor were they able to luxuriate in benign reflective spaces to concentrate solely on this area of commitment. Essentially, many of them had to earn their living undertaking the daily labours of pastoral ministry and/or undergoing ministerial formation in theological education.
Due to their location within the church (or in some cases beyond, as in the case of Gus John[xiv] and David Moore[xv]), this early generation of Black theologians in Britain did not commit a great deal of their work to published form. From their location in church and in their fledgling publications, these individuals were able to provide the major substantial development of Black theology, from which later figures, such as Valentina Alexander, Joe Aldred, Robert Beckford, Kate Coleman, Lorraine Dixon, Michael Jagessar, Emmanuel Lartey and myself could emerge. In many respects, it has been the succeeding generation of scholars, of the likes of the aforementioned, who have found themselves in the advantageous position of being able to write.
Birth of the ‘Black theology in Britain’ Journal
1998 was a critically important year in the development of Black theology. That year saw not only the publication of the first self-authored book on Black theology in Britain – Robert Beckford’s Jesus Is Dread, on which in-depth work has already been done by other Black theologians in Britain[xvi] – but it also marked the birth of the journal Black theology in Britain.[xvii] The original name of the journal was Black Theology in Britain: A Journal of Contextual Praxis under the editorship of Emmanuel Lartey.[xviii] This journal was the first corporate undertaking in which fledgling Black British scholars could get their work published in a social and political context that was supportive and encouraging and did not view Black theology in a negative light.
The Black theology journal has, since 2002, become an internationally renowned publication. It has moved from being identified as a parochial organ towards becoming one of the main publications for the dissemination of Black theology across the world. Over the years, all the major figures in the development of Black theology in Britain have written pieces for this publication.[xix] The journal is now known as Black Theology: An International Journal.[xx] One of the key roles of the journal has been to publish work that emphasises the necessity of the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement. In effect, our journal has been in the business of publishing work asserting the inviolate truth that Black lives matter long before there was a movement of the same name.[xxi]
A central part of the work of Black theology has been the necessity of critiquing the alleged superiority of White people or the notion that ‘Whiteness’ should predominate. In using the term ‘Whiteness’ I am referring to the lens through which we see the world and how social and economic relations are organised for the benefit of White people.
The relationship between the British Empire, colonialism and Christianity, in many respects, remains the unacknowledged ‘elephant in the room’. Empire and colonialism became the basis on which notions of White supremacy were based. The intellectual underpinning of White supremacy, the notion that White people are superior to peoples who are not White, was based on a corruption of Christianity, in which Whiteness was conflated with the Christian faith. This conflation of Whiteness with Christianity led to a clear binary between notions of civilised, acceptable, and saved, against uncivilised, backward, and heathen.[xxii]
The continued paucity of theological texts written by White British theologians that address the legacy of slavery, colonialism, and racism on the British psyche remains troubling. The reason why most White British theologians and White Christians have not engaged with issues of Whiteness is largely due to the invisibility of Whiteness: for most White people, they do not see or think about Whiteness. The truth is, Whiteness does not need rescuing from centuries of negative stereotyping and the notion that White people are backward and inferior.[xxiii]
Whatever the hardships are that face poor, marginalised White people (which I do not dispute, I hasten to add), these do not include a historic set of symbolic associations surrounding the unacceptability of being White in and of itself. Nor do such negative, symbolic associations find expression in right-wing groups demanding their removal from the country in order that such doubtful and unsubstantiated notions of ‘purity’, ‘civilisation’ and ‘Our Way of Life’ can be maintained – again, often synonyms for covert ways of speaking of the normativity of Whiteness.
One of the most recent and penetrating critiques of Whiteness written by a White British theologian is that of Steve Latham who not only critiques the ways in which Whiteness underpins the basis of much White theology, but explores the ways in which it provides the intellectual and emotional anchor that bolsters ideas of White supremacy. Latham writes
One of the greatest obstacles to the White person realising their own culpability, is that our own ‘Whiteness,’ is so invisible to us. The problem is always other people. ‘They are Black; we are ordinary.’ ‘They have a culture; we are normal.’ ‘They are ethnic; but we don’t have an ethnicity.’ We consider to be ‘common-sense’ what is actually part of our culture. However, when anything appears natural or ‘neutral’, then we know we are in the presence of a particular ideology.[xxiv]
So, whiteness operates on the basis of stealth, holding a pivotal central place for that which is considered normal and as it should be. It becomes central to all that is concerned to be ideal, better than and considered the epitome of supposed civilisation and acceptability.
The sad fact is that most White people take this so much for granted that it rarely occurs to many of them that we live in a world in which whiteness is so embedded as the norm. It is accepted as the way of seeing and organising the world to the extent that it can be likened to a fish swimming in the sea. The fish is so normalised to its existence that all it knows is that the sea represents its total existence.
White supremacy has been the basis on which the world has been organised for the last 500 years. The reason why we do not have a ‘White Lives Matter’ movement is because there has never been any serious impediment to asserting otherwise. This is not to say that poor White people or White women have not suffered or been oppressed. But none of this was due to the fact that they were simply ‘White’. Such has been the opposite for Black people over the past 500 years, beginning with slavery and then colonialism, so that our lives have been a constant battle to assert that we matter, as equally as White people, be they poor, or women, advantaged or disadvantaged economically, culturally or politically.
Black theology in Britain is a theology of liberation that seeks ultimately to bring about justice for all peoples. It is an invitation to see the world through the eyes of those who are suffering and being oppressed. The Coronavirus pandemic has laid bare the toxic reality in which many Black people live. The disproportionate deaths of Black people of African descent in the UK, the U.S. and in Brazil (amongst the top three countries for COVID-19 victims and deaths) has reminded us that systemic racism has not been a figment of our imaginations, nor have we been paranoid or have had the legendary chips on our shoulders. Rather, the Coronavirus pandemic has reminded us that the systemic racism of the transatlantic slave trade and later, the European colonialism of Black and Brown peoples in the global south and west, is now being replicated in an age of neo-liberalism and globalisation. The need for social, political and economic change has been clearly demonstrated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The world that has been revealed is not the one that God has designed for all people. We are in desperate need of change. A Black theology of liberation has always been committed to the necessity for structural change and the personal transformation of all people, in order that there is justice and equity for all. The prophetic work of Black theology continues. If the Christian faith and the churches that constitutes it are to live out their mandate as signs of hope and redemption, then Black theology is a must! I remain committed this work. I pray that others may be also!
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