Is Black Theology the answer to racism?

The Church of England’s new report on racism in the church makes the following recommendation:

Participation in an introductory Black Theology module or module on Theologies in Global Perspective to be a requirement for all ordinands

From Lament to Action page 33 – emphasis added

Not knowing anything about Black Theology, and taking a cue from an article on Unherd, I have been reading Black Theology by Anthony G. Reddie, a professor at Oxford University. Billed as a “Core Text” the book aims to introduce readers to Black Theology with a special focus on what the author regards as the two most significant Black Theologians in Britain: himself and Professor Robert Beckford.

So what is Black Theology?

It is not theology written by Black theologians in general, nor is it the theology of Black Christians, Church Leaders or Churches. In fact, the author admits:

The majority of Black people in the world have often rejected Black Theology and its approach to reinterpreting the meaning and activity of God.

Black Theology page 57

Black Theology is not necessarily Christian Theology:

… there is a growing wealth of literature that has explored Black Theology from within other religious paradigms, including Rastafari, Hinduism and traditional African religions. In the USA, Anthony Pinn has sought to use humanism for exploring notions of Black Theology, which reject the traditional theism of Christian-inspired theology.

Black Theology, page 9

What then is Black Theology? Reddie explains:

Black Theology is not simply any theology undertaken by a Black person. Rather, it is a liberation theology that seeks to critique existing and seemingly normative, oppressive forms of Christian theology and practice, including those developed and expressed by Black people themselves!

Black Theology page xvi

Reddie emphasizes that Black Theology focuses on praxis rather than abstract or theoretical questions. A Black Theologian exploring, for instance, the doctrine of the Trinity or Christology will ask what is the cash value of this in terms of the liberation of Black people from oppression. Does traditional Christian doctrine help towards the goal of Black liberation or is it – overtly or covertly – a tool for maintaining White supremacy?

Key to this approach to theology is the “hermeneutic of suspicion”. Reddie is “sceptical of the claims made for the Bible or the normative posture it has occupied in Diasporan African life and the certitude we often hold towards it as being the ‘Good Book’. (He is, however, honest enough to admit that, despite his theoretical scepticism about biblical authority, he still has a Bible on his bed open at the Psalms “to ward off unclean spirits”!)

Reddie gives a worked example of this hermeneutic of suspicion in his approach to Luke’s account of the “widow’s mite” (Luke 21.1-4). Rather than reading this as Jesus commending the widow for her faithful devotion to God in giving all that she had to live on, Reddie sees this as “Jesus condemning the exploitation of the poor”.

Certainly Jesus condemned the exploitation of the poor, but is that what he is doing here? Surely he is exalting the faith and devotion of the poor – comparing it unfavourably with the cost-free piety of the rich? The implication of Reddie’s hermeneutic of suspicion is that the widow had been coerced into her generous gift. That seems to me to take all the power out of the story, making her a victim where Jesus sees her as a victor.

The hermeneutic of suspicion calls even basic Christian doctrines into question. Reddie commends Black Theologians’ contention that Jesus did not die for our sins but because of them. He wasn’t paying the price of humanity’s rebellion against God but suffering the tragic fate of a revolutionary seeking to overturn injustice. Traditional atonement theologies are rejected on the grounds that they exalt the value of suffering and thus serve to justify the subjugation of Black people (Black women in particular).

So much for a brief and partial survey of some core features of Black Theology as Reddie expounds it. What interests me as much as what Black Theology affirms is what it seems to neglect or discount. For instance, Reddie makes no mention of any of the following biblical texts and themes:

  1. Genesis 1 tells us that all humanity is made “in the image of God”. Tom Wright comments:

The point about human beings, in the original creation story… is that they are God’s agents, God’s appointed stewards over creation. This is what it means to be ‘in God’s image’: to reflect God’s wise, fruitful ordering into creation, and to reflect creation’s praise back to the creator.

n t wright, paul and the faithfulness of God I & II page 486

Racism is a sin against the Creator and his creation. He has designed all of us for “agency” – a key word for Reddie. Anything which deprives people of agency – especially slavery but all the ways people are marginalized for their skin colour – is a sin against God.

2. Paul told the Athenians that “from one ancestor he [God] made all nations to inhabit the whole earth” (Acts 17. 26). The human race is one – by virtue of shared ancestry. There are different ethnicities but only one race. The very concept of “races” is arguably racist in itself . Biology and theology combine to reject the idea of distinct human races.

3. Paul told the Colossians that all forms of discrimination between people were abolished in the radical newness brought by Jesus Christ:

… you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!

Colossians 3.9-11

4. The new creation promised in the book of Revelation looks forward to a community drawn from “every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands” (Revelation 7.9 and many times thereafter).

Black Theology’s hermeneutic of suspicion is designed to ferret out where the Bible and Theology have been used to perpetuate the oppression of Black people. Fair enough. But I wonder if, in so doing, it is in danger of throwing out the biblical baby with the racist bathwater – neglecting or rejecting the rich scriptural resources for combating racism in favour of dubious attempts to “read against” (Reddie’s phrase) the plain meaning of some texts. If Black Theology were to rediscover those scriptural resources it could unite all Black Christians and indeed all Christians of goodwill in the fight against racism.

Published by markphilps

Came to faith at university while studying Russian. Brief career with the BBC. Married to Caroline. Ordained in the Church of England. Thirty-five years in parish ministry. Now retired and doing some writing.

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