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Jesus is Dread: Black Theology and Black Culture in Britain – Robert Beckford

July 24, 2013

JIDBlack-led churches weren’t simply escapist in the times of slavery, the sighs of oppressed creatures, nor are they some sort of aberration the UK.

This book deals with the various criticisms made of them, particularly that they are more concerned with social welfare than with social justice: Many Black Christians fail to make the distinction between social welfare and social justice. The Black Church is a brilliant social-welfare institution. People will look out for you and ensure that you have enough to get by, no matter what your situation. Rarely, however, does the Black Church engage in social justice. Social justice involves more than meeting a need: it is about finding long-term solutions to the problems. A good illustration of this tension between welfare and justice occurred when a Black Christian was arrested and imprisoned for a crime he could not have committed. Many churches in the area raised funds to ensure that the man’s family was taken care of. However, no church asked the question, ‘Why is the criminal justice system wrongfully imprisoning Black men with impunity?’ Being committed to social justice is about asking questions and taking risks, so that we can alter the structures and systems that oppress us. This is the task of a Black Christian politics of liberation.

Also that, despite predominantly female congregations, the image of God is male.

Just as the early Methodists were poor but ‘behaved themselves’ ad became prosperous because they didn’t spend their money on various vices, thereby losing their appeal to the poor, so members of black-led churches had the work ethic and became middle class: the aspiring Black middle class in the Black Church breaks connections with the Black masses, adopting prosperity doctrines to justify their status and augment the conservative behavioural outlook of the Church. The challenge of the aspiring Black middle class is to maintain the organic connection with working-class and working poor Black people. In other words, the Church must be an institution which empowers the economically marginalised in society.
Another area of oppression concerns sexuality. The vast majority of Black Churches have very rigid and set views on human sexuality. Heterosexism is deemed the only normative sexual expression for humanity; consequently, gay and lesbian lifestyles are strictly prohibited and demonised. In this instance, most, if not all, Black churches are not welcoming places. What concerns me here is not the ‘right’ of the Black Church to hold its theological position (although there are serious critical issues to debate), but the social consequences of its anti-gay polemic. By endorsing a particular view on homosexuality, the Church also opens itself to the sin of homophobia — the persecution of gays and lesbians. While most Black denominations believe that the Bible is against homosexuality, no Christian can endorse the physical and psychological brutality which is an intrinsic part of homophobia. Any church that calls itself a `house of God’, or more specifically, ‘the Church of God’, must be a place which all can enter to find solace, guidance and empowerment. If gays and lesbians cannot even gain access because of fear, then the Church has no right to call itself a ‘place for the wounded’ or a ‘shelter in the time of storm’.
Finally, while this concern is primarily articulated in White mainstream Churches,’ the oppression of disabled people is an issue for Black Churches. Many Black Churches fail to see the wholeness of God in disabled people: consequently, prayer for healing is the only response to disability. On many occasions, I have watched and participated in prayer for healing — moreover, I have had church folk pray for my physical healing. While we must applaud the way in which Black Churches retain a belief in and practice of divine healing, we must be critical of their inability to recognise God’s wholeness in those with impairments. A disabled person can be whole through the power of God because God’s healing power transcends impairment. The numerous biblical references to impairment as a symbol of divine favour support this point. Therefore, there can be as many ‘whole’ impaired people as there are able-bodied people who lack the ‘wholeness’ that Christ brings. The overemphasis on divine healing as the only solution to dis¬ability and impairment can make the Black Church an oppressive institution.

And what about ‘pie in the sky when you die’, the ultimate delayed gratification?: We must be aware of, in the words of Marvin Gaye, ‘what’s going on’. This too has implications for a spirituality of liberation. It identifies the importance of analysis, or what we call, in Pentecostal circles, ‘being watchful’. Being watchful here is not just an overemphasis on the end-times and waiting for Jesus to return. Instead it means immersing ourselves in the soc context so that we are better able to see what is and is n of God. In other words, we are to have a spirituality that realises the importance of our being agents of the Kingdom of God here and now.

Rastas speak of Babylon, referring to white lands of their exile, echoing Psalm 137. Reflecting on this, Beckford writes: The psalmist is seeking more than revenge: this is a request for the total destruction of the oppressive forces. The imagery is disturbing, especially in our contemporary context where we have become sensitised to the abuse of children. Disturbing as the imagery is, it has something important to convey to us. Theoretically it suggests that we cannot have a spirituality of liberation which does not result in action. Instead, action has to be an integral dimension of our spirituality. In other words, as well as contemplating, we must also be commandos for the sake of liberation; we have to be acting — not just prepared to act. For the Black Church this means a reorientation.
On the one hand, the Black Church is good at finding ways of correcting the symptoms of social injustice: for example, as mentioned above, the Church nurtures good students in order to counter poor standards in education. On the other hand, there is an unwillingness to address the concrete social structures which are the real cause of distress…. we must see the Church as a radical institution offering a countercultural and alternative existence. For Black Churches to become radical institutions means finding new ways of enthusing them with the kind of independence of thought and radical praxis which are at the roots of their formation in Britain. We have now reached a time when Black Churches have to stop living off the radical moves of their founders in the 1950s and 1960s and begin to find a radical spirituality to address the pressing needs of today. To be a countercultural institution means working against particular forces within our faith communities.

Jesus commands his followers to pray in secret. Does this mean that religion is merely a private affair?: Jesus contrasts subversive piety with popularist spirituality. Subversive piety is a radical devotion to God, which is not always obvious, but which is geared towards social change. That’s why Jesus encourages people to give alms in secret. This is an important strategy, not only because it nurtures a spirit of humility, but also because it enables liberation activity to take place away from those who would want to restrain it. In contrast, a popularist spirituality is an artificial holiness based on show, with no substance — and is therefore an affirmation of the status quo. This form of godliness lacks real, liberating power. A subversive piety has been manifest throughout African— Caribbean history, in both secular and spiritual forms. For example, during slavery in Jamaica, the secular form produced the Quarshie. The Quarshie was the docile image which slaves used in order to mask their revolutionary aspirations.  To a certain degree, the Quarshie was the personification of Anancy the spider. Anancy stories were folk-tales from Africa fecund with wise sayings and doings. In short, Anancy always ‘acted the fool in order to catch the wise’.
During slavery, the Christian version of subversive piety was found among the Christian people involved in slave rebellions. One only has to read the accounts of slave revolts in the Caribbean to notice the cunning, guile and deception used by Christian leaders — particularly in Sam Sharpe’s rebellion in 1831—2, in Jamaica. Sharpe, a ‘freed’ Baptist minister, used his status and relative freedom as a slave preacher to nurture a subversive piety among his congregations. Essentially, he encouraged the slaves not to practise publicly their God—inspired radical devotion geared towards social change (that is, freedom) until the time was right. Sharpe used the relative privacy of slave prayer meetings to plan insurrection. This presents an important paradigm for the Black Church at prayer — of the prayer meeting as a sacred space for mobilisation against the forces of injustice. Such was Sharpe’s effectiveness that within a year he had organised the most successful rebellion in Jamaican history.
Unfortunately, subversive piety appears to have died out in African—Caribbean Christianity after slavery. African— Caribbean Christianity preferred the security of popularist spirituality. By the twentieth century, subversive piety had found a more suitable home in the early attempts to develop liberation theology in the Caribbean, in Garveyism and later in Rastafari) This development was a tragedy for Jamaican Christianity; today it still seeks to rid itself of socio—political passivity. Subversive piety is a dangerous commodity which needs to be a part of the spirituality of any Church which is seriously concerned with holistic renewal. However, in Britain today, subversive piety has not totally deserted the Black Church: many display a weak subversive piety in which this radical devotion to God is softened, being geared towards limited social change. As Valentina Alexander has pointed out, this weak manifestation can be seen in the tradition of passive radicalism.

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