Vinoth Ramachandra

Archive for July 2nd, 2010

Walter Moseley is a contemporary African-American writer whose detective novels, set in the ghettos of ‘50s and ‘60s Los Angeles, are also acute social commentaries and poignant evocations of the vicious racism of that world.

“There weren’t many people out in the street. In the early sixties nearly everybody was working. On the bus there were mainly old people and young mothers and teenagers coming in late to school. Most of them were black people. Dark-skinned with generous features.  Women with eyes so deep that most men can never know them.  Women like Betty who’d lost too much to be silly or kind. And there were the children… with futures so bleak that it could make you cry just to hear them laugh. Because behind the music of their laughter you knew there was the rattle of chains. Chains we wore for no crime; chains we wore for so long that they melded with our bones. We all carry them but nobody can see it- not even most of us. All the way home I thought about freedom coming for us at last.  But what about all those centuries in chains? Where do they go when you get free?” [Black Betty (New York: Pocket Books, 1995) pp.267-8]

Our histories don’t necessarily imprison us. But nor do they instantly disappear with the signing of treaties and changes in legislation. It has often amazed me that more black people are not as angry as they should be. Not only in the US but- much more so- in societies like India and Brazil where dark skin is identified pervasively with inferiority. African and African-American friends of mine are generally good-humoured, gentle and tolerant. But whenever they express anger or indignation at a Christian gathering, the response of well-to-do whites is to complain – at the supposedly “unChristian tone” of their language. This then becomes an excuse to ignore altogether the substance of what they say and the reasons for their anger.

The same goes for women. Intelligent women who protest angrily at the hypocritical way they are treated in many churches are pilloried as “feminists” (a strange swear-word in some evangelical circles). They end up channeling their gifts outside the church or voting with their feet. But others live double lives: exercising leadership in the secular world, but passively fitting into the sex roles defined in the church by male pastors. It is a well-documented fact that many oppressed peoples internalize the view of themselves that the dominant group perpetuates. This is what Antonio Gramsci in the 1930s famously called hegemony: it is not only through coercion that ruling groups rule, but by controlling the discourses that permeate the media and educational system. And, we should add, “church theology”. Unquestioning docility is engineered not by police forces but by intellectuals in the service of the ruling powers.

The anger of God ripples through the entire biblical narrative. “That is how we know we matter to God,” wrote the 4th-century Christian apologist Lanctantius, “He gets angry when we sin.” The anger of Jesus would be well-worth studying, but I haven’t heard any talks on the subject. Hypocrisy and hard-heartedness on the part of religious leaders are what mostly elicited the anger of Jesus- not sexual sins! I don’t find him calling to repentance the prostitutes, drug addicts, thieves or the “unspiritual” of his society but, rather, the rich, the religious and the respectable. Both in his teaching and his lifestyle he is provocative, controversial, disturbing and dangerous. “White-washed tombstones” is what he called the Pharisees who were the “Bible-believing” Jews of his day. They venerated dead prophets but couldn’t recognize the prophet in their midst. To those who were sure that their seats were booked in heaven, he warned that they would be in for a shock at the Final Judgment. Those outside the church were closer to the Kingdom of God than many leaders within.

This Jesus would not be welcome in most churches today. Nor would he be invited to address the Lausanne Congress or other big evangelical conferences. He would be too much of a social embarrassment. He would upset the big donors, the money would dry up. His “tone” would be all wrong, too provocative and unpolished. He would be withering in his scorn for the personality-cults that build up around popular preachers. He would be angry at the divisions and competition that evangelicals take for granted. He would denounce the individualisation and privatization of the Gospel. He would ask uncomfortable questions: are homogeneous churches simply religious clubs? why is an incompetent man preferred as a pastor or leader to a gifted and godly woman? how come there are so many SUVs in the church parking lot? what proportion of the church’s budget is spent on buildings and music equipment compared to what is spent on serving the poor?…..

“It was the Church, not the world, which crucified Christ.” (Karl Barth)


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