Vinoth Ramachandra

Archive for January 2022

Henry McNeal Turner, one of the early leaders of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in the USA stated in 1895 that “God is a Negro”.  This had the form of a provocative racist comment but was intended to subvert the taken-for-granted perspective of so many white people that God was White, that the interests, values and practices of Whites constituted normative Christianity. Turner challenged that incipient, and often naked, racism; the White Church had prostituted the Christian faith to notions of White supremacy and needed to recover the radical, prophetic logic of the gospel of Christ.

Black theology- to be distinguished from various African theologies- seeks to give voice to the experiences of Africans in North America, the Caribbean and Europe, many of whom are descendants of slaves. The North Atlantic slave trade and its aftermath (racial segregation, disenfranchisement, discrimination, racial profiling) are part of their cultural legacy. Black theology begins with that ongoing experience and asks how God is revealed within that experience and what insights and liberative practices emerge from it. Black people want to be known in their Blackness. For God meets us in our particularities.

In such a discourse, Black/White are spelt in upper case to signify not primarily skin colour but ethno-cultural realities. Unlike the earlier Enlightenment-influenced racism which was based on a dubious “race science”, ethno-cultural racism stems from unquestioned assumptions about the superiority and normalcy of White Euro-American standards of rationality, morality, political relevance or aesthetic excellence.

In a recent book, the Nigerian-born British journalist Chine McDonald observes: “In order to understand the internalised inferiority that exists among many Black men and women, it is important to revisit the ways in which Black bodies have been portrayed for centuries. From being likened to beasts closer to apes than humans, to bodies being seen as property and brutalised, to being put on display in European zoos, the Black body has often been seen as lacking in beauty. At times, as we have seen, it has been questioned whether or not Black people possess the imago Dei– whether we are made in the image of God.” (God is Not White, 2021)

I am often amused when many of my white friends, who are certainly not racists, tell me that they are “colour-blind”. They are unaware of their own colour. They have few non-white friends, don’t know their non-white neighbours, the vast majority of the books they read, the speakers they listen to, and the films they watch are all white. But these do not register on their consciousness unless somebody points it out.

When Caribbean migrants, many of them Christians, arrived in the UK on the ship Windrush in 1948, in response the UK government’s invitation to help re-build the country after the Second World War, they expected to be welcomed as sisters and brothers in the Christian churches. To their shock and amazement, they were largely ignored or shunned as “foreigners”. They were forced to form their own black churches. The story has not changed much in the last 70 years.

In Europe, no less than in the US, churches are mostly mono-ethnic and so propagate individualistic “gospels”. White church leaders may occasionally invite African or Asian leaders to their pulpits; but they make sure that what is going to be said is will not disturb them. When the Church is no longer a mosaic of cultures, where people come together to learn across differences and to enrich one another with their differences, the Church is no longer the sign of the kingdom of God, but just another religious club.

I once asked the head of an American organization whether he would help promote my books amongst his staff. He replied, first, that he was sadden by the fact that many of his staff did not read serious books. But he also said, “There are things in your books which we Americans find difficult to accept.” I was taken aback. All I could blurt out was, “There are things that Jesus says that I find difficult to accept.” Perhaps what I should have asked is, “Do we read authors who simply repeat and reinforce what we believe, or do we read in order to learn and be transformed?”

The organization I work with (IFES) was founded in 1947 at a meeting of international Christian leaders at Harvard University. Its “statement of faith” was drafted by a small group of white males from fairly privileged backgrounds. Unsurprisingly, its only statement about humanity is that we are “sinful”. However, that is not where the biblical narrative begins, and if questioned, the framers would undoubtedly have agreed that we are all creatures made in the image of God. But they were shaped by their narrow White Euro-American theological context where combatting a “liberal” denial of sin was what was considered paramount. Yet, today as well as then, to affirm that all people irrespective of sex, age, ethnicity, sexuality or intellectual ability are of intrinsic and equal worth is a revolutionary teaching, not least in bioethics and our racist, sexist and class/caste-ridden societies.

Fortunately, the centre of gravity of the Church, and of IFES, has shifted massively towards the global South. And IFES has produced a number of courageous non-Western leaders who have developed theologies that have sought to recover the central biblical affirmations of God’s “solidarity” with the poor and the oppressed and the call of the Gospel to justice and reconciliation, while at the same time exposing the limits and blind-spots of some popular “liberation theologies”.

While Black theology rightly begins with the Black experience, it becomes open to self-destruction when it turns dogmatic and (in the words of one of its fathers, the American James Cone) it “knows no authority more binding than the experience of oppression itself. This alone must be the ultimate authority in religious matters.” Why should the raw reality of oppression be of theological concern, unless we believe – on the basis of other authorities- that oppression is incompatible with the worship of a God who hates injustice and is outraged at such a state of affairs? And why should an action that oppresses the weak and helpless be a compelling, indeed conclusive, reason against performing it? It is difficult to account for such a moral stance within a purely naturalist view of our human existence.

It is only when our particularities, our contextual theologies, engage one another respectfully and critically within the wider Body of Christ, that our moral and theological horizons expand. Otherwise we remain imprisoned within either a bland universal rhetoric (“We are colour-blind”, “All Lives Matter”, etc) or polarizing culture wars.



January 2022