Welcome to the last ‘Out of Many, One People’ before Christmas and the New Year. The next posting will be on January 11th.
I have enjoyed sending out these weekly blogs, and thanks to all who have read them, and especially to those who have commented and responded, and even more to those who have forwarded them to potential subscribers. Please do keep circulating and publicising them.
May you all know the joy of Christ born for us and born in us, and his presence beside us in 2022.
Robert Beckford’s ‘Duppy Conqueror’ in the ‘My Theology’ Series – A Review.
This is the first of a new series of overviews by theologians (I guess chosen for their originality: Malcolm Guite and Alister McGrath are in the first tranche) briefly summarising their work. In fact, 93 pages of a small format, widely spaced book doesn’t come out as much larger than a Grove booklet.
Robert Beckford significance is as a ‘constructive’ (a rightly favoured word) theologian, taking the experiences of the Caribbean, especially Jamaican, diaspora in Britain as the starting point for creating a theological ‘scaffold’ which connects core experiences of that community with Christian theology. In doing so Beckford in effect summarises his theological writings thus far, and also connects them with his media work, particularly television documentaries. The three main sections begin with a particular aspect of diaspora experience and culture, presents a theological reflection on the theme, and concludes with examples of how this works out, notably in his own media work.
In all this Beckford shows himself to be a highly original thinker, fluently expressing both cultural and theological themes. In his superb Gifford Lectures ‘History and Eschatology’, N T Wright calls for a ‘hermeneutic of love’, and the most enriching quality of Beckford’s work is that his exposition is grounded in love for his people – his family, his slave and emancipatory forbears, his church, his peers and the coming generation of black British people and theologians. A final section on ‘Outernationality’ speaks of how his work has been transferable to other post-colonial societies.
The bulk of the book is chapters on God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. The chapter on God starts with the ‘ubiquity of racial injustice’ (p 31) experienced by his community, and works with the Jamaican use of ‘rahtid’ (rage) to connect with God’s ‘redemptive vengeance’ against injustice. This gives rise to protest, exemplified in a documentary he made exposing the lies of the British National Party in Dagenham. The brutality and impact of slavery and racism, and the need for emancipatory theology and practice are never far from Beckford’s mind.
The section on Jesus takes the Rastafarian use of ‘Dread’ as an awakening to both black cultural identity and historic oppression to highlight Jesus as one who both stands with us and who stands against injustice. He references a radio play he wrote about a black pastor whose ministry involved both the traditional ‘saving souls’ but also in opposing racist police and corrupt local officialdom.
On the Holy Spirit Beckford utilises the use of ‘Dub’ in reggae music where the producer re-presents the music using himself as a performer and the sound desk as an instrument. (See note 1). From this Beckford speaks of the need to re-present the Spirit not only in terms of his inner work in the believer, but also one who works offensively against the evil of sin’s social manifestations; for, as Beckford writes, “Scripture leaves us with no concise treatment of the work of the Spirit, which, as constructive theologians remind us, is not an irregular situation for most of the dominant themes of scripture”.
Beckford’s work deserves both attention and admiration for the richness of his ability to make connections between his own experience as the child of Jamaican immigrants, and the culture and history he grew as part of, and the resources of Christian theology. It is, at one and the same time, both very personal and specific, and yet a source of illumination for all who are concerned to bring the many-sided richness of faith into a variety of contexts.
Beckford’s book, and his more substantial writings, are likely to be the main way in (rightly) for the wider theological public for entering into the area of ‘black theology’; as encouraged, for example, by the emphasis in the Church’s from ‘From Lament to Action’ Report. Not only does he deserve to be read as a voice from a community that has suffered the very worst of white racial violence, but also as a theologian who might stimulate white theologians to seriously address white popular working-class culture, identity and faith.
Given the book’s importance, I would like to raise five areas where I think responding to Beckford requires discussion.
1. What does the Bible say?
Beckford seeks to be faithful to scripture, and often quotes it; but perhaps too often shapes it. Romans 12:19-21 which he quotes in support of God’s vengeance, in reality suggests a contrasting pietistic response of peace-making. He refers to Jesus’ violent cleansing of the temple for expressing anger, but this is a unique incident; elsewhere Jesus’s response to his opponents is often fierce, but verbal.
Central to Beckford’s approach is his view that exorcism was a form of resistance to colonial, oppressive Roman power. Thus his title ‘Duppy Conqueror’ refers to a reggae song about overcoming malign spirits, but beyond the Gadarene demoniac’s reference to ‘legions’ the connections are not that strong. The ‘post-colonial’ picture of a Jesus from the oppressed Jewish peasantry resisting brutal colonial power has little evidence in the gospels, nor even in Acts; though the preaching of Jesus as the true Caesar was bound to eventually lead to the collision that underlies the Book of Revelation.
2. What characterises African Caribbean churches in Britain today?
Beckford seeks to be both theologically ground-breaking, yet not lose connection or trust with black churches. I think this leads him to over-stress how far his theology is directly expressed in such churches, notably in what is sung. The songs he quotes say little (or perhaps nothing) that would not be sung in white Pentecostal churches, over for example concerning God acting in and for the believer; in one case quoting words that express the very quietism that he opposes: “I know you will fight my battles if I keep still”. Generally the songs do not bear the theological weight he seeks to put on them. (See note 2).
It is worth emphasising here the contrasting regional histories of black Christianity. In the USA there has been a long-standing tradition of black churches, often Baptist, or African Methodist Episcopal, representing and speaking for black people, not least politically. By contrast, African Caribbean churches in Britain were very largely, especially in the early days, from Pentecostal Church of God backgrounds (though as far as I know, not Beckford himself) which had white American leadership and a strongly pietistic rejection of ‘the world’, including politics.
3. Are ‘white’ and ‘black’ theologies that different?
If Beckford seeks to portray black churches’ theology as closer to his own, conversely he seeks to distance himself from ‘white’ or ‘colonial’ theology, which is seen as failing to recognise its social locatedness, divorced from experience and lived faith. We are told of ‘stodgy, abstract, esoteric British theological methodological norms (p 14); or that ‘Caribbean spirituality refuses occidental theology’s separation of the sacred and secular’ (p17). Examples can be found. Western theology has at times become marked by a false division between the lecture hall and the church, but to accuse contemporary ‘white’ theology of separating the sacred and the secular is simply ignoring a large part of what is being written today (not least by his fellow contributors to the ‘My Theology’ series).
One weakness that appeared in James Cone’s writings was to contrast expressive black popular faith, with more abstract white theological faith rather than with the more similar white expressive popular faith (which, for better and worse, thrives in the USA, and is virtually non-existent in Britain). Beckford rightly says that ‘few students, from the outset, are introduced to contextuality as a defining feature of God-talk’ (p 29); a consequence, I would argue, of colleges failing to teach about ‘the church in history’ (to quote Max Warren). Nonetheless his tendency to racially polarise theologies, at either popular or academic levels is too much of a simplification. (See note 2).
4. What was ‘missionary’ theology?
Whilst for Beckford it was unequivocally bad, the situation was too complex to allow a one-tone treatment. The eighteenth century Anglican clergy in Jamaica were described as ‘the most finished [that is complete] debauchers in the island’. It was a religion with no sense of mission but simply a comfortable acceptance of the status quo, including slavery. By contrast a genuine missionary in the early nineteenth century such as the Baptist, William Knibb, lay emphasis on the importance of black identity, black economic empowerment and black political power which only came into wider focus in the twentieth century. As regards North America in the eighteenth century, Donald Mathews in ‘Religion in the Old South’ (p xvii) gives a dismal summary of Evangelicalism’s journey: “It first broke into the South as an extension of revivals throughout the British world, a volatile social movement providing a value system to raise converts in their own esteem, give them confidence in themselves and their comrades, and give them the moral courage to reject as authoritative for themselves the life-style and values of traditional elites. As a result of this act of rebellion they began to form a sense of bondedness and special mission, which at one time led most of their radical spokesmen to seal the authenticity of their revolution by attacking slavery. This revolutionary and romantic gesture failed to achieve social change because Evangelicals themselves wanted prestige and influence”.
Beckford is right to be angry that for so long for the most part English-speaking Christianity and Christian theology raised so little effective opposition to slavery and racism. But whilst some voices sought to inculcate subservience, others were raised against it. More widely Professor Lamin Sanneh argued for the positive consequences of missionary activity for African identity. (See note 3)
Beckford begins biographically by listing ‘The Autobiography of Malcolm X’, Rastafarianism, and the theology of James Cone as formative influences which run through his writing. But Malcolm X did not live long after he abandoned the futile separatism of the Nation of Islam for us to know how he might have responded to American racism in the 1960s. Whilst the music, language and iconography of Rastafarianism was original and fertile it could never lay the basis for effective social and political change; as evidenced by the mind-blown sixty-something Rastafarians still occasionally encountered in Tottenham High Road.
Rather the outcomes of Beckford’s theology tend to be incremental, such as opposing the BNP, rather than the dramatic and revolutionary impact his inspirations might suggest; though his advocacy for Reparations for Slavery will become an increasingly important topic in the next few years.
His new index for measuring the Spirit’s work includes the familiar ‘speaking truth to power’, but (as with other familiar tropes such as ‘missionary theology’) he assumes readers will fill in the blanks. I guess for Beckford that is along the progressive, left-wing approach of the recent Runnymede Trust Report. But for some of us the Government sponsored Sewell Report, despite deficiencies, actually presents a more truthful and therefore constructive way ahead. Perhaps the important, uncomfortable truth that ‘power’ of all sorts needs to hear at present is that ‘Adultery is evil; and the fracturing of the domestic father/son relationship is a very powerful source of disadvantage in our society’?
But Beckford’s is a theology that seeks positive outcomes for some of the most disadvantaged and discriminated against groups in our society, and does so with intellectual resourcefulness, theological creativity and stimulating expression that deserves a wide hearing, which hopefully this small but lively book will gain.
Note 1. More prominence is deserved for Jamaican deejays in the early 70s, such as I Roy or Big Youth, who pioneered the role of not merely re-playing recorded sounds, but made playing the record itself into a new performance by their own interjections and using the sound desk itself as an instrument; thus becoming the largely unacknowledged forerunners of the now world conquering genres of hip-hop and rap. It is an example of the potency, originality and creativity of marginalised cultures in redeploying the products of the metropoles. The spread of Christianity is replete with such examples.
Note 2. Beckford refers to James K A Smith’s superb ‘Thinking in Tongues: Pentecostal Contributions to Christian Philosophy’, which expounds the intellectual significance of popular, and often derided, Christianity. I have lost trace of a quotation from Johnny Cash where his description of a southern white pentecostal meeting in the 1950s could very easily be taken as describing a black church.
Note 3. It is well worth catching up with the Gresham College lecture series by Alec Ryrie (Professor of Church History at Durham) on the history of mission. Two have already been given, and can be watched by following the Gresham College web-site.