New Responsibilities for Black Political Theologies

Like all theological formulations, black political theologies remain provisional, tentative, halting, imprecise. In the United States, black political theology must contest the deteriorating political and economic situation - in particular, government encroachment on human and civil rights under the guise of national security. In South Africa, black political theology needs to address directly the brutal economic legacy of apartheid and the ravages of HIV/AIDS. In the Caribbean, black political theology ought to speak more clearly to the gang violence that has commandeered the political process. Black political theology in Britain would do well to avoid the trap of binary analysis and add complexity to its critique by engaging the experience and insights of other racial/ethnic and religious communities. Let me conclude with suggestions of five continuing responsibilities of black political theologies on the global scene.

First, black political theologies need to make a rigorous analysis of imperialism, neocolonialism, capitalism, and the practices of democracy. At the heart of this inquiry are the lives, griefs, joys, and hopes of black urban working-class and rural peasant children, women, and men. The 2000 elections in the United States and the political situations in Zimbabwe and Nigeria insinuate the superfluity of the black political subject as self-governing. The persistent absence of black theological critiques in these nations can only mock the rhetoric of black theology as public theology and further distort the church's ministerial praxis.

Second, the geopolitical realignments that have occurred in the wake of September 11 and the war against Iraq press urgent issues on the agenda of black political theologies wherever they are situated. These include (a) continuing clarification of the interaction and mutual conditioning of racism, sexism, hetero-sexism, economic exploitation, and imperialism on a global scale; (b) careful distinctions between antisemitism, which can never be permitted, and raw eth-nocentrism, which can never be indulged; (c) serious dialogue with Judaism and Islam; (d) evaluation of the Palestinian situation; (e) attention to global infringements of human and civil rights; and (f) critical engagement with cultural and religious diversity.

Nearly a decade ago, Lewin Williams issued a wake-up call to Caribbean theologians. The US invasions of Grenada and Panama in the 1980s, he wrote, offered "proof of the willingness of a major power to use military force to destroy and replace unpopular political structures" (Williams 1994: 136). In the aftermath of the war in Iraq, his remarks seem almost prescient; and, in this new situation, black political theologies, wherever their centers, must assume responsibility to defend human life and dignity, creativity, and spirit.

Third, more than thirty years ago, James Cone declared that blackness was not so much a matter of skin color as of placing one's heart, soul, mind, and body with the dispossessed. Black political theologies must encourage, demand, and welcome collaboration. As Gayraud Wilmore once observed, black theology is far too important to be left only to black theologians. The work of white South African theologian Denise Ackermann on HIV/AIDS (2000) and that of white European American Mark Lewis Taylor on the prison industrial complex (2001) are two serious theological contributions to the well-being of African-descended peoples, indeed that of all humanity. Here, black theologians in the United States can learn a good deal from our colleagues in the Caribbean and South Africa, who are making creative intellectual and existential space to understand racial/ cultural/ethnic others and to grapple with common problems across racial/ cultural/ethnic lines.

Fourth, from the slave trade to the near-genocidal removal of the Taino and Carib peoples, from the white planter's rape of black women to the KKK's lynching and castration of black men, from the murder of Steve Biko to the murder of Stephen Lawrence, violence has marked global black human living decisively. But African and African-descended peoples are not always the victims of institutionalized or random hate-crime violence; black peoples also perpetrate violence against one another and others. This situation suffers from the absence of full-throated black political theological critique. In the Caribbean, black political theology ought to no longer tolerate the brutal gang violence that wastes the blood and potential of black youth. In the United States, black political theology needs to condemn forthrightly the drugs and guns so glorified by hip-hop artists who imitate thug life. Womanist Cheryl Kirk-Duggan (2001) has made a good start on this analysis, but much more is needed. In South Africa, sexual assaults against women, and young and infant girls, demand denunciation. In Britain, black political theology must contest the negative stereotyping of racial/ ethnic/religious groups that has re-emerged in Europe, collaborate in reconstructing the meaning of "Britishness" through affirmation of diversity, and challenge the black middle class to a critical self-examination of its tendency toward assimilation and isolation.

Fifth, the meaning of the Gospel is never exhausted and critical interpretation of the cross has never been more necessary. Black political theologies need to agitate for what Beckford has called a "subversive piety" (Beckford 1998: 171). Subversive piety is a retrieval of the revolutionary genius and spirit of the African ancestors, their radical hope in the God of freedom, their commitment to struggle. Subversive piety refuses any attempt at pseudo-holiness or artificial spirituality. It is committed to the Gospel's message (the abiding presence of Christ in the Spirit) and to authentic practices and disciplines (prayer, fasting, hospitality, solidarity); it embraces and incarnates concretely the prophetic Jubilee traditions taught by Jesus. Yet subversive piety is neither strategically nor theologically innocent: it risks attracting criticism because it does not confuse human freedom and praxis with the grace and power of God of freedom who shall absolutely gift our hope with a reign of peace, healing, and joy. Only such piety can sustain self-less long-term participation in the struggle to bring about justice in church and society for ourselves, for our humanity, for all God's creation.


My thanks to Anna Kasafi Perkins, my graduate assistant, whose critical eye and thoughtful ear made an invaluable contribution to this essay

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