More colourful theology?

Following my posts emanating from the murder of George Floyd, last year I followed a course run by Tripp Fuller and Adam Clark centering on the work of James Cone, but in general terms being “Black Theology”. I thought that there really could be no better time to be learning more about this species of theology, which I’ve encountered from time to time but never really dived into.

I usually blog along with courses I’m doing, both to amuse readers and to clarify my thinking about them; at the point of starting writing this we were several sessions down and I hadn’t written anything, and as I finish writing, the course finished some months ago. This is not just because I’ve had quite a bit of other stuff to do (though that has contributed), it’s also partly because I don’t really have a position to stand on, aside being an interested (and sympathetic) onlooker, and I’ve been revising and revising in an attempt not to lack in sensitivity while having no real connection with the issue. However, as it’s part of my process for understanding things, I really need to write. I’m not black, and I don’t live in a place where I come into contact with many black people. I liked the provocation of “can white people be saved?”, but where I live, that’s pretty much equivalent to “can anyone be saved?”.

16 years ago, when I gave up my legal practice in order to have a psychological meltdown for some years, I could identify three black people living in town, two of whom I was acquainted with (I knew rather more people of subcontinental or Chinese origin), but I haven’t actually seen any of those three since then (I was somewhat reclusive for a long time – arguably, I still am). When I was commenting earlier in the year on someone else’s facebook post on the Floyd killing, they did helpfully suggest that I make a point of going out and making some black friends – but without leaving town (which I almost never do these days) that’s an impossibility, except online. Yes, I have a few black online friends (or at least acquaintances – the word “friend” seems to me devalued in online settings…) And I wouldn’t usually dream of bringing up the question of how they consider their skin colour affects their lives unless they mentioned it first – that would, firstly, seem rude to me as a general proposition (I am English, after all), and secondly would put me in the position of effectively demanding of them the task of educating me, inviting the danger of a breakdown of any relationship which was there. After all, in friendships I strive to look for commonalities, not differences, most of the time.

What has however struck me forcibly is that the theologies being talked about are supremely American – and I’m also not an American. I’m very well aware of the lamentable history of my own country (The UK) in fostering the transatlantic slave trade in the 17th and 18th centuries, and the enrichment of at least some of my countrymen by the sugar and cotton trades, which were built on slave labour. Whether that could be said to have benefited me or my family significantly is rather dubious, given that I don’t believe that trickle down economics works, and my family was largely, during those periods and the 19th century, digging coal for the wool mills of Yorkshire rather than the cotton mills of Lancashire, or on my mother’s side, working in shipyards in Scotland and potteries in the Midlands; the same could probably be said for the majority of people in the country, although few if any of the “upper crust” can be regarded as familialy “without sin”.

But we didn’t really have slaves in England (or the rest of Britain) – OK, before Somersett’s Case, there were a few. In conscience, there still are some slaves; human traficking does continue, despite being illegal and punishable by long prison sentences; it isn’t usually or predominantly black people these days, though. The black people I’ve got to know on anything more than a nodding basis here have not been the descendants of slaves either, they’ve been from families immigrating directly from Africa in the 20th century. Yes, a majority of the black population in this country are Afro-Carribeans, and come from people originally slaves in the sugar plantations in the Carribean, but not those I’ve met anywhere around here.

So I’d rather been hoping that “Black Theology” might include the perspective of sub-saharan Africans, who almost universally have a history of European colonisation rather than of slavery as such (and, in conscience, there are a lot more sub-saharan Africans than there are African-Americans). Even the perspective of Afro-Carribeans is different – enfranchisement came earlier for them. The transition from the slave economy to a wage labourer economy was not without lingering effects there, but the Carribean islands, which were majority black, were self-governing by the mid 20th century and were electing their own governments significantly earlier than that. That isn’t the same context as that of African-Americans. Neither, for completeness, is it exactly the context of what used to be the largest slave population in the Americas in Brazil or the other continental slave populations in South and Central America.

Are we talking, perhaps, of an attempt to impose upon the inhabitants of the actual continent of Africa the particular perspective of African-Americans? Maybe, inadvertently. In an early session, Adam Clark was including in “Africans” the inhabitants of North Africa, who have never been particularly similar to Sub-Saharan Africans (and haven’t often been enslaved since classical times). Yes, many North Africans (notably Egyptians, but also people from points west of there) were notable figures in the early church and contributed a vast amount to the theological baggage which the church, and particularly the Catholic and Protestant churches, carry. Augustine is a notable example, but there are very many others. But they weren’t Sub-Saharan Africans; they were also, as a generality, Romans in the wide sense of those assimilated into Greco-Roman culture. Dr. Clark made the salient point that Jesus was not white (something which it seems to me many North Americans and – thankfully – a declining number of Europeans seem unable to grasp), but sought, perhaps ironically, to elide the Middle East into the generic “African” designation, via the fact that the border between the Middle East and Egypt (thus Africa) has, historically, been very porous, at least until the advent of the modern Israeli state. Jesus was indeed almost certainly not anything remotely like white, but he was equally almost certainly not anything remotely like black, unless you are including in “black” the entire range from Berbers in the West through Arabs and Iranians to the various peoples of the Indian subcontinent. To be fair to him, I suspect that, to a white North American, Middle Easterners possibly are “black” – they certainly would have been 200 years ago. The “one drop of black blood” principle seems potentially operative there.

That, to me, was definitely a step too far. It smacked of erasure of Jews and Judaism, or at the least subsuming them into an identity most (but not all) Jews would think foreign to them, and they have their own long history of oppression (chiefly, since the First Century, by Europeans, but also by Arabs). This includes, in their own narrative, a period of slavery (under the Egyptians, a North African people, so one might want to be cautious about including them as “Africans” when recontextualising theology). Jesus was absolutely Jewish, and partook of Jewish particularities, and Christianity is thus in origin a child of Judaism – and Jewish particularities are historically very distinct from Sub-Saharan Black particularities, let alone African-American particularities. Indeed, they’re different from Egyptian perspectives, or Mesapotamian (Iraq, Iran) ones, or Anatolian ones.

Yes, I am aware of the invidious position of a white, non-Jewish English European arguing for the recognition of the particular situations of Jews and of Sub-Saharan Africans, but I didn’t see others in the course arguing that way. What was being presented as “Black Theology” was overwhelmingly a North American Black Theology, just as when “European” was mentioned during the sessions it was largely a North American European position. The temptation to identify this as another example of American cultural imperialism is beckoning me…

I have, however, been encouraged by some of Tripp’s later comments, which have striven to expand the critique to more general oppressions, including those of the neoliberal financialised free market capitalism which is, to my mind, massively more ubiquitous and poisonous than is “whiteness” (it certainly is where I live, where “whiteness” is hardly a factor). After all, it oppresses 99% of white Europeans and North Americans as well as those of other skin colours. [As an aside, I actually tend to blame capitalism for the slave trade of the 17th and 18th centuries – the burgeoning capitalist economies of England, Spain, Portugal and to some extent Holland found sources of cheap labour in Africa already available, and were typically morality and ethics-free in exploiting and massively increasing those.]

If I am to make use of the perspectives in this course, I need to find those loci of oppression which parallel as closely as possible those of African-Americans and which are also notable in my own society, and attend to them – travelling to another town just in order to find some black people to befriend seems foolish, although if there are ever any BLM protests reasonably near me, I might well join in.

Who, I ask myself, are the people of Han near me (to use Grace Ji-Sun Kim’s helpful use in one of the sessions of a Korean concept of the state of being or having been oppressed, in the Korean case principally by Japanese imperialists)? I can most definitely identify the Jews historically as a “people of Han”, though there are even fewer Jews locally to me than there are black people. Having said that, I might equally identify the Koreans under Japanese rule and the North American black population as being “crucified people” (referencing, perhaps, Cone’s “The Cross and the Lynching Tree”).

The group which I do some work with and attempt to support as much as possible, as I am one of them, albeit in some form of recovery, is those suffering from mental illness. This is a group which is, in my country, possibly just as vulnerable to police brutality as are black people; I see some evidence that the situation is similar in the USA.  The mentally ill and mentally handicapped are massively disproportionately represented among the homeless, are discriminated against in the jobs market and, on one estimate, constitute as much as a third of our prison population since we stopped incarcerating the mentally ill in asylums (a switch which, to my mind, has merely shifted those locked up from environments which were at least nominally therapeutic to environments which are just punitive and restrictive). They also (in common with other disabled people) induce in those who do not identify as part of the group a kind of fragility which appears at least similar to “white fragility”. I think “Han” is appropriate for the mentally ill (and other disabled groups) as well, and possibly more so than would be the expression “crucified people”. The issue of intersectionality does, of course, apply – it is correspondingly worse to be a person of colour and mentally ill here than just to have one source of “othering”.

I must not in the process forget those people-groups which have been oppressed here for far longer than have immigrant populations, and who unlike many of those immigrants are not people of colour. In the process, it is useful to contemplate the history of the treatment of people who, to the Greeks, were “barbaroi”, barbarians, something less than wholly human and, of course, prime candidates for being enslaved. We often forget that classical Athens was a slave state (and does this invalidate the whole of Greek philosophy and art?) The Romans continued that tradition with massive slavery, and so, for very many years, did the North Africans. Until the European nations took over to a huge extent in the 16th and 17th centuries, North Africans were probably the preeminent slavers in the world, and took considerable numbers of “white” people, as did the Ottoman Turks, whose Janissary troops were drawn from slaves. From the 7th century, North Africa was Muslim, and most slavers were Muslim (there was equally a flourishing slave trade from East Africa controlled by Muslims). As an aside, it seems to me odd that Malcolm X would take Islam as being less besmirched with the legacy of slavery than Christianity, based on that history, although perhaps not when viewed from a specifically North American perspective.

To the English, the earliest “savages” were the Welsh (and possibly the Scots), then the Irish. As I noted in the post I linked to at the beginning of this piece, to be Irish in the England I grew up in was still to be “not one of us” (“no blacks, dogs or Irish” signs in boarding house windows). The Irish were actually the second English colonial empire (Wales was first, but became so assimilated by, say, the 16th century that the vestiges of colonialism there are not particularly easy to find, aside from the suppression of the language, which was still continuing when I was born), and Southern Ireland remained an effective colony despite being notionally part of “The United Kingdom” until their own wars of independence in 1916 and 1919-1921. Northern Ireland is arguably still a colony, and certainly remained so in effective reality significantly after 1921. There was a lot of labour movement from Ireland to England from the 17th century onwards, and there are still very many people of Irish extraction and a degree of Irish identity living near me, their “otherness” being exacerbated by mostly being Catholics, who were regarded as potential agents of a foreign power (the Pope) as recently as the 19th century (in England – they still are by many NI protestants), and who were still felt by many during my childhood as not being quite “us” due in substantial part to their religion.

What I find particularly interesting about the Irish is that they also arguably formed the bulk of the earliest slavery we exported to North America. (We still have the distinct possibility of strife there, as at the point of writing our Prime Minister has been talking of tearing up aspects of the “Good Friday Agreement” peace settlement for Northern Ireland, and we now have an effective international border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK courtesy of Brexit). To equate the Irish with black slavery is not a totally robust argument, given that they were initially exported as criminals (the justice system being used to criminalise large numbers of the subjugated population) or as “indentured servants”, and in either case would in due course be free, which was something not contemplated with black slaves.

Nevertheless, the effects of Irish subjugation remain a live issue in the politics of the United Kingdom, and while I don’t find myself identifying anyone as a particular threat based on the colour of their skin, there is a part of my subconscious which still identifies people with an Irish accent as potential threats. After all, the “troubles” in Northern Ireland, which produced many attacks in England, were a major feature from my teenage years up to 1998. We lived in fear that someone with an Irish accent might be planning to blow us up (and I note that those who were in that category were a vanishingly small proportion of Irish people in England, so the fear was and is definitely exaggerated).

Antisemitism, which was used as a bludgeon to demolish Jeremy Corbyn’s tenure as leader of our Labour Party, is also a live political issue in my country. I have to come back to the European treatment of Jews, given that it dates back to at least the first century AD with the persecutions of Nero, and possibly to those of Antiochus Epiphanes two centuries earlier, and the fact that it has continued to this day, not just licensed by the Church, as slavery has been, but generally supported by the Church until relatively recently. In Hitler’s Germany, although I think on balance that his singling out of Jews was largely a matter of political expediency, there was already a widespread and very longstanding church-fostered antisemitism on which he could capitalise, and there are well-recognised problems imbedded in Scripture such as the “blood libel” in Matthew and the persistent singling out of “the Jews” in John. Anyone who claims Christianity for themselves needs to be particularly sensitive to the position of any Jewish people around them (and, perhaps, avoid claiming Jews as being historically “black”?). Outside cyberspace, however, that doesn’t really affect me closely, as there is no Jewish population in my district so far as I’m aware.

I note in passing that Hitler’s other prime targets were the mentally ill, communists, homosexuals and gypsies, and gypsies are another group in my country who are still persecuted (and targets of police mistreatment). Again, I can identify in myself a stereotyping of Romanies as being low level criminals; that one is difficult to shake off, as I’ve represented and known quite well some Romanies, and their attitude to private property has very often been, to say the least, flexible. There are maybe 100 or so Romanies in my district, and since I retired from practice, I haven’t had any real contact with any of them, as they tend to keep a fairly low profile, a characteristic of oppressed groups. It may well be that, in this area, Romanies are the major group which is at “the bottom of society”, as Adam Clark mentions in the third “deep dive” session. Forty years ago, based on numbers plus status, I’d maybe have put “Irish” there. There are many more people of Irish ancestry here, but I don’t see the same level of instinctive distrust as was present 50 years ago.

There is also still a level of prejudice against homosexuals, despite many measures to improve their position during my lifetime (when I started in legal practice, some homosexual actions were still illegal, and the police not only failed to arrest people who beat up gays, they were often the ones who did it…)

That said, black people, in areas of the country where there is a significant population, are most definitely still discriminated against. It’s an issue which I feel strongly about – it’s just not one I have immediate access to.

So, I hope none of this reads as trying to minimise my concern for people identified as “black” or my consciousness that, compared with them, I have privilege. My reading of Jesus is very much that he supported all marginalised groups, and in following him “the last shall be first” and deserve my support – and my ear, which is why I signed up to the course.

Back to the provocative question which occurred early in the course, “Can white people be saved?”. I think my provisional answer to that is “white people don’t need saving”, which may come as a shock considering what I’ve said above about Romanies, Irish and the disabled and which also applies to a large swathe of other white people who are near, but maybe not quite at, the bottom of society. Hear me right on this – they don’t need saving as white people – but they may need saving as Romany, as Irish, as homosexual, as disabled. Or just as victims of neoliberal financialised free market capitalism.


Good men doing nothing

There’s a recent post by Benjamin Corey which has attracted my attention. I have a significant amount of sympathy with this; Corey writes from a position very much like my own in terms of social gospel considerations.

But he’s from the anabaptist tradition, and is a non-voter, and advocates avoiding political power. There, I think he falls into a common trap which seems to me to pervade a lot of American political commentary, and an increasing amount of that in the UK as well – he sees governments as something set aside and different from the people. However, both he and I live in democracies, and the theory of democracies is that the people as a whole constitute the government via their elected representatives (unless you can run a direct democracy in which everyone votes on every issue of substance, which is only pratical in very small units). Thus I see his position as being one which refuses to involve itself in the organisation of the people. The way you do that, in a democracy, is called politics.

It seems to me that this is symptomatic of a desire in Christianity to set ourselves apart, to have nothing to do with society as a whole – and that is absolutely NOT “loving our neighbours as ourselves”, it’s more passing by on the other side of the road. It also falls into the trap of the “I’m not responsible for that, because I didn’t vote for it”, whereas unless someone voted against it, they are responsible. “All that is required for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing“ is the famous maxim of Edmund Burke.

Yes, in both countries the political system as it now exists is not actually very democratic. A party or leader who is opposed by a majority of voters can get into power (rather more easily in the UK than in the States; we have not had a government with the support of more than 50% of the population since the early 20th century here), and votes can be obtained by lying and by spending vast sums in advertising (on which there is no limit in the US). Both countries run first past the post voting systems, which tend to produce two party systems, and where there are only two parties, the internal machinations of the parties (which are not necessarily so democratic and which don’t involve the whole population) are perhaps more important than the actual electoral system. And the temptations of corruption are extreme when there is little jeapordy affecting elected representatives, as is the case with at least two thirds of MPs in the UK and possibly more in the US. Democracy is, as Winston Churchill said, a lousy system; it’s just better than all the others which have been tried.

There are ways of reducing the evils of the last paragraph. Voting by Proportional Representation, for instance, Term limits. Restrictions on political spending. Banning representatives from having outside interests both during and after their terms of office. You will not, however, reduce any of those evils by not voting or by remaining separate from politics. You need to organise (and Corey does acknowledge the value of organising) – but as soon as you have a group of people trying to work towards a common end, you are going to have politics. Some of the nastiest political infighting I have ever seen is, ironically, within churches…

This all smacks, to me, of the “Benedict Option”, a concept recently advocated by Rod Dreher. It’s a revamped monasticism. Now, monasticism is a really attractive idea for me, as an arrant introvert drawn to solitary contemplation rather than communal expressions of spirituality – but one which I feel I have to reject, for exactly the reason I gave above. In loving my neighbour as myself, I have to be involved with my neighbour, not to set myself apart from them in pursuit of some form of personal purity. The mendicant orders, the Friars, had it more right than did the monastics, to my mind. We need a “Francis Option”, not a “Benedict Option”.

As it happens, my Jesuit-trained Religious Instruction teacher, after I left school, gave me a piece of advice I commend to everyone else. I complained to him that I had no-one to vote for at the upcoming election. He replied that there were always Conservative and Labour candidates (in the US, think Republican and Democrat), and I said I didn’t like either of them. “So”, he said “Stand yourself”. And I did, and after a couple of tries, got elected, and then spent rather over 20 years as an elected representative at a local level and rather over 30 campaigning for what was then our third party, the Liberals (which became the Liberal Democrats shortly after I was elected).

He was, in fact, a Labour Councillor, and swore me to secrecy about his involvement (which included recommending which seat I should contest for the best chance of winning, advice I followed). However, he has now retired, so I don’t think letting the cat out of the bag will damage him. And, on the principle of “pay it forward”, I’ve since helped two people get elected as councillors for the Labour Party, so I don’t think his friends should criticise the decision.

As a parting shot, just because you’re an anabaptist doesn’t mean you need to be uninvolved in politics. I’ve recently been writing about the development of the UK parliament, and the hinge-point of that development has to be the English Civil War, where there was an armed conflict between King and Parliament. It was, however, as much a war of religion as it was of political structure, and Alec Ryrie of Gresham College has an excellent video “The Republic of King Jesus” on the topic.

Though I rather doubt that Mr. Corey is quite as extreme as our 17th century anabaptists!