Time To Move On From The Rhetoric Of Race A Response By Alistair Kee

Time To Move On From The Rhetoric Of Race  A Response By Alistair Kee

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Pneuma 30 (2008) 308-314

Time to Move on from the Rhetoric of Race:

A Response by Alistair Kee

Alistair Kee

University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh EH1 2LX, UK


I am grateful to Marlon Millner and David Muir for the serious and pro- fessional way in which they have dealt with my book. David Muir might well claim that I, as a white/Scottish/European theologian ‘should have nothing to fear’ in criticising Black Theology. My experience has been other: distinguished reviewers in the USA and UK have preferred to play the race card, dismissing the messenger and ignoring the argument. I am also grateful to PNEUMA for providing this occasion for an exchange of views on a matter so important to all of us.

The title The Rise and Demise of Black T eology points to a certain dynamic movement. Black T eology quite rightly describes itself as a contextual theol- ogy: this accounts for its rise. The context, at least in the USA, was the racial confl ict of the 1960s, that decade which marked the high point of modernity in western culture. Forty years later the context has entirely changed and a contextual theology can either go on repeating the rhetoric of a situation long gone — or it can read the signs of the times, identify the lineaments of a new context and move on. James Cone, to whom we are all indebted for his early, courageous work, insists that Black T eology must continue to repeat the race analysis of the 1960s. T is, in face of the fact that, as he admits, during these forty years black poverty has increased and ‘we are more confused than ever about the reason for it.’1 Confused? In this year of a Presidential election there is no excuse. ‘It’s the economy stupid!’ As I write this piece the travelling circus of the Democratic primaries still rolls across America. No one can have failed


James H. Cone, ‘Calling the Oppressors to Account: God and black suff ering’, in Linda E. T omas, ed. Living Stones in the Household of God: The Legacy and Future of Black T eology (Min- neapolis: Fortress Press, 2004), 10.

© Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, 2008 DOI: 10.1163/157007408X346456


A. Kee / Pneuma 30 (2008) 308-314


to see that how candidates would handle the economy is more important than their racial origins. In my book I argue that the new context, within the USA but throughout the world, requires class analysis rather than race analysis. Insecurity and poverty cannot be simply attributed to racial discrimination. Black T eology has claimed to deal with class analysis, but never has. And yet it was being urged to make the transition. It has never used the resources made available to it by Cornel West. Black T eology could move on: showing no signs of movement is what we call rigor mortis.

David Muir is disappointed that I provide no constructive programme for the future of Black T eology. I am grateful that my criticism of Black T eol- ogy is being given a hearing: if I off ered a complete programme would that not be intolerable! Cornel West warned that Black T eology must enter into a constructive dialogue with Marxism, it must ‘come to terms with it and cre- atively respond to it if black intellectual activity is to reach any recognizable level of sophistication and refi nement.’


It should be clear to any informed reader that I use Marxist analysis throughout the book: I am one of those with whom Black T eology might usefully dialogue. My constructive programme is to turn attention to the underlying economic realities of global capitalism. The refusal of Black T eology in America to take this step brought about the criticism by the third wave of Black T eology in South Africa that American Black T eology was bourgeois and reactionary. Race analysis does not explain the disparity of wealth and power today. If previously Black T eology refused to respond to Cornel West, more recently it has failed to respond to the per- ceptive criticism of race analysis off ered by the Vanderbilt philosopher Victor Anderson as ‘ontological blackness’3 To persist with it not only distracts from addressing the real issue, but performs the ideological function of ensuring that no profound change will take place. It guarantees business as usual and accounts for why ‘we are more confused than ever about the reason for it.’

Millner also has some perceptive criticisms about European Marxism and its bourgeois secularism. I am sympathetic to the points he makes: I have spent much of my academic life arguing against this tendency. Marxist analysis has been a powerful tool in uncovering the ideological confi gurations of interest and power. Ironically its ‘premise’, the criticism of religion, was never properly explored by Marx. As we have seen in Latin America, the use of Marxist anal- ysis does not entail the dismissal of religion. Marx himself claimed that his


Cornel West, The Cornel West Reader (New York: Basic Civitas Books, 1999), 310.


Victor Anderson, Beyond Ontological Blackness: An Essay in African American Religious and Cultural Criticism (New York: Continuum, 1995).



A. Kee / Pneuma 30 (2008) 308-314

atheism was a personal matter. Consider this scenario: Black T eology will not address the issue of class, the economic plight of black Americans, because Marx criticised religion. Whose interests are served by this state of aff airs?

David Muir believes I have been too critical of Womanist theologians. Per- haps the best example of Womanist theology is the study of Hagar by Delores Williams.4 It utilizes the historical perspective of the slave woman, draws on the contemporary experience of black women, criticises the assumptions of black male theology, but above all is itself theological. My criticism is that so little that calls itself Womanist theology combines these elements. Repeating sociological observations about the (essentialized) experience of black women could be a prelude to womanist theology: it cannot substitute for it. T ere is another criticism. At the outset Black T eology, at least as exemplifi ed in the work of James Cone, simply accepted the term ‘Black Power’, as if it could be adopted by Christians without qualifi cation or evaluation. In the same way many black feminists have adopted the term ‘womanist’ without due care. Our admiration for the work of Alice Walker should not lead us to sleep walk into an uncriticial acceptance of her neologism. She makes it quite clear in her detailed defi nition of ‘womanist’ that the term includes a rejection of that traditional slave religion so beloved of black feminist theology. In Alice Walk- er’s work, as in her personal life, a ‘womanist’ keeps a critical distance from the Christian religion. If Womanist T eology is too quick to claim that it is theol- ogy, perhaps it should be less enthusiastic and more cautious about declaring itself to be womanist.

Marlon Millner makes several criticism of my book, beginning with the question of whether it had to be written at all. When I published Nietzsche Against the Crucifi ed I felt I had to justify that book, especially in face of Nietzsche’s own observation on the subject. ‘Writers ought to be treated as malefactors who deserve to be freed or pardoned only in the rarest cases: this would be a way of preventing the proliferation of books.’5 T eological books are now frequently produced for reasons of promotion, meeting targets for tenure and raising obscurity to an art form. Mine was written because I care, not least about Africa. Black T eology frequently seeks to root itself in Africa, an idealised, romanticised picture of Africa in which men were defenders of the community, women were empowered in the market place, and children


Delores Williams, Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-talk (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1993).


Friedrich Nietzsche, Human All Too Human (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 93, quoted in Alistair Kee, Nietzsche Against the Crucifi ed (London: SCM Press, 1999), 5.


A. Kee / Pneuma 30 (2008) 308-314


laughed and played, loved and secure. But in Africa today, from Sierra Leone to Sudan, men are brutalized, women are raped, and children, as potential soldiers, have limbs amputated. The terms of trade with the U.S. are destroy- ing farmers in Ghana. The foreign policy of President George W. Bush has brought widespread condemnation: with regard to the Middle East, rightly so. Yet his concern for Africa (possibly under the infl uence of Tony Blair) has been little noted. By coincidence as I write this Time magazine carries a leading article by Bob Geldof praising President George W. Bush for his initiatives in Africa: ‘With Bush in Africa: a journey across a continent and into the soul of a President’.6 For the love of Africa, could Black T eology not set aside its romantic imaginaire , address the contemporary problems, and support these initiatives? Could Black T eology not mobilize 35 million black Americans to do God’s will by supporting Fair Trade? To make a modest contribution to that project would be reason enough to write a book.

Millner, in relation to my discussion of Fanon, claims I have no coherent position on violence. I do not believe it is an issue for Black T eology today and certainly not for me, living in Edinburgh. (It is an issue yet to be faced by Muslim scholars). But it was an issue in the 1960s. Yes, some of my group in Rhodesia had bombs and were prepared to use them. I did not and would not. T at was a personal decision at the time, but the use of violence is no longer an issue. The point of revisiting Fanon was his insistence that people cannot be given their freedom. T ey must assert it and act upon it. Alice Walker observes that ‘a majority of the black people helped by the Movement of the sixties has abandoned itself to the pursuit of cars, expensive furniture, large houses and the fi nest Scotch’.


I do not necessarily disapprove of their love of Scotch whisky, but is this lifestyle which she describes really the assertion of the free- dom for which so many bones were broken and tears shed?

Millner regrets that I off er no theological proposal. My intentions — not to mention my limitations — preclude that, but I have at least off ered a correc- tive to what I regard as poor theology. I began the book by criticising four mantras of Black T eology, the second of which is the use of the first sermon of Jesus and the quotation from the prophet Isaiah, proclaiming ‘release to the captives’. For Black T eology God liberates captives. We know this seldom happens in history or in life and it certainly did not happen in the case of Jesus himself, arrested a few months later. The Christian gospel is more subtle and


Bob Geldof, ‘With Bush in Africa: A Journey across a Continent and into the Soul of a President’, Time (10 March 2008).


Alice Walker, In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens (London: The Women’s Press, 1994), 168.



A. Kee / Pneuma 30 (2008) 308-314

ultimately more realistic and hopeful than that. The paradigm is not Moses but Joseph. God condemned the selling of Joseph to the Ishmaelites, but did not prevent him becoming a slave in Egypt. God did not prevent slavery nor end it. God does not intervene to release slaves, but God can bring good out of evil. This incidentally was the courageous view of Edward Blyden. The evil that men do cannot in the end prevail against God. This never justifi es the evil, but God can in the end redeem it. This may be less than a theology, but it is better than a mantra.

When Amos Yong invited me to write a Response I said I should like to go beyond the point by point rejoinders of he-said-I-said. I should therefore like to end on a more positive note, one which connects with the dialogue of Black and Pentecostal theologies. A new edition of my book has now been published by SCM Press, a paperback edition which should also make it more available.8 In it I have included further material on the subject of class analysis, but in the chapter on Black T eology in the United Kingdom I took the opportunity to include a study of an important book which was not available to me when my first edition went to press. Respect: Understanding Caribbean British Christian- ity was written by Joe Aldred, who is a bishop of the Church of God of Proph- ecy.9 It may not be known to some readers of PNEUMA.

Black T eology in Britain arose in response to its emergence in America in the 1960s and at the outset repeated some of the rhetoric of that movement. However, the black community in Britain has come about as a result of immi- gration from the Caribbean, beginning sixty years ago this year and its narra- tive is signifi cantly diff erent from history of black people in the USA. The leading exponent of Black T eology in Britain is Robert Beckford, a black Pentecostal academic. He is a prolifi c author and it is interesting to chart the development of his thought over the last few years. T ere is less race analysis now, more culture critique; less Afro-essentialism and a greater concentration on British-Caribbean experience; less of the original American rhetoric of lib- eration, more of the Rasta spiritual tradition and Christian social and political commitment. The result is less of a Black T eology and more of a British- Caribbean contextual theology directly related to that community.

At first sight Joe Aldred seems a contrasting fi gure, a churchman rather than an academic and yet there are interesting parallels in their positions. He fi nds that his people identify themselves through ethnicity, through their British-


Alistair Kee, The Rise and Demise of Black T eology , 2nd ed. (London: SCM, 2008).


Joe D. Aldred, Respect: Understanding Caribbean British Christianity (London: Epworth, 2005).


A. Kee / Pneuma 30 (2008) 308-314


Caribbean experience rather than through the category of ‘race’, which he regards as ‘unhelpful and divisive, largely Western, terminology’.10 Black and Womanist theologies associate themselves with other theologies of the oppres- sion-liberation model. Aldred rejects this paradigm. His people do not defi ne themselves ‘exclusively or overwhelmingly in terms of their experience of and response to oppression.’11 This also means replacing the paradigm of Exodus, so beloved of Black T eology, with that of the Promised Land. The British- Caribbean community does not have to seek liberation: they or their parents came voluntarily to Britain. The paradigm now is Incarnation, as they seek to exercise their freedom through Christian mission. He goes further than that. T ey defi ne themselves in relation to their Christian denomination, Anglican, Methodist, Catholic. Black led churches are not black in principle, but only in membership. T ey are not interested in black religion or black theology. I fi nd this very interesting and important. At the end of my book I repro- duce a long quotation from Emilie Townes, a colleague of James Cone at Union T eological Seminary, New York. Like Cone himself, she is disap- pointed that there is so little interest in Black T eology in the black churches. She blames Black Christians for a lack of response. ‘I do not hear, witness, or see a groundswell of calls for liberation from most black churches.’12 But could there not be another, more obvious reason? Could it not be that members of the black churches intuitively know that the rhetoric of oppression-liberation, based on race analysis, no longer describes their lives? T ey might respond to a new contextual theology — and this is not it.

It is too much to ask that Joe Aldred produce a new contextual theology to replace Black T eology, but he points the way with what he calls a T eology of Respect. It begins modestly with everyday examples: respect for parents, ‘Respect!’ the mutual greeting of young black men on the street. He might have explored the etymology of the word. ‘Re-spect’ implies a ‘looking again’, a change of mind, which is of course was the original meaning of the Greek term for ‘conversion’. The British-Caribbean community wish to be viewed diff erently, valued diff erently: this is a refl exive process in which they come to view and value themselves diff erently. It is not yet a theology, but it has biblical roots. It is not black theology, but how important is that? To insist on keeping the contextual theology of a previous time would be a new Babylonian


Aldred, Respect, 15.


Aldred, Respect, 25.


Emilie Townes, ‘On Keeping Faith with the Center’, in T omas, ed., Living Stones in the Household of God, 200.



A. Kee / Pneuma 30 (2008) 308-314

captivity, not a new liberation. What is important is that the old bones of black theology are reconfi gured to express the new context in which black Christians — many of them Pentecostals — live and witness to their faith. I am therefore intrigued by the conclusion drawn by Marlon Millner: “Perhaps the death of black theology could mean its resurrection as Pentecostal theol- ogy, a discourse that would inevitably speak of race, gender, class, the Bible and tradition with new tongues.”


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