One of the (several) highly contentious issues in the Church of England at the moment is the question of racism, its extent in the Church, and appropriate and effective responses to it. It has long been a question of interest to me, since soon after coming to faith I felt that God might be calling me to inner-city, multicultural ministry—a call which has not worked out in the way I expected, but which nevertheless has shaped various decisions over the years. Working in industry prior to ordination, I chose to live in the multi-ethnic town from which the factory drew its workers, and during ordination training, I chose placements in multicultural inner urban contexts. I currently live in a multi-ethnic (and multi-generational) household of nine, and lead a multi-ethnic group in our church.
I have previously written about the theological imperative of ethnic diversity amongst the people of God, and the evidence for the way that worked out in the primitive church. But I am not convinced that the Church of England is tackling this in a helpful way, and it is in danger of allowing ideological approach to ignore the historical reality. So when I heard of the day conference on changing our thinking about race in the Church, organised by the Archbishops’ Committee for Minority Ethnic Anglican Concerns (CMEAC), in collaboration with the British & Irish Association for Practical Theology (BIAPT), I felt I needed to attend.
My first and overall impression of the conference was (ironically) the lack of diversity. Although the main speakers were ethnically diverse and coming from different places around the world (one big advantage of doing things on Zoom rather than in person), there seemed to me to be a distinct lack of theological and philosophical diversity: all came from a radical/liberation/womanist position, and there were no real disagreements between their perspectives. One of the discussion sessions did involve evangelical and orthodox voices, exploring the role of UKME people in church planting and mission. But there was a notable absence of voices from conservative black-led churches, such as the major Pentecostal perspectives, or from orthodox and evangelical churches who are engaging effectively with questions of race.
This illustrates one of the major fault-lines in the discussion within the Church of England at the moment. A friend of mine who was a member of CMEAC some years ago said that this reflected her own experience; as an orthodox/evangelical on the committee, she felt as though she was a lone voice. If those who are most concerned about seeing questions of race addressed in the Church are speaking in a different register of language, with different theological assumptions, and a different philosophical approach to the issue compared with the majority of the Church, then we are bound to find the conversation frustrating.
Stephen Cottrell, Archbishop of York and a long-standing member of CMEAC, gave a good and engaging opening comment, highlighting the kinds of things I have explored in my previous articles, and landing on Rev 7.9 as a key text.
The first main speaker was Anthony Reddie, who is Director of the Oxford Centre for Religion and Culture at Regent’s Park College, University of Oxford, and is a well-known as a speaker and widely published in this area. I don’t think I can summarise his presentation (and the papers are not being made available; I asked) but there were several things from his paper and his answers to questions that stood out.
First, he immediately commented ‘Black Liberation Theology has nothing to do with Marxism or Critical Race Theory’. I can see why he wanted to say this up front, in order to anticipate and address common criticisms that have arisen in response to the prominence of Black Theology in the debates about race. But it was notable that Reddie used the phrases ‘Black Theology’ and ‘Black Liberation Theology’ interchangeably, and he has previously been quite clear that ‘Black Theology’ does not refer to the theology done by black Christians—indeed, that you do not have to be a Christian to engage in Black Theology, and that most people in black-led churches would not espouse Black Theology. Liberation theology, in its origins in Latin America, was strongly shaped by Marxist assumptions and interpretations of society, in two main ways. The first was to see society in binary terms as clearly divided between the ‘oppressors’ and the ‘oppressed’, and the second was to understand this in primarily material terms. These both felt like strong themes in Reddie’s presentation.
It should be noted that, whilst something of a ‘trigger’ term in popular discourse, Marxism as an intellectual position is not that uncommon in the academy. I think my own PhD supervisor, Christopher Rowland, would be happy to be described as having a Marxist outlook, and this led him to both a practical and academic interest in marginal and liberation movements in the history of Christianity. But this outlook tends towards seeing the world in terms of power dynamics, rather than any other kind of meaning. Chris ended up despairing of any possibility of anyone knowing what a text like the Book of Revelation might actual mean, in any objective sense, and so his interest shifted rapidly to the various different ways the text had been used in history, without any particular regard to whether such uses connected well with the text itself.
Critical Race Theory was similarly born out of a frustration that apparently objective discourse (in science, economics, government and theology) was actually no such thing, but a disguised way of exerting power by a dominant group over subordinate groups. One of its main aims, therefore, is both to prioritise the existential experience of the ‘oppressed’, and to engage directly with questions of power deployed in different modes of discourse, rather than engaging with questions of meaning. My first experience of this was listening to a paper about eight years ago at SBL, the global Anglophone conference on biblical studies, on ‘A Critical Race Theory reading of the Book of Revelation’. The presenter (who was white) outlined the existential experience for black people of seeing the words ‘black’ and ‘white’ in texts, and then asserted his claim that Revelation was an oppressive text for black people because of its use of these terms—black as having negative connotations, and white signifying good things in general and the presence of the divine in particular.
The central problem with this approach is that this not actually what the text says! The word ‘black’ (μέλας) only actually occurs twice, in Rev 6.5 describing the third horse, and in Rev 6.12 describing the darkening of the sun. The parallel negative sign of the moon is that it turns ‘blood [red]’, yet no-one suggests that ‘red’ is a universally negative term. The great prostitute in Rev 17.4 is described vividly in the colours of scarlet, purple, and gold, and adorned with jewels and pearls. White is mostly a positive term, describing the hair of the risen Jesus in Rev 1.14 and the raiment of the redeemed repeatedly (Rev 3.5, 3.18, 4.4, 6.11, 7.9 and so on), but it also describes the first horse of Rev 6.2, previously thought by some commentators to be a reference to Jesus, but now almost universally agreed to be one of the four bringers of judgement and disaster, and therefore a negative figure. I asked the person giving the paper, ‘Does it matter that your analysis is not actually supported by the data of the text?’ to which the simple reply was ‘no’.
The issue here is where we locate meaning. For this person, it was the existential experience of responding to the term ‘black’ which mattered. The difficulty is that the terms ‘black’ and ‘white’ did not have these racial and ideological overtones in the ancient world, and they clearly play no part in the text of Revelation when it is read in its social, cultural, historical and canonical context. It is people from ‘every nation, tribe, people and language’ who are dressed in white before the throne!
(Other forms of Critical Theory similarly prioritise the ideas, perception and emotions of the reader, over against what the text might ‘mean’; for a Queer Theory reading of Revelation, see Stephen Moore’s Untold Tales from the Book of Revelation. For Moore, the God of the apocalypse is like a modern bodybuilder in competition, surrounded by studio mirrors so that he might indulge in a narcissistic orgy of erotic dominance over creation. This interpretation does not bear much relation to the text itself but rather expresses Moore’s own projection onto the text.)
So whilst Reddie could rightly claim that his thinking was not derived from Marxism or CRT, his argument appeared to have much in common with them. He repeatedly spoke in binary terms of ‘black’ and ‘white’, and stated explicitly that his concern was to prioritise the ‘existential experience of black people’. This led to two important claims about how we see Jesus, and how we understand the nature of the gospel.
The first claim was that ‘Jesus was a black man’. By this, Reddie was using the term ‘black’ to mean ‘the subject of systematic oppression’. He unambiguously and straightforwardly identified Jesus in his crucifixion with all ‘black’ oppressed, and Roman imperial power (since Jesus was crucified by the Romans not by the Jews) with white supremacy and its exploitation of black people. At one level, this claim is doing not much more than those who ‘inculturate’ their understanding of Jesus in terms of their own cultural context; Justin Welby exemplified this in a Tweet last summer:
Jesus was Middle Eastern, not white. It's important we remember this.
But the God we worship in Christ is universal, and the hope he offers is good news for us all. Here are some of my favourites images of Christ from around the world.
What are yours? pic.twitter.com/iXEUdJJFGQ
— Archbishop of Canterbury (@JustinWelby) June 27, 2020
The difficulty here—if we do take inculturation seriously—is that it actually encourages white people to portray Jesus as white; as one person commented in response to this tweet:
Let’s not be carried away by this “Jesus-was-not-White” rhetoric. All people, races and nationalities painted Jesus as per their own imagination. So did the Anglo-Saxons. Nothing odd.
But this move has two effects. First, it means that claims and counter-claims about who Jesus is are located in the clashes between cultures, and the power dynamic between them. The second is that it de-historises the Jesus of the gospels, and ends up being implicitly anti-semitic. As Angela Tilby immediately responded: ‘Jesus was Jewish’.
But this also leads to an ambiguity in language. Who counts as ‘black’? I am the son of a migrant who belonged to a despised group who has been systematically oppressed by white British power, and needed both to change her name and disguise her accent in order to prosper in this country immediately after the Second World War. I am half Irish. Does that make me or my mother ‘black’? I asked the question in the seminar:
If ‘whiteness’ is not about white people, and ‘blackness’ is not about black people but about the oppressed, wouldn’t this discussion be helped by coining new terms?
Reddie responded by saying that, yes, there could be some confusion. If black people were systematically oppressing others, then they would indeed be ‘white’. And yet the primary experience of oppression in our context is of black people being oppressed by white people, so this terminology is still legitimate and helpful. But using the terms ‘black’ and ‘white’ at one moment to refer to different ethnic groups, but at another to refer to social power dynamics of oppression is indeed confusing, and it is not surprising that people are now seeing this as ‘racist anti-racism‘.
The identification of the crucified Jesus s ‘black’ is not new, but was first popularised by the late James H Cone in his book The Cross and the Lynching Tree (2011), and Reddie mentioned Cone at several points in his talk. This is a powerful identification, and it is easy to see how important it has become—but I think making this identification in such a strong and uncompromising way leads to a second, related problem.
Additional note: I was challenged on Twitter by Zachary Guiliano for my comment about Cone. He notes that Cone actually argued that ‘Jesus was black’ in his earlier work of 1970 on Black Theology, and that Cone in turn notes that it was coined earlier by others. Zachary helpfully shared shots of a couple of pages of the 1970 book, and I share the texts here:
The definition of Jesus as black is crucial for christology if we believe in his continued presence today. Taking our clue from the historical Jesus who is pictured in the New Testament as the Oppressed One, what else, except blackness, could adequately tell us the meaning of his presence today? Any statement about Jesus today that fails to consider blackness as the decisive factor about this is a denial of the New Testament message. The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus reveal that he is the man for others, disclosing to them what is necessary for their liberation from oppression. If this is true, then Jesus Christ must be black so that blacks can know that their liberation is his liberation.
The black Jesus is also an important theological symbol for an analysis of Christ’s presence today because we must make decisions about where he is at work in the world. Is his presence synonymous with the work of the oppressed or the oppressors, blacks or whites? Is he to be found among the wretched or among the rich?
Of course clever white theologians would say that it is not either/or. Rather he is to be found somewhere in between, a little black and a little white. Such an analysis is not only irrelevant for our times but also irrelevant for the time of the historical Jesus. Jesus was not for and against the poor, for and against the rich. He was for the poor and against the rich, for the weak and against the strong. Who can read the New Testament and fail to see that Jesus took sides and accepted freely the possibility of being misunderstood?
There are several things to note here. First, that Cone works with the absolute binary of black and white. Second, these categories of race have little or no basis in biology, but clumps together a variety of issues around culture, country, language and skin colour, and the modern emergence of the term was rooted in classifications from the colonial era in the 18th century. The language of ‘race’ is, ironically, rather racist! Thirdly, this does not prevent Cone from imposing his ideological construction of race on the New Testament and the picture of Jesus we find in the gospels. And fourthly, this leads him to a skewed reading of the texts themselves. Jesus was ‘for’ the poor, but (perhaps uncomfortably) he came to the ‘marginalised’ to call them to repentance, as a doctor comes to ministry to the sick, and he was also ‘for’ the rich and respectable; indeed, he was not particularly poor (in socio-economic terms) himself. It is rather sad that anyone offering a critique of Cone’s reading is quickly dismissed as a ‘clever white theologian’.
Cone is clearly aware of the need to relate the claims of Black Theology to the New Testament, but I don’t think he actually succeeds.
What evidence is there that Jesus’ identification with the oppressed is the distinctive historical kernel in the gospels? How do we know that black theology is not forcing an alien contemporary black situation on the biblical sources? These questions are important, and cannot be waved aside by black theologians. Unless we can clearly articulate an image of Jesus that is consistent with the essence of the biblical message and at the same time relate it to the struggle for black liberation, black theology loses its reason for being. It is thus incumbent upon us to demonstrate the relationship between the historical Jesus and the oppressed, showing that the equation of the contemporary Christ with black power arises out of a serious encounter with the biblical revelation.
Black theology must show that the Reverend Albert Cleage’s description of Jesus as the Black Messiah is not the product of a mind “distorted” by its own oppressed condition, but is rather the most meaningful christological statement in our time. Any other Statement about Jesus Christ is at best irrelevant and at worst blasphemous.
1. Birth. The appearance of Jesus as the Oppressed One whose existence is identified exclusively with the oppressed of the land is symbolically characterized in his birth. He was born in a stable and cradled in a manger (the equivalent of a beer case in a ghetto alley), “because there was no room for them in the inn” (Luke 2:7). Although most biblical scholars rightly question the historical validity of the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke, the mythic value of these stories is important theologically. They undoubtedly reflect the early Christian community’s historical knowledge of Jesus as a man who defined the meaning of his existence as being one with the poor…
Again, notice the anathematising of all alternative views. And again, there is a systematic misreading of the text in order to fit with the narrative. Jesus wasn’t born ‘in the ghetto‘ and his birth was not in particularly poor circumstances. In context, Cone’s ambition is clearly to reclaim Jesus as the messiah for oppressed black people who feel as though Jesus has been made ‘white’; but in doing so he seems to make absolute claims which appropriate Jesus for a particular cause, instead of correcting previous bias by reading the text better—and recognising that none of us ‘owns’ Jesus for our own agenda.
On the question of Roman imperial power and Jesus as oppressed, I asked the question:
If Roman occupying powers are to be identified with white colonial Christianity, how do we account for the rise of affirmative comments about the Empire in eg Romans 13, and how do we read these positive comments alongside more negative ones?
Reddie’s answer was that Paul was just offering a compromise here, encouraging Christian to accommodate themselves to an evil regime about which they could do little. The question of accommodation is not unimportant, but both Paul in Romans 13 and Peter in 1 Peter 2 offer a much stronger theology of the state than this will allow. We must, of course, read Romans 13 alongside Rev 13, but even doing this does not allow us to interpret the Jesus of the gospels as primarily concerned with the overthrow of an oppressive regime. I asked Reddie this question on Twitter, since it was not picked up in the session:
@AnthonyGReddie thanks for your keynote at the CMEAC conference. Contrary to Jewish first-century liberation movements, Jesus appears to reject the idea that it is Rome who is the primary oppressor, but sin. How does that shape Black Theology?
— Dr Ian Paul (@Psephizo) July 27, 2021
But his answer didn’t really address my question: he simply replied that
the historical Jesus was as much against Jewish hypocrisy as he was Roman occupation. So Black Theology is opposed to unjust systems not people. It’s not unconditionally pro-Black if that is oppressive in practice.
This is still answering the question is quite humanist, material terms: the problem that Jesus came to save us from is not sin and its offence against God but social and material oppression and our offence against our fellow humans. Reddie quoted (as many liberation theologians do) Jesus’ ‘Nazareth manifesto‘ when he quotes from Isaiah 61 in Luke 4. But he completely detached that from its wider context, and also the Benedictus in Luke 1, where the hope for the Messiah is not just liberation from oppression, but also the right worship of God.
This approach fails to make sense of the historical fact that there were plenty of Jewish liberation movements in the first century (often in conflict with one another), but Jesus appears to have rejected them all. This is hardly a marginal question in our reading of the gospels: it is issue behind the repeated question to Jesus ‘Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect another?’ (Matt 11.3, Luke 7.19). The only plausible explanation for this is that Jesus did not do what the Jews hoped for! One of the major questions about the early Jesus movement is: why didn’t more Jews recognise Jesus as the promised messiah? And a central part of the answer to that is: Jesus did not throw off Roman power and liberate his fellows Jews from social and political oppression—at least, not directly.
There is a serious danger that this historical reality can lead to a ‘spiritualising’ of the gospel, and a failure of the church and the followers of Jesus to take seriously the political consequences of the gospel. But it cannot be the right answer to push the pendulum back in the opposite direction and claim that political and social liberation is the gospel. It might be an essential consequence of the gospel, but to claim that it is the gospel can only be done by ignoring what the New Testament repeatedly says.
If the human problem is primarily about social relationships, and not about offence against God, then that is going to have serious implications for what we think about the meaning of the atonement. Is Jesus’ death exemplary, demonstrating his solidarity with the oppressed, or does it actually effect anything? I think Reddie would likely answer the former, whilst orthodox Christian theology has majored on the latter. I asked him about this in the Twitter conversation, but at that point he stopped replying.
One final thing that was notable in the whole seminar was a complete absence of any mention of Jesus’ resurrection. This omission takes us a long way from the proclamation of the good news that we find, for example, in Acts, where the message appears to be ‘Jesus was God’s anointed Messiah; you have rejected him; but God raised him from the dead and he ascended to God’s right hand; one day he will come as judge; therefore repent and be saved’.
More broadly, this day conference was billed as a joint seminar offered by BIAPT and a Church of England committee. At a purely academic conference, you would expect to come across a wide range of views, some of which might be consonant with a confessional, orthodox Christian position, and others not. But at a church conference, you might expect to be able to raise the question ‘How do these approaches relate to historic Christian understandings of Jesus, the gospel, and atonement?’
Without asking such questions, it is no wonder that there continues to be a serious divide between the views expressed at the event, and the outlook of the wider Church.
The image above is part of A Last Supper by Lorna May Wadsworth, which casts Jamaican-born model Tafari Hinds as the son of God. It was installed in St Alban’s Cathedral in support of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020.