Fault lines and factions: a theo-political conundrum in the era of Black Lives Matter and New Black Religious Movements | Eleasah Phoenix Louis [ANVIL vol 36 issue 3]

Introduction

The last few years have been illuminating and theologically challenging for me as a young researcher and developing practitioner. My research seeks to understand why waves of young black people in Britain are leaving their churches and engaging with new black religious movements and to support this exploration by developing a theological framework that helps us best understand and learn from this phenomenon.

This reflection begins with my own story, which has led to this research, and how struggles for justice in the twenty-first century have challenged my Christian walk. While the battle for racial equality in Britain and the wider church has been an ongoing challenge, the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has energised and grounded liberal politics for the younger generations of black people. In many ways their protest is crucial to the uphill challenge towards anti-racism but has created a theo-political conundrum for me. I am a pro-black, Bible-believing Christian with politically and socially conservative/evangelical values. I reflect on this publicly because I know I am not alone. Movements like BLM and theological traditions like black liberation theology resist and oppose evangelical conservatism as a product of colonialism and yet I have found that new black religious movements have carved out ways of holding Bible-centred evangelical principles and liberal radicalisation in the balance towards liberation from colonial missionary trauma.

A personal witness

A church-grown black British millennial, the Christian traditions and congregations that I belonged to failed to provide the space to identify, reflect and respond to the ways in which colonial mission impacted my theological imagination and how I perceive God, the Bible and the world. In fact, critical theological reflection for the most part in all traditions historically has only ever been afforded to those who dwell in intellectual theological spheres – mainly academics and formally trained ministers. My own formal education in theology was the beginning of a new era in my Christian walk. I had grown up in Word of Faith, evangelical and African Pentecostal congregations as a child and then settled as a teen into adulthood in a white-led, black-majority Baptist church (now pastored by a Nigerian minister). I was an enthusiastic participant in church, engaging with community work, music and teaching and felt that theological education would be a great way to grow in my faith. I soon came to realise this would not be two years spent proving how much I read my Bible! What I imagined to be an exciting, spiritual and knowledge-building experience (reflecting what I understood to be the typical Christian goals within my church traditions) turned out to be a difficult, frustrating yet transformative wade through murky waters.

The first challenge was coming to grips with how theologically illiterate I had been; although I had dedicated most of my time to Bible reading, prayer meetings and church activity, I had very little understanding about the work in the background that goes into shaping my theological imagination. All I thought I knew about God and the Bible I put down to special spiritual insight, the conferences and “worship experiences” and efforts to study deeply my King James and Amplified Bibles. Never had I imagined that my theological perspectives were being masterfully formulated/discussed and edited by ancient, slightly less ancient and contemporary theologians and even worse – theological politicians! While I had grown up with evangelical theological roots, being of the poor working class in Brixton (London) meant that I was also influenced by the black diasporic cultures I encountered in my family, on my council estate and in school. Without full understanding, I had formed a “bun Babylon” rhetoric (anti-establishment) that meshed well with the spiritualised, politically passive traditions that only registered political developments in order to relate it to the “end times”. My Christianity had been for the now and not yet; any past reflection was anchored in the biblical past, not the works of church fathers and mothers, European powers and sidelined global Christian perspectives. It became apparent very quickly I was one of the few sistas at college that did not get the fancy-dress memo; ill-prepared for critical theological thinking, I waded.

The second challenge was about my social identity– our home was a spiritual home that did not intentionally nurture our ethnic cultural particularities, nor political ideals. My Northern Irish mother and British-born Jamaican father protected us from the influences of secular cultures and they themselves were active members and leaders within our church congregations. My father’s family typically blended Jamaican and black British cultures, so I had some cultural rooting but it was not the primary resource for identity formation – that, of course, was the job of the Bible (a fundamentalist–literalist reading, no less!). During the time of my theological education, in my personal life and friendship circles, Christianity as I knew it had come under fire. Religious and secular factions within the black consciousness movement had resurfaced and reenergised a new assault on the “white man’s religion”. I’ll summarise some of the key arguments here:

  1. Christianity is a religious vehicle that enslaves the minds of black people and deliberately distorts religious truth.
  2. Christianity endorses slavery and teaches us to serve without question.
  3. Christianity has whitewashed and repackaged ancient African religions – with specific reference to the religions of ancient Kemet (Egypt).
  4. The Bible has been edited to suit the philosophies and capitalist ambitions of elite European powers.
  5. The true Hebrew scriptures tell the history of black people (the various ethnic groups that inhabit biblical Afro–Asiatic lands) and their God/black messiah.

This “woke” perspective demonstrated the ways in which pockets of black people in poorer demographics were blending their political and religious world views and further asserting that the “white man’s religion” was more politics than religion. This produced two immediate results: 1) having lived with a colour-blind theology. I discovered I was considered socially black (previously “Christian female” was the sum total of my self-identification) and 2) despite subscribing to a colour-blind theology, my Christian expression, thought and ritual practice was a product of black and under-resourced cultures and contexts. Considering these new challenges, I began to make sense of why I did not feel settled among my college peers. There were so many instances where I felt that I was talking about a different God, a different Bible and a different Christianity and I could not make the cultural connection. I thought the failure to connect reflected my theological, philosophical and political illiteracy, but the black consciousness movement helped me to see that Christian theological understanding was a social, political and cultural battlefield.

Background

To clarify terms, the black conscious community I refer to here is the intentional social, cultural, religious and political effort of a person or people to explore and embody “blackness” in all its diversity, evolution and complexity. This black consciousness is in direct response to the identity crisis within black diasporic and native African peoples that is a result of enslavement, colonisation and reprogramming through educational and religious efforts. It is both connecting with the past (pre-enslavement/colonisation) and carving out the future for healthy black identities across the black Atlantic with the hope that this process will contribute to the betterment of black life in all spheres of life.

The communities I refer to specifically in this text operate at grass-roots level, not in the academic spheres – they are the efforts of everyday people who create ways of realising liberation: black Saturday schools, black book stalls in markets, black business for black people, community meetings about black issues, black family initiatives, protests, marches and the like. This community also has a heavy social media presence, which helps to formulate and casually systematise “pan-African”, “Afrocentric” and “pro-black” ideas and actions for the lay person. More specifically for this reflection, I consider the development of its religious arms – communities that seek to reconstruct the precolonial traditional religions of their ancestors. This is a form of decolonisation; the aim here is to break ties with the religions inherited by “the white man” through enslavement and colonisation. These communities have had a strong influence on those on the margins of our black British church communities for decades. In my own experience those with the heaviest influence have been the religious movements that have remained centred around the biblical texts but developed their own hermeneutic at which black people (after Christ) are the centralised figures.

Be it a mythical connection to the Israelites or a genetic claim to Israelite ancestry, Bible-based new black religious movements are decades deep in decolonising their theology. While many can argue this is a more relativist, racialised methodology, I am keen to highlight what could be considered conservative/evangelical principles at work. These are religious movements and they value religious authority, distinctive from the black humanist arms of the black consciousness tradition. They seek a life that is connected to God and understood through the scriptures and ritual. While all biblical interpretation is contextual (considering political, social and cultural realities), they consider the Bible specifically authoritative on religious understanding. And finally, birthed from a literalist-leaning reading of the texts, these movements are generally conservative in their social perspectives – pro-life, pro traditional family structures and nationalist.

Rastafari, Nation of Islam, (black) Hebrew Israelites and other black religious movements were birthed out of the struggle for racial equality; anchored in the emancipatory Ethiopianist hermeneutic, these religions resisted the colonial legacy of Christianity and carved out new paths for black Bible-reading religious folk to engage with their experience and ancestral identity. The implication of this new direction was that they were separating themselves from mainstream Christendom – a quest I found difficult to condemn yet also difficult to join. While these religious efforts provided the space to be both Bible-centred and pro-black, they created theological/doctrinal conundrums that I could not readily embrace – particularly their approaches to Christology. Instead of conversion, I have chosen to look at these movements as key indicators of colonial missionary trauma, their sharp, bold and dynamic critique of the church clearly marking out the ways in which an inherited faith through Christianisation has impacted the theological imagination of mainstream black British Christians. It is my hope that at the end of this reflection, one can consider these religious movements as resources for understanding, reflection and as prophetic – despite interpretive differences.

Rejecting Christianisation

Many of us in the African diaspora who descended from enslaved or colonised communities have come to see our Christian journey beginning with the experience of oppression. Although they were not initially thought to be worthy of Christianity, eventually missionary evangelism was entangled with the process of civilising African peoples. This Christianising process brought about new moral bases, new social ideals, western philosophies and a colonial hermeneutic in which racial supremacy would be theologically justified. During the centuries of Christianising, the African diaspora has been all but totally distanced from its ancestral philosophies and religions. We do see remnants of traditional ancestral religious beliefs among some of the poorer African–Caribbean and African–American communities, often merged with Christianity, but I am a witness to a disconnection from my ancestral heritage. The inherited-by-force Christianity stands in the way of knowing what it would have looked like if Yeshua himself had walked among my ancestors (whoever they are) and transformed our religious, political and social systems.

New black religious movements reject this Christianising process and instead have developed a new understanding of Scripture, which means that they read the Bible as a continuation of their ancestral history interrupted by “Christendom”. In these readings, those of the African diaspora are the chosen children of God, the God of the Ethiopians, of Israelites whom he will rescue, redeem and recover to glory. Though they have their differences, some believe themselves to literally be “true” Hebrews and/or descendants of African Jews, and others form more mythical connections between the biblical accounts and their own experiences; the point here is that black people have a significant part to play in the unfolding plans of God.

According to these emancipatory readings, we are not a product of colonialism, children of the empire or a heathen people; the revelation is that we are the children of God – a prophetic voice in the wilderness. Realising this revelation through separation from the mainstream church has been the beginning of the decolonisation process – standing upon a hermeneutic that affirms our humanity and agency. This might ring some literary bells for those who are familiar with black liberation and womanist theologies, which in many ways work as an academic counterpart – themes of liberation, suffering and a hermeneutic inspired and fuelled by the lived experiences of black people in the diaspora.

On the flip side, the political effort to affirm black humanity and agency is currently most notably represented by the BLM movement. The conundrum that BLM creates for me is that it has successfully revived the “race” conversation, policies are being made in the work place, people are re-evaluating their perspectives and their actions, and they are joining the demonstrations; while that brings its own set of complexities, things are happening. Black people are all over the news, TV shows, adverts – in many ways there has been a visible response to their challenge and protest. However, the BLM movement in all its glory is causing a crisis for the church because it has some very compelling arguments, yet their methods and hope for the future are unorthodox and contrary to the central tenets of many mainstream orthodox churches: new visions for big government, nuclear family structure, LGBTQI+ normativity, feminist narratives and another wave of pluralist approaches to religion.

Much like many postmodern movements, BLM is driven by the lived experience, particularly of black people – the experiences are the measuring stick and authority, which again presents issues for many churches who claim to submit to the authority of Scripture above our feelings and lived experience. For many years now black theology has bridged this gap, helping us to see how decolonising our approach to an interpretation of Scripture helps us to biblically engage with the lived experiences of black people – yet still over the years it also suffers the internal Scripture-experience power struggle.

And so, my research and reflection turn towards these Bible-centred new black religious movements who have made efforts to submit to the authority of Scripture yet remain inspired by and in tune with the experiences of black people. Undeniably the moral of my reflective process is that one’s political stances and cultures are embedded into our theological reflection, and so this is not to set these movements above mainstream Christian perspectives but as especially significant to its development. My research so far demonstrates that those on the fringes of the church seek answers to difficult questions, social empowerment and to engage with a deeper biblical landscape.

For me the strength of these movements does not lie in their tendencies towards black supremacy or returning to living according to Hebrew religio-cultural markers as outlined in the Scripture (dress, dietary requirements and ritual) but in their hermeneutical approach to resistance and ethnicity; they do not shy away from the biblical reality of justice and ethnic diversity, which ultimately subverts the colour-blind theology that has undergirded the theological imagination of many Christians. The framework with which they work highlights the African–Asian presence, the ethnic diversity, and the cultural difference without apology – there is no call to cultural homogeneity. They have a theological imagination that aims to be free from colonial colour blindness (whitewashing) and have injected the colour and vibrance that I believe God intended for the holy scriptures. I have engaged with Christians who acknowledge the painful past of the church but consider the church to have moved on, beyond racism and a colonial legacy to a Christianity that doesn’t see colour. This theological movement, influenced by post-racial social ideals to break the barriers of race in society, failed to see that differences among peoples are natural, biblical and God-given.

I often use this passage from the book of Revelation as a point of reference:

After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshipped God, saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honour and power and might be to our God for ever and ever! Amen.”
Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?” I said to him, “Sir, you know.” And he said to me, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb
(Rev. 7:9–14 (ESV)).

If you permit my literalist reading – even in life after death the redeemed are diverse and distinctive.

For this context, this time and this era, I feel that it is important that we engage with the grass roots religious movements that are developing in response to unresolved colonial missionary trauma – cannibalisation and rejection of their ancestral heritage, persistent theo-political illiteracy, dependence on the institution for theological understanding and their lack of agency in developing their own contextualised Christian realities. New black religious movements demonstrate the desire to maintain a sacred religiosity that is responsive to their lived experiences and are thus an essential resource for our ongoing battle against the legacy of colonial mission in theological spaces.

Eleasah Phoenix Louis is a doctoral research student at Canterbury Christ Church University; her research is focused on the influence of new black religious movements in Britain on the black British “de-churched”. Eleasah is also the founder of Black Consciousness and Christian Faith, a programme that responds to the challenges of racism, miseducation and the marginalisation of black people in British churches and which incorporates open discussion forums, reasoning and apologetics-style teaching.

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