The theological legacy of the slave trade

By David Ford
15 May 2007

It is a harrowing realisation to appreciate that the fundamental building blocks of the transatlantic slave trade remain virtually untouched by modern notions of equality and social justice. The drive for growth, cultural imperialism and control of the world’s resources and wealth continue to be the primary motives in the economic and political policies of the world’s leading, and (in terms of where power resides) white, industrialised nations.

Slavery, such as bonded labour and human trafficking, continues to exist today in this country. This is not simply evidence of humanity’s continuing capacity for sin. For the dominant political and economic ideas that underpin 21st century society in the West are precisely those – albeit in a more benign form – that create the conditions in which these practices and structures can exist. Not only is equality not a reality, but also the value of some people and peoples is deliberately emphasised over that of others.

If this seems extreme or bizarre, then consider the way in which the mainstream UK media, with the exception of a paper like The Independent, reacts daily to deaths of UK service personnel and Iraqi civilians. The death of a British soldier in Iraq or Afghanistan always seems somehow more regrettable and more newsworthy than the death of an Iraqi child. This isn’t simply a case of respect for ‘our boys’. After all, true respect for ‘our boys’ wouldn’t lead them to be sent there in the first place. Rather this reflects a disturbing double-standard about the value of life itself.

The parallels between slavery and Iraq can be traced beyond the de-humanisation of a nation, through to the economic motive, the destruction of culture and identity and even to the presentation of ‘Christian democracy’ as a theo-political justification for invasion.

For the Church of England this kind of analysis is deeply discomforting. Enveloped in a white-centric view of the world that permeates its theology as much as its organisation and power structures, the Established church cannot articulate a radical theological response to Iraq with any greater clarity or confidence than it could to the slave trade. For if the church was to look comparatively into these two scenarios in any depth it would see reflected back too many similarities. Better to stick to the superficiality of expressing concern for the victims of slavery and war than entering into an internal dialogue as to the implications of déjà vu.

A key legacy of the slave trade and of Britain’s subsequent structure and culture of racism (not least in the churches) has been the emergence of Black churches and Black Theology. These two developments are distinct and shouldn’t be considered synonymous. The former grew largely as a reaction to exclusion and prejudice from within the white British churches, including the white Pentecostal church community. The emergence of Black Theology as a distinctive approach to theological reflection has a different history with its roots in a radical re-assessment of the totality of the black experience in the light of the biblical narrative.

Black Theology is one of the most exciting dynamics in current theological thinking. It challenges the academic establishment by drawing attention to the white hegemony that underpins most theological exploration. And for the churches it presents an approach to theological reflection deserving of serious consideration by all white Christians.

For Black Theology challenges Christians to allow their theology to be shaped by their experience. When it is, theology ceases to have the identity of a doctrinal, credal club and instead becomes an experiential reality rooted in one’s understanding of self in relation to others, to the social order and to God. Faced with the evil of slavery black people discovered new theological approaches for themselves. It will be interesting to discover what theological resources emerge in Iraq, rooted in that experience.

Does this model of theological exploration offer anything to white Christians and to the white institutional churches? I believe it could. By exploring Black Theology, white Christians too could discover the key to their own liberation from the economic models and assumptions that produce a narrow rationalism and cultural conformity, and which increasingly undermine family, community and society. It holds the potential to transform the established church and release it from its current imprisonment within the white dominant culture of the British political and economic establishment.

But the journey there is a tough one. The core challenge for the established church is the gulf in understanding that exists between experientially-based and doctrinally-based theologies In short, what does the gospel proclaim? It is in its denial of the radical gospel that racism, and all its concomitants, continues to have room to breathe in the church. With clarity and persistence, the radical biblical tradition proclaims liberty and justice. Jesus echoed this frequently such as when he declared: “I have come so that you may have life and have it in abundance.”

Starting from the premise that the ministry of the church is to spread news of this gospel and to live thereby in the present reality of God’s impending kingdom, then there are two (rhetorical) questions that should be posed. First, to what extent does the church reflect through the lives of individual Christians as well as through the life of the local, national and international church, that all people are born in the image of God? Secondly, to what extent is the church, in its many different dimensions, open to all people?

The continuing distance between the reality of exclusion and the invitation to equality in the sight of God is self-evident. The Church of England remains inextricably connected with the forces of social and economic oppression in Britain. That is the raw legacy of the transatlantic slave trade that still pervades the church. The institution remains part of the establishment that oppresses black people today.

It is arguable that until the church is weakened to the point that it experiences pain and vulnerability itself, it will not connect fully with the Spirit of the Gospel. Black Theology may offer the church hope. For it illustrates the power of faith (of belief in God’s presence among us) grounded in shared experience rather than structure. The challenge is to help reveal this to the church and to stimulate its coming.

(c) David Ford. The author has a long history of involvement in Christian anti-racism. He is a partner in Ford-Peacock Consultancy Ltd, which each month supports a single charity or community organisation that matches its concern for a more peaceful, equitable and just world.

Suggested reading:

Michael N Jagessar and Anthony G Reddie, Postcolonial Black British Theology: New Textures and Themes, (Peterborough: Epworth, 2007)

Anthony G Reddie, Black Theology in Transatlantic Dialogue, (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006).

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