by Casey James Aldridge
What America witnessed on June 17, 2015 was a white supremacist act of terror. That act revealed two things, at once tragic and full of revolutionary hope: a tale of two churches, and a tale of empty pews.
I. Charleston: A Tale of Two Churches
It took nearly two days for the pastor of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Columbia to identify Dylann Roof as a member. Still, the setting of Roof’s terrorism—Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church of Charleston—gave headlines a religious dimension from the outset. By any rational analysis of the massacre of the Emanuel Nine, Roof’s attack was explicitly racial. This is made clear by the testimony of survivor and witness Kristen Washington,(1)Lizette Alvarez, Nick Corasaniti and Richard Pérez-Peña, “Church Massacre Suspect Held as Charleston Grieves,” New York Times, June 19, 2015, A1. and the uncovering of Roof’s manifesto.(2)Frances Robles, “Dylann Roof Photos and a Manifesto Posted on Website,” New York Times, June 21, 2015, A1. The killer openly espoused white supremacist ideals in his writings, words, and actions. But we ought not ignore the religious component and what it means for radical theology and Black liberation in the South.
Roof’s is the Christianity of white supremacy, employed as moral justification for slavery, segregation, and racist Southern strategies. It is the Christianity of empire, Rome’s appropriation of an anti-imperialist myth.
Charleston is the epitome of the South. South Carolina was the first state to secede from the Union in 1860. Roof and South Carolina are caricatures of what liberal America generalizes as the South: a monolithically reactionary region that the Left may as well ignore. This “writing off” of the South is unfortunate and misguided; as a stronghold of patriarchy, racism and poverty, the South’s disaffected are justified in their discontent.
This dissociation from the South reflects something else though—the unwillingness or inability of the Left to make inroads into theistic (usually but not exclusively Christian) masses in the South. After all, no complete picture of South Carolina can be painted in absence of the Bible Belt, and no understanding of Charleston without its epithet as ‘Holy City.’ Lest we forget, Roof targeted a Black church. Any analysis that claims this as “proof” of religious persecution of Christians is asinine. It isn’t Christianity under assault; it’s Black life and Black worship. Most are familiar with the firebombing of the Birmingham church where four girls were killed in 1963, but white supremacists have always targeted places of worship, notably in the string of arsons at Black churches in the 1990s,(3)Conor Friedersdorf, “Thugs and Terrorists Have Attacked Black Churches for Generations,” The Atlantic, June 18, 2015, accessed June 25, 2015. and more recently in arsons across Southern states in the weeks after Roof’s attack. Black churches are paradoxically seen as unlikely to violently resist white supremacists – by principle or by lack of means – and at the same time as places of monumental significance to a long history of Black resistance.
Emanuel AME is one such congregation with a proud history of anti-racist rebellion. Emanuel was the faith home of abolitionist Denmark Vesey. Vesey attempted to ignite a mass slave revolt in Charleston on the same day as Roof’s attack in 1822, but was caught and executed just days later on July 2.(4)Richard C. Wade, “The Vesey Plot: A Reconsideration,” The Journal of Southern History 30(2), 1964: 144. It is easy, from time to time, to regard Denmark Vesey and his comrades as relics of the past. Abolitionists who struggled against North American slavery carried themselves with a courage and political vision ahead of their time. I suspect Roof targeted Emanuel on June 17 aware of the significance of his target location and date. But the murder of the Nine resurrected Vesey. In his decision to target that church on the day of Vesey’s rebellion, Vesey has returned to revolutionary vocabulary. Suddenly and fervently, the Southern anti-racist movement reared its head again, burning flags, defacing monuments, and organizing.
Though this reemergence of Vesey in lexicon could be described as resurrection, the general tendency is to historicize Vesey and the abolitionist movement—a tendency that supports problematic assumptions. It implies that slavery is over, that abolitionists won total and full emancipation for all and then retired from struggle. A rudimentary comprehension of incarceration and prison labor in the United States, however, is enough to dispel the fiction that enslavement is a mode of an oppressive past. This tendency further mythicizes the abolitionists, implying their political-theological visions are less applicable to freedom fighters today.
Roof’s is the Christianity of white supremacy, employed as moral justification for slavery, segregation, and racist Southern strategies. It is the Christianity of empire, Rome’s appropriation of an anti-imperialist myth. But there is an alternate Christian faith presented in the congregation of Emanuel AME and life of Vesey that strikes deep fear into the heart of racism.
II. Apartheid Bible: A Tale of Two Souths
Most people of faith in the South hold onto theologies neither as reactionary as Roof’s nor as revolutionary as Vesey’s. Nonetheless, as conditions radicalize, so do politics, philosophies, and theologies. It is for this reason I’ve selected to focus on the radicalized theologies of Roof and Vesey, two Christianities rooted in empire and liberation, respectively.
In a presentation of these two Christianities, it makes sense to start with the dominant form. The preeminent view of radicals is that Christianity is a religion of patriarchy and white supremacy. Recalling the origins of the faith, this view appears ironic and perhaps without due nuance, but is nonetheless grounded in the truths of our day. This first Christianity is the Christianity that made excuses for slavery with doctrines of white superiority, the Hamitic curse, and white Jesus. This first Christianity is Roof’s theology, pictured shortly before his act of terror in a jacket displaying Rhodesian and Apartheid South African flags. And as a matter of fact, it is this Christianity that played its hand in the construction of South African apartheid.
The South African parallel is particularly helpful for conceptualizing the reactionary and revolutionary capacities of theology. Both the US and South Africa were born of settler-colonialism, albeit with different characteristics. Both consolidated economies with imported slavery (in South Africa, from Mozambique and India), and both maintained white supremacy beyond slavery via institutional and political segregation. In each, Christianity was introduced as a rhetorical arm of the colonizer.
But isolated passages, removed from context and twisted—be they the “mark of Cain,” or separation at Babel—could be and were used as moral authority behind American racism in every chapter of its existence through slavery, segregation, and opposition to civil rights efforts.
In South Africa, colonizing Christianity came in a number of forms: Anglican and Methodist from the British and Catholic from the French. But it was explicitly the Afrikaner theology of the Dutch Reformed Church (DRC) that codified and justified separate development of the races. Saul Dubow, in analysis of the DRC’s defense of apartheid, argues that “Christian-nationalism proved flexible and eclectic in its use of racist ideas,”(5)Saul Dubow, “Afrikaner Nationalism, Apartheid and the Conceptualization of ‘Race’,” The Journal of African History, 33(2), 1992: 209. and as a concept that gained “political purchase” in the wake of the urbanization and proletarianization of African workers and women during World War Two.(6)Ibid., 211. As white men returned from the front—where they fought along longstanding colonial power Britain though national aspirations of the Boers coincided more with Nazi Germany— they found their jobs occupied, and though in almost every instance black and women workers were fired to the benefit of returning veterans, that did not rid the industrializing city centers of Africans who had relocated to the urban setting. The war, on the heels of the Depression, fed the conceptualization of the “poor white,” who in Afrikaner folklore was the archetypal upstanding man, at once persecuted by the British and in conflict with the African.(7)Ibid., 215.
In 1857, entirely white congregations emerged, and the Dutch Reformed Mission Church (DRMC) was formed in 1881,(8)Johann Kinghorn, “The Theology of Separate Equality: A critical outline of the DRC’s position on apartheid,” in Christianity Amidst Apartheid: selected perspectives on the church in South Africa, ed. Martin Prozesky (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990), 59. which would ironically later grow instrumental in the formulation of black liberation theology and the mobilizing of South African masses. Both times, the Cape Synod justified these divisions on theological grounds, but it wasn’t until 1921 that the Church published their perspective on the “native problem.”(9)Dubow, 212. The race to put apartheid on biblical grounds had accelerated; J.D. Du Toit pointed to the story of Babel as proof of God’s will to separate the races.(10)Ibid., 218. Du Toit and others perpetuated the Hamitic curse(11)Ibid., 218. and through these and other exegeses managed to create what J.A. Loubser— a white but staunchly anti-apartheid Reformed theologian—later termed the “apartheid Bible.”(12)J.A. Loubser, The Apartheid Bible: A critical review of racial theology in South Africa (New York: Edwin Mellen Press, Ltd., 1991), 2. Earlier, however, where resistance existed in the DRC, it was the resistance of Ben Marais, who refuted the notion that apartheid was biblically mandated, but admitted that apartheid may have “practical considerations.”(13)Kinghorn, 63.
The parallels between Christian-nationalism in South Africa and the US South draw themselves. In the United States, even among Southern clergy who were personally opposed to slavery, few considered enslavement a sin. Biblically speaking, the DRC and Southern churches were limited. Read in whole and in context, it becomes hard to use the Bible as adequate justification for the assertions white Southern Christianity was (and often still is) making.(14)Paul Harvey, Through the Storm, Through the Night: A history of African American Christianity (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2011), 16. But isolated passages, removed from context and twisted—be they the “mark of Cain,” or separation at Babel(15)Karl Giberson, “The Biblical Roots of Racism,” Huffington Post Religion, June 24, 2015, accessed June 27, 2015.—could be and were used as moral authority behind American racism in every chapter of its existence through slavery, segregation, and opposition to civil rights efforts.
III. How the Other Half Prays: A Tale of Two Black Liberation Theologies
Afrikaner and white Southerner Christian-nationalisms are the theological histories oft told, but these only tell half the story. While cognizant of the contributions of the DRC to the formalization of apartheid, to paint Christianity as to condemn it unilaterally is to erase the work of the black theologians, clergy, and laypersons who fought apartheid. As discussed earlier, the 1881 formation of the DRMC was a way by which white Christians insulated themselves from interaction with and intermarriage amongst Africans, but the DRMC grew to be an intellectual wellspring for “reforming Reformed Christianity.” Though originally intended to isolate Black worship, congregational segregation carved a space in which Black contextual theology could manifest in a way that betrayed the very segregation that created that space in the first place. It’s an argument strengthened by the fact that, as contextual theology took off, some white churches made inroads to reintegrate congregations—not out of anti-racism but as a way to fill the space of radicalizing theology. No one fills that metaphorical space as readily as Allan Boesak, ordained minister of the DRMC.(16)Allan Boesak and Leonard Sweetman, Black and reformed: apartheid, liberation, and the Calvinist tradition, (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1984), xi. Boesak’s voice quickly became one of prophetic weight, and in a series of sermons and essays published posthumously, Boesak articulates contextual liberation theology in a way scholars have struggled to for decades. Boesak proclaimed:
“Whites have claimed the gospel for themselves. They have made the gospel the servant of their own lust for power… God, it was thought, graciously approved the white argument for slavery when an argument was necessary by way of Ham’s curse. God’s unmistakable blessing rests on apartheid, and on the ‘Christian’ West… To defend what I have been describing, you must be alienated from the gospel… If God remains God in spite of all the whites’ manipulation, and if the whites recognize that all their economic and military power do not aid them to escape God’s consuming judgment, and if the whites are not able to withstand God’s redeeming, liberating deeds, then they will be filled with anxiety.”(17)Ibid., 4.
In the same essay, Boesak didn’t stop at condemnation of European appropriation of the gospel, but vocally supported liberation by way of the Church and “decolonization of our humanity.”(18)Ibid., 5.
Boesak’s ministry was not empty rhetoric. Reformed theology has always been charged with a call to public witness, whether employed by the oppressor—the Afrikaner DRC—or the oppressed—the African DRMC. That call, Boesak stresses, is one that validates the liberation struggle on a divine level.(19)Nico Koopman, “Reformed Theology in South Africa: Black? Liberating? Public?” Journal of Reformed Theology, 1(3), 2007: 296-297. In a 1981 address given to the Alliance of Black Reformed Christians in South Africa, Boesak broke down tenets of the reformed faith imported by Dutch Calvinists, French Huguenots, and Scottish Presbyterians to make the case that the reformed tradition to which his Khoi ancestors were introduced is not a contradiction but a challenge. His response doesn’t skirt the reality that the Reformed God of those Dutch, French, and Scottish settlers was the God by which slavery and displacement were justified. Nor does he deny it is the same God that provided comfort and strength to his own ancestors.(20)Boesak, 83. He goes further in theological analysis of how white colonizers misread the Bible through Reformed eyes, and challenges the reader to understand the Dutch variety as a perversion of the Reformed Church, and the African variety as an embodiment of the “true spirit of the gospel.”(21)Ibid., 87. Whereas Afrikaner theologians looked to Babel, Leviticus, and Paul to formulate their concept of apartheid, Boesak labels this an idolatrous “exploitation of Scripture” and says that the principle message of Christianity, the gospel of Jesus, is not only justice, love, and peace, but also that “All of life is indivisible, just as God is indivisible… here the Reformed tradition comes so close to the African idea of the wholeness of life that these two should combine to renew the thrust that was brought to Christian life by the followers of Calvin.”(22)Ibid., 88.
It would be easy to dismiss Boesak’s witness if his experience and interpretation were isolated. However, an ANC
What’s to hold back a people who have determined that, despite the assertions of the elite, God does not decree their suffering, but rather takes their side in struggle? This is liberation theology: the reclamation of the Word of God through the minds and hearts of the marginalized. It dispossesses the ruling class of their bedrock, and provides the lower classes a firm foundation of resolution.
Similar prophetic liberation theologies have existed and do exist in the US South. Denmark Vesey, the abolitionist involved in the early days of Emanuel AME, showcases the intersections of faith and revolution. He preached to predominantly enslaved congregations under the watchful eye of slaveowners.(25)Harvey, 25. Nonetheless, he did not temper his sermons, but used Exodus to liken the deliverance of the slaves from Egypt to the inevitable deliverance—by blood if necessary—of the slaves from South Carolina. His theology of prayer was that it ought to be followed by action, and that to resist slavery was Scriptural mandate.
What’s to hold back a people who have determined that, despite the assertions of the elite, God does not decree their suffering, but rather takes their side in struggle? This is liberation theology: the reclamation of the Word of God through the minds and hearts of the marginalized. It dispossesses the ruling class of their bedrock, and provides the lower classes a firm foundation of resolution. It expropriates the only moral pillar upon which white supremacy, patriarchy, and capitalism could ever pretend to stand, and employs that steadfast faith within the struggle for emancipation. Liberation theology is as old as theology itself; its modern incarnations might be most evident in Latin America, South Africa, Northern Ireland, and Palestine, but it finds its roots in Thomas Müntzer’s utopian communist vision for the Church and earlier still to apostolic tradition and the Gospel, Hebrew Scriptures of Exodus, and the prophets.
After all, Vesey fought before “liberation theology” emerged as a formal school. So did Nat Turner and Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth. So did Mike Brown and Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Islamic revolutionary Malcolm X. James Cone, Dolores Williams and others would eventually systematically refine Black liberation theology in the United States. Theology mobilized thousands of people for civil disobedience in North Carolina as a part of the Black-led, faith-orchestrated Moral Monday movement. It’s what moved Bree Newsome to go down to the South Carolina State House on June 27, 2015 and scale the flagpole that flew a Confederate flag. Newsome descended to her arrest saying: “In the name of Jesus, this flag has to come down. We come against hatred and oppression and violence. I come against you in the name of God…”
IV. Empty Pews: A Tale of Two Deaths, One Spiritual and One Material
As mentioned earlier, however, most theology falls somewhere between the two, neither as reactionary as the Apartheid Bible nor as revolutionary as Boesak and Cone. Unfortunately, theologies ill-equipped or unwilling to challenge the former end up reinforcing it. The American white church establishment is steeped in racism just as white progressivism is. If it refuses to address its own complicity in oppression, it is an enabler. Though as a liberation theologian I believe the authentic interpretation of the life, death, and message of Jesus of Nazareth is a revolutionary gospel, the Jesus to whom I pray and follow is not the Jesus recognized in the Bible Belt.
The white Jesus that usurped revolutionary Jesus is a false idol— a false idol that has led to too many empty pews. White Jesus is killing the church in two ways, one overt and one less so. White Jesus, frankly, is a sociopath: the one that asks Black people to forgive white terrorists without condition; the one that asks for Black prayers and discourages Black action; the one that tells the poor they will have everything in another world, “ordaining” their poverty in this world; the one who grants “divine right to rule” to tyrants and sanctions the status quo. This white Jesus becomes a murderer—often of his own worshippers—with every racist act of terror and every war of conquest by the West. White Jesus is responsible for nine empty seats in Emanuel AME of Charleston. That same day, Zionist youth in the West Bank set fire to the Church of the Multiplication of Loaves and Fishes, the site where believers say Jesus miraculously ‘fed the five thousand.’ White Jesus burned that church with the young settlers, and from Charleston to Palestine, white Jesus has left a bloody trail of empty pews. As Cone puts it:
“Malcolm X was not far wrong when he called the white man ‘the devil.’ The white structure of this American society, personified in every racist, must be at least part of what the New Testament meant by the demonic forces.”(26)James Cone, Black Theology and Black Power (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1997), 40-41.
White Jesus seems unsatisfied with this bloodshed alone and so empties pews in another way: declining church membership. Church leaders struggle to make sense of why people in the West are leaving religion en masse—though the opposite is happening in Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa—and speculate that the reason youth are less engaged in church is because the hymns aren’t poppy enough, or the sermons aren’t enough like TED Talks. These clergy, however, miss the mark; they want to keep the insidious doctrines of white Jesus and update the worship style to fit a modern audience. But for the sake of both the church and liberation of the Bible Belt’s most marginalized, the precise opposite must occur. Radical circumstances call for radical theologies. Middle-ground Christianity is dying out because of its inability to address issues of basic moral value, like #BlackLivesMatter. The more middle-ground Christianity recedes, the more the two opposing theologies of the oppressed and oppressor take center stage.
There’s a third lesson to be learned from the Reformed theological war of South Africa: kairos. In 1976, on the 16th of June—coincidentally one day before Denmark Vesey’s slave revolt and Dylann Roof’s massacre—twenty thousand high school students and supporters walked out of class to protest language reforms in Bantu education. Police gunned down hundreds of students that day.(27)Nigel Worden, The Making of Modern South Africa: Conquest, Apartheid, Democracy, 5th ed. (Chichester: John Wiley & Sons, 2012), 129-130. This proved a moment of revelation for the international community and a point of no return for anti-apartheid activists of all persuasions, including clergy. Discussions were underway within a year, and in 1981 the Institute for Contextual Theology in Johannesburg was unveiled as the South African equivalent to Latin American liberation theology. In 1985, the ICT published a Kairos Document—a statement drawn from ecumenical Christian, Islamic, and indigenous African traditions to make the moral case against apartheid and refute the Afrikaner monopoly on biblical exegesis.(28)Peter Walshe, “South Africa: Prophetic Christianity and the liberation movement,” Journal of Modern African Studies, 29(1), 1991: 48. The Greek Kairos translates to “opportunity,” but more often than not is used in a theological context and refers to the need for action in a particular moment. This one word so aptly captures the nuances of the South African church and its political role in apartheid struggle, both in strengths and weaknesses. It is worth seeing the current moment—for the church, the Left, and the South—as a kairos moment of its own. The kairos of today is this:
The woes of the church and tragedies of the South have a common enemy in White Jesus and overlapping needs in that the church needs to adapt to survive, and the Left needs mass organization.
i. Decline in church membership and neglect of the power of communion and congregation will mean the lack of the historical “clergy caste,” as well as institutional church crisis and a crossroads for the church-at-large. The church must change, rapidly and radically, to maintain relevance. Nonetheless, in the South, the church remains integrated enough into the daily lives and psyches of the masses that the power of the pulpit is still powerful.
ii. The pain of the South in the wake of the Charleston terrorism and a string of Black church arsons is hardly new or temporary. What makes this moment different is that the attacks come on the heels of nearly a year’s organization since the uprising of Ferguson after the killing of Michael Brown last August. The swelling Black Lives Matter movement, as well as an intensifying worker’s “fight for $15” and Moral Mondays in North Carolina present a unique moment for a South traditionally neglected by the US Left.
The woes of the church and tragedies of the South have a common enemy in White Jesus and overlapping needs in that the church needs to adapt to survive, and the Left needs mass organization. This is not a call for the Left to “get religious,” but to show that if the Left wants relevance in the South, it must re-examine how it dialogues with people of faith, and if the Church wants a future in the West, it must reclaim the anti-imperialism of its pre-Roman origins.
Such an unholy—or perhaps truly holy—alliance requires a great deal of resurrection: of Black, womanist, and queer liberation theologies; of base ecclesiastical communities, the Bible study organizations with a radical bent in Latin America not unlike what the Emanuel Nine were observing when they were martyred; of Vesey and Turner and Truth; of global anti-segregationist struggle; of Exodus and the Prophets and Revelation and the Gospel; of a spirit that defies borders and prisons and racism and patriarchy in the spirit of making this world “as it is in Heaven.” The essence of authentic Christian belief—not the cult of White Jesus, but the discipleship of a poor, Palestinian Jew resisting Roman occupation—is that God came to suffer in solidarity with God’s creation and is continually resurrected. And this is the reason that, through apartheid in South Africa and slavery, segregation, police violence, and white terrorism in the States, poor and Black folk feel that the authentic Jesus shares in their suffering and walks with them towards liberation. It’s high time the Left decides to walk with the South, too.
Footnotes [ + ]
|1.||↑||Lizette Alvarez, Nick Corasaniti and Richard Pérez-Peña, “Church Massacre Suspect Held as Charleston Grieves,” New York Times, June 19, 2015, A1.|
|2.||↑||Frances Robles, “Dylann Roof Photos and a Manifesto Posted on Website,” New York Times, June 21, 2015, A1.|
|3.||↑||Conor Friedersdorf, “Thugs and Terrorists Have Attacked Black Churches for Generations,” The Atlantic, June 18, 2015, accessed June 25, 2015.|
|4.||↑||Richard C. Wade, “The Vesey Plot: A Reconsideration,” The Journal of Southern History 30(2), 1964: 144.|
|5.||↑||Saul Dubow, “Afrikaner Nationalism, Apartheid and the Conceptualization of ‘Race’,” The Journal of African History, 33(2), 1992: 209.|
|8.||↑||Johann Kinghorn, “The Theology of Separate Equality: A critical outline of the DRC’s position on apartheid,” in Christianity Amidst Apartheid: selected perspectives on the church in South Africa, ed. Martin Prozesky (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990), 59.|
|10, 11.||↑||Ibid., 218.|
|12.||↑||J.A. Loubser, The Apartheid Bible: A critical review of racial theology in South Africa (New York: Edwin Mellen Press, Ltd., 1991), 2.|
|14.||↑||Paul Harvey, Through the Storm, Through the Night: A history of African American Christianity (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2011), 16.|
|15.||↑||Karl Giberson, “The Biblical Roots of Racism,” Huffington Post Religion, June 24, 2015, accessed June 27, 2015.|
|16.||↑||Allan Boesak and Leonard Sweetman, Black and reformed: apartheid, liberation, and the Calvinist tradition, (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1984), xi.|
|19.||↑||Nico Koopman, “Reformed Theology in South Africa: Black? Liberating? Public?” Journal of Reformed Theology, 1(3), 2007: 296-297.|
|23.||↑||ANC Commission For Religious Affairs, “African National Congress and Religion,” Leaflet, Johannesburg, 2000.|
|24.||↑||Dwight Hopkins, Black theology USA and South Africa: politics, culture, and liberation (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1989), ix-x.|
|26.||↑||James Cone, Black Theology and Black Power (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1997), 40-41.|
|27.||↑||Nigel Worden, The Making of Modern South Africa: Conquest, Apartheid, Democracy, 5th ed. (Chichester: John Wiley & Sons, 2012), 129-130.|
|28.||↑||Peter Walshe, “South Africa: Prophetic Christianity and the liberation movement,” Journal of Modern African Studies, 29(1), 1991: 48.|