#BlackReadingsMatter

#BlackReadingsMatter

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Written by: 
Published:
March 25, 2020

In recent years, South Africa has been blessed with a wave of decolonial movements. The movements, popularized by hashtags such as #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall, were accompanied with the realization that what was once presented as the dream of a Rainbow Nation was in reality predicated on the maintenance of economic exclusion. The promise of a new democracy really only offered the nightmare of sustained gross inequalities which continue to be visibly racial in nature.

We have had to engage with the realities of inequality, economic exclusion, and a suspicion of Western hegemony in knowledge production. The cries for decolonization have been timeous and relevant in their call for the opening up of economic and transformation of education spaces to offer true inclusion, allowing all to participate in them.  

The Seventh-day Adventist Church has not been immune to these anti-colonial sentiments and neo-colonialist suspicions. The church’s Western origins, betrayed by its Eurocentric liturgy and theology, make it a prime suspect and a difficult entity to trust.  

Young Adventists have raised questions of identity, with the church often standing accused of being anti-black and not compatible with being African.1 This view has been gaining traction and spreading to economically challenged places like Zimbabwe and Swaziland. The young are questioning the relevance of structures like Conferences and Unions, which they never interact with nor have any intimate relationship with, whilst the same institutions require huge financial support from them.

This sentiment is best appreciated if located within the broader context of disappointment in liberation political formations that have failed to deliver on the promises of a utopia, to devastating effect. The Southern part of Africa is enveloped in a cloud of pessimism and growing mistrust in institutions of power and authority, which have become bastions of corruption that have driven the inequality gap into a chasm of devastation.

During these desperate and trying times, we have also been laden with the rise of independent charismatic movements which have been marked by suspicious cultic behavior and gross exploitation of the poor, by promising relief from their hopeless material conditions. The desperation of the poor and disenfranchised has made them vulnerable, and we’ve seen them become fodder to these overnight prosperity formations. This has brought into sharp focus and criticism the collection of tithes and offerings from economically excluded and struggling members to sustain institutions and individuals that seem to be better off than their adherents, without any benefits being accrued the other way.

What has been clear in all this is that people no longer see the church as sacrosanct nor as the arbiter of all things truthful and blameless. People are engaging with their church and Bible through the prism of their lived realities. Their contexts are being acknowledged and brought into the reading process, as they dialogue with the Bible text in light of their material conditions.

One of the markers of this approach is the advancing of reader contexts as valid sites of interpretation, with the context of the reader deemed as important as that of the text. What’s been refreshing about this model is discovering that its goal is not to arrive at prescriptions, but to inform praxis. We are not only looking for a new way of doing things but forging a new consciousness and awareness.

It has been an exciting journey for me to discover a way of reading the Bible that does not ignore or deracialize who I am. Further, such a reading offers a lens through which I not only receive the text, but also critique it in terms of how it affirms who I am or empowers a view that seeks to disrobe me of my being, as a black African man.

Context-driven readings are often dismissed as subjective and unscientific, especially by the Western academy. However, as many contextual and liberation biblical scholars have observed,2 this protest is based on the self-proclaimed notion that Western knowledge and Bible readings are scientific, objective, and rational — as though they occur within an ideo-theological and socio-political vacuum. However, as many biblical scholars have pointed out, the idea of objectivity and rationality is a false one. They note that in practice, interpretations are not objective but are tailored to the communities they serve. In the tradition of liberation theology and hermeneutics, previously marginalized voices have found an ally that has legitimized the validity of subjective readings by declaring and showing that all Bible readings are subjective, embedded, and contextual.3 This then raises the question: why do certain contexts remain disqualified from participation in the interpretation process?

Being Seventh-day Adventist, this can be a tad bit tricky and unsettling. I have been trained in the Adventist arts of circular Bible readings, to begin with an end in mind. I have been taught to see the Bible as inherently Adventist and to therefore read it to confirm my already held biases. I have become an expert at rattling off historical events that prove the Bible’s accuracy and validity. However, it has been in these very same historical events where I’ve found that my history and the histories of the people in the global South have been excluded and ignored.

Reading Adventist apocalyptic literature can be likened to watching a Hollywood blockbuster, where aliens attack an American city (New York or Washington) and the destruction of America or the global North is tantamount to the destruction of the whole earth. The movie ends gloriously when an American hero, usually a white male, finds the solution and destroys the alien invaders, essentially saving the whole world, thereby entrenching the notion of a white savior. As many Postcolonial social commentators and critics have noted, this self-centering by American movie makers is not limited to the entertainment arena; it stretches even into the arena of literary production, the academy, and theology.

SDA Apocalyptic literature is fraught with instances of Euro-Western self-centered readings and exclusive considerations for their histories. A friend often jokes and says that it’s almost as if God created the world, and then forgot about the global South in the drama of the Great Controversy.

I often joke, seriously, and state that I have not faced any trials and persecutions by the Roman Catholic Church, but instead I have been dehumanized, spiritually curated, and economically dispossessed by the Capitalistic project of Colonialism in ways that I don’t think the Catholic Church could ever achieve.

But I get why a church whose origins are in the Global North, founded on the grounds of a nation built on the back of slave labor and the world’s foremost imperial power, would be blind or even unwilling to entertain a historical account that implicates it in one of humanity’s greatest crimes. I get why we’d rather turn the spotlight on the Catholics because well, the other bit of history implicates a powerful demographic in our community of faith but simultaneously erases the lived experiences of many others. This outcome is not without cause or context. The majority of our theologians have been and continue to be white, old, and of Euro-Western origins. It makes sense that their Bible readings will not only focus on their own histories but that they will be blinded to the complicity of their own “kingdoms” in subjecting many others to the apocalyptic tortures and persecutions. Admittedly, it is hard for the producers of knowledge to implicate themselves in their own interpretations.

I remember the 2018 Annual Council meeting in Battle Creek, Michigan, where our world leaders were daintily clad in 19th century attire, to celebrate the Movement’s pioneers. I remember a tweet by a Black church member alluding to the fact that were they to be in attendance, they would have gladly shown up in chains and scantily clad in rags. While this was said in jest, it did reveal a truth that is often ignored.

We exist in two worlds, though we are part of the same denomination. While the period being celebrated held glorious memories for our white brethren, it was not the case for us Africans. The pictures of our leaders dressed like our pioneers was a traumatic one for many Africans, because our experience with similarly clad white individuals are nothing we’d wish to remember, let alone celebrate. While the white church would gladly take a trip in a time capsule, back in time, to reminisce and celebrate our pioneers, I doubt many Black folks would volunteer for such an expedition. The era in question was one of upheaval, displacement, strife, and genocide, and one we would not wish to celebrate. It is these very symbols, and in particular the painful memories they represent, that the project of decolonization seeks to displace. This is not only to be done in public spaces but also in the academy and the space of our Bible readings.

The fact remains, however, that our pioneers did exist, and indeed what they accomplished, through the help and direction of the Holy Spirit, was worth commemorating. It would be a contradiction to call for the erasure of their history, in a piece lamenting the erasure of a peoples’ histories. It is therefore prudent at this time to acknowledge that the idea of a homogenous Africa is not only dangerous but false, as Africa is a continent of vast cultural, ethnic, and ideological diversity. This is critical lest this piece is assumed to be representative of all African voices.

Perhaps this is where the trick lies, that in celebrating certain aspects of our church’s history, we remain cognizant that they are representative of only a section or a portion of our church’s history and demographic. They are worth commemorating if historically you stand in the trajectory of Euro-Western, Trans-Atlantic privilege that is built on the spoils of colonial plunder and greed. This realization should challenge us to call for the amplification and inclusion of other voices with their histories and lived experiences, as a prism through which we are to read, hear, and understand God’s interaction within the histories of all. In Postcolonial thought, this is known as a contrapuntal approach. Where meaning is the product of multiple voices speaking harmoniously but melodically, without drowning each other out.

How is God understood by the historically oppressed, impoverished, and marginalized? What is the theological significance of their histories? And how do these perspectives enrich our theology? The goal is not to erase or replace any histories with others, but rather it is to displace certain readings as the dominant and mainstream and enter them into an arena of dialogue with other perspectives for more contrapuntal and communal readings.

A contrapuntal4 approach to how we do our theology is one that holds the key to the future of our church. We are existing within a time where people are sensitive to, and aware of, exclusionary spaces. We are sensitive to and suspicious of hegemonic voices that speak on behalf of as opposed to speaking “with.” It is my belief that this inclusive approach holds the key to achieving our biblical mandate of preaching the gospel to all nations. This is not done by ignoring and erasing the histories of these nations nor by presenting the gospel through the prism of one nation or people. However, this mandatory interaction with all nations requires us to invite them into the process of reading the Bible by immersing ourselves into their histories. This is critical because alternative readings also ensure that our eyes are opened to what our contexts and privilege has blinded us to.

 

Notes & References:

1. This concern was also raised, academically by Makapela (1996).

2. West (2010).

3. Stiebert and Dube Ed. (2018).

4. This theory was first introduced by Edward Said in his seminal text Orientalism (1979)Toronto: Random House Inc.

 

Bibliography

1. Said, E. 1979. Orientalism. Toronto: Random House Inc

2. Segovia, O. F. (2007). A Postcolonial Commentary on the New Testament Writings (Bible and Postcolonialism Book 13). London: T&T Clark Publishers.

3. West, G. (2010). Biblical Hermeneutics in Africa. Pages 21-29 in D. B. Stinton (ed.), African Theology on the Way: Current Conversations. SPCK International Study Guide 46. London: SPCK.

4. Bhabha, H. (1992) Postcolonial Criticism. Pages 437-465 in Redrawing the Boundaries. Edited by S. Greenblatt and G. Gunn. New York: Modern Language Association of America.

5. Bhabha, H. (1994) The Location of Culture. London: Routledge.

6. Boff, C. (1991) Hermeneutics: Constitution of Theological Pertinency. Pages 9-35 in Voices from the Margin: Interpreting the Bible in the Third World. Edited by R.S Sugirtharajah. MAryknoll, New York: Orbis Books.

7. Draper, J. A. (2015). African Contextual Hermeneutics: Readers, Reading Communities, and Their Options between Text and Context. Journal of Religion and Theology 22: 3–22.

8. Draper, J.A (2002). Reading the Bible as Conversation: A theory and methodology for Contextual Interpretation of the Bible in Africa, Grace and Truth 19/2: 12-24.

9. Dube, M ed. (2012). Postcolonial Perspectives in African Biblical Interpretations. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature.

10. Makapela, A (1996). The Problem with Africanity in the Seventh-day Adventist Church (African Studies). Lewiston (N.Y): Edwin Mellen Press

 

S’duduzo Blose is an ordained minister currently serving as a district Pastor in Durban, South Africa. He has served as Stewardship Director and an Executive Committee member of his Conference (KwaZulu Natal Free State Conference). He is currently pursuing a PhD in Biblical Hermeneutics with the University of KwaZulu Natal (UKZN). He holds a BA (Theology) from Helderberg College and an MTh (Biblical Studies) from UKZN. Readers can contact him by email at [email protected].

Photo by Gift Habeshaw on Unsplash

 

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