Black theology and the struggle for liberation in South Africa.
This is the headline over a story that appeared in the Sunday edition of a South African newspaper. The paper reported that three white men captured an 11-year-old black boy when he attempted to steal a few pieces of coal from the South African Railroads. As punishment they stripped him and forced him to sit down on the hot boiler of their steam locomotive. Four weeks after the incident a doctor who examined the boy's buttocks described the burns in terms of "the most severe degree." The judge characterized the entire incident as "terrible" and "extremely bad." He sentenced each of the men to a punishment of six lashes and three years in prison. He then suspended the prison sentences.
This incredible incident is the sort of act one associates with the Ku Klux Klan of old. But it did not happen very long ago. The report appeared in the newspaper Rapport on December 16, 1973.
Now let us look at another example. Black women who, because of poverty and unemployment, are not able to survive in the "native homelands" (bantustans) are forced to go to the "white" cities for employment. In addition to their employment contract, in Johannesburg they must sign another contract: their children will never come to live with them. A visit from the children, even during a vacation period, can cost the mother her job. This report is found in The Star, September 18, 1973.
In another story, a special worship service was held in Upington in the Northwest Cape. In this service the congregation prayed that the government would abandon its plan to uproot 920 persons who live in the village of Riemvasmaak and force them to settle in a newly opened area in Damaraland, Namibia, 1,300 kilometers (800 miles) away from their old home. Appeals, tears, and prayers were to no avail. The villagers, according to a newspaper report, were to be forced in January 1974 to leave the land where they had lived more than 60 years. The magistrate empowered as "the bantu" for the Kakamas area, Mr. G. J. J. Jordaan, according to the newspaper report, said that "the majority were happy" and were "prepared to move."
These stories are not isolated cases. South African blacks know this very well. They know also that such reports do not tell even half the story. Such facts, horrible as they are, constitute the daily experience of dehumanization that is structured into the system of apartheid. They shape the total black experience.
Along with the effects of countless other laws, these laws constitute part of what are said to be necessary elements in "Western Christian civilization": necessary, that is, for white security and white survival. They are said to be part of "non-white self-determination." They are said to be signposts that point to real racial peace. They are, however, more than this.
If we are to believe white pastors, all of this humiliation and dehumanization is the declared will of God, God's holy ordinances, which human beings, specifically blacks, may not change. Whites are God's elect. They alone have the right to health, wealth, education, and humanity. They may designate their status as
God-given, though it may be an idolatrous status. As in so many other instances, whites may erect a signpost with the warning "For
Whites Only" to describe and define "humanity." For blacks, obviously, there are criteria other than those involved in defining what is "human." This is the heart of the matter.
As early as 1804, and even earlier, the Dutch referred to their slaves in Surinam as "these objects." In the nineteenth century, George Theal, a Cape Colony historian, wrote about the work of both the Surinamese and black African slaves:
They did not feel that they were humiliated by forced labor. Nor did they feel humiliated by standing naked in public to be bought and sold. They were the most cheerful of all creatures. If you attempt to evaluate their situation by describing how a European would feel in these circumstances you will draw erroneous conclusions because their upbringing and their thought patterns are totally and completely different from those of the Europeans.
Theal describes something back there, then, in the nineteenth century. But in 1973, in Johannesburg, hundreds of black children were taken away from their parents by the government and were sent to "homelands." By virtue of one or another of the apartheid laws, the parents, although they were married, could be regarded as unmarried. Mr. Coen Kotze, an official of the bantu administration, explained this action of the government: "Black women prefer not to live with their children." This happened in the here and now, in the 1970s.
You can see that the attitudes of whites toward blacks have not changed very much. Blacks, of course, have known this all along. After all, we must live with this every day! This same contempt for the humanity of blacks is visible, also in the mere lip service that South Africa has paid to the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In a study by the International Commission of Jurists that appeared a few years ago, it was clearly and convincingly demonstrated that the ideology and practice of apartheid entails the violation of at least twenty articles of the UN declaration. For the sake of completeness, I shall mention the relevant articles: 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 23, 25, 26. A newspaper informs me that this study has been proscribed and banned in South Africa. When shall we learn that the truth cannot be banned?
It is quite evident that in South Africa blacks have no rights that whites must respect. This is evident in the name that whites give us. We are "nonwhites." Humanity is confined to "whites." "Nonwhite" points to a nonperson. "Nonwhite" is a negation. "Nonwhite" points to a nonentity with which you need not concern yourself. Blacks, quite correctly, reject the term "nonwhite" as well as the terms "colored" and "bantu." These terms are used in the language of the oppressor. We deny that the right to a humane existence is the exclusive right of whites. With glowing pride in our blackness we oppose this "colonializing" of our humanity. We can no longer be sacrificed to white self-centeredness and greed. We can no longer be the victims of white alienation.
In this situation black Christians attempt to answer the questions and to discharge the obligations that confront us in the gospel. It becomes evident, of course, that we cannot content ourselves with either white questions or white answers. Our theological reflection must take into consideration--more strongly still, must emerge out of--that which white theology has never taken seriously: the black experience.
Whites have claimed the gospel for themselves. They have made the gospel the servant of their own lust for power. God was conceived of as standing unconditionally on the side of whites. God, it was thought, pays no attention to the lies and half-truths of whites ("little white lies"). God, it was thought, pays no attention to the white opposition to and destruction of justice. God, it was thought, graciously approved the white argument for slavery when an argument was necessary (Ham's curse). God's unmistakable blessing rests on apartheid, and on the "Christian" West. The signs of that blessing are visible: wealth and a long and prosperous life--extended by means of a heart transplant in the event that life appears to be too short. It is this Christian West that, regardless of the cost, must be defended against paganism. After all, the white South Africans conquered the turning point of South African history. This was a battle fought and won for the benefit of the whites and their Christian civilization.
Can the whites succeed? How can they succeed if the gospel itself rejects everything that white society attempts to maintain and defend? How can the whites succeed if the gospel of the liberation that Jesus Christ effects condemns white "Christianity"? Against what paganism does white society struggle if its "Christian civilization" can be maintained only by trampling justice underfoot? This "Christian civilization" is established on self-centeredness, selfishness, murder, and the theft of the land.
In the struggle for the control of India, British Christian officers gave Indians not only Bibles but also bed sheets that had been contaminated by smallpox. This was done to diminish the number of Indians quickly. In this we can recognize clearly the truth of Frantz Fanon's words: "Europe, literally, is the creation of the Third World."
To defend what I have been describing, you must be alienated from the gospel. This has become clear over and over again. 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. History blackmails you: what honest whites can read their history and not be overcome by feelings of guilt? And the path that has been followed no longer appears to be a viable path. What at one time seemed to be brilliant argumentation in favor of that path now seems to be argumentation that leads to its rejection. You cannot carry out your new plan any longer, because your own interest will be threatened. The West is threatened with drowning in its own prosperity. Realization on the part of the white West that money and technology are not all there is has come too late.
In South Africa, even if it were possible, the whites do not dare to implement apartheid consistently. World history moves ahead inexorably. The coup in Portugal shall not be without consequences for the West. Black consciousness cannot be suppressed.
The struggle for the liberation and "decolonialization" of our humanity goes on unabatedly. As a result, white anxiety increases. Whites think they can consolidate their own safety by neutralizing and oppressing the symbol of their anxiety: blacks. This oppression, however, creates hate and bitterness that become visible in society. These, in turn, generate increased anxiety and confusion among whites. But this is not a vicious circle. It is, rather, a plunging spiral.
And Haman had the gallows made. . . . Terrible, indeed, Judge.
You Have Seen . . . God's Righteousness and Human Rights
The right to live in God's world as a human being is not the sole right of whites that eventually, through the kindness of whites, can be extended to "deserving" (obsequious?) blacks as a "special privilege." Human dignity for all is a fundamental biblical right. Nevertheless, many whites seem to think that blacks live by the grace of whites. Whites determine who and what we must be. Whites determine what our life shall be like. Whites determine where and how we may live. Whites determine who may be our friends. Whites determine whom we may marry. Whites determine how we shall be educated. Whites determine--insofar as our children receive an education at all--what sort of education our children shall receive. Whites determine the possibilities and the boundaries of our humanity. In this process, the criterion always was and still is a skin color: white.
Blacks now wish to make it clear to whites that this whole process is sinful. We can no longer continue to live in this manner without bringing God's consuming wrath upon us. How shall we correct this neglect, this evasion of our responsibility, to realize our humanity, the potential God has structured into us? How it must grieve the Holy Spirit that God's human creation is destroyed, is denigrated to a "thing"--and this in the name of God! How it must, furthermore, grieve the Holy Spirit that we have permitted this to happen! We, therefore, shall not beg for the right to live as human beings. That we need not do. No one person has the right to take our life in their hands and to exercise the power to give our life to us or to withhold it from us. As Adam Small says:
We do not live by the grace of the whites.... Even the "best" whites have thought always that they hold our lives in their hands. Although, therefore, protest shall play a role in our future actions, we must realize, nevertheless, that protest is itself a form of begging. We shall not, I repeat, beg. The primary form of expression shall be the manifestation of our blackness. Over and over again we shall make our blackness visible. We do not exist for the benefit of the whites. We exist.
God's justice is the source of black humanity. God's tireless zeal for the liberation of the enslaved and needy is the inspira-for the struggle to liberate blacks. We take the biblical message seriously and we accept it unconditionally--that is, we have faith in, we believe in, the God who is the liberator. We believe that God unconditionally establishes justice for the wretched; that God saves the poor; but that God shatters the oppressor (Ps. 72:4). We know that we have been called to freedom (liberation), and that we must persevere in the freedom that Christ has effected for us (Gal. 5:1).
True freedom never consists in fleeing from the world and its problems, in acting as if the only concern of the Christian were "heaven." Countless blacks have been guilty of this in the past--with, I may add, the encouragement of white Christians.
True freedom is not the art of mere survival. This is still a well-known stunt of blacks. South African blacks for a long time, in both speech and action, gave the appearance of being cooperative, addressed meekly all whites as baas, "said what the whites wanted to hear," and worked in harmony with the system for the purpose of "getting out of the system what there was to get." Behind the backs of whites, however, blacks for a long time poked fun at them because whites were very stupid. In addition to being dangerous, this is also dishonest. Dishonest persons, moreover, are never free persons.
Black freedom should never be conceived of as a duplication of white, bourgeois individualism. The truly free are those who realize that God is the basis and the guarantee of their freedom. They therefore regard every curtailment of freedom as rebellion against God. They furthermore champion the cause of the oppressed and of freedom. They know, also, that freedom, as is true of justice and love, is not a passive state and status. It, rather, is a movement, an action. God liberates persons, as we said above, so that they can enact and embody justice.
True, justice can make covenant partners out of us because justice serves God's shalom and creates true community. In the situation in which we live at present, we are not covenant partners. We, rather, are enemies. Justice is not in effect. We are bribed with substitutes for justice. Among us "fellowship" has come to mean, "above all, do not tell the truth." One must pay a price for honesty and real Christian obedience. The price is coercion, ostracism, and exile. Black theology, therefore, is indispensable if we are to penetrate all the sham and to discern the heart of the matter.
Black Theology, Black Identity, and the Future
Black theology, as I have said, seeks a breakthrough so that it can expose the true human person, the authentic being of humanity. And, once more, our true humanity consists precisely in our creation as black. We shall never be able to gain better human relations until whites have learned to accept blacks as black persons, and to give themselves in service to them.
Let me state the matter very clearly: when we speak about the affirmation of our blackness, the affirmation of our creation as black, it has nothing to do with being resigned to our blackness. It is precisely what I indicated that it is: the affirmation of our blackness, the affirmation of our creation as black. Black is beautiful.
We speak about a rebirth, a re-creation, a renewal, a reevaluation of our self. In this connection black theology frequently uses the word self-love. Some interpret this to mean: "love for the black and hate for the white." I offer no apology here, because we need not discuss every white absurdity, but I do wish to say one thing: Jesus did not prescribe a law when he gave his followers the commandment to love your neighbor "as yourself." He began with a fact that is universally accepted. Everyone values one's own self. Everyone desires to live a life that has significance and value. Everyone is driven to preserve one's own self.
There are, however, circumstances that work such destruction of one's self that even this fundamental human drive is lacking. Persons under severe pressure can build up a devastating contempt for their own self. This was the lot of blacks. Slavery, domination by others, total dependence, lack of legal rights and the status of an alien whether in one's own land or in another land, discrimination and humiliation--all have had a devastating influence on the spiritual life of blacks. In the society dominated by whites, "white" was the acme of all that was "good"; "black" was the symbol of everything that was of little value or status.
In America, blacks scarcely survived the assault on their traditions and history. In South Africa blacks were said to have had no history. South Africa "arose" first in 1652, and the only traditions that may continue to operate are the "nondangerous" ones.
What whites, consciously or unconsciously, think about blacks need not be repeated here. Martin Luther King, Jr., said that in Roget's Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases, a standard American reference work, there are no less than 120 synonyms for "black," and at least 60 of them are offensive.
"Black" is "dirty," "demonic," "angry," etc. The same dictionary, on the other hand, contains 134 synonyms for "white," and every one of them is favorable. The standard Afrikaans-English dictionary (Het Groot Afrikaans/Engels) still teaches students that the correct translation of "black person" is swartnerf ("black vein") or swartslang ("black snake"). The latter word is a collective noun that translates the term "native." Black children, furthermore, must use the same dictionary and must learn that the English word "gentleman" is translated into Afrikaans by the word "white man" (witman). When you, furthermore, discover that "gentle" is defined in terms of "respectable," "civilized," "loving," and "skillful," then both the meaning of the word and its implications are very clear. Van Dale, the standard Dutch dictionary, represents no improvement. It is no wonder then, is it, that the blacks have learned to hate and despise themselves? And I have said almost nothing about the systematic veneration of whites and the scorn for blacks that are perpetuated by the countless apartheid laws.
South African blacks are now searching for their true humanity: a "decolonialized" humanity free from the infection of white scorn and contempt. This does not mean, of course, that blacks inevitably will hate whites. It means that blacks simply shall not accept any longer a "brotherhood" in which the one brother, the black, must be a slave and the other brother, the white, must be the master. We find it intolerable that this hypocrisy, this inauthenticity, continues under the banner "Christian." Any form of white oppression is equally intolerable. White values shall no longer be thought of as "the highest good." Blacks shall no longer hate themselves and wish that they were white. No longer shall blacks define themselves in terms of others. They shall, rather, move toward their own authentic blackness out of their Negroid and nonwhite character. In this way they shall force whites to see themselves in their whiteness and to perceive the consequences of this whiteness for others.
This is the meaning of black self-love. We will hate no whites simply because they are white. We hate their oppression, their enslavement of others. As long as they desire to be oppressors they cannot be coequals. The choice is theirs. We will live without any apology or defense, and we will not make any excuse for our existence, or beg for what is our birthright. We are not eager to hate whites; we wish to treat them as human beings. If this causes whites to panic, that is their problem.
Black theology wishes to proclaim this message of authenticity to whites. Future generations of both blacks and whites may not have to learn and embody a theology that is nothing other than an extension of cultural imperialism (Reubem Alves). Our theology must concern itself with authentic questions, with the true liberation of the unliberated. In our theology, we must dare to limit ourselves to that which is most urgent and most authentic....
In this situation black theology wishes to be present in the role of a servant. Black theology wishes to cooperate in addressing urgent and authentic questions without any anxiety. Only in this way shall we achieve authentic community. Black theology wishes to make operative what was holy in the black African community long before whites came on the scene: unity, mutual respect, community. It is alarming that this element of community has been virtually absent as long as we have known one another--that is, as long as blacks have known the Christian faith. This community is not openly available to seize whenever one happens to desire it. Community, rather, lies on the far side of much struggle and doubt, of mutual trust and courage. For us this is the courage to be black.
This community located on the far side of struggle is not to be regarded as an eschatological event, at present only an incomprehensible chimera; it is, rather, as real as Africa itself. There is a centuries-old proverb in the language of the Tumbuka: Muntu ni munta cifukwa cabanyake--"A person is a person only because of others and in behalf of others." This is the objective toward which we wish to move.