The Limits of Tradition
I can still remember meandering through my neighborhood, frustrated and dejected. I had never read anything like it. “This can’t all be true,” I uttered under my breath.
The week prior, a church member gave me a book on social justice and the Church. He was sure it would cool my zeal to transform our community. And he was right. The book argued that the Church’s primary purpose was to offer faithful worship on Sunday through word and sacrament. Only in a secondary sense did we have a mission to the world. Even then, our mission was reducible to evangelism and occasionally serving at the local soup kitchen or shelter.
The arguments against substantive social engagement were cogent and compelling. Each page listed what felt like endless scriptural references demonstrating the futility of social renewal. Why devote so much time to fixing my neighborhood, the authors protested, if God will destroy and make the world anew? Each question landed like a knockout blow as the pages turned: “Why rearrange the chairs on the ship’s deck if the Titanic is already sinking?”
The church tradition I had grown up in didn’t provide resources against this line of reasoning. However, I knew it wasn’t quite right. After reading the book, I was left with a question that plagued me for weeks: where do you go when the theological tradition you’ve inherited doesn’t equip you to meet pressing theological concerns? Usually––for good or ill––you look elsewhere.
Should minorities look elsewhere? The Reformed tradition and race.
Even the most cursory reading of American history exposes a relationship between white supremacy and Reformed theology that is unsettling, to say the least. While research has explored this connection, the last two decades have witnessed a notable uptick in critical conversations by laypeople and theologians.
More recently, in 2017, The Journal of Reformed Theology devoted a volume to race and Neo-Calvinism. Jessica Joustra wrote a stand-out article on race, the image of God, and Herman Bavinck. In it, she probes contemporary scholars engaging questions related to physical, ethnic, and racial diversity. Reformed scholars do not often turn to their tradition for insight on these matters, Joustra writes. They seem to be turning elsewhere. One option she surveys is Reformed theologian Allan Boesak. As a reverend and anti-Apartheid activist in South Africa, Boesak turned to Black liberation theology, not his Reformed heritage, for the decisive affirmation of his blackness.1 The example of Boesak raises a particular question that guides the rest of her article: “what are the resources for understanding race and racial diversity within the Reformed tradition?” Joustra looks to themes in Bavinck as a start.
Joustra describes Bavinck’s view of the image of God as “holism.” On this account, “nothing in humanity is excluded from the image of God.” Mind, body, soul, faculties, vocations, and cultures, both individual and corporate, must be affirmed as divine gifts which reflect our creator. Bavinck’s unique contribution, according to Joustra, is his affirmation of our body as “an integral and essential part of humanity.” Insofar as the union of body and soul is physical, human embodiment is necessary for image-bearing. While Bavinck does not address specific racial differences within the context of the Imago Dei, his affirmation of our physicality affords one the ability to cry “Black is beautiful!” with James Cone, whom Boesak repeatedly cites. The payoff of such an affirmation is that it challenges the racial hierarchies so often constructed around substantial distinctions within humanity. Deficient accounts of the Imago Dei, particularly around our physicality, provide a foundation for the exploitation and oppression so often associated with race. Thus, we must shore up the theological basis of our anthropology as a positive step in addressing various racial issues.
Towards the end of her article, however, Joustra returns to Boesak. She professes some astonishment that he pivots away from the Reformed tradition to affirm his blackness. Joustra’s surprise is quite understandable, given his constant invocation of Reformed sources. Yet, pausing to consider Boesak’s rationale offers another needed opportunity to consider race and the Reformed tradition.2
Boesak and Blackness: South Africa and Black Liberation theology
The relationship between Christianity, colonization, and white supremacy in South Africa goes back generations. While many figures could be highlighted in this saga, the Dutch Reformed Church (D.R.C.), and white Reformed Christians, more broadly, played an especially significant role. From the mid-19th century to the official establishment of territorial Apartheid in 1948, white Reformed Christians were a social linchpin reinforcing white supremacy in various sectors. Native Africans and descendants of enslaved people had been largely dispossessed of their land and livelihood by Boesak’s birth in 1946. It is within this crucible of resistance, revolt, and cries for a revolution that Boesak ministered.
Being well acquainted with the wiles of the Reformed churches in South Africa, Boesak knew that civility and charity could not meet the hour's demands. The suffering of blacks under the regime of Apartheid was too great. Sentimentality was not an option; unflinching confrontation was required. As history often demonstrates, racial groups in superior social positions––especially in countries with a history of racial violence and domination––regularly pretend to be innocent of any responsibility for the status quo. Under these conditions, appeals to “believe the best” about our neighbor were often virtues of the privileged imposed upon the oppressed. Boesak shirked such requests.
Fittingly, the title of Boesak’s first and most searing book in 1978 was Farewell to Innocence: A Socio-Ethical Study on Black Theology and Black Power. “Until now, the Christian church had chosen to move through history with a kind of innocence,” Boesak lamented. “Hiding these painful truths behind a façade of myths and real or imaginary anxieties. This is no longer possible. The oppressed who believe in God, the Father of Jesus Christ, no longer want to believe in the myths created to subjugate them” (p 3). Many of these myths clustered around a single idea: blacks are––culturally, socially, or intellectually––inferior and colonized for their own good. Using the old Christian canard, many white Christians said that God commissioned them to bestow divine favor upon heathen Africans. Apartheid was justified, the D.R.C. declared, for at least four reasons:
avoids the “friction” that would arise due to co-mingling between different races
fosters “true community” amongst self-contained groups who share similar heritages and customs
affirms that all are made in the image of God by permitting each racial group to cultivate and preserve its own “national identity.”
accommodates some of the “weaker” white brothers who simply desired to be separate from blacks.
Accordingly, Apartheid and its effects were not only a given but a perceived good. On these terms, whites are effectively innocent despite acknowledging persistent racial-group disparities at all levels of society. Sure, whites have the best schools, houses, and neighborhoods, and possess the most land and wealth. These realities, however, are not a product of injustice. They are an organic expression of human nature and social development. The suffering blacks endured was unfortunate, the D.R.C.confessed, but the necessary result of “practical measures which for the sake of order are necessary in particular situations” (p 110).
White missionary efforts to blacks would continue. But evangelistic pursuits should not undermine the reigning political system (p 115). After all, did not God himself disperse the peoples at the Tower of Babel who rebelliously sought a single nation? “Thus,” many white South African’s sneered, “apartheid is really based on Christian love…and brotherhood” (p 4).
Boesak bristled at this logic. “In order to maintain the status quo, it is necessary for whites to believe and keep on believing that they are innocent.” They parade around as though they “just happen to have the superior position in the world,” or, “in some mysterious way, they have been placed in position of leadership over blacks, by virtue of their superior culture, or by God” (p 4). In response to this, blacks must realize that their subjugation is not caused by some “cosmic inevitability,” or powers beyond their control (p 6). Historical structures are erected and maintained by people. Just as it is imperative for oppressors to preserve their innocence, so it is imperative for the oppressed to destroy it (p 5).
Boesak deployed Black liberation theology into this social and political milieu. Without seeking approval from whites, Black liberation theology queries, “what was (and still is) the role of the Christian church in the oppression and liberation of blacks?” (p 10). In asking this paradigmatic question, it becomes abundantly clear that “neither white questions nor white answers will no longer suffice for blacks. Black theological reflection must take seriously precisely what [Reformed] Christian theology has hitherto ignored: the black situation” (p 10).
It seems that we can now respond to Joustra’s surprise. In my reading of Boesak, any discussion on race that is not attuned to the magnitude and particularities of racial harm visited upon Africans will, to that degree, fail to be compelling. And in consequence, send many Reformed minorities elsewhere.
What was needed––and what Black liberation theology offered––was a vision of God unlike the one white Christians’ casted. A vision of God that stood in solidarity with them against a white society resolute in its aim to dehumanize and degrade black life in the name of Jesus. For Black liberation theologians, the “middle ground is not sacred ground”––if it even exists at all.3 God takes a side, and it is decidedly with blacks. God is, indeed, the God of the oppressed:
Black theology seeks the God of the bible who is totally and completely different from the God whites have for so long preached to blacks. The God of the bible is the God of liberation rather than oppression; a God of justice rather than injustice; a God of freedom and humanity rather than injustice; a God of freedom and humanity rather than enslavement and subservience; a God of love, righteousness, and community rather than hatred, self-interest, and exploitation. Black theology knows it is not merely people who need to be liberated. The gospel, so abused, needs to be liberated (p 10).
The cry “Black is beautiful!” takes up a different resonance here. This isn’t only an affirmation of black physicality. Following Cornel West, this dictum forcibly asserts, “Jesus De-niggerizes, Jesus Dignifies” black men and women within a “white supremacist civilization” that insists they are the rightful inheritors of ghettos, slums, and poverty.4 Thus, although Boesak proudly boasts of his Reformed pedigree, his pivot on race was not only shrewd and discerning but pastoral.
Conclusion: Extension and Embodiment
The book I described in the intro stalled my social efforts against poverty and racial injustice in Phoenix. As I languished over it many years ago, neo-Calvinism pulled me out of the pit of despair. Neo-Calvinism offers the richest account of social action and public theology that I have read. Indeed, more recent contributions on social justice and structural sin demonstrate the generative output of the tradition (i.e, C. Plantinga, Wolterstorff, Conn).
But as I drilled down to find substantial resources on the black/brown experience and the particularities of white supremacy in America, I was bereft of material. One neo-Calvinist scholar refers to this lacuna as an “imbalance”; Joustra simply observes that Reformed scholars are turning elsewhere on race.5 It is not without reason that Boesak suggested creating a Black Reformed Confession decades ago.
Lest I be confused, I am not arguing that Reformed theology will be a panacea for minorities in America. Far from it. Various Black and Brown church traditions have developed their own means for addressing racial injustice.
However, for minorities committed to the Reformed tradition like myself (neo-Calvinism in particular!), there needs to be an extension of its insights. Constructive theological works that develop the normative commitments of the tradition through a self-conscious and sustained reflection upon the black/brown experience in America. By God’s grace, this project is already underway––consider Anthony Carter, Anthony Bradley, Jeff Liou, for instance––but much is to be desired. Going back to the question posed in the intro, this project is needed to avoid shipping minorities elsewhere on race.
More than this––and quite possibly, more important than the prior point––there should be those committed to embodying these developments in earnest. Rejecting racial hierarchies and the ideologies that contour them are necessary but insufficient. We must go further and mobilize ourselves and our churches against the dehumanizing social conditions and racial-group disparities that enshrine the legacies of racial violence today.
Extension and embodiment are the way forward. This was how Boesak took the mangled tools of the master and made the means of liberation for the oppressed. Although Boesak’s social and political situation is different from ours, his attempt to address the black experience from a Reformed perspective with scant race-conscious Reformed resources provides an instructive model. As he said in the 1980s for South Africa, we must attempt the same in America today:
It is my conviction that the reformed tradition has a future in this country only if black Reformed Christians are willing to take it up, make it truly their own, and let this tradition once again become what it once was: a champion of the cause of the poor and the oppressed, clinging to the confession of the Lordship of Christ and to the supremacy of the word of God. . . This means that Reformed Christians are called on not to accept the sinful realities of the world. Rather we are called to challenge, to shape, to subvert, and to humanize history until it conforms to the norm of the kingdom of God. (Black and Reformed, 93)
Dawit Kebede serves in the youth department at Redemption Alahambra and is currently a doctoral student at Fuller Theological seminary. Dawit is a son of immigrant parents from Ethiopia and plans to serve pastoral ministry in Phoenix.
1 “Blackness” is often a metaphor for the oppressed of all races in Black liberation theology. In this article “black” and “blackness” will refer to the African diaspora unless otherwise noted.
2 Joustra anticipates my argument in a footnote. Thus, my article should not be read as a counter to her excellent piece. I am attempting to extend her insights.
3 Christina Edmundson inspired this phrase. She wrote something similar on twitter.
4 Cornel West and Tommy Shelby, Transition , No. 123, Fear (2017), 110. Full statement: “And to be niggerized is not just to be taught you have the wrong hair texture and skin color or nose shape or whatever it is, but most importantly, to be niggerized is to be told you must be inferior, you must be intimidated, you must be scared and afraid to confront the powers that be, [scared to confront them] in your body, mind, heart, and soul. So there are psychic and spiritual dimensions operating. As part of the de-niggerizing process, black nationalists come along and say, “we’re going to hit it head-on.” That’s why on the front cover of Muhammad Speaks, Malcolm X would always put, “Islam Dignifies,” and I say you don’t have to be a Muslim to get into that! Elijah knew what he was doing. Malcolm knew what he was doing. “Islam Dignifies.” As Christians, we would say, “Jesus De-niggerizes, Jesus Dignifies.”