An unfinished project

Christian theology was appropriated to play an integral role in the justifying apartheid’s racist ideology. Black theologians resisted through a theology of the oppressed.

Photo by Mart Production via Pexels.

We live in a country in which white domination of black people is enforced with the use of teargas, the rubber bullet and buckshot during the day, and by hand grenades and petrol bombs, kidnappings and murders at night. We also worship—many of us—in churches wherein the same relations of white domination and ruthless brutalization of black Christians are reproduced. The unsuspecting black Christian believers are also dominated, brutalized and deformed theologically.

– Takatso Mofokeng

Writing in 1987, in the first edition of The Journal of Black Theology in South Africa (JBTSA), of which he was the editor, and at the peak of apartheid repression, Takatso Mofokeng poignantly depicted the context into which black theology in South Africa emerged, and to which it responded. Through its reappropriation of Christianity and the bible toward black liberation, black theology represents a resistance to the theological domination described. 

To this end, integral to black theology has been the appropriation of biblical imagery toward a faith that is liberating for the oppressed. The image of the crucified Christ is central. The suffering and oppression of black people are paralleled to the suffering and oppression of Jesus on the cross. This subverts dominant depoliticized and spiritualized views of the crucifixion, which invisibilize oppressor/oppressed dynamics and thus remove radical material implications for what it means to be Christian in a particular context. 

Equating Jesus’ torture with that of black peoples in a May 1993 JBTSA article titled “The Crucified and Permanent Crossbearing: a Christology for Comprehensive Liberation,” Mofokeng re-politicizes this story, reframing it as “a silent but visible indictment of humankind for lack of solidarity.” Similarly, in the journal’s May 1987 editorial, he compares Jesus’ tomb to material expressions of death of the time: “the crowded townships, squatter camps, shanty towns, migrant laborers’ dilapidated hostels and peasant shacks.” 

The Old Testament narrative of the Hebrew people’s freedom from enslavement is another that has been generative in the arc of liberation theologies across space and time. The JBTSA emerged in a context of severe theologically justified apartheid repression and aimed to create a platform for theological resistance to this. In its first edition’s editorial, Mofokeng describes the journal as “a forum for the exchange of theological ideas and a contribution to the development of Black Theology in South Africa and elsewhere.” In addition to Mofokeng, the journal’s editorial team included  Simon Maimela (associate editor), and Itumeleng Mosala, Buti Tlhagale, Lebamang Sebidi, and Mokhethi Motlhabi (editorial board members). The JBTSA also had a range of contributing editors including James Cone, Cornel West, and Jacqueline Grant.

May 1998 issue of the Journal of Black Theology in South Africa.

Cone is often referred to as the father of black theology, and published his first book, Black Theology and Black Power, in 1969. While South African black theology had its particular flavor, Cone’s work was influential. This generative relationship between South African and US black theology is illustrated in the first edition of the JBTSA which contains a report on the 1986 Black Theology Consultation in New York attended by eight South African theologians.

South African black theology was not only influenced by and influential to black theology in the US. It was also shaped significantly by other theological expressions, particularly that of Latin American liberation theology. This Latin American influence importantly brought deeper class recognition and analysis into South African black theology.

As black theology is necessarily always in dialogue with and shaped by its context, it is ever-evolving. In a 2009 journal article in Religion & Theology, Motlhabi, one of the editorial board members, charts the evolution of black theology in South Africa. In his framing, the final phase is characterized by “theological wilderness.” Motlhabi is unclear about whether this so-called wilderness is a “temporary lull in theological activity, a temporary retreat for the sake of more determined and permanent recovery, or the end (of black theology).” 

Although it could be argued that in the years since this was written, there has been a resurgence—albeit largely limited to the university space—in many ways black theology, along with the rest of the black consciousness movement, became largely marginalized within the broader mass anti-apartheid movements of the 1980s. The JBTSA continued until 1998, but engagement with black theology largely became (and in truth, perhaps still is very much) separated from grassroots movements—a far cry from its beginnings. 

With the current broader popular dialogues around the need for continued decolonization of education institutions, of curriculum, but also of Christianity and the church, perhaps it is time to re-engage with this rich tradition of black theology in dialogue with broader grassroots social movements, in service of contemporary demands for liberation.

Further Reading

And do not hinder them

We hardly think of children as agents of change. At the height of 1980s apartheid repression in South Africa, a group of activists did and gave them the tool of print.