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Choice to side with the slaves

07 January 2022

There are two Christianities, Robert Beckford argues, and he is certain which he follows, he tells Chine McDonald

Andy Mabbett/Wikimedia Commons

Professor Robert Beckford

Professor Robert Beckford

FOR racial-justice advocates who feel that they have been crying in the wilderness for decades, the year 2020, with the Black Lives Matter protests and the widespread calls for change, must have seemed like the moment that they had long been waiting for.

One of these advocates was Professor Robert Beckford. “It wasn’t a shock to me, because I’ve been working on this stuff for a long time,” he says. While most of the focus since Black Lives Matter has been on institutional change in secular and political organisations, he believes that it is now time for the white-majority Church in the UK to face its demons.

“English Christianity’s sojourn with racial terror wasn’t just political, it was spiritual,” Professor Beckford says. “The Church is oppressed by a negative, demonic force — in its thinking, in its theologising, and its performance and ministry. There needs to be a form of exorcism. This can’t be done cognitively or rationally: it’s so deeply embedded. It needs a spiritual awakening.”

This lack of radical action is one of the reasons that he refused an invitation to join the new Archbishops’ Racial Justice Commission earlier this year. “They were asking me to legitimate my own oppression by participating in a process which has proven itself to be ineffective — writing reports which no one is going to take seriously — and which, to date, hasn’t delivered any kind of radical change.”

This concept of radical spiritual change is explored in his new book, Duppy Conqueror, in the My Theology series. It is a term taken from a 1973 song by Bob Marley. “There’s a tradition of duppy stories that adults tell children. A duppy is somebody who defeats negative or nefarious spiritual forces. Jesus isn’t just driving out spirits in the traditional sense; he’s also symbolising what it means to drive evil out of the land.”

Duppy Conqueror sets out Professor Beckford’s manifesto for a recontextualised liberation theology that draws on African-American black and womanist theologies to reform Christianity into something that takes seriously calls for racial, social, and environmental justice.

I FIRST became aware of Professor Beckford — now director of the Institute of Climate and Social Justice at the University of Winchester — when he hosted a Channel 4 documentary, Who Wrote the Bible?

Broadcast on Christmas Day in 2004, it would have made many Christians who hold conservative views of scripture choke on their mince pies, since it challenged the idea that the Bible was the literal word of God, a book that fell from the heavens millennia ago.

When the programme was broadcast, I was in my final year of an undergraduate theology degree. I had faced nearly three years of existential questions about Christianity which threatened to rock my faith. Having grown up in Evangelicalism, these questions had all been new to me — and the places of doubt and challenge had felt like a dirty little secret.

Watching Professor Beckford on screen — a Christian comfortable with challenging the faith from the inside — I felt relief. Here was not only someone in whom I could see myself making a robust and intellectual challenge as an alternative to blind faith, but a black Christian, too.

His first television break had come after he appeared on the complaints programme Right to Reply on Channel 4 in the late 1990s, and was then invited to pitch ideas to the commissioning editor. This led to his first documentary, Britain’s Slave Past, which he made with Trevor Phillips in 1998.

Since then, Professor Beckford has held an unusual position among Christians in public life: in the Church, but not of it; someone who is comfortable straddling the line between the sacred and the secular.

This comfort comes, perhaps, from his upbringing. He is the son of Christian parents who held “two diametrically opposed views on how change takes place”. His mother — a Pentecostalist — believed in the supernatural as a way of transforming life, while his father was an activist, trade unionist, and Garveyite.

“That combination gave me a sense you could have a foot in both those worlds — a transcendent and an immanent approach to understanding God. Both my parents went to church, and were spiritual in their own way,” he says.

I HAVE often wondered whether he feels lonely or isolated in the space that he occupies — straddling two worlds. He assures me that he does not. “In black history and the Caribbean diaspora, there’s always been a creative tension at the borderlands between people who are seen to be on the periphery and have a foot in two camps.

“I have a foot in the Church and in the social world. I’ve found that a real privilege. It would be lonely only if there wasn’t also a huge international community of black and womanist theologians in the US and the Caribbean who are part of my community of scholars and friends.”

His activist roots were nurtured in a surprising place. A life-changing question from his school maths teacher, a Communist, changed the course of his life. “Have you read Malcolm X?” Mr Ralph asked him. A confused Beckford thought that the X had something to do with algebra. The teacher brought him a copy of The Autobiography of Malcolm X the next day.

“That book completely transformed me,” Professor Beckford says. “It meant that I could see a way in which you could do theology — even though Malcolm did it through Islam — and politics, and how they both combine to allow you to look back into black history — and then also to look forward into the future in terms of the kind of world we wanted to inhabit as a black person. It got me interested in religion and the world of ideas.”

Now, he recommends The Autobiography of Malcolm X to all young black boys.

After sixth form, on the advice of a friend, Professor Beckford decided to study theology in the United States. His first degree was at a Christian liberal-arts college in New York, where he was able to study black liberation theology. On returning to the UK in 1988, he came back committed to being active in the Church.

“But the Church kind-of-rejected me,” he says. “The older black pastors who were not theologically trained were anxious about having this young black man who had studied theology coming back with all these new ideas.”

None the less, he says: “I will for ever be grateful for the friend who encouraged me to go to the US to study, and said that British theology did not have the capacity to educate me effectively theologically.”

HE DECIDED that, instead of entering pastoral ministry, he would focus on academia. He completed a Master’s degree in biblical hermeneutics at the London Bible College (now the London School of Theology) before a doctorate at Birmingham University.

I ask him whether things were different now in theological education. “No, I would say it’s got worse. British theology is the most colonised discipline in the humanities. It writes more about being nice to animals than addressing its 500-year history of sojourning with racial terror: the way in which the Church colluded with racial capitalism to subjugate black and brown people in the West Indies and within West Africa.”

Professor Beckford often talks about the fact that there was only one book written in the past 100 years that addressed this issue: John Wilkinson’s Church in Black and White, published in 1993. There are far more books written about whether animals have souls, which infuriates Professor Beckford.

“It’s a really interesting contrast that white theologians would feel much more comfortable in dealing with animal theology than wrestling with their discipline and their tradition’s entanglement with racial terror.”

ACCORDING to Professor Beckford, there are about 700 people teaching theology in Britain in some capacity in university departments today. Of that total, the number of black people holding full-time posts is fewer than three, he says. These include Anthony Reddie and David Muir. “Geographers are doing a better job than theologians, which in no way reflects where the Church is at.

“The theological academy in Britain is an apartheid institution. It has not integrated or engaged with black and brown people. It’s only this past year that they thought they might need to think about whiteness.”

Another sign that he identifies that things have not changed much is the number of his black Ph.D. students who have had to go into other disciplines or travel overseas to find work. In his view, they are coming up against an institution that “actively seeks ways to maintain the status quo”.

Professor Beckford now measures his success by the number of black students whom he is able to get through the existing system rather than any attempts to transform predominantly white theological institutions.

I ask him what his devotional life is like. “I’m awake at 4.30 a.m. and have my devotional time then. This keeps me focused and reflecting, and it’s when I get the best ideas and hear God’s voice. . .

“But what also keeps me grounded is black rage. I would never be a Christian who’s bought into mainstream European Christianity — that’s the Christianity of the slavemaster. I am Christian because I stand within the tradition of black Christianity, the religion of enslaved people.

“When my African forebears became Christian, they transformed it: they mixed it with elements of African traditional religion, they oriented it towards justice and freedom. It is a tradition of liberation.”

My Theology: Duppy Conqueror (Books, 17/24 December) is published by Darton, Longman & Todd at £8.99 (Church Times Bookshop £8.09); 978-1-91365-750-5.

Chine McDonald is director of the Theos think tank. She is a writer and broadcaster, and the author of God Is Not a White Man: And other revelations (Books, 11 June 2021, Podcast, 28 May 2021).

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