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Book review: Flourishing in Babylon: Black British agency and self-determination by Joe Aldred

05 July 2024

Deryn Guest considers Jeremiah interpreted for the Black British

JOE ALDRED writes with the energy of a young prophet. Rooted in his Pentecostal tradition, he presents a “pastoral response to dealing with the challenges and opportunities” that face members of the Black British diaspora, i.e. “those who are the progeny, in whole or part, of African and/or Caribbean lineage”. One of his vital questions is whether it is possible “to remove the African self completely off the ‘plantation’ by creating a psychological and spiritual alternative reality rooted in Black imago Dei, agency and determination”.

Jeremiah 29’s Letter to the Exiles is Aldred’s text. He interprets it, passage by passage, in chapters two to six of his engaging book. Jeremiah, he argues, had a pragmatist vision in which exiles flourish not through assimilation, but through discovering the “God-empowered self”. Relating this to a 2024 context, the prophet’s advice to build homes, plant, and procreate becomes the basis for Aldred’s claim that Jeremiah “yells at the Black British diaspora community, ‘By whatever means necessary, build or buy houses!’”. Forge communities here, Aldred urges, but not by eliminating ties to the African and Caribbean homelands. Yes, there is paradox in this: “settling down in exile can seem an oxymoron yet need not be so.”

Jeremiah’s denunciation of false prophets is given an effective and modern application. The false prophet says that the diaspora happened owing to British invitation; but “few if any have come because of a cordial invitation from the British monarchy or government.” Historically, people arrived under the duress of slavery, but, subsequently, they came under their own agency to improve their lives.

Other false prophets speak constantly of oppression. Yes, unquestionably there has been oppression, but “Black British ancestors alone encountered chattel and plantation slavery,” and liberation theology is unhelpful when it obfuscates experiences of self-determination.

Another false prophet expects diaspora folk to dismantle and eradicate racism. This may be an impossible and “unworthy challenge”, not least since it draws people away from the immediacy of working on their own lives in their own locales.

Throughout, Jeremiah’s letter is winningly interpreted to suggest how members of the Black diaspora can forge a way of thriving in Babylon on mutual, not submissive, terms. In making his arguments, Aldred fully engages with a wide range of biblical scholars and liberation and Black theologians. He is equally at home, drawing on the broad insights of contemporary historians such as Sathnam Sanghera or David Olusoga, and offering his refreshing response to particular incidents, such as the recent Buckingham Palace encounter between Lady Susan Hussey and Ngozi Fulani, when Fulani was repeatedly asked where she was really from.

At the end of each chapter, Aldred provides questions for “intergenerational discussion”: questions that would work well for study groups of lay people and university students alike. This is a book written primarily for his chosen audience, but there is a great deal here for secondary audiences. As one of the white well-intentioned, I realise that what I can do best is listen, learn, and, importantly, get myself out of the way of the flourishing that he so persuasively advocates.

Dr Deryn Guest is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Theology and Religion at the University of Birmingham.

Flourishing in Babylon: Black British agency and self-determination
Joe Aldred
SCM Press £25
Church Times Bookshop £20

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