2009 March: Dr Robert Beckford
The Oliver Lyseight Annual Lecture
Dr Robert Beckford - March 2009
New Testament Church of God, Leadership Training Centre
Challenges of Black Pentecostal Leadership in the 21st Century
From Mission to Maintenance: Resisting the Bewitchment of Colonial Christianity
I want to begin by thanking you for inviting me to contribute to this prestigious lecture series. I hope that my paper will be as stimulating as last year's by Bishop Joe Aldred. His paper makes it easy to situate this offering as a continuation of the debate around the future of Black Pentecostal education. As James Cone states, the task of the theologian is to be critical of the church. My interpretation of Cone on the task of the theologian is that theologians are to be in critical solidarity with the Church. So I offer this paper as someone who Loves God, is part of the liberating work of the Kingdom but thinks that the black Church could and should be doing a lot better.
My academic work is in the field of religion and culture. To put it simply, I am interested in the multiplicity of ways that Christianity and culture converge and diverse in religious history. I look at these interactions through a variety of lenses including those of my slave and colonial fore parents who possessed perspectives that I believe we can learn from in the present. Today, in this paper, I will continue to combine theology and culture in this vein by working with the Christian theme of ecclesiology but through the critical lenses of post-colonialism.
Ecclesiology, I understand to be a body, but with problematic divisions. And from the outset the early church sought out ways of transforming divisions into the reality of Christ body where there are no divisions (Gal 3:27). However, the metaphor of the body has not erased differences; we have not all evolved into a new species devoid of gender, class or ethnicity! So the struggle remains for the church to offer signs of God's reign on earth. Specific to us is the question of how the Black Pentecostal church tradition in Britain might better represent God's reign on earth. Post colonialism, I understand as recognition that while colonial period has ended, the world and indeed Christianity have not moved beyond the problems created by colonization. For this reason former colonial subjects speak of neocolonialism, the idea that new forms economic, political and military oppression replaced the old forms. Likewise, black British theorists talk of domestic neo-colonialism to express the ways that the colonial order has been reconfigured in contemporary Britain.
Applied to the church, postcolonial theologians remind us that the weaving together of Christianity with commerce and racism led to complex relationships of domination and subordination, superiority and inferiority, between missionaries and their colonial converts. I am interested in colonial retention, specifically, the ways that the experience of slavery and colonization continue to impact on our ecclesiology, what it means to be the people of God. To this end the title of this paper focuses our minds on how the kerygma (message) of the Black Church of African Caribbean origin, is muted by the continued impact of colonialism Our ecclesiology, rather than being completely free from this past we are bound up with it in at least two ways, African retention and missionary retention.
African retention refers to the ways that slaves and colonial subjects adapted their traditional African beliefs to Christianity, so as to retain an African base or interpretation. A good example of this approach is found in Roswith Gerloff's study of the Oneness Tradition in 1980s and the emergence of church as a ‘movement organization.' Missionary retention explores the ways that missionary theology was imposed upon African subjects and how this process continues to influence church life in the Caribbean and amongst its diaspora. A good example of this second school is Dianne Austin-Broos' study of Pentecostals in Jamaica. Broos focuses on the continued tension between the African rite or celebration and the missionary morality or moral orders. In reality, the African Caribbean Christianity that informs Black Pentecostalism in Britain is a mixture of the two, either an African adaptation of Christianity or a creolized mixture, depending on the cartography (mapping technique) of your historiography (historical method).
I am primarily interested in the second camp, missionary retention, but I want to approach it in a provocative way. I want argue that we Pentecostals continue to live with the influence of missionary theology in many ways, (including liturgy, doctrine and language). But I want to expose or ‘out' other often hidden retentions related to the worst excesses of missionary theology - when missionary theology colludes with the rationality of racial terror and acts out this terror on black subjects as a form of occult practice.
I want to ask, "Do we Black Pentecostals live with the continued impact of a missionary bewitchment?" And, how might this continued bewitchment impact on our value of theological education? When I refer to missionary bewitchment, I am thinking of corrupt Christian ideas and practices that can through religious and anthropological studies consider occult.
There are four stages to this quest. First I want examine what we mean by bewitchment - the practice of witchcraft. Second, I want to apply a measure of what bewitchment is to the act of enslavement and missionary theology's legitimation of this terror. Next I want to explore the bicentennial of the Abolition of the Slave Trade in Britain as an example of continued mass bewitchment. And finally, examine how theological education or the lack of it continues to be influenced by bewitchment tropes (themes)........................................
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