Disrupting the guild of academic theologians by an insistence on doing Black theology
September 18, 2014
The conference for John de Gruchy’s 75th birthday was an amazing experience. It seemed like no cost or trouble was spared to gather a selection of amazing speakers, and these speakers presented possible the most engaging set of lectures that I’ve ever heard in such a short time. Alan Boesak was to deliver the last main lecture, and many expected it to be an explosion. Boesak is without a doubt one of the most gifted speakers that South Africa has ever had, and his overview of the struggle against apartheid, of the problems in the transition to a democratic South Africa, and in all honesty, his sermon on the challenges facing the church and the world, was met with a standing ovation.
But his insistence that we have not yet dealt with white supremacy, said in the most pastoral of ways, even more particularly his softly spoken critique against an overemphasis of Afrikaner experiences of trauma in explaining racism, create that movement of white bodies, the shifting in the chairs, the darting eyes to note what black colleagues might be thinking, and while a conversation didn’t happen, if this were a round table rather than a lecture hall, and if all participated, my guess is that the struggle to adequately respond to whiteness and racism would also be audible in the words spoken by white participants.
But it was a young black women, a theological student presumably, most probably undergraduate, that may have caused a deeper explosion that Alan Boesak could. Whether those of us sitting there were aware of it at the moment I doubt, I doubt that she was aware of it. It started as a critique on Boesak, but this just hid the critique on the generation of Black Theologians that came after Boesak, and the even more fierce critique of the guild of academic theologians in general, of which many, if not most, in her experience would have been white.
“Dr Boesak”, she started out, “thank you for your work, but it has become a matter of entertainment.” Entertainment? I cringed. But entertainment was meant as theological work reduced to the public and political sphere. Yes, the irony should not be overlooked, how can it be that a theologian is “reduced” to the public sphere, that politicians quote a theologian but theologians don’t. She then continued with a plea that she and her generation want to do Black Theology, but that there are not space for this in the university. There are no space because “when we tell our lecturers that we want to do Black Theology, they tell us that there isn’t sufficient literature available”.
The response she got was that all of Alan’s books are in the library and on the shelves of lecturers (or more specifically, not on the shelves of lecturers because it was borrowed to students). But I suspect the response missed the mark. Yes, the books are in the library. But her experience that she is being told that she cannot work on Black Theology because there isn’t literature available does not refer to availability in the library, it hints at a response which said that it isn’t available. There isn’t anything academic that you can use to do Black Theology.
Now, I quote from memory, I don’t know who she was (and if anyone do know, I would love to contact her). I interpret generously to make a point. But what are we to say of this? Somehow I had the experience that a young black women, possibly an undergraduate student, disrupted the guild of South African academic theology with one question. And she did this by merely pointing out that academic theology has silenced the one attempt at making race a central question of critical theology, silenced it to the point where young Black theologians who know that race is a key theological question experience that the theological academy it not the place where this is to be asked.
The silence of particularly white theologians on matters of race has been pointed out repeatedly over the past 15 years or so. While much is done in theology on class and gender, race as a particularly theological problem and theological challenge is seldom directly engaged by theologians, specifically white theologians. For the moment let me just say that this silence seem to beg for a response, both in continuing the work of the tradition of Black Theology, but also by white theologians taking up this task.