In Search of A New Theological Discourse for the Caribbean

Archbishop Woodroffe Memorial Lecture 2017In Search of A New Theological Discourse for the Caribbean


Since the movement for political independence, which began in the1960s, locals have replaced the expatriate missionaries; and drums, guitars, and steel pans are heard in many of our liturgical settings. In many of our churches however, the status quo remains as it was in colonial days. It is for this reason I wish to propose a paradigm shift in our approach to Caribbean theology.

One that will take seriously the postcolonial critique of the hegemonic intentions of Euro-American imperialism embedded in much of the biblical interpretation we take for granted today. I will draw on some work I did just over a decade ago in preparation for a Doctoral Thesis on a Biblical Hermeneutics for Social Transformation. There is good reason to embark upon such a theological imperative at a time when the Church’s influence on the society as a major voice for change and social transformation is fast diminishing.

I wish to express my thanks to Bishop Friday for honouring me with this invitation to deliver the George Cuthbert Manning Woodroffe 2017 Lecture. Archbishop Woodroffe was iconic in many ways. He was the first native Archbishop of the West Indies, having served as Bishop of this Diocese between 1969 to1986. As the first indigenous Archbishop of the Church in the Province of the West Indies, he became the bridge between the Colonial Church and an emerging indigenous West Indian Anglican Church. He led the Church’s commitment to, and achievement in, the area of Educational Enrichment and demonstrated a powerful example of partnership between Church and State for the advancement of the society. The challenge for the present generation is to devise a language that best articulates the aspirations of the broad masses of the people, who today remain untouched by the Anglican Church; who generally believe that organized religion is not geared towards their highest, noblest, and most productive well-being. But who nevertheless need the spiritual and moral insight the Church has to offer.

Christianity, as with all religions, can help to maintain the status quo or transform it. Those with vested interest will always be happy with a theological narrative that offers nothing more than a health-and-wealth and pie-in-the-sky by and by diet on a Sunday morning. On the other hand, Christianity can also turn the world upside down. That is to say, like the prophets of old, it can lead us to uncomfortable places; to places we would readily not go.

In this lecture I will reflect on the latter and on attempts to locate a Caribbean theology that addresses the aspirations of Caribbean people by suggesting some of the challenges in advancing that cause, and identify some priorities for a Caribbean theology today.

Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery
None but ourselves can free our minds
Have no fear for atomic energy
Cause none of them can stop the time
How long shall they kill our prophets?
While we stand and look
Some say it’s just a part of it we’ve got to fulfill the book
- Redemption Song, Bob Marley

Every theology is based on faith mediated by some social and cultural context. Theology is not something taking place in some remote location far removed from day-to-day struggles of life. Consequently when the Church fails to take these cultural and social elements seriously, then theology remains a set of abstract ideas disconnected from concrete history, undermining the emancipatory effect of the Gospel. Theology that is emancipatory is theology that seeks to communicate God’s word in categories of a particular time and place, and by persons engaged in the work for social change. This is the task and privilege of every Christian, for theology is nothing more than faith’s ongoing quest for understanding. I just quoted some words borrowed from Bob Marley’s Redemption Song. The words reflect not only the desire to sing the song of freedom but to know that we are never too poor or too black to write our own script, since none but ourselves can free our mind.

Theology and the Colonized Mind

Despite achieving political independence, the colonial influence continues to permeate the life and livelihood of Caribbean Society. The colonial power did this through the commercial links that were long in existence (in fact it is for this very reason why colonies exist in the first place) and secondly through their hegemonic influences that is to say, through the network of relationships, social organizations, and systems that make it possible for an elite group to exercise authority over others. In this second instance their dominating influence was more effective.

Caribbean Church leaders, in many instances, were complicit in legitimizing the continued domination of the colonial culture and therefore acted in ways that supported the interests of that culture. This was certainly the view of Lewin Williams who argued a decade and a half ago, that the churches that have had their historical roots in Europe and North America still maintain a theological mind-set that conforms to the hegemonic interest of the North. As a consequence, they fail to see their complicity in the systems of oppression.

The clergy on a whole belonged to a school of thought that saw issues of justice as belonging to a social sphere of life that was not open to change. They were glued to an epistemological tool that was concerned with “things as they actually are” and not with what they potentially could become.

Inspired by the movement of “Black Ideology” in the United States and Liberation Theology in Latin America, in the 1960s and 70s, it soon became clear to few progressive church leaders that one must begin to have a critical look at the church’s complicit practices that continue to undermine the liberation from values and thoughts that continue to enslave.

This is how the noted Caribbean economist William Demas saw it in 1972:

The critical area in which change is required is in that of values. Only a change of values would hold out hope for a solution of the unemployment problem and for a transformation of agriculture and rural society. Only a change of values would enable the people to accept a revised definition of development itself and reject the Madison Avenue definition of the ‘Good Life’. Only a change of values could contain the revolution of rising expectations for material improvement. Only a change of values could give the people the motivation to build from below.”
 - William Demas, The political Economy of the English-speaking Caribbean, Barbados: CADEC, p.31.
Cited by Roy Neehall in David Mitchell, ed, With Eyes Wide Open, Barbados:  CADEC, p. 23

Caribbean Contextual Theology of the 1970s

The Ecumenical Consultation on Development held in Chaguaramas Trinidad in 1971 under the sponsorship of the Caribbean Conference of Churches was a watershed occasion for Caribbean theology. This consultation and the published presentations by theologians and economists that resulted became a very important point of reference for Caribbean theology for the next two decades. They opened new vistas through which Caribbean Christians would begin to view a common vision for the Church’s mission.

At the Chaguaramas Consultation, Caribbean theologians began speaking for the first time about developing a theology that was contextual. That is to say, they began to identify the common experience of slavery and colonization as the place where faith in God is received and expressed. And if this social and cultural context is where Caribbean people meet God, then we have to ask certain questions about such a context. An important voice advocating for such an intervention was Idris Hamid Principal of St. Andrew’s Theological College in Trinidad and one of the pioneers in re-interpreting the received faith. In a paper entitled, “Theology and Caribbean Development, Hamid sets out four objectives for a Caribbean (contextual) theology:
• It must explore the way our experience of God has been colonized.
• It must probe ways in which the people have been experiencing God in and through the culture.
• It must critique the social structures that re-enforces one’s colonized experience of God.
• Finally, Caribbean theology must assist in rooting out the superstitions and idolatry that surround much of Christian living.

Hamid was not specific about what he meant by “rooting out the superstitions and idolatry” that surround much of Christian living. Nevertheless, as one of the early apologists of Caribbean theology, he had some challenging things to say. He believed that Caribbean people have a unique, distinctive, and peculiar historical experience, and yet none of that experience is reflected in the faith expression and worship of our people. One reason for this is that the churches in the Caribbean have, by and large, been expressions of the churches from overseas. “Their theologies quite naturally reflect the experiences of Europe and North America.”

It is not uncommon for Caribbean Christians to maintain multiple loyalties in their religious affiliation. Members of the Anglican Church will quite comfortably attend the Eucharist on Sunday morning and the Zion Pentecostal meeting in the evening. In these two places the understanding one has of God is miles apart. Caribbean people, wrote Hamid, often have to “step outside of their skin” in order to worship God. I have argued, that indigenous religions have largely refashioned the symbols and teachings of Christianity into their own image, thereby demonstrating a hermeneutics of suspicion long before Western theologians invented the term. This is even more so for the Rastafarians, who have long felt that the traditional churches’ interpretation of the Bible is geared towards “hiding the truth from the people.” Because Rastas were not prepared to limit their cosmology to the one defined by the “colonial church,” they were able to come up with a different hermeneutical reading of the biblical text. The ability to do that is seen by many Caribbean theologians as an “oasis” in the wilderness of subjugation. A former president of the United Theological College of the West Indies, William Watty, puts it this way: “The presence of the Rastafarians is one loud and long cry (for a people’s affirmation) in the face of four centuries of relentless colonization and colonial propaganda and colonial theology.”

In spite of this acknowledgement by the academia, Caribbean theologians have done very little to engage in any meaningful dialogue with Rastafarianism or the “folk-wisdom” of Caribbean natives. Hamid did call for such a discourse:

“If we examine carefully the folk-wisdom that has arisen among the people, we shall find in those practical wisdom sayings elements of a theology or philosophy of life that reflect our historical experience. …. God’s name is blasphemed whenever he is not understood as one who stands on the side of the weak, oppressed, exploited and down-trodden. Yet we find him so easily identified in our minds with the well-to-do, the educated (who are also the well-to-do), the white and the foreign. The causes that led to this are deep and varied. But there is one that I wish to draw your attention to. It is that God has become captive to the ethos of domination and exploitation. This ethos is a hermeneutic factor in the misrepresentation of God. In other words, the interpretation of God and the presentation of Him have been thwarted by the social climate in which it was done and by whom it was done.”

What is being proposed in the above quote is not simply the translation of the Bible into the vernacular but a call for the Church to find out, through dialogue, what already exists within the culture that expresses God’s story for Caribbean people. The problem is that such an alliance and dialogue would change the identity of the Church, and no one was prepared to take on that risk. And yet, on the other hand, as Robert Schreiter points out, focusing only on the negative connotation of compromising the integrity of the Christian faith (by embracing culture) obscures the cultural dynamics by which an identity is formed. All one does by taking such a negative stance is to stop the conversation and further push the voices of the poor to the margins of church activity.

“With new commitments and alliances, the Church must work with the people instead of for them, listen to them instead of speaking at them, standing with them in suffering and shame instead of scolding and judging. One ounce of solidarity with these people is worth a ton load of sermons or writings. But it is hardly likely that the Church can do this task with its present structure of ministry and communication, and its present theology.”

A Dream Deferred

The African-American poet Langston Hughes, in one of his poems asks “what happens to a dream deferred?” That question was addressed to the Caribbean Church at a Consultation on Theological Education in the Caribbean hosted in 1993 by the United Theological College of the West Indies, Mona. Theologians and church leaders met to discuss Caribbean theology and a contextually relevant approach to theological education. If my memory serves me correctly, this was the first consultation of its kind in nearly two decades. Two of the theologians participating in that consultation made some important remarks about the future of Caribbean theology. Gerald Boodoo, a native of Trinidad and who served as Professor of Theology at Xavier University, Louisiana, believes that the 1980s was a decade of lost opportunities, as it was void of any serious attempt to implement the insights and visions of the seventies. He writes:

“Despite the mandate placed upon us by the urgent call of the seventies, in terms of fostering renewed and indigenized worship, more adequate contextual ideology and structural organization, and in creating and supporting our own organic theology, we found ourselves in the eighties, at least in the broader institutional packages we inhabit, looking more to the north. One of the effects of this seems to be the boiling down of the search for identity to a search for a consolidation of our respective power bases. And this is one at the expense of our local religious and symbolic expressions that enliven and support our formal structure.”

Kortright Davis made very much the same observation when he suggested that the souls of Caribbean people are being nurtured by African spirituality, mediated through music and the arts, and not the Church. The second theologian whose contribution to the consultation needs mentioning is Theresa Lowe-Ching, a Roman Catholic whose voice on social justice issues is well respected throughout the Caribbean. Lowe-Ching is critical of Caribbean theologians’ tentativeness with regard to critical reflection on context and issues a call for Caribbean theologians to come out of their isolated cocoons:
“This tentativeness, I suggest, could rightfully be coming from the realization that the vistas opened up by Caribbean theology are vast indeed, and much more research needs to be done by Caribbean theologians, especially in the areas of the various other disciplines which are being used to analyze the Caribbean reality…Not only must Caribbean theologians engage in more serious dialogue with social scientists and professionals in other disciplines being drawn upon, but the scripture scholars among us must hasten to provide us with that re-reading of the bible from our side of history which, we all agree, has to be the bedrock of our theological enterprise.”

Not withstanding the need for more rigorous work in dialogue with other disciplines, other very important factors were playing themselves out during the 1980s. Globalization and the geo-political forces from the North began to have consequential results on the church’s perceived mission. For example the publication in 1980 of the “Santa Fe Document” that profoundly shaped President Ronald Reagan’s Latin American policy stated that the emergence of liberation theology and the formation of grass-roots Christian based communities in the region pose a threat to U.S. national security. Caribbean theology had not yet developed any critical praxis that could threaten the status quo, as liberation theology had achieved in Latin America. Nevertheless, because of the deliberate attempt to silence advocates of liberation theology in Latin America, any sympathetic voice within the Caribbean ran the risk of being marginalized. In fear of that happening, the progressive voices among the clergy simply withdrew into the safety of their congregations. Rev Garnett Roper referenced to this as the period of intimidation. “In the context of counter-revolutionary or reactionary tendencies that have emerged, the church has allowed itself to be intimidated”.

The compelling question facing Caribbean Theologians today is this: If the vision to develop a new theological enterprise, which can best serve the emancipatory interest of Caribbean people, is of God, then why defer the dream, why lower the flame of the gospel? The African-American Lay theologian Verna Dozier has some words to say to that. In her book the Dream of God, Dozier uses the image of what she calls the “three falls” to show how Christians miss the mark of the high call to join God in the emancipation of humankind. Dozier’s image of the three falls were in reference to how the Church turned back the dream of God by turning into an institution. The three falls she describes are: 1) The story of Adam and Eve in the garden; 2) the desire of Israel to be like other nations having kings rule over them instead of God (1 Sam. 8:7), and 3) the Church’s accommodation of the Emperor Constantine. Time would not permit a full reflection on Dozier’s images to proffer a suggestion as to why Caribbean theologians allowed the opportunity of a critical theological witness to pass. However, Dozier’s second fall - Israel’s desire to be like other nations, is instructive for the point I which to emphasise. God she says, offered Israel a way of life that would witness to a new possibility for human life, absolute trust in God, but the chosen people said, no, we want to be like all nations. Trusting in God is too risky a thing to do. We want the security of systems with which we are familiar. The effect of this second fall on the Caribbean Church is that American Gospel has largely replaced much of the work that was done two decades earlier to introduce indigenous music, like reggae, into the liturgy. This about turn was demonstrated at the fortieth anniversary of Jamaica’s independence when Jamaicans were asked if they thought life would be better under colonialism; 56 percent said yes! In a study by Professor Don Robotham on Crime and Public Policy in Jamaica, this author suggests that globalization and deregulation have led to the revival and strengthening of old insecurities and prejudices.

The churches in Jamaica, and I suspect other parts of the Caribbean; have largely given into the insecurities that have overtaken our national life. The insecurities that come with an out of control rising crime rate; a drug trade that undermines national security; the marginalization of our youth because of the lack of employment opportunities; and local industries that are being suffocated by globalization, are all good reasons to feel insecure. Yet the church is bound by the Gospel of Jesus Christ to narrate an alternate script. And it is for the sake of the nation that the Church bears witness to that possibility.

Priorities for a Renewed Commitment to Caribbean Theology

Caribbean theology must establish some new priorities if it is to be taken seriously as a cognitive praxis for liberation. The starting point for a practical fundamental theology, according to Johann Baptist Metz, is “Praxis.” “The offer of salvation in Christianity does not become universal via an idea, he wrote, but via the intelligible power of a praxis, the practice of following Christ into the real hazards of history.

First of all, Caribbean theologians must be prepared to engage in a more serious dialogue with social scientists and professionals in other disciplines. For example, critical social theory has proven to be a worthy companion to liberation theology, thereby contributing significantly to its prophetic imagination. Likewise it can equally serve Caribbean theology. When the Church lives with the notion of an inevitability of history, then it is not likely it will do much to facilitate change. Scholars like Hegel and Marx perceived history differently. They claimed; “Within the eye of history lay a whirlwind of social contradiction and struggle.” It is to these social contradictions that the Old Testament prophets spoke and to which the Gospel of Christ urges us to speak today.

The Gospel by itself cannot liberate systems of injustice that have been eroding the moral and social fabric of the society for decades. For that to happen Christian men and women will have to engage the Gospel in dialogue with other partners. William Temple; a former Archbishop of Canterbury would insists that one cannot hope to pray authentically unless he or she has the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. This is so, precisely because as Rev Garnett Roper puts it, theology is public theology. Today, Christians must be encouraged to read the Bible with a critical eye for justice, and that must mean paying attention to our social scientists and commentators who can help us ask the deep questions that occupy the mind and hearts of our people.
The wellbeing of a country involves not just the development of its physical infrastructure but the measure by which the society is able to guarantee some reasonable standard of living for its members. When that possibility is disabled by the imposed conditionalities of lending institutions like the International Monetary Fund, then the entire wellbeing of the people is undermined. Theology must assist the ordinary reader of scripture to interrogate the important social issues of the day, and in the name of justice, speak the truth to power.

Secondly, Caribbean theology must develop new ways of reading the Bible. Reading the Bible in a manner that gives life to the text and correspondingly allows the readers to find their own life-story in the text must be the aim of every Christian. New and liberating stories for our lives can indeed emerge from the Bible once we are prepared to place ourselves within the text and ask questions such as “Who speaks for whom?” “Who is given voice and who is silenced?” One cannot successfully answer those questions unless you pay attention to the social setting or context in which we live out our faith. The collective memory of the local culture, as well as one’s social experience in our everyday life, unavoidably poses those questions to the text.

Because of our largely privileged place within the society, it is perhaps hard for Anglicans to recognize that often it is the people outside the “church of the status quo” who daily contemplate the possibility of their own emancipation. They are the very ones who ask the kind of penetrating questions the Psalmist often asks; questions like: “Where is God; Why has God not liberated us?” “Why is the Church so silent on issues of injustice?” “In whose interest does democracy serve?” These questions invite the church into new areas of social engagement and demand a reassessment of the way it does theology. The challenge to find a theology for social transformation is not a call for the Church to produce more theologies from the top; there are already many of these in existence. The challenge is to re-examine the way the Bible has been read and interpreted in the past and to open up the discourse to include those voices of resistance that have felt excluded from the historic hermeneutical process.

Caribbean theology can draw on the experience of Latin American and Southern African Christians who have long developed the technique of reading the Bible from the perspective of the poor. This reading of the Bible “from our side,” I must add, goes beyond a mere translation of the text into Jamaican Patois, what in some theological circles would be termed the indigenization of the text. Writing from the South African context, the former Archbishop of Capetown and Primate of Southern Africa, Dr. Njongonkulu Ndungane states:
“The major weakness of this approach towards indigenization is that it sought to dress Christianity in African culture while maintaining its foreignness in terms of symbols, thought forms, and value systems. In practice this implied the adaptation of European practices and thought patterns to the cultural life of the people of Africa. Scripture became a tool of domination in the sense that African Christians could not escape the colonial models of being Christian. All models of Christianity came from outside, rather than inside Africa. The approach was to maintain the status quo, even though the model was used by the African theologians themselves. Oppression through colonial domination had been internalized. Models of being church remained hierarchical and colonial.”

Our theological Institutions can learn much from what progressive Christians are doing in Southern Africa to liberate the Bible from its colonial reading (for example James Cochrane).

The third area that requires urgent attention for Caribbean theology must be that of addressing the distorted self-image that Caribbean people have of themselves. Like all colonized people, Caribbean people have had to struggle with an image of the self that is mirrored by the approval or disapproval of the colonizer. Such false consciousness frequently produces in oppressed peoples a vehement self-loathing for failing to live up to an ideology’s norms and ideals, for failing to achieve. It is for this reason why liberation theology places an emphasis on the marginalized and non-person as the interlocutor of theology. Gustavo Gutierrez makes the following observation about the nature of such a theology:
“To be sure, when we say ‘nonperson’ or ‘nonhuman being,’ we are not using these terms in an ontological sense. We do mean that the interlocutor of liberation theology is actually a nonentity. We are using this term to denote those human beings who are considered less than human by society, because that society is based on privileges arrogated by a minority.”

And so those of us who are part of the mainstream of the society and occupy leadership in our congregations must take seriously the idea of privilege when considering a theology that is in solidarity with the struggles of the poor. Sharon Welch makes a valid point when she observed that the temptation to despair and so give up on any idea that society can change, takes on a particular meaning for the middle class. Not that the poor are immune from despair and cynicism: “But the despair of the affluent, the despair of the middle class has a particular tone; it is easier to give up on long-term social change when one is comfortable in the present, when one has options, it is despair cushioned by privilege and grounded in privilege.”
These words strike at the heart of our difficulty in moving forward with a Caribbean theology that gives priority to the struggles of a people. It is not sufficient to know what is wrong with the social order we must know the extent to which we benefit from having things remain as they are. Until Caribbean theologians are able to claim their own social location they will not be able to acknowledge the connection they have to the system that makes one group benefit to the disadvantage of others. Making that acknowledgement would be a major first step in working towards a theological hermeneutic that would be socially transforming for Caribbean society.

This leads to the fourth area of priority for Caribbean theology today. That is a willingness to embrace one’s context as the medium through which the Gospel is communicated and received. This sounds so basic it hardly needs repeating. And yet the fact is that because the one sharing the message is often from a different “place” and likely does not share the same goals as the listener, different conclusions are drawn from the communicative event. Take for example the Base Ecclesial Communities in Latin America and South Africa. There, emphasis is given to the receiver of the message and not the “speaker.” As a result, local people are constructing their own theologies, whereas the one sharing the story is preoccupied with the integrity of the message in the communication event, the hearer has a preoccupation with identity.
If Caribbean theology is to affirm context, then it must be willing to embrace dialogue with and within culture as a basic methodological stance. If we believe that God continues God’s work outside the visible church, then Caribbean theology cannot ignore what Hamid calls the many “non-church” ways in which the reality of God is communicated, experienced, and expressed in our culture. These non-church ways make up who and what we are as Caribbean people. Indigenous religions like Rastafarianism long discovered this, and because of this, they have been able to capture the imagination of the people. Would that the mainline churches in the Caribbean could place their scholarly tradition to the service of that endeavour? The prospect of that happening awaits us.

Despite the perception by many that Anglican identity remains a mirror of the colonial enterprise; and despite that there have been moments when the Anglican Church kept itself aloof from the Caribbean cultural zone within which it functions – It nevertheless possesses the gifts that must complete the unfinished task of devising a Caribbean Theology free from the hegemonic categories that have informed the way we read scripture and live out the Gospel. This was affirmed at the last Triennial Synod of the Church in the Province of the West Indies held in Barbados in 2015.
Dr Anna Perkins in addressing the Synod suggested that the Anglican Church in the Caribbean has been gifted with “a strange kind of obligation”. Strange, because notwithstanding our colonial legacy:

Caribbean people are assured of the presence and engagement of the Anglican Church in their lives. Indeed, the Church continues to be the centre of life in many villages and rural communities across the region; the priest and members of the vestry are respected and relied on for many things. Educational institutions continue to be a key means of serving the people in the region. This is because the gifted presence of the Church in the West Indies is far from passive; Caribbean Anglicans recognise the relationship between their presence, the presence of others and the real presence of Christ laid bare in the Eucharist. Such engagement is a public sign of the Church’s commitment to the wellbeing of the world and to the discovery of the Kingdom in the midst of the places where we are present.

Anglicans can’t help but be engaged within the life of the community, because built within Anglican self-understanding are the theological tools necessary to promote the kind of transformation that is urgently needed in our region for which I have been advocating.
Anglicans embrace a spirituality that is rooted in the incarnation, and therefore, can neither be world-denying, nor can it be reduced to some private relationship with God. It calls us to be transformed into the life of the divine so that in turn the life of the world might itself be transformed. To engage one’s social context theologically, along with its culture and all the ambiguities that go along with it, means to become the place where God’s story of the world and our culture’s evolving story encounter each other. It is never a very safe or a very comfortable place to be. But we need to remember that the key to every theological interpretation is Jesus Christ, and it is the very uncomfortable and unsafe places within his own culture that engaged his transforming presence.

So the Anglican Church is once again being called upon to take the lead in deepening the means of spiritual and moral enrichment in the lives of our Caribbean people, and to place its gifts and resources in the service of a transformed life within our communities. This urgent and important imperative must consist of our commitment to demonstrate in multiple and creative ways that the will of God is to bring life to all, and to bring it in all of its fullness in every aspect of the society. That was the commitment that shaped the ministry and work of our beloved Archbishop Woodroffe. Ours is the task to re-commit ourselves to finding a theological model that is open to the full participation of everyone within the interpretive process of hearing what God is saying through scripture in these our Caribbean lands. When Christian mission becomes open to such a witness through the movement of the Spirit of Christ, all are transformed and enriched.

Rt. Rev. Robert Thompson
Bishop of Kingston; Diocese of Jamaica & the Cayman Islands
18/5/ 2017

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