A Black Theology of Liberation Is Essential for a Real African Renaissance

Cape Times (South Africa), September 14, 2007 | Go to article overview

A Black Theology of Liberation Is Essential for a Real African Renaissance


BYLINE: Tinyiko Sam Maluleke

"If the white God has been doing the talking all along, at some stage the black God will have to raise his voice and make Himself heard over and above the noises from His counterpart." (Steve Biko)

The likes of Frantz Fanon, Malcolm X, Kwame Nkrumah, Sekou Toure and James Cone have, among others, been rightfully identified as some of the intellectual influences on Biko's thinking.

There is, however, an influence that is often underestimated. It is the influence of religion on Biko and the influence of Biko on religion - African religion and African Christianity. Part of the reason some influences on and of Biko have been underestimated is that his creative and critical appropriation of all influences on him makes it difficult to place him into or exclude him from any easily definable category.

In a biographical piece, Lindy Wilson captures Biko's paradoxical character aptly when she says: "He strongly criticised the institutional church, yet he believed in God and had an insight into Christ's teachings. He was not a Marxist ... yet he believed in the importance of the future role of the black working class, and in the redistribution of land and wealth."

Religion loomed large in Biko's life and thought. He grew up in a Christian family, attended high school at a Catholic boarding school and two of his most intense and intimate interlocutors were two Anglican priests - Aelred Stubbs and David Russel.

These people and institutions influenced Biko immensely. Several of his comrades themselves went on to become priests - Malusi Mpumlwana, Sabelo Ntwasa, Itumeleng Mosala and Barney Pityana, to name a few. Indeed, Biko has since inspired a generation of religion and theology scholars all over the world. It is testimony to the place of religion and faith in Biko's political thought that Pityana, in a memorial sermon in 1987, could say that, "Biko built his political system on spiritual foundations".

Yet Biko was fiercely critical of the Christian religious establishment, its structures and, above all, its appropriation and embodiment of the message of Christ. Recognising the value of the student body, the University Christian Movement established in the late 1960s, Biko was nevertheless critical of the fact that, though mainly black in membership, this organisation, like so many others, remained white led.

Biko saw the same problem in the institutional church, whose membership was swelled by blacks while the leadership remained white.

More importantly, Biko deplored the fact that its practice, mindset and theology remained white.

He was at pains to distinguish between the essence of Christian religion and the rigid cultural package in which it was brought to Africa. He decried the fact that, whereas in Europe Christianity was adapted to prevailing cultures, in Africa, "the people among whom Christianity was spread had to cast away their indigenous clothing, their customs, and their beliefs, which were all described as pagan and barbaric". …

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