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Indigenizing Christianity

Education 28 Jul, 2021 Follow News

Indigenizing Christianity

Dr. Livingston Smith is a Professor at the University College of the Cayman Islands. He is also Director of the CXC Education Volunteer programme

Caribbean scholars have long realized the potential of religion in helping to decolonize and indigenize, making way for a Caribbean theology, appropriate to the history and the peculiar narrative of Caribbean peoples. I believe this is especially urgent now as many young people are exposed to the full thrust of post-modern ideas with their grounding in relativism and the resultant lack of moral compass. Many even question the utility of the religious life.

The call for the indigenization process is not new. The black power movement and its critique of Christianity is well known. In the 1960’s, one of the leaders at the time, Walter Rodney, in his Groundings with My Brothers, wrote of the language used in regular conversation such as good hair, good complexion, reflecting European standards. There was respect for all the white symbols in the Christian religion- to quote him, ‘God the father is white, God the son is white and presumably also the Holy Ghost, the disciples and saints, cherubim and seraphim, excepting for Lucifer. The argument from Black Power was the need for religion to adapt and for people to be able to see God in their ‘own image’. Marcus Garvey had made a similar point. The call was for us to construct, from what we received, our own epistemologies and ontologies, reflecting ourselves.

Some of the best Caribbean theologians have written extensively about the continuing need to adjust our practice of Christianity to fit our historical and socio-cultural contexts- to be relevant and empowering. Much has been done, but much more is needed. Caribbean theologians such as David Mitchell, first challenged Caribbean church leaders to produce Caribbean Christian literature to meet the needs of the church, of the people and of the fledgling Caribbean nations.

The Reverend Ashley Smith, himself a leading Caribbean theologian of his time, wrote highly of Idris Hamid, another such Caribbean theologian, who he said sought to ‘contextualize God launching a writing of theology characterized by self-affirmation, protest against universalism, and everything else that makes received theology into an instrument of the self-determined development of the people of the region.’ Hamad, says Smith, knew ‘the difference between learning other people’s theology and being a party to the falsification of reality and like the erstwhile oppressed of the Bible re-politicizing ourselves and thereby sharing in the creation of the kind of future we can proudly call our home.’

Smith writes of a Caribbean theology that assists Caribbean people out of shame and self-doubt, to a people who know themselves as full persons, a decolonization theology, contextualized and made in the Caribbean and for the Caribbean. The work of decolonizing Caribbean theology which was so valiantly moving ahead in the 1970’s, does not appear to be much of a focus anymore. Instead, the heated discussion in my churches is on such ‘weighty matters’ as hat wearing or the extent to which women are allowed to take part in church and to what levels they have Biblical permission.

On the matter of music in the church, for example, many of our churches are still uncomfortable with the use of reggae as a form of Christian musical expression because of its link to the Rastafari religion. The churches that have an issue with reggae gospel, especially because of reggae’s association with the Rastafari, must content with the fact that the whole history of Judaism and Christianity which derived from it, has been one of adaptation and continuously making sense of changing human situations. In this context, Rastafari and reggae music are no different.

The history of music in the Jewish and Christian worship demonstrates its vitality and importance. Throughout its history, music in its various forms, has been borrowed, mixed, and syncretized, but when baptized by the Spirit and used for the glory of God, its impact is profound. Irrespective of the genesis of Reggae music, its current use as music for worship and for spreading the gospel, is demonstration of its versatility. Reggae came from the cultural and experiential bowels of ordinary people, marginalized, and oppressed. These are the people who God usually sides with. Their cultural expressions, devoted to his cause, he will not reject.

Gospel reggae can also contribute to the decolonization movement says Robert Beckford, known for his work on theology, music and social change. It is an opportunity, he insists, for gospel reggae be applied to our soteriology, hermeneutics, and identity as creative, lyrical categories. I fully agree. The same can be said of Calypso and other forms of indigenous Caribbean musical expressions.

In his book, Diverse Worship: African-American, Caribbean, and Hispanic Perspectives, Pedrito U. Maynard-Reid advances the thesis that there is a strong correlation between culture and worship styles and that this understanding should inform the attitudes of worshippers to each other and their various worship settings. Much of how worship takes place is due to culture, not Biblical injunction. As the author points out, God can be worshipped beyond ‘The narrow confines of our comfort zones.’ What one perceives as appropriate worship ‘is culturally conditioned and has little to do with Biblical orthodoxy or soteriological morality (Maynard-Reid, p. 4). What is important is that worship practices be wholistic and Christocentric and not narrow, fragmented, compartmentalized, and self-centered. The unmistakable link between culture and worship styles and the fact that God is the creator of cultural variety is a very useful perspective to always bear in mind.

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