Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Theological Education in the Bahamas, Part IV

This is the fourth of a five part series that previously appeared in News from Daniel and Estela Schweissing between February and August 2006. A more in-depth theological treatment of this topic can be found in the upcoming edition of the American Baptist Quarterly.


We’ve all heard the old Chinese proverb, “Give people a fish, and they’ll eat for a day; teach people to fish, and they’ll eat for a lifetime.” For decades, missionaries and international development workers alike have used this proverb to explain community development strategies that move beyond charity to empower the poor with the skills and education needed to improve their standard of living. But increasingly, we are beginning to understand that training and education are of limited value when employment opportunities are scarce or the few jobs that are available don’t pay a living wage. At the international level, we have frequently ignored the complex social and economic structures through which wealthy nations often prosper at the expense of poor nations. But simply placing the blame on wealthy nations does not fully explain the problem of global poverty. Within poor countries themselves, growing economic disparities between the wealthy ruling class and the impoverished masses can be attributed to government corruption, misuse of international aid, illiteracy, soil erosion, overpopulation, civil war, and a myriad of other factors. Even on the local level, well-intentioned development projects are often appropriated by pastors or other community leaders, enabling them to broaden their power base at the expense of those whom a given project was originally intended to help. With these things in mind, we are now recognizing that it is not enough to simply “teach people to fish.” We also need to consider the question, “Who owns the pond?”

Western missionaries have been slow to ask this question, in part, because our theology fails to explicitly address the root causes of poverty. In contrast, the religious faith of black Bahamians and other Afro-Caribbean peoples has long played a significant role in challenging the injustices of five-hundred years of slavery and colonialism. From the earliest days of slavery, religion often inspired slave uprisings and revolts against white plantation owners. Most slave resistance, though, tended to be more subtle—stealing food, procrastination on the job, refusal to give up African beliefs and customs, individual escapes, and formation of fugitive slave communities in the mountains. By the late eighteenth century, mass conversion of Caribbean slaves and freed blacks to Protestant Christianity provided new avenues of resistance to slavery and racial discrimination. Much to the consternation of British colonial officials, non-conformist churches—especially the Baptists—often provided sanctuary for runaway slaves as well as allowing slaves and freed blacks alike to become full-members, hold church offices, and even become preachers. Eventually, Baptist led slave resistance in Jamaica became so violent that it significantly hastened the legal decision to end slavery in all of the British colonies. Following emancipation, religion continued to fuel struggles for racial equality and, later, independence from British colonial rule. This tradition of religious resistance—referred to by some scholars as black radicalism—reached its climax in the Bahamas with the achievement of black majority rule (1967) and Bahamian independence (1973).

The Bahamas’ journey to black majority rule and independence began in 1935, when the National Baptist Convention in the United States began to provide scholarships for Bahamian Baptists to prepare for the ministry at the historically black American Baptist Seminary in Nashville. Having experienced southern racism and observed the early precursors to the U.S. civil rights movement during their studies, Bahamian graduates such as H.W. Brown and R.E. Cooper, Sr. returned to the Bahamas determined to right the injustices faced by the black majority in their own country. These Baptist pastors were amongst the first supporters of the Progressive Liberal Party (PLP), which was formed in 1953 to challenge the political and economic power of the white Nassau merchant class known as the Bay Street Boys. Borrowing from the rhetoric and tactics of leaders in the U.S. Civil Rights Movement as well as nationalist movements against British colonial rule in Africa and the Caribbean, the PLP and its Baptist allies gradually gained the support of the black Bahamian populace they claimed to represent. Using the scriptures to show how God helps the weak to triumph over the mighty, fiery Baptist preachers encouraged unity and solidarity amongst black Bahamians while the leadership of Baptist women doubled the size of the black electorate through their efforts to achieve women’s suffrage.

By late 1966, the United Bahamian Party (UBP)—representing the interests of the Bay Street Boys—caved into growing pressure from the PLP and called for new parliamentary elections to be held on January 10, 1967. They hoped that by scheduling the elections shortly after the Christmas holidays the black electorate would be too distracted with celebrations to adequately prepare. Instead, the religiously zealous PLP leadership quickly pointed out that election day coincided with the day of Passover, the “tenth day of the first month,” when Pharaoh ordered the Israelites to be released from slavery in Egypt (Ex 12:1-3, 31). Such biblical imagery coupled with the theme song from the recently released movie Exodus and the U.S. civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome” enabled the PLP’s campaign to build enough momentum to achieve an election night tie with the UBP. During the night, the PLP brokered a deal with the largely black Labour Party to form a coalition government, thus ushering in a new era of black majority rule. Years later, Baptist leader and PLP stalwart Doris Johnson recalled: “Thus it was that on ‘the tenth day of the first month,’ black Bahamians emerged from the centuries-old domination of a white power group and crossed over to the promised land of ‘milk and honey,’ on which they could grow more and more able to shape their destiny. They could walk tall and proud in their own land as never before, and humble too, as their deeply religious sense attributed their Glory (sic) in victory, to the mysterious ways of their God.” Once in power, the PLP and its Baptist allies continued their struggle for the equality of black Bahamians, culminating in independence from Great Britain on July 10, 1973.

These events are but one of many instances in which black radicalism has drawn on the story of God’s deliverance of the Hebrews from Egypt to inspire liberation from oppressive social conditions. As a force for social change, radical black religion has always been an important alternative to the missionary theology utilized by the white ruling class as a means of social control. During the slave era, white missionaries justified their ministries amongst black slaves by arguing that the conversion of slaves to Christianity would make them more obedient to their masters (Eph 6:5, Col 3:22) and, thus, better slaves. By focusing exclusively on saving souls, the missionaries gave slaves something to look forward to in the next life (Eph 6:7-8, Col 3:23-24) but forbid them from using their newfound freedom in Christ to seek freedom from their physical bondage here on earth. Following emancipation, such otherworldly theologies continued to insure that former slaves and their descendents remained socially and economically subordinate to the white ruling class. Today, this otherworldly theology of the slave era has largely been replaced by the this-worldly focus of prosperity theology. Having watched their country’s meteoric rise from a backwater colony to a thriving nation in just a single generation, many Bahamians have understandably exchanged admonitions to “obey your master” for alluring promises of limitless wealth. But by emphasizing that poverty is the result of one’s lack of faith in God while ignoring unjust social and economic structures, prosperity theology—like its otherworldly predecessors—still serves the purpose of upholding the privileges of the economic elite at the expense of poor.

The real reasons for Bahamian poverty are much more complicated than what proponents of prosperity theology would have us believe. Just a little over three decades after independence from British colonialism, the Bahamas now faces the economic challenges of neocolonialism. Concealed behind the glitz and glitter of the Bahamas’ multimillion dollar tourist industry, for example, is the hard reality that most profits go directly into the pockets of foreign investors, with only eight cents out of every dollar actually remaining in the country. Nearly forty-years after the achievement of black majority rule, the Bay Street Boys are no longer publicly visible in Bahamian politics. Yet the white minority they represent—just a mere 15% of the population—still controls 85% of the nation’s wealth. Boasting the third-highest per capita income in the western hemisphere, the Bahamas is home to a sizeable black middle class that lives in relative prosperity compared to its Caribbean neighbors. But beneath this veneer of wealth is an even larger black underclass that enjoys few, if any, of the benefits of the modern Bahamian economy while being displaced from unskilled jobs by a growing influx of poverty-stricken immigrants from Haiti, Jamaica, and Latin America.

While the white Nassau merchant class and its foreign investment partners have been the primary beneficiaries of the Bahamas’ astounding economic growth, enough black Bahamians have dramatically increased their standard of living in the past few decades to make the fantastic promises of prosperity theology believable to the majority of the populace still living in poverty. In this environment, it is easy to see how entrepreneurial pastors and church leaders have used the teachings of prosperity theology to become wealthy at the expense of their own congregations. More importantly, it is easy to see how the voices of radical black religion that once challenged the otherworldly theologies of colonialism have remained silent against this onslaught of neocolonialism and prosperity theology. With these things in mind, one of our priorities at Atlantic College is to equip our students to recover the tradition of black radicalism in Bahamian religion. By doing so, we hope to provide them with a viable alternative to the “business as usual” doctrines of prosperity theology that fail to challenge the social and economic structures that keep many Bahamians impoverished. To that end, much of the historical, political, and theological analysis described above has formed the basis for reading assignments, lectures, and discussion in my theology classes.

Even though only a handful of my students actually voted in the historic election that brought about black majority rule, most are old enough to remember when their parents voted for it. Or if not, they at least remember their own participation in the Bahamas’ independence celebrations. Most of these same students—typically representing the new black middle class—can also recount childhood stories of growing up in conditions of poverty and attending school when British history rather than Bahamian history was the mainstay of the curriculum. A small number of younger students, though, have no significant memories of either the black radical movement of the 1960s and early 70s or the social conditions that characterized that era. So while older students readily understand the nature of black radicalism and, to a certain extent, its significance for today, younger students generally experience some initial difficulty when it comes to making those connections. And when it comes to understanding the more distant legacy of radical black religion during the slave era, nearly all of our students have trouble recognizing the continuity of that tradition with its more recent manifestations during their own lifetimes. Given that most of my students are either still in school or have only recently graduated, it remains to be seen whether or not they will ultimately make those connections. But if they do, then we hope that their future ministries will find them moving beyond “teaching people to fish” to helping them acquire their fair share of the pond.

COMING NEXT: This newsletter has examined how theological education can facilitate social change in the Bahamas by helping students to recover the tradition of radical black religion. But ultimately, we hope that black radicalism does more than just inform the present ministries of our students. We’d also like to see it inspire them to develop their own theologies. Next, the fifth and final article in this series will show how we are doing this in “Towards an Indigenous Bahamian Theology.”

Part I: Why is Bahamian theological education important?
Part II: Bahamianization of the Theological Curriculum
Part III: Finding Alternatives to Business as Usual in the Church

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