Black Religion Scholarship’s Public Reach
By R. Drew Smith
In a richly insightful reflection on the public contributions and prospects of black religion scholarship, Gayraud Wilmore’s 1999 essay on “Black Theology at the Turn of the Century” (published in Dwight Hopkins’ Black Faith and Public Talk) outlines several “unmet needs” pertaining to “the future of African American religious thought and praxis.” One of the unmet needs identified by Wilmore is “a renewed contact and bonding with African, Caribbean, and black Latin American churches, mosques, intellectuals and religious leaders” and with the “religiously oriented African Diaspora” in England, the European continent, and elsewhere. “The time is ripe for our church people and theologians to forge new, mutually beneficial relationships with brothers and sisters abroad,” writes Wilmore thirty years after “Black Theology” began coursing its way through black religious thought and practice, and five years after the 1994 democratic transition in South Africa signaled the end of white minority rule on the African continent.
African American religion scholars have made progress toward meeting the challenge outlined by Wilmore, including through African American engagement with such initiatives as the Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians and the Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians; through transnational collaborative research initiatives by scholars such as Dwight Hopkins, Peter Paris, and others; and through international conversations convened by SSBR in places such as Jamaica, Brazil, and Ontario. Yet, black religion scholars are a long way from fully embracing Professor Wilmore’s challenge, especially as it relates to the kind of engagement of public issues and black popular struggles he calls for in his essay.
The Transatlantic Roundtable on Religion and Race (TRRR), founded in 2010, joins in solidarity with such efforts to strengthen the trans-national and public dimensions of scholarly undertakings bearing on black social and religious life in Africa and the Diaspora. Specifically, TRRR’s evolving network of scholars, clergy, and activists collectively focus on racialized aspects of religion, politics, and culture in Atlantic-region nations, pursuing these concerns through conference dialogues, published collections, and public advocacy and outreach. For example, TRRR’s inaugural conference in 2011 at the University of South Africa explored debates over post-racialism and the extent to which the faith-based sector was wrestling sufficiently with the social implications of race within post-apartheid South Africa, within Obama-era America, and within European contexts such as the United Kingdom where overt appeals to race are rejected as a matter of official policy. These issues were examined in keynote lectures by South African theologian and activist, Allan Boesak, by Boston University ethicist and Thurman/King scholar, Walter Earl Fluker, and by British political scientist and clergyman, David Muir—as well as by a dozen panelists from South Africa, the U.K., and the USA. Interrogations of the enduring religious and cultural significance of race carried over into our 2012 conference at the University of London, where British black theology scholar, Anthony Reddie, and Canadian black religion scholar, Carol Duncan, provided the lead addresses on a two-day program packed with fifty scholarly papers by presenters from the U.S., Canada, and multiple European and African nations.
TRRR’s commitment to connecting scholarship on black religion and public life to constituencies and contexts beyond the academy has borne some immediate fruit. Our conference audience of roughly seventy-five persons in South Africa and roughly one hundred in England included pastors and activists who brought various theological and cultural vantage points to our discussions of religion and race. In London, we also took our discussions off-campus, including a session on religious responses to black incarceration which was held with government officials and community activists at the House of Lords, and two sessions held at local churches where valuable networking with strategic church constituencies occurred. TRRR supporters in England and in South Africa continue building on these initial networking steps, including plans to reconvene an abbreviated TRRR dialogue in London within the next year.
The potential for transatlantic scholarly and advocacy connections on black religious affairs was also made evident in a petition campaign facilitated by a TRRR and Samuel Dewitt Proctor Conference (SDPC) working group in response to the escalating interreligious and inter-ethnic hostilities in countries within Africa’s Sahel/Saharan region. The petition, which was posted on change.org for several months and which was widely circulated via email received substantial support, including endorsements from six presidents of theological schools, six heads of denominations or international ecclesiastical agencies, and from the general secretaries of two national interfaith councils in the Sahel/Saharan region. Moreover, almost two dozen SSBR members including president Emilie Townes and immediate past president Lee Butler signed onto the petition, as did many other scholars, pastors, bishops, and community leaders representative of the racial, ethnic, national, and continental diversity of the transatlantic region. A priority outlined in our petition was that public policy approaches to interreligious conflict place a greater reliance on democracy-oriented African faith-based organizations in mediating these conflicts. The signed petition was submitted to key members of the United Nations, the U.S. State Department, and the U.S. Congress in the midst of what is now a growing transnational governmental mobilization in response to the crisis in Mali, in particular.
The TRRR/SDPC campaign to strengthen religious liberty, democracy, and peace in the Sahel/Saharan region is in line with the theme of TRRR’s July 2013 conference to be held in Ghana on “Black Churches and 21st Century Captivities.” The conference will be convened in the shadows of the slave castles on the 150th year anniversary of the U.S. Emancipation Proclamation, where it will examine church responses to contemporary threats to black social, physical, and religious well-being. Topics to be covered by the conference will include political oppression, group conflict, co-optation of religious life, captivities of persons (e.g., modern slavery, human trafficking, mass incarceration), and economic distortions and dependencies. While focusing mainly on the 21st century, the conference will also explore historical backdrops and comparisons that inform understanding of the contemporary contexts in which these issues play out. We are hoping once again for a rich geographical (meaning transatlantic) and vocational diversity among our conference attendees and are planning for a systematic outreach in Ghana and in neighboring countries. The host contexts have been a valuable dimension of TRRR conferences, and TRRR has been very fortunate to have outstanding host conveners including our 2013 Ghana host, Kwabena Asamoah-Gyadu (Trinity Theological Seminary, Ghana), our 2012 London host, William Ackah (University of London, Birkbeck), and our 2011 Pretoria host, Rothney Tshaka (University of South Africa). As TRRR mobilizes toward its 2013 conference and other future conferences, it hopes to continue to expand its collaborative relationships with academic institutions and also with scholarly, ecclesiastical, and advocacy networks that focus on black religion and public life, including SSBR.
TRRR and others working to strengthen the public impact of black religion scholarship face an uphill climb, especially within the historical context in which we presently find ourselves—a context where scholarly discourse is trending toward levels of abstraction that place it beyond public reach and that nudge public life and popular struggles out of scholarly view (which is too frequently the case with religion-related discourses); and where the economic downturn has constricted the flow of resources that might help underwrite new innovations in the relationship between scholarly activities and broader public purposes (especially as it relates to the collective strivings of grassroots populations). Making black religion scholarship available as a resource within the many circumstances, pursuits, and struggles of blacks across the transatlantic will require reproducing many times over the kinds of cross-sector networking pursued for many years by SSBR, SDPC, and others—and more recently by TRRR. These efforts may not be currently producing the kinds of mass mobilizations necessary for transforming the relationship between black religion scholarship and black social strivings in the U.S. and abroad, but hopefully they are building ever-greater momentum toward what Professor Wilmore refers to as “center[s] of contagion . . . that could infect larger institutions, structures, and various ad hoc organizations.” Although there is much work yet to do, there is much on which to build.
—R. Drew Smith is Scholar-in-Residence, Leadership Center at Morehouse College and Co-Convener, Transatlantic Roundtable on Religion and Race
Source: Society for the Study of Black Religion Newsletter, January 2013.http://www.ssbr.net/images/SSBR_Newsletter_Winter_2013.pdf