Steve Biko On Black Theology


Black theology in South Africa – A theology of human dignity and black identity

Timothy van Aarde

Black theology in South Africa is still relevant 20 years after the apartheid regime ended. It is a theology that gave to Black South Africans human dignity and a black identity. Black theology in South Africa confronted the imbalances of power and abusive power structures through an affirmation of human dignity and the uniqueness of the identity of black people. The biblical narrative of the Exodus is a definitive narrative in American black theology and liberation theology in overcoming oppression understood as political victimisation. Black theology in South Africa is not primarily about power and economics but also about the rediscovery of human dignity and black identity and to a lesser extent about victimisation. A third generation of black theology in South Africa will gain impetus through a rediscovery of human dignity and identity as its core values instead of a Black American liberation theology of victimisation or a Marxist liberation theology of the eradication of all power or economic imbalances.

Biko on Black Theology

The first people to come and relate to blacks in a human way in South Africa were the missionaries. They were in the vanguard of the colonisation movement to “civilise and educate” the savages and introduce the Christian message to them. The religion they brought was quite foreign to the black indigenous people. African religion in its essence was not radically different from Christianity. We also believed in one God, we had our community of saints through whom we related to our God, and we did not find it compatible with our way of life to worship God in isolation from the various aspects of our lives. Hence worship was not a specialised function that found expression once a week in a secluded building, but rather it featured in our wars, our beer-drinking, our dances and our customs in general.

Whenever Africans drank they would first rotate to God by giving a portion of their beer away as a token of thanks. When anything went wrong at home they would offer sacrifice to God to appease him end atone “for their sins. There was no hell in our religion. We believed in the inherent goodness of man -hence we took it for granted that all people at death joined the community of saints and therefore merited our respect.

It was the missionaries who confused the people with their new religion. They scared our people with stories of hell. They painted their God as a demanding God wanted worship “or else”. People had to discard their clothes and their customs in order to be accepted in this now religion. Knowing how religious the African people were, the missionaries stepped up their terror campaign on the emotions of the people with their detailed accounts of eternal burning, tearing of hair and gnashing of teeth. By some strange and twisted logic, they argued that theirs was a scientific religion and ours a superstition-all this in spite of the biological discrepancy which is at the base of their religion, This cold and cruel religion was strange to the indigenous people and caused frequent strife between the converted and the “pagans”, for the former, having imbibed the false values from white society, were taught to ridicule and despise those who defended the truth of their indigenous religion. With the ultimate acceptance of the western religion down went our cultural values.

While I do not wish to question the basic truth at the heart of the Christian message, there is a strong case for a re-examination of Christianity- It has proved a very adaptable religion which does not seek to supplement existing orders but-like any universal truth-to find application within a particular situation. More than anyone else, the missionaries knew that not all they did was essential to the spread of the message. But the basic intention went much further than merely spreading the word. Their arrogance and their monopoly on truth, beauty and moral judgement taught them to despise native customs and traditions and to seek to infuse their own new values into these societies.

Here then we have the case for Black Theology, while not wishing to discuss Black Theology at length, let it suffice to say that it seeks to relate God and Christ once more to the black man and his daily problems. It wants to describe Christ as a fighting God, not a passive God who allows a lie to rest unchallenged. It grapples with existential problems and does not claim to be a theology of absolutes. It seeks to bring back God to the black man and to the truth and reality of his situation. This is an important aspect of Black Consciousness, for quite a large proportion of black people in South Africa are Christians still swimming in a mire of confusion the aftermath of the missionary approach, it is the duty therefore of all black priests and ministers of religion to save Christianity by adopting Black Theology’s approach and thereby once more uniting the black man with his God. ”

-From “I Like What I like”-

Steve Biko on black Theology

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