Liberation theology and Jamaica’s oppressed
Christian-based groups have come out in full protest against the recent cover of the Yellow Pages telephone directory. The image on the cover captures a depiction of revellers in a typical dancehall session or party. From an artistic standpoint, the cover is brilliantly designed, capturing not only the vibrancy of the dancehall culture, but it also speaks to the significant role that the popular music plays in Jamaica’s cultural fabric.
Seemingly, the cover is considered to be offensive by Christian lobbyists and this depiction of the dancehall, it states, “is spreading wrong values”. And the usual rhetoric being given off in this discussion is that dancehall culture is somehow only suitable for a particular sector of the Jamaican society. Therefore, such an image has no place on the cover of a telephone directory that is directed at the general public or a wide cross section of Jamaicans.
The supposed offensive image on the cover features women and men dancing closely together. In response to the cover, Dr Wayne West, chairman of the Jamaica Coalition for a Healthy Society, maintains that: “We have challenges with our young people in terms of the values, the conduct that they are being exposed to. We thought that what was displayed there wasn’t something that was beneficial.”
Unfortunately, the Christian lobbyists and the Church in Jamaica have served as gatekeepers of culture, and they have misused their power to dictate acceptable and unacceptable Jamaican cultural art forms. They have also acted as a kind of social control to impose on Jamaicans acceptable moral and/or ethical behaviour. Similar to the colonisers, heads of the Jamaican churches and fundamentalist Christian organisations have felt the need to consistently pander to respectability politics, and no doubt they have always deemed African-Jamaican working-class culture as vulgar and inappropriate for public display.
Historically, African-oriented cultural productions were banned. Drumming, for instance, was prohibited, and the local language of the people was and still is generally frowned upon. Even African-centred religious practices such as Obeah were hidden away from the public domain. It is still illegal for Jamaicans to practise Obeah, as documented in the book,
Enacting Power: The Criminalization of Obeah in the Anglophone Caribbean, 1760-2011. Obeah is identified with Africanness, “and wi dun know seh, anything too black neva too good” in the eyes of racist anti-African forces.
Like many of us, Dr Donna Hope questions the Church’s role in failing to address more pressing issues affecting our young people. Because seldom do we see Christian groups and the churches coming out to organise against the structural violence affecting disenfranchised communities or advocating for human rights in Jamaica. Poverty, homelessness, lack of access to adequate health care, unemployment and underemployment, and limited access to a better life are responsible for more untimely deaths than armed conflicts, but Christian organisations are not militantly opposing the oppressive principalities and powers behind this human-made social crisis.
So, while Christian groups and churches continue to over-police Jamaican cultural expressions in the name of morality and decency, they have failed immensely in using their said power to engage their congregations and the wider Jamaican society in addressing social and economic issues that are impacting the nation.
Given the immense influence that Christianity has in our society, I propose that the Jamaican churches incorporate Liberation Theology as a teaching and activist approach to reach the masses, instead of their usual fixation on controlling societal values and maintaining the status quo.
These Jamaican women and men of the cloth are ignoring the fact that the Emancipation Rebellion that was led by Jamaica’s National Hero Sam Sharpe, and the Morant Bay Rebellion led by another National Hero Paul Bogle, were shaped and inspired by Ethiopianism or Christian liberation theology. Ethiopianism was a Christian theological and activist movement that interpreted the
Bible in racialised, nationalist and pro-African ways to fight the dehumanisation and enslavement of Africans in the Americas, and colonialism in Africa.
Indeed, before it had a name, the foundation of Liberation Theology offered strong spiritual leadership for slave revolts and rebellions. Other than the African-centred religious practices that were used as a source of resistance against slavery, enslaved Africans also found resistance through their Christian faith. Enslaved Africans read the
Bible, for instance, through the belief that God would deliver His people from slavery and overthrow the oppressors. Indeed, this reading inspired a revolutionary spirit, and similar to Liberation Theology was instructive in getting people to respond to the brutal conditions of slavery.
Latin America developed a variant of Liberation Theology, a religious movement which emerged in late 20th-century Roman Catholicism. The doctrine’s function is to apply religious faith by assisting the working class and the oppressed in general through participation in political and civic affairs. Latin American Catholics, based on biblical principles, demand that the church should focus its efforts on liberating the people of the world from poverty and oppression.
Some Catholic churches in Haiti have also adopted this religious practice as a prophetic instrument against poverty, illiteracy, poor or non-existent access to adequate health care, and repressive governmental forces. For Palestine, Liberation Theology is expressed in the form of a political theology where scholars and religious leaders use the model to challenge Israel’s settler-colonialism.
Contrary to the leadership role of the Church as an agent of revolutionary change, as seen in plantation society and through the instruction of Liberation Theology, the Church’s moral response to poverty and social injustice has been passive. Instead, Christian leaders and organisations have chosen to evaluate and comment on Jamaica’s social problems through the lens of their assumption of “moral” correctness and their prejudices against the cultural expressions of the oppressed.
Dr Lisa Tomlinson is a lecturer of cultural studies in the African diaspora and the Caribbean. Send comments to the Observer or