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The Oxford Illustrated History of the Bible A richly illustrated account of the story of the Bible written by leading scholars.

The Ambiguity of the Bible

The encounter between indigenous South Africans and the Bible is usually recounted in broad strokes: ‘When the white man came to our country he had the Bible and we had the land. The white man said to us “let us pray”. After the prayer, the white man had the land and we had the Bible’. This anecdote, Takatso Mofokeng argues, expresses more precisely than any statement in the history of political science or Christian missions ‘the dilemma that confronts black South Africans in their relationships with the Bible’.

With this statement, which is known by young and old in South Africa, black people of South Africa point to three dialectically related realities. They show the central position which the Bible occupies in the ongoing process of colonization, national oppression and exploitation. They also confess the incomprehensible paradox of being colonized by a Christian people and yet being converted to their religion and accepting the Bible, their ideological instrument of colonization, oppression and exploitation. Thirdly, they express a historic commitment that is accepted solemnly by one generation and passed on to another—a commitment to terminate exploitation of humans by other humans. (‘Black Christians’, 34)

The dilemma of the Bible has been at the centre too of Itumeleng Mosala's work. In an early essay, ‘The Use of the Bible in Black Theology’, he publically questions the status of the Bible in Black Theology. Mosala's basic critique is directed at Black Theology's exegetical starting-point which ‘expresses itself in the notion that the Bible is the revealed “Word of God”’ He traces this view of the Bible as ‘an absolute, non-ideological “Word of God”’ back to the work of James Cone. He finds it even in the work of the ‘most theoretically astute of black theologians’, Cornel West. More importantly, according to Mosala, ‘South African black theologians are not free from enslavement to this neo-orthodox theological problematic that regards the notion of the “Word of God” as a hermeneutical starting point.’ Mosala underlines the pervasiveness of this view of the Bible by subjecting Sigqibo Dwane, Simon Gqubule, Khoza Mgojo, Manas Buthelezi, Desmond Tutu, and Allan Boesak to a similar critique. More recently, Tinyiko Maluleke has extended this critique to African theologians north of the Limpopo river, including Lamin Sanneh, Kwame Bediako, John Mbiti, Byang Kato, and Jesse Mugambi.

Mosala's contention is that most of the Bible ‘offers no certain starting point for a theology of liberation within itself’. For example, he argues that the book of Micah ‘is eloquent in its silence about the ideological struggle waged by the oppressed and exploited class of monarchic Israel’. In other words, ‘it is a ruling class document and represents the ideological and political interests of the ruling class’. As such there ‘is simply too much de-ideologization to be made before it can be hermeneutically straightforward in terms of the struggle for liberation’. The Bible, therefore, cannot be the hermeneutical starting-point of Black Theology. Rather, those committed to the struggles of the black oppressed and exploited people ‘cannot ignore the history, culture, and ideologies of the dominated black people as their primary hermeneutical starting point’.

Johannesburg Art Gallery, South Africa.

However, this does not mean that Mosala totally rejects the Bible. While the Bible cannot be the primary starting-point for Black Theology, ‘there are enough contradictions within the book [of Micah, for example] to enable eyes that are hermeneutically trained in the struggle for liberation today to observe the kin struggles of the oppressed and exploited of the biblical communities in the very absences of those struggles in the text’. Because the Bible is ‘a product and a record of class struggles’, black theologians are able to detect ‘glimpses of liberation and of a determinate social movement galvanized by a powerful religious ideology in the biblical text’. But, he continues, it ‘is not the existence of this which is in question. Rather, the problem being addressed here is one of developing an adequate hermeneutical framework which can rescue those liberative themes from the biblical text’.

In a later essay Mosala gives some indication of how black theologians ought to appropriate the Bible. He identifies two sources of Black Theology: the Bible and African history and culture. ‘Black Theology has roots in the Bible insofar as it is capable of linking the struggles of oppressed people in South Africa today with the struggles of oppressed people in the communities of the Bible’, but because the oppressed people in the Bible ‘did not write the Bible’, and because their struggles ‘come to us via the struggles of their oppressors’, ‘Black Theology needs to be firmly and critically rooted in black history and black culture in order for it to possess apposite weapons of struggle that can enable black people to get underneath the biblical text to the struggles of oppressed classes’. Furthermore, Black Theology also needs to be ‘firmly and critically rooted in the Bible in order to elicit from it cultural-hermeneutical tools of combat’ with which black people can penetrate beneath both the underside of black history and culture and contemporary capitalist settler colonial domination to the experiences of oppressed and exploited working class black people.

Similarly, for Mofokeng the Bible is both a problem and a solution. The ‘external’ problem of the Bible is the oppressive and reactionary use of the Bible by white Christians. The internal problem is the Bible itself. Like Mosala, Mofokeng is critical of those who concentrate on only the external problem, those who ‘accuse oppressor-preachers of misusing the Bible for their oppressive purposes and objectives’, or who accuse ‘preachers and racist whites of not practising what they preach’. It is clear, Mofokeng continues, that these responses are ‘based on the assumption that the Bible is essentially a book of liberation’. While Mofokeng concedes that these responses have a certain amount of truth to them, the crucial point he wants to make is that there are numerous ‘texts, stories and traditions in the Bible which lend themselves to only oppressive interpretations and oppressive uses because of their inherent oppressive nature’. What is more, any attempt ‘to “save” or “co-opt” these oppressive texts for the oppressed only serve the interests of the oppressors’.

Young blacks in particular, Mofokeng states, ‘have categorically identified the Bible as an oppressive document by its very nature and to its very core’ and suggest that the best option ‘is to disavow the Christian faith and consequently be rid of the obnoxious Bible’. Indeed, some ‘have zealously campaigned for its expulsion from the oppressed Black community’, but, he notes, with little success. The reason for this lack of success, Mofokeng argues, is

largely due to the fact that no easily accessible ideological silo or storeroom is being offered to the social classes of our people that are desperately in need of liberation. African traditional religions are too far behind most blacks while Marxism is, to my mind, far ahead of many blacks, especially adult people. In the absence of a better storeroom of ideological and spiritual food, the Christian religion and the Bible will continue for an undeterminable period of time to be the haven of the Black masses par excellence.

Given this situation of very limited ideological options, Mofokeng continues, ‘Black theologians who are committed to the struggle for liberation and are organically connected to the struggling Christian people, have chosen to honestly do their best to shape the Bible into a formidable weapon in the hands of the oppressed instead of leaving it to confuse, frustrate or even destroy our people.’ (‘Black Christians’, 40).

The Bible will probably continue to be a site of struggle, although the shape of the struggle will change as South Africa begins to conduct a deeper dialogue with the rest of Africa and particularly as African women give voice to their experiences and readings of the Bible.

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