Gerald O. West
Gerald O. West is Professor Emeritus in the School of Religion, Philosophy, and Classics in the University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. He has worked extensively with the Ujamaa Centre for Community Development and Research for the past thirty years, a project in which socially engaged biblical scholars and ordinary African readers of the Bible from poor, working-class, and marginalised communities collaborate for social transformation. His most recent book is: The Stolen Bible: From Tool of Imperialism to African Icon (2016).
Gerald O. West, “Between class and tribe: recovering the contribution of Tanzanian Ujamaa biblical interpretation”
Is the economic a distinctive feature of ‘liberation theology’? This question shapes this paper. Liberation theology has its conceptual beginnings in an emphasis on the economic, as Latin American Liberation Theology makes clear (Gutiérrez). In South Africa, even though race is a key emphasis, it is entangled with class, such that the notion of ‘racial capitalism’ is central to both South African Black Theology and South African Contextual Theology (Mosala and Nolan).
Feminist Theology as a liberation theology shifts the emphasis from economic systems to gender-patriarchal systems, though some forms of Feminist Theology, such as Womanist Theology (Williams), retain an aligned emphasis on class. Though not a specific emphasis in Queer Theology, its Indecent Theology sub-genre (Althaus-Reid), has a distinctive intersection of gender-patriarchy, sexuality, and class. But what of those ‘liberation theologies’ that do not identify economic systems as central to their analysis? Perhaps the superordinate term ‘liberation theology’ has been used too loosely, though claims of family resemblances are, of course, useful in political terms.
The question that shapes this paper becomes even more pertinent with the rise of postcolonial theologies and their emphasis on cultural-identity systems, which have been variously identified as forms of ‘liberation theology’ (Nzimande) and as definitely not ‘liberation theology’ (Sugirtharajah). The turn to decolonial theology complicates the matter even further, for a recurring feature in South African decolonial theology has been a return to class (Ramanstwana).
A forgotten contributing voice to this question is Ujamaa Theology, which emerged in Tanzania in the 1960s (Nyerere, Frostin). This political-economic theology, like other early liberation theologies (in Latin America, South Africa, and the Philippines) engages overtly with tribal cultural-identity, decentring it, and placing the political-economy at the centre.
This paper returns to Ujamaa Theology, reflecting on its contribution then and now to the question of the how we understand, within ‘liberation theology’, the relationship between class and tribe. The paper will have a biblical studies focus, so biblical interpretation within liberation theologies will guide the analysis and argument.