Thought for the Week – Ambivalence and contradiction

This week, as part of Black History Month, Audrey talks about the contradiction of being an African Christian.

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A few years ago, I definitively resolved the contradiction of being an African Christian. Of choosing to relate to God within a religious tradition that made its way to me via colonial violence and the theft not only of culture and language, but of indigenous reality itself.

It’s a simple Marxist logic that capitalism (of which colonialism is a tool) creates its own contradictions; renders its own foundations precarious and will thereby bring about the conditions that will spell its end. Applied to Christianity, it’s a faith that was spread throughout the Global South in order to subordinate colonised populations yet, when the anti-imperialist themes in its Scripture have been excavated, it has also served as a means of galvanising movements against slavery and colonialism. Armed with knowledge of Christian rebels as varied as Gustavo Gutiérrez and Harriet Tubman, I can face the brutal history of my religion knowing that myself and countless others were unwittingly handed a powerful weapon against the forces that continue to rob us of sovereignty and selfhood.

This was a neat conclusion to years of ambivalence around this point. It went unchallenged until the passing of Queen Elizabeth II last month. My primary place of worship suddenly became a place of mourning for someone that symbolised and embodied empire. By virtue of being a congregant within the Church of England, whose Supreme Governor is the reigning monarch, I felt this contradiction particularly keenly. But congregations across other denominations mourned, too, and just like that I was back to the sense of ambivalence I’d thought I’d resolved.

The Marxist argument, while still both satisfying and true for me, no longer feels like enough. In fact, I recognise now that in one way it’s been a means of escaping the fact that ambivalence has been the dominant affect of my church experience since childhood.

The megachurches I attended with my mum and sister were sites of familial closeness, opportunities to stand on the cusp of physical surrender during worship, and deeply conservative and homophobic spaces that unsettled me. As an autistic kid at a Catholic kindergarten, I loved the ritual of mass for how straightforward and predictable it made communicating with God and the rest of the congregation and I found the restrictive messaging of what a Christian life should look like anxiety-inducing.

And within the Anglican tradition that raised me I find great comfort. It’s in the Anglican church that I first learned about God and it’s here that I’d like to continue learning. And the legacy of its active complicity in colonialism lives on, manifest as much in its mourning of the Queen as in the institutional racism that continues to pervade the CoE.

I suspect in finding a convincing intellectual solution to these contradictions I’ve also locked away my emotional responses to them. Thinking and narrativizing instead of feeling; doing so entirely in isolation because admitting how much it bothered me to others would have involved admitting the same to myself. Like most coping mechanisms, I think it has come to outlive its use.

Which has left me with the question of what to do next. My first thought was of James Baldwin, who said once in an interview: “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read.”

Reading about how others have challenged and coped with the racism, misogyny, homophobia, ableism endemic to post-colonial living has been the primary way I’ve ensured I don’t deal with these structures alone. Largely because reading has always ultimately led me to other readers, with whom I’ve formed healing communities.

I’ve never thought to apply this to church, so I want Black History Month this year to mark the beginning of learning to hold my ambivalence around my faith with others. Reading theology borne at least in part out of similar affective responses and talking to other black and marginalised Christians about their faith. I think it’s only with others that I’ll learn to sit with the fact that the paradox of being a black churchgoer is both painful and productive. That spaces I’ve occupied have been wounding and also contributed positively to my image and understanding of God. This feels more sustainable – less lonely – than addressing ambivalence in solitude.