Editor’s note: This column is adapted from the original publication on The Baptist Times and is reposted here with permission. The Baptist Times will publish further excerpts on their website.
Why “Burning for Freedom: A Theology for the Black Atlantic Struggle for Liberation”? Why the interest in the Sam Sharpe Revolt?
Indeed, the Sam Sharpe Revolt is regarded as the most widespread and greatest of all enslaved peoples’ revolts in the so-called British Commonwealth in terms of the number of enslaved involved, the area it covered and what it portended in the aftermath.
For example, the revolt took place in an area more than 700 square miles, involved more than 60,000 enslaved persons and 600 people died by execution and other means carried out by the government.
As historian Michael Craton argues, “By any account the 1831-32 Jamaican uprising – alternatively called the Christmas Rebellion or the Baptist War – served as a momentous climax to the long history of British West Indian slave resistance.”
Thus, the Sam Sharpe Revolt can be considered along with the Haitian Revolution of 1791-1803 as the greatest manifestations of resistance that led to the abolition of the institution and practice of slavery in the Black Atlantic world.
But in studying the Sam Sharpe Revolt, it is detected that the Caribbean intellectual tradition – the body of thought that constitutes the historical and theoretical framework for interpreting life through the prism of the Black Atlantic experience – has not taken into account the centrality of the Christian faith in the quest for liberation from oppression and for the fullness of life.
This Caribbean tradition of thinking focuses primarily on the political aspects of life, oblivious to the theological dimension, which events such as the Sam Sharpe Revolt symbolizes. For example, liberation theologians have employed a sociopolitical or materialist informed analysis in their work.
The issue in question, however, is not the materialist ideological perspective, but the absence of critical insight into the importance of revelation and the place of faith and God in the process of liberation.
This study, therefore, reasserts the centrality of the Christian faith as the center for the commitment to emancipation.
It challenges the notions of the non-confessional and sociopolitical basis for human liberation.
It is argued that these notions of doing theology ignore the role of the Christian faith and ultimately provide a humanistic materialist, human-centered interpretation of black liberation.
With this perspective, this book also serves as a polemical riposte to both the non-confessional expression of black religion and Christianity that are represented in works such as Anthony B. Pinn’s “Why Lord: Suffering and Evil in Black Theology,” Noel L. Erskine’s “From Garvey to Marley: Rastafari Theology,” and non-liberative interpretations of faith in Joseph D. Aldred’s “Respect: Understanding Caribbean British Theology” and Thabiti M. Anyabwile’s “The Decline of African American Theology: From Biblical Faith to Cultural Captivity.”
Moreover, this study offers an alternative view to these notions of liberation.
While some would want to dismiss and marginalize religion, as if it played no part in the liberation of the enslaved and other oppressed people and that religion has no relevance to the public arena and should be relegated to private life, it should be demonstrated that it was not the slave-holding oppressive version of Christianity that played this role but the liberating religion of the enslaved.
Their religion was different from that of the Euro-American Christianity. The enslaved saw the religion of the enslavers as a distortion of the truth and misrepresentation of true religion and God.
As the biblical prophet Isaiah asked: Is not true religion to “lose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke [oppression] and to set the oppressed free” (Isaiah 58:6).
In addition to functioning as an analytical tool in the sense of Paul Gilroy’s “Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness” and Michelle Ann Stephens’ “Black Empire: The Masculine Global Imagery of Caribbean Intellectuals in the United States, 1914-1962,” the study further engages the Black Atlantic experience as a source for theological discourse employing the Sam Sharpe Revolt as a paradigm.
As this study asserts, the revolt undermined the social, political, moral and theological foundations of British imperialism as well as Western social and intellectual traditions.
The specificity of black existence and humanity as a paradigm will be used to construct a theology of the Black Atlantic struggle for liberation.
Essentially, this book explores the relationship between faith and human liberation by examining how the Sam Sharpe Revolt can function as a historical event, heuristic framework and source for theological discourse.
Delroy A. Reid-Salmon is a research fellow at the Oxford Centre for Christianity and Culture at Regent’s Park College, University of Oxford. He is also pastor of the Grace Baptist Chapel in New York. To buy “Burning for Freedom,” follow this link. For more on Sam Sharpe, visit the Sam Sharpe Project’s website.