The book: Chéry offers an extensive analysis of Black liberation and religion in her new book Kingdom Come (Duke University Press). Homing in on Black Christian activists in the 20th century, she traces the history of Black freedom struggle and the ways that South African church leaders defied colonial domination. She argues that Black Christians positioned the church as a site of political resistance and centered African visions of freedom in their organizing.
The author: Tshepo Masango Chéry ’03 earned her undergraduate degree from Princeton’s School of Public and International Affairs and her master’s and Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania. She is a South African scholar specializing in African history, with a focus on racial formation, radical politics, and religious expression. Chéry is an assistant professor of history at the University of Houston.
I knew terror by the age of five. By 1985, Soweto, my home, was engulfed in flames. African people had made the country ungovernable by resisting apartheid, a racial hierarchy that framed every aspect of our lives. The state had effectively incarcerated, exiled, or killed many leaders of the antiapartheid movement but even still had failed to stop the movement. The government had not expected clergy and church leaders, such as my father and his colleague Archbishop Desmond Tutu, to intervene, organize, and lead resistance efforts in Black townships such as Soweto. Between boycotts and protest met with state violence, African people set decades of colonial order ablaze. The repercussions for rebelling against a colonial order were unbearable. The state sent the military to our townships, infiltrated political organizations with informants, shut off the water supply intermittently, and cut off electricity. Police entered our home on horseback, threw tear gas at me as I played in our backyard, and even detained my father for short stints. These hardships did not keep my parents from writing subversive documents, distributing banned books, and smuggling information and people to political camps outside of South Africa. My parents pressed on and consistently brought politically active religious leaders from as far as Zimbabwe, Zambia, and even the United States to organize against apartheid. And yet through all of the political turmoil and violence, we found ways to survive, create normalcy, and dream of a different future.
In my family, bedtime stories countered chaotic life in Soweto. Stories recounted from children’s books, created in the moment, or drawn from family histories not only offered an escape from the present but also served as the very space to imagine an alternative. My parents bookended our nightly story-time ritual with powerful prayers that carved out audible spiritual spaces of refuge, palpable sanctuaries against the sounds of gunshots, the sight of our homes alight, and the lingering caustic, peppery odor of tear gas. One night our prayers were pierced by the portentous wail of a young activist’s cry: “Tima mabone” (Turn off the lights)!
The activist’s words brought my neighborhood to a standstill. Darkness enveloped our street as families hid the illegal makeshift wiring that brought electric current into our house so as to avoid detection by the swiftly approaching security branch. We said our prayers in the dark that night. We prayed for freedom; the hope for freedom was our only sacred light. Though this all unfolded when I was very young, my memory of that night brings into sharp view the function and power of faith when enduring life under something as harrowing as apartheid.
A few months later, I was forced to flee South Africa without my parents. Intel from another young activist had been given to my parents and detailed the unthinkable. My parents’ names and my own name were found on a hit list. This threat reflected a stage in the country’s upheaval when the government attempted to silence leaders by assassinating their families, especially their children. Children often became casualties during the 1980s and 1990s even after there was an international outcry because of the 1976 Soweto Uprising, when the government killed hundreds of schoolchildren as they protested inequitable education. Somehow the government had picked up on my parents’ activism even though it was often assumed that church leaders remained apolitical. My parents, however, drew their commitment to social justice from previous Christian leaders who felt that their faith compelled them to fight for freedom. Black Christians petitioned God for his kingdom to come “on earth as it is in heaven,” a promise of freedom that a wider community of South African Christians had clung to for generations. Indeed, these clergy’s faith-inspired activism was not new and did not begin in the 1980s but instead continued a century-old tradition of clergy leaders and other South African Christians declaring, envisioning, and working toward a kingdom on Earth that upheld their birthright to be free. Kingdom Come tells this little-known preapartheid history, when politically conscious Christians believed that the petition for God’s kingdom to come was equal parts prayer and mandate. In doing so, they forged a politics of freedom within the church that was as spiritual as it was political, laying the foundations for clergy such as my father, Tutu, and many others to reclaim South Africa in the postapartheid period as a moral project and not just a nation-building one. Black clergy, church leaders, and Christians in South Africa and beyond worked together long before the antiapartheid movement to counter segregationist practices that later became established as apartheid.
Dreams of freedom seemed unattainable in a world where racial subjugation loomed large. Black Christians’ passion for freedom was often ignited by struggles within their own denominations, where they experienced structural racism more intimately. Much of this conflict was part of a larger response to watershed moments in Western imperialism, beginning in 1884 with the partitioning of Africa at the Berlin West Africa Conference and ending with World War I and the establishment of the League of Nations. In South Africa, the British and the Dutch had organized their own colonies. The British implemented antislavery policies and anglicized as they established the Cape Colony in 1806; threatened, the Dutch left the region, forging a trek to the interior. The Afrikaners established the Transvaal and Orange Free State as their own colonies, an expression of growing Afrikaner nationalism. A decade later in 1846, the British cemented their presence through the Colony of Natal. Direct conflict came decades later with the discovery of and competition over diamonds and gold, one of the many impetuses for the Anglo-Boer Wars.1 Almost a decade after the war, the Afrikaners signed the Treaty of Vereeniging, a symbol of reconciliation between the British and the Afrikaners that established a unified government. The all-white officials representing the Union of South Africa reconciled British/Afrikaner differences by crystalizing competing types of segregation in Cape Colony, the Colony of Natal, and the Transvaal and Orange River colonies, codifying the segregationist policies in the new government’s legal system. Much of this legislation, especially the Land Act of 1913, dispossessed Africans of their land, relocated them into colonial ghettos, and restricted their mobility. And while Africans grappled with new material realities, their loss of land also meant the dislocation of their spiritual practices, an existential crisis.
During the interwar period, the South African government established a new racial taxonomy that essentialized Blackness by classifying certain multiethnic Africans as “Coloured” or of “mixed race.” Faced with this European authoritarianism, African Christians strategized their response through the belief in God’s promise that his kingdom could come in the here and now. Their vision for freedom insisted on its manifestation if not in their country then at least in their churches. This was collectively exemplified when South African Christians seceded from European-run churches ten years after Africa was officially partitioned by Europeans. This movement experienced the most growth just after the turn of the twentieth century, when Africans boldly created African-initiated churches under the banner of “Ethiopianism,” including the Ethiopian Church, the African Church, and the Ethiopian Catholic Church in Zion, among others. The spiritual freedom that Black Christians cultivated produced future generations of clergy who, like Tutu, would serve as the bedrock of the antiapartheid movement. This freedom, I suggest, was rooted in the charge recited in the Lord’s Prayer. The church leaders who catalyzed these shifts in Black religious life often were politically progressive and sometimes even radical but regularly relied on the Lord’s Prayer to envision their politics. They included clergy, clergy wives, lay leaders, political organizers, community leaders, and local elders. Some were educated at local mission schools. Others studied at prestigious institutions in Europe and North America. Still others were working-class Blacks who were domestics and gardeners or had jobs at port city wharfs, railroads, and mines. Yet, across class and cultural milieux, they shared a common animating spirit in that their Christian faith drove their quest for freedom, their fight against darkness.
While the petition “kingdom come” became a revolutionary charge at home in South Africa, it also extended outward through the African diaspora and became a transnational response to oppressive political conditions globally. Many of these Christians found common cause with believers all over the world who were also facing racial persecution under European colonial domination. From South Africa to Zimbabwe and Kenya and on to the United States, Canada, and the circum-Caribbean, these people recognized their shared experiences of colonialism and white supremacy. As South Africans sought to worship and establish their own churches beyond paternalistic forms of white missionary supervision, Black Christians abroad shared similar experiences that cast dark shadows in the history of Christianity. Both the African Methodist Episcopal Church and the African Orthodox Church are examples of the way Blacks in South Africa and the United States forged their own sites of autonomous worship to combat their experiences of white supremacy. First established in the United States before taking root in South Africa, these US churches were composed of a mix of northern Black communities mingled with southern Blacks seeking refuge from the grip of Jim Crow and West Indian immigrants fleeing the collapsed sugar industry, hurricanes, and famine of their home islands. Together these transnational Christian communities, composed of South Africans, African Americans, and West Indians, created their own churches outside of white-run denominations, thus institutionalizing their desire for self-determination. In the 1920s, as some South Africans came to recognize the theological outlook they shared with US-based Christians, they sought connections despite the limitations of Black mobility on both sides of the Atlantic. Ironically, in the case of South Africans the assigned racial status of “Coloureds” actually granted some of them greater mobility than other Africans to travel to the United States, because the state did not imagine “Coloureds” to be part of Black politics. Radical Coloureds with the means to do so often relied on their privilege to travel and to forge relationships that linked them to other Africans and to African Americans in principally Christian networks.
Black Christians in South Africa had a similar transnational solidarity with Christians living in colonial Southern Rhodesia and Kenya. As Blacks in Southern Rhodesia and Kenya waded through their own consequences of colonial racism, institutionalized through the same British Land Act of 1913 that affected South Africans, they, too, saw land reclamation as a critical path to freedom. Africans turned to God to light pathways of resistance as they faced various kinds of land dislocation. Ethiopianists in Southern Rhodesia who sought to organize churches found themselves on the edges of cities facing the daunting realization that they couldn’t build, much less gather, congregations in such marginalized spaces. Christians in Kenya who refused to accept land dispossession as a new colonial reality organized themselves to reclaim their land and create their own churches and schools outside of the purview of the European missionaries who ran these institutions. But when they joined the transnational network of Black Christians already linking the United States to South Africa, Christians in Southern Rhodesia and Kenya made this alliance specifically to defy missionary-imposed assimilative practices, even as British colonialism took hold in East Africa. Alongside South Africans and African Americans, Kenyan and Southern Rhodesian Christians helped imagine and circulate this larger vision of Black freedom predicated on God’s promises for redemption in a dark world.
In the early to mid-twentieth century, South African Christians built and relied on a transnational network of Christians that drew persecuted Black people from across the diaspora to church; once there, they imagined freedom with no bounds. In reconstructing the lives, communities, and radical social visions of these men and women of faith—Tutu’s predecessors—I show how transnational religious movements destabilized imperial forms of racialization and imagined freedom in and through church formation. Kingdom Come integrates scholarship on the field formation of the African diaspora; the history of racialization, particularly in South Africa; and religious expression, with work on Pan-Africanism, African nationalism, and Black liberation to assert that politically inspired religious and ecumenical radicalism begin long before it is traditionally imagined.
Kingdom Come positions Africa as a central site of discussion; it makes Africa much more than a site of dispersal in our understanding of diasporic religious studies, specifically, and diaspora studies more broadly. In this story, South Africans are the central point from which African Christians defined freedom on not only a local level but also a grander scale of transnational uplift. This history provides a way to contend with broader concerns about the place of Africa within field formation in African diaspora studies. Indeed, pioneering scholars such as Colin Palmer, Ruth Simms Hamilton, Paul Tiybeme Zeleza, Michael A. Gomez, Patrick Manning, Carol Boyce Davies, Kim Butler, and Robert Trent Vinson, among others, have posed critical questions about Africa’s positionality within the diasporic framework. Africa is at the center of Kingdom Come; the book captures visions of freedom in South Africa, Kenya, and Zimbabwe and highlights the routes of dissemination from Africa to the West. Many scholars of the diaspora have focused on the opposite, the movement of ideas from the West to Africa. This work insists on illustrating the creative measures of faith that Africans relied on as they fought for liberation.
Excerpt from Kingdom Come by Tshepo Masango Chéry. Republished with permission of the author.
“Tshepo Masango Chéry’s Kingdom Come is a fascinating exploration of Christianity as a subversive, anti-imperial force in the twentieth century. With South Africa as generative source, Masango Chéry follows a circuitry of individuals and ideas connecting Africa to the Caribbean and North America, including Ethiopianism, the Garvey movement, and the African Orthodox Church. As such, Kingdom Come is a signal contribution across multiple registers that include African diasporic, South African, Black liberation, and religious studies.” — Michael A. Gomez, Silver Professor of History, New York University