Benjamin Mays and Anticolonialism: A Response to Sarah Azaransky

Sarah Azaransky, “Benjamin Mays’s The Negro’s God: Recovering a Theological Tradition for an American Freedom Movement,” Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics 34.2 (2014): 141-158.

Response by Jermaine M. McDonald

It baffles me that some political pundits believe that they are scoring rhetorical points by accusing President Obama of being an anti-colonialist. From Dinesh D’Souza, to Newt Gingrich, and now Rudy Guiliani, we are led to believe that Obama is not really one of us because his anticolonialism renders him anti-American. Every time I here remarks like this, I think the following:

Perhaps that is a bit unfair. D’Souza knows exactly what anticolonialism means, defining it as “the premise that the Western countries, and now the United States, have become rich by invading and occupying and looting the poor countries, so that the wealth of the world is unfairly distributed.” Can the fact that this actually occurred (and continues to occur) even be disputed?

D’Souza worries that Obama’s alleged anticolonialism means that he is committed to transferring the wealth back to the nations whose resources were looted: a global reparations plan, if you will. If Obama has such a plan, he has certainly kept it under wraps the past six years of his presidential term. Perhaps he is saving the big reveal for his final lame duck year.

Anticolonialism is not nearly as nefarious as some would have you believe. Indeed, according to Sarah Azaransky, anticolonialism provided a philosophical, intellectual, and theological basis for the Civil Rights Movement! Benjamin E. Mays was one of the mentors of Martin Luther King Jr. who inspired him to look more closely at Mohandas Gandhi and the Indian independence movement. Azaransky writes how Mays sojourned to India looking to engage anticolonial movements around the world for inspiration about how American Christianity could spur racial justice.

Azaransky argues that Mays’s encounters with Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru shaped the formation of his dissertation-turned-book, The Negro’s God as Reflected in His Literature, in which he reviewed over a century of Black preaching, writing, and singing about God to capture how Black Christians had historically articulated their beliefs about God to make sense of their contemporary circumstances. The distinctions Mays makes in Black God-talk reflect the distinctions he found when discussing the viability of religion in social change movements with Gandhi and Nehru. His encounter with those two reinforce his belief that religion and social action could be fruitfully combined to inspire and bolster a freedom movement.

I concur with Azaransky’s belief that Benjamin E. Mays exemplifies what Christian leaders and scholars should aspire towards today. Mays was both committed to American democratic traditions and aware that the nation did not live up to its ideals. He looked abroad for political movements and religious traditions for resources to resist oppression and foster a Christianity that would advocate for racial and social justice.

Freedom movements today ought to do the same. From #BlackLivesMatter to #EqualPay to #ItGetsBetter to #DREAMers, contemporary social movements in America must look to one another for solidarity, support, and ultimately, mutual salvation. As Dr. King said, all of us are

caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.

We anticolonialists try to be attuned to this dynamic of mutual dependence and its ramifications.


About Jermaine M. McDonald

Dr. Jermaine M. McDonald is co-founder and editor of Symposium Ethics. He completed his PhD in Ethics and Society from Emory University in the Spring of 2015.

Jermaine M. McDonald

Dr. Jermaine M. McDonald is co-founder and editor of Symposium Ethics. He completed his PhD in Ethics and Society at Emory University in the Spring of 2015. Jermaine researches interesting convergences between race, religion, and politics with the aim of analyzing how various groups bring their religious ideas of the common good to bear in U.S. society.

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