Dwight Hopkins is an ordained American Baptist minister and an Associate Professor of Theology at the Divinity School, University of Chicago. He earned his Bachelor of Arts from Harvard University in 1976. He has earned his Master of Divinity (1984), Master of Philosophy (1987), and his PhD (1988) from Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York. In 2000, he also earned his second PhD from the University of Cape Town in South Africa. He has authored many articles and books sharing his ideas and research findings about contemporary theology, black theology and liberation theologies.
He includes cultural, political, economic, and interpretive approaches in his study of religious thought. Hopkins is the Communications Coordinator for the International Association of Black Religions and Spiritualities, a Ford Foundation sponsored global project. He is also co-editor of Global Voices for Gender Justice and Cut Loose Your Stammering Tongue: black theology in the slave narratives. II. Overview of Content In “Down, Up & Over: Slave Religion and Black Theology” Hopkins stated that the experiences of enslaved African Americans were the basis of the religious practice and faith of African Americans today.
The book offers a historical and religious backdrop supporting this claim. He discussed how these religious practices came about and how they shaped and transformed the African American mindset from “slaves” to God’s sacred creation. The first part of the book discussed the formation of faith of African Americans and Euro-Americans. He related the different views of God and humanity between the blacks from Africa and the whites from Europe. According to Hopkins, white theology tried to recreate African Americans as inferior beings. They believe the blacks are second class citizens whose sole purpose is to serve them.
Based on this belief, Euro-Americans instituted slavery. They used black people for their own profit. They exercised hegemony and control over the blacks. They take advantage of their strength to build churches and other architectural projects that could enhance the white’s way of life. On the other hand, African Americans have counter views of theology. They draw inspiration from their religious practices and the teachings of the Bible to liberate them from enslavement and find their own sense of identity. According to their studies, they are God’s creation as much as their oppressors.
As God’s children, have purposes as human beings and it is their obligation to find that purpose. God did not create them to be somebody else’s slaves. They were born free. God, the spirit of liberation, wants them to free themselves from enslavement. They can maximize their potential and serve God better as free citizens. With this mindset, the African Americans untiringly struggled for their rightful place on earth as God’s creation. This deep-rooted belief is an integral part of the African American faith. It has sustained their struggle for liberation for more than two centuries.
The second part of the book expounded on the foundations of the black theology. Hopkins wrote about God as the Spirit of total liberation for us. God did not intend for any race or color to claim control over other creations. He explained how the African Americans came to view their struggle for freedom as their fight for their God-given human rights. He also wrote about Jesus as the spirit of total liberation with us. The enslaved African Americans looked at the life of Jesus as an inspiration. They found symbolisms that acted as guides in their way to freedom.
Jesus symbolizes their plight as poor people fighting for liberation. His death was interpreted as the death of oppression. The resurrection corresponds to the birth of the new self, the liberated self. For them, God will save them from slavery the same way He saved the world from sin. The African Americans viewed oppression as a temporary suffering and believe that in the end, God’s truth would prevail. This faith in the will of God strengthened them in their struggle. God will deliver them from their evil oppressors and they will be saved from slavery.
However, to be delivered, they know they have to stand up for themselves. They are responsible for defending themselves from slavery. They know God only helps those who help themselves, so they labored to obtain their salvation. Lastly, Hopkins wrote about human purpose or the spirit of liberation in us. He reasoned that human beings are created free. As creations, it is their duty and right to fight against oppression and achieve their full potential. This vision inspired in the African Americans a unique and withstanding religious belief and sense of God that sustained them during their struggle for freedom.
The book also expounds on the African Americans strong sense of their human worth. Despite the treatments they received from their slave masters, they never lose sight of their significance. To them, they are God’s creation and that makes them sacred and special. These are innate features of their humanity and nobody can take that away from them. These religious beliefs have transcended that era and left a lasting imprint still manifested in the religious practices of African Americans in contemporary times.
Black theology shaped by the experiences of the enslaved African Americans gave birth to the doctrines still followed in African American churches today. III. Evaluation Black theology as people practice today had risen from the ashes of African American struggle against oppressive Euro-Americans during the period 1619 to 1865. It is a legacy born of the people’s inherent desire to be free to live their own lives and exercise their humanity. This is a recurring theme that can be traced from the pages of the Old Testament to the newspapers and journals of contemporary times.
It is an endless theme and though the times had changed and the struggle has taken different forms, the issue remained- liberation from oppression. Freedom is a birthright and people will always stand up and fight for that right. Protestantism as they practiced during this era provided two different interpretations for the two different races. Whites from Europe used the teachings of the Bible to enslave the African Americans. According to their interpretation, the blacks belong to a lower class of people and their purpose is to serve them. This not only validated slavery but has given it a religious backdrop.
Taken from this context, it is easy to understand why slavery was acceptable that time. For the Euro-Americans, slavery is based on the teachings of the Bible, therefore God Himself must approve of the oppression. Ironically and fortunately, the enslaved African Americans did not learn the same when they studied the Bible. Instead of acceptance of their so-called subservient nature, they learned they are God’s creation and have as much right as their oppressors. This realization challenged them to establish their identity as God’s children and fight for their rightful place in this world.
They realized God meant for them to be free and He wants them to fight for that freedom. This is a classic example of the differences in biblical interpretations that still govern the different religions in the world today. The teachings of the Bible had given rise to different interpretations and practices. One man’s heresy is somebody else’s belief. This element of religion has resulted to controversies and arguments. From the African American experience, we can surmise that it was the alternative interpretation that made the difference for them.
By embracing their own version and discarding that of their masters, the “slaves” were able to draw the inspiration and strength they needed in their struggle. They gained inspiration from the life of the prophets and Jesus to fight for liberation. For them, God is watching them and guiding them in their battle against the oppressive evil forces that has imprisoned them to an inferior existence. It was a fight between good and evil and the knowledge that they are the good force and God was at their side inspired the blacks to keep fighting for their liberation.
Despite enslavement, we can gather that African Americans enjoyed at least one of the tenets of democracy we enjoy today, the freedom of religion. Oppression and slavery were not able to stop them from observing their own religion and having a set of beliefs. Finding the freedom to express their belief must have been hard enough. To observe something contrary to the convictions of their slave masters must have been challenging. This difficulty only manifests the depth of their unquestioning faith in God and in their inherent worth as God’s sacred creation.
Religion also awakened in them an awareness of their humanity and human purpose. As God’s creation, they have a special place on earth. They have a purpose for being here. This developed the desire to find their own identity. Having established the fact that they are special beings with a purpose and role in this life, they took it upon themselves to fight for that right. God wants them to defeat the evil forces that imprisoned them. As God’s children, it is their duty to conquer the enemies that suppresses their full humanity.
For them, it is an obligation to play their roles to the best of their ability. It is their duty to live up to God’s expectations of His children. They have to use their God-given potentials to bring Him glory. IV. Integration and Application Today, freedom had come in so many forms- freedom of religion, freedom from oppression, freedom from poverty, war, hunger and many more. Despite its many forms, the struggle for freedom as we know today is only an abridged and superficial version of what people like the African Americans strived for during the slavery era.
Down, Up and Under provides a backdrop for a deeper understanding and appreciation of the plight of the enslaved black people. The religious take on the struggle offered a new perspective not only in the study of Black Theology but in looking at history as well. The connection between the enslaved African American religious practices to today’s Black Theology presents a heritage that not only African Americans but all of us need to treasure and preserve. It is so easy to take things like this for granted given all the privileges afforded to us in today’s generation.
The African American struggle symbolizes unconditional faith in God and His plan for His children. It is a legacy of love and faith, paid for with more than two centuries of struggle and oppression. One does not need to be an African American to be moved by such dedication. The unwavering faith in God and His love and support shown by the African Americans is truly an inspiration. Anyone suffering from life’s tribulations or doubts of faith can truly look back to this experience and find enlightenment and motivation. Another lesson that has truly touched a chord is their commitment to their roles as God’s creation.
The African Americans believed they are God’s children and they did whatever it took to fight for their birthright. They did not allow their enslavement to make them feel inferior. To them, Euro-Americans can make slaves out of them but they can not make them lesser human beings. Instead of surrendering, they held on to their self worth. God made them special and nobody can take that away from them. Furthermore, they know that birthright comes with responsibility. As God’s children, it is their duty to find and advance their human purposes. They know they were not created to be slaves.
They know they can do better things than serve other people’s selfish needs. They know as servants, they are not giving their maximum potential as people. They know God created them for a better purpose and they fought for the freedom to be able to do that. Down, Up and Under did not only enhance my appreciation and understanding of the experience African Americans endured during oppression, it has also provided a new perspective in looking at today’s unique Black Theology. The book provided an insight that is both enriching and inspiring not only for the study of black theology but in the study of theology as a whole.
Aside from its academic contribution, this book awakens the spirit of freedom and self worth which are God’s innate gifts to each and every one of us. It also reminds me of God’s equal and unblemished judgment that exceeds the superficial standards of this world. Furthermore, it calls for the responsibility to seek our human purposes and act on that to bring glory to our Creator. BIBLIOGRAPHY Hopkins, Dwight. Down, Up and Over: Slave Religion and Black Theology. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1999.
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