Burna Boy, Resistive Performance and the Theology of Abundant Life
In the light of contemporary issues of global concern, specifically racism and xenophobia, which have triggered protests and outrage across the globe, theological enterprise faces the challenge of reorienting itself. The reorientation of theology emerges out of a self-critique that assesses whether theology is any way complicit in constructing and protecting ideological structures that perpetuate all forms of exclusion, inhumanity, and injustice over the years. Where theology and theologians are guilty, the response, as Rowan Williams and Marilynne Robinson suggest, is not in outright condemnation of what theology has been able to do, but to seek ways of doing it better going forward. Herein comes the idea of theology of abundant life that seeks to reorient the language and interpretive framework of theology in the light of contemporary issues and events. These events which provoke resistive performances in the form of protests, debates, and art forms compel theology to provide answers, or at least to initiate conversations of how religious beliefs are challenged by the dark sides of our humanity.
Frontline Nigerian performing artist, Damini Ebunoluwa Ogulu, otherwise known as Burna Boy, released an album on 14 August 2020 titled Twice As Tall. The new album contains a song with the title Monsters You Made, of which the video was released at the heels of the protests in the US following the brutal shooting of another black man, Jacob Blake. Prior to the Kenosha unrest were the widespread protests of the Black Lives Matter movement that trailed the police killing of George Floyd. Burna Boy’s song, with its very gripping video puts the denigration of black people in the context of colonial history. By extension, it equally resonates with the postcolonial experiences of oppression within African nations, as was articulated in the October 2020 #EndSARS protest in Nigeria and its aftermath. The chorus rendered by Chris Martin of the rock band Coldplay indicates that the label of ‘monster’ is predicated on the resistance of the oppressed: “Calling me a monster, calling us fake; You make a Minotaur, the dinosaur wake; Calling me a monster just ‘cause we said; No way, no way, no way.” The oppressed finds himself or herself in a circle where even the effort to resist oppression is misjudged, because the system of oppression has been so justified that it is considered as the norm.
The song indicates that that reference to another as ‘monster’ emerges from an ignorance of the lived reality of the other: “I bet they thought it was cool; probably thought we was fools; when we would break all the rule.” It describes a dissension that is misconstrued but emerges from a certain awareness of historical injustice and dehumanization. At the same time, the song invites the oppressor to acknowledge the experience of the oppressed and to empathize with them: “They’ve been lying to you; ain’t no denying the truth; see what I’m tryin’ to do; I draw the line for the mothers crying; We’re dying as youths, Come walk a mile in my shoes; See if you smile at the truth; See if you digest your food; That’s when you might have a clue.”
Burna continues with the pretensions of the oppressed, beaten down and expected to be docile and compliant. The contradiction is quite obvious and cannot be ignored: “You know we come from a place; Where people smile, but it’s fake; How could they smile? If you look around, they surrounded by pain.” Then he goes on more personally: “I’ve seen the sky turn to grey; it took the light from the day; It’s like the heads of the state.” It goes even further to describe the sad consequences of the experience of the oppressed, particularly when it becomes practically impossible for them to endure the oppression: “Ain’t comprehending the hate; That the oppressed generate; When they’ve been working like slaves; To get some minimum wage; You turn around and you blame; Them for their anger and rage; Put them in shackles and chains; Because of what they became.” And then he concludes: “We are the monsters you made.”
Beyond artistic resistive performances that denounce racism, the phenomenal and unprecedented protests that followed the Floyd murder equally raised a lot of reactions within the theological community. In the midst of all this, and at the center of the lived experience of the oppressed and the actions of the oppressors, the theology of abundant life raises the question of ‘Where is Jesus Christ in all of this?’ Such a theology emerges as a vision of human flourishing for all that is realizable in Christ (cf. John 10:10). No one is excluded from this vision – neither the oppressors nor the oppressed. Yet this vision is not just about redemption per se, which often tends to either diminish or dismiss guilt, but mainly about “redemption from oppression and sin” as Miroslav Volf and Matthew Croasmun wrote in their For the Life of the World: Theology That Makes a Difference (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2019). In its re-orientation for transformation of the world, this theology of abundant life reconsiders and completely rejects, as Marilynne Robinson asserts, “the kind of thinking that tends to devalue humankind.” It is a theology that unsettles history, discerns the events in the world and critiques them with the Christological framework. It is a theology that asks: What historical events and narratives inform Burna Boy’s song Monsters You Make? What or who created the monsters? What theologies were implicit in the creation of the monsters? How can the oppressor be able to access the empathy that Burna Boy pointed out, and so be led to true conversion? How does the song challenge theology to re-orient itself in transforming both the monsters and their makers?
Returning to Christ, whose divinity and humanity are united perfectly, and who freely shares his divinity with us humans in order to uplift, ennoble and dignify our humanity, a theology of abundant life poses some self-critical questions: What does it mean to realize that human beings make ‘monsters’ out of fellow human beings? If this translates to a deflated, ignoble parade of humanity on both ends, then it would imply, where theology is complicit, a Christological deficient theology. A Christological sterile theology is incapable of uplifting humanity. Its pretensions can only serve to maintain the status quo. It does not unsettle the wickedness and wile that human beings are capable of and does little or nothing to lead them to Christ, the transformer of lives and the center of creation. On the contrary, in reorienting theology and the disposition of theologians, a theology of transformation critiques the processes that produce monsters by highlighting the dignity of every form of humanity given its ‘consubstantiality’ with the divinity of Christ.
This theology of abundant life is also Trinitarian because it is through the Holy Spirit that we not only discern, but we are enabled to collaborate with Christ’s transforming solidarity with every human person and with the world. It is about recognizing that at the center of theology is God, the giver of life, without whom nothing flourishes (cf. Gen.2:7; Ezek.37:1-14; John 20:22). In other words, theology in its reflection on events in the society must be discerning and must avoid the tendency to either opt for popular opinions that preserve the status quo of oppression and sin or become immune to the prophetic confrontation that the Spirit provokes in the human mind.