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:: By Richard Mertens

:: Illustration by Richard Thompson

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A scholar’s journey

Religious ethicist Peter J. Paris goes beyond the African American experience and travels directly to the source.

ILLUSTRATION: c.vitaeIn Ghana, on Africa’s west coast, stands the old Portuguese fortress of São Jorge da Mina. Here, and in other coastal forts, African slaves from the 16th to the 19th centuries began their harrowing journey across the Atlantic, dragged out of fetid dungeons and into the ships that would bear them, if they survived, to the New World.

Princeton Theological Seminary professor Peter Paris, AM’69, PhD’75, visited da Mina in 2000. He was leading a small band of black scholars traveling in Africa and the countries of its diaspora. Descending into the chambers where slaves were once held, they came to the “door of no return,” a narrow opening through which the captives were led to boats that would ferry them to the ships. Peering through that portal toward the blue Atlantic, Paris fought back tears. He knew that at least one of his ancestors had passed through the door, or one like it.

“I almost felt as if there was a spiritual connectedness,” he said recently. “The spirits have a kind of enduring presence there that puts a chill over you. It’s not an experience you enjoy. You’re completely exhausted afterward, just emotionally exhausted.”

Paris, 73, who began his career as a Baptist minister in Canada, has become a leading scholar of African American religion. He started by studying African American leadership and the social teachings of black churches, but over time his attention has shifted toward Africa. Some scholars contend that the slavery experience so traumatized African Americans that it erased all memory of Africa. Not Paris. His research on the black church and its leaders has convinced him of enduring continuities—a deep connectedness—between African and African American spirituality. “When you start asking what does the African mean in African American,” he said, “you’re led back to Africa.”

Paris grew up twice removed from the continent and the memory of that narrow door. He was born in the steel and coal-mining town of New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, the son of a steelworker, grandson of coal miners, and eldest of ten children. Segregation then, in the years before and during World War II, was enforced by custom, not law. Blacks lived apart and were welcome in few public spaces: a Chinese restaurant, the movie-theater balcony, and the all-black Second Baptist Church. Public schools admitted them, but most dropped out. New Glasgow had no black professionals except the minister of the church, the center of social life for black families and the only institution they could call their own.

Paris set his sights on the ministry. While other youths took factory jobs, he stayed in school. He graduated at the top of his class and in 1955 enrolled in Acadia University, a Baptist school in Nova Scotia—the first black in his town to attend college.

The summer before college graduation Paris took part in the first Operation Crossroads Africa program, later a model for the Peace Corps. He spent six weeks in Nigeria, then giddy with the prospect of independence. He returned to Nigeria as a young minister, working three years for the country’s Student Christian Movement.

These trips were the first of a dozen he’s made over his career. “The more I learned about Africa, the more I felt enabled to affirm myself as black,” Paris said. “To affirm oneself as black when I was growing up, almost no one did it. People were not proud to be black. ... When I went to Africa and saw England give up its colonies with great fanfare, and members of the royal family coming to lower the British flag and raise the Nigerian flag and the Ghanaian flag, it make me very, very proud.”

Paris entered the Divinity School in 1965, when Chicago was caught up in the civil-rights movement. He heard Martin Luther King Jr. speak several times, and he took courses that transformed his sense of vocation. Chicago introduced him to Aristotle, who taught him “that politics and ethics go together, that theory and practice do not need to be divorced,” he said. “While I didn’t want to be simply a pre-modern person, I thought there was something in pre-modernity that was lost in the Enlightenment. And that was making practice something worthy of academic study. It could be studied not just for the sake of knowledge in an abstract way, but for the sake of a better society.”

Paris proposed a dissertation on four black religious leaders: Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, J. H. Jackson, and Adam Clayton Powell. The proposal did not win immediate acceptance—his advisers might have deemed an acknowledged theologian more suitable for serious scholarship. But the book that resulted from the dissertation, Black Leaders in Conflict (Pilgrim Press, 1978), was widely praised. In it Paris defined different leadership styles among African Americans but argued that despite the differences, they were united in a common struggle against racism. 

The dissertation “was an extremely valuable piece of work—a fact that was recognized later,” said Thomas Ogletree, a Yale Divinity School professor who taught at Chicago Theological Seminary while Paris was at the U of C. “He pursued questions based on his own insight and his own vision, not based on what you’re supposed to do in ethics to get recognition. The quality of his work persuaded people.”

Paris went to Howard University, then Vanderbilt, where he became the university’s first black tenured professor. In 1985 his second book, The Social Teaching of the Black Churches (Augsburg Fortress), argued that independent black churches in the United States had emerged as a response to racism, and that they were an institutional attempt to found a community on Christian equality. The churches based this attempt, Paris said, on the principles of “the parenthood of God and the kinship of all peoples.”

“I wanted to demonstrate that there was something important that black churches contributed to the nation both politically and religiously,” he said. He also wanted “to say something about power in a positive way. I was trying to respond in a way to the whole issue of black power, which was still being received very negatively. I wanted to say that power is capacity. Therefore you could not have justice and love without the capacity to do those things.”

While studying black America, Paris had not forgotten Africa: “I was always wondering how I could find a meaningful way of doing justice academically to relating the two, America and Africa.” In The Spirituality of African Peoples (Augsburg Fortress, 1994) he examined African American social ethics through an African lens, finding in African American spirituality many echoes of Africa, especially the close integration of “God and community and family and person.”

“If you were going to go with an existing label, you could call him a black nationalist,” said Alan Anderson, DB’59, AM’66, PhD’75, a friend and former Divinity School professor, now teaching at Western Kentucky University. “But he’s not. He’s arguing for a communitarian ethic for African Americans that’s plausibly similar to African spirituality.”

Besides his scholarship, Paris continues to preach. He also works with a Princeton after-school program to help poor children succeed in school. As president of the American Academy of Religion and other organizations he has encouraged minority scholars and scholarship. And he’s taught and mentored students from the United States, Africa, and other parts of the world.

“He’s an intellectual with great moral convictions concerning a just society, and a great disdain for all forms of injustice, including racism, sexism, and homophobia,” said Jonathan Walton, a former student and assistant professor at the University of California–Riverside. “However, it’s also the way he’s able to model virtues, such as temperance, balanced with courage, to the degree that when he does speak, people listen.”

His work has not received universal assent. Some scholars have objected that he overgeneralizes Africa, overlooks religious diversity among African Americans, and slights the influence of liberal values, especially individualism, among African Americans. But they agree he has helped to transform African American studies, illuminating the depth and com--plexity of Af--rican American religious traditions. “You really come to appreciate how the struggle for full equality and freedom was firmly grounded in a rich tradition,” said Ogletree. “He just helps you see those connection in a way that is quite exceptional.”

Africa still beckons. In 2000, with a Ford Foundation grant, Paris organized a pan-African seminar that brought together a dozen international black scholars to study religion and poverty in Africa and the black diaspora. They toured former slave fortresses as well as current sites of suffering: a Soweto shantytown, a home for orphans with HIV, a mission for street children. Paris hoped afterward to start an institute for African studies at Princeton or elsewhere in the United States. That effort failed, but he’s editing a book of essays from the seminar, gathering narratives to help define a usable past. “If you don’t have a past or history that you can appreciate and take pride in,” he said, “you can only take pride in someone else’s history.”

After returning from Ghana and da Mina, Paris commissioned a painting of the fortress and hung it above his living-room fireplace. It’s a reminder of where he’s come from, and where, in a sense, he’s been going. The fortress, he says, is “a mark of suffering and misery, but also of transcendence. We’ve survived.”