A Global Story of Psalms 68:31 | Against the Provinciality of the Twenty Years Crisis

‘Moses and his Ethiopian Wife’, by Jacob Jordaens, c. 1650

Princes shall come out of Egypt; Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God

Psalms 68:31 is part of the global story of colonialism, enslavement, the “civilizing mission” and self-liberation. It is a story that is central to the Twenty Years Crisis that constitutes the originating point of International Relations as a self-proclaimed discipline. But it is a story that is largely absent when this originating point is commemorated.

We can pick up the story of Psalms 68:31 with the King James version of the Bible, translated into the vernacular in 1611. At this time it is practice to denote things African through the name Aethiops. More than just a polity south of Egypt, Ethiopia also encompasses Black Africa as a whole. By 1773, catechisms are being developed around Psalm 68:31 that directly address African enslavement in the Americas and the prospects of abolition, emancipation and liberation.

There are two key interpretations. One, cultivated by white abolitionists and subsequently used by Europeans who embark upon an African “civilizing mission”, holds that it is they – white/Europeans – who are God’s children. Hence, it is white/Europeans to whom Ethiopia is stretching for her hands for deliverance from slavery and primitivism. The other, cultivated by the enslaved and their downpressed descendants, holds that the Bible is their story –  the “half never told“. Africans will therefore righteously deliver their own selves from bondage.

The first catechism appears as early as 1773 in the letters of Anthony Benezet, a French-born Quaker living in North America. Scouring through the Bible to find  divine authority for the abolitionist cause, Benezet notes: “beloved friend, the passage we are seeking for is Psalms 68, 31.”; and “the people called Ethiopians are definitely African negros due to Jeremiah 13,23 – “can the Ethiopian change his skin?”. Abolitionists – especially British ones – are most concerned that the enslavement practised by white and European “Christians” would denigrate their status as the most civilized amongst humanity. By Benezet’s time, it is already a belief amongst the intellectual caste of  white/Europeans that they are the people chosen by God to express his Providence, through commerce and colonisation.

By the turn of the 20th century, three European powers – Britain, France and Italy – encircle the last remaining independent African polity, Ethiopia. Partially in response, Crown Prince Ras Tafari engineers the admittance of Ethiopia to the League of Nations in 1923. Ras Tafari reasons that the League had been set up by European powers to promote their collective security and therefore Ethiopia is best positioned under this protective covering of so-called “civilized” nations. In October 1935, however, Italy invades Ethiopia, and the main powers of the League do little to stop it.

Around this point in time, the British based Missionary Service Bureau and Ethiopian Prayer League issue a pamphlet decrying the invasion. A forward, written by Brigadier-General F.D. Frost, entreats the reader: “Ethiopia … is stretching out her hands unto god. Will his people come to her aid headless of personal sacrifice or inconvenience…?” This principled support of Ethiopia should be acknowledged. However, the “God’s people” that the Brigadier-General entreats are not Ethiopians but white/Europeans. Therefore this catechism of Psalms 68:31 still promotes a “civilizing mission” to Africa. The Brigadier’s question is, how to accomplish this colonial mission if God’s “chosen people” are not acting civilized?

The second catechism emerges out of the “invisible institutions” of the enslaved, that is, the faith circles on North American plantations.  Africans bring with them to the Americas their cosmologies, faiths, philosophies and practices. Key in the re-combination of these elements in American captivity is the crossroads, the site of intersection between the sublime and profane, the living and the spirits/ancestors, and the lands of the dead (Americas) and the lands of the living (Guinea) that are separated by a veil of water.

When Methodist and especially Baptist preachers reach the North American enslaved in the latter part of the 18th century, aspects of their Christian worship resonate with what the enslaved  already know to be powerful from their own faith systems: e.g. a sanctified renewal through water, an active relationship between the spirits and the living (holy ghost), and the communication of  sublime knowledge  (Pentacostal). What is more, the Christian cross of suffering (so beloved by the slavemasters) can be used to smuggle the African crossroads of collective healing (so demonized by the slavemasters) out into the world to quicken the liberation of the enslaved. The Bible itself can be used to  tell their story – the “half never told”. Psalms become African redemption songs.

By the early part of the 19th century various mystics, poets and preachers begin to proselytize this message in public. Prince Hall, a Barbadian freemason, resident in Boston, proclaims that the Haitian Revolution is prophecy revealed: “Thus doth Ethiopia begin to stretch forth her hand, from a sink of slavery to freedom and equality.”  

Around the same time as Hall, Robert Alexander Young issues an Ethiopian Manifesto, proclaiming that “surely hath the cries of the black, a most persecuted people, ascended to my throne and craved my mercy; now, behold! I will stretch forth mine hand and gather them to the palm, that they become unto me a people, and I unto them their God … Watch out slaveholder, your hour draweth nigh”!

True, JAH does much stretching forth of hands in the Old Testament; however, Psalms 68:31 places the divine relationship firmly in the hands of Ethiopians. 

For Young, though, this Ethiopian supremacy is predicated upon the rectification of injustice. It is not, therefore, a prejudice to the sanctity of  other peoples: “peace and liberty to the Ethiopian first, as also all other grades of men, is the invocation we offer to the throne of God”.

David Walker – Methodist and Freemason – publishes an Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World that circulates widely in the South and is at least partly responsible for a number of insurrections.   The Appeal is a response to Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on Virginia that extol the goodness of its society at the same time as justifying slavery on the basis of natural inequalities. Here is Walker: “…though our cruel oppressors and murderers, may (if possible) treat us more cruel, as Pharaoh did the children of Israel, yet the God of the Ethiopians, has been pleased to hear our moans in consequence of oppression; and the day of our redemption from abject wretchedness draweth near, when we shall be enabled, in the most extended sense of the word, to stretch forth our hands to the LORD our GOD, but there must be a willingness on our part”.

In 1890, W.E.B. Dubois, famed African-American sociologist foretells in his commencement oration at Harvard University, of a better world emerging from the struggle between strong and submissive men. In this respect, he tells the (white) audience “you owe a debt to humanity for this Ethiopia of the Outstreched Arm”. Around the same time, Edward Blyden, Pan-Africanist and preacher from St Thomas and emigrant to Liberia, writes a book on Christianity, Islam and the Negro Race. Like Dubois, Blyden points out the same debt with a chapter entitled: “Ethiopia Stretching Out Her Hands Unto God; or, Africa’s Service to the World“.

Come the early 20th century, Psalms 68:31 is the most popular text for sermons preached at meetings of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association. Indeed, Psalms 68:31 has an official UNIA catechism: “that Negroes will set up their own government in Africa with rulers of their own race.” This is a meaning that is diametrically opposed to that provided by the white/European abolitionists catechism of Psalms 68:31 – that primitive Africans will be saved and sanctified by white/Europeans. By the time of the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935, one Mrs Satira Earle, a Jamaican active member of the UNIA writes: “the year 1935 was the commencing with Ethiopia stretching forth her hands unto god and not unto Europe as they think.” After 1936, due to various personal and political reasons Garvey begins to criticize Selassie I, and soon after the criticism turns vitriolic. Nevertheless, Garvey will still hold the line that: “probably it is through Italy in Abyssinia that Ethiopia shall stretch forth her hands unto god and princes shall come out of Egypt”.

In 1935 Hon Leonard Howell publishes The Promised Key. The Jamaican, writing under his pseudoynm, Gong Guru Maragh, tells of the coronation of Selassie I in 1930. He imagines that the sceptre that had previously been stolen by the British but now returned at the coronation by the Duke of Gloucester, has inscribed on one side: Ethiopia shall stretch forth her hands unto God. From 1935 to 1937 almost the whole of the Anglo Caribbean erupts in strikes, riots, and uprisings. The causes are long simmering; however, the catalyst is the Italian invasion of Ethiopia. Across the region people identify personally and/or politically with Ethiopia. And it is not just Howell that sights Selassie I as king – various people have a similar vision all over the region. In 1937 a Barbadian strike leader and UNIA affiliate Ulric Mcdonald Grant, is charged with sedition. A sergeant of police gives testimony concerning one speech made by Grant: “He next referred to Garvey, who he said, is a wonderful man. We have got to concentrate universally. Remember your mother country which is Africa. In conclusion he said that Ethiopia was stretching forth her hands and princes shall come out of Egypt”.

There is one more part to this story. It knits together the other two to form a Pan-African fabric of human redemption. Spatially, the “8th continent”, to quote my friend Mamma D.; or the “continent of Black Consciousness“, to quote Erna Brodber. In 1937 Selassie I directs his personal physician, Dr. Malaku E. Bayen, to set up an Ethiopian World Federation that might unify the efforts of Africans in the Diaspora to defend Ethiopia. The slogan of The Voice of Ethiopia, the official EWF publication, is Ethiopia is Stretching Forth Her Hands Unto God.In occupied Ethiopia, and as part of the resistance, daily services of the Orthodox Church renounce the Italian invasion; the passages recited to this effect include Psalms 68:31. Selassie I leaves Fairfield House in Bath, England and  re-enters Addis Ababa on May 5th 1941 alongside Commonwealth troops. He proclaims: “today is a day on which Ethiopia is stretching her hands to God in joy and thankfulness.” From 1948 Selassie I starts to gift 500 acres of Crown land at Shashamene, under the auspices of the EWF, to those in the Diaspora who might wish to return. Prophecy fulfilled, say some. The prayer of the Rastafarians begins with this line: “Princes and Princesses must come out of Egypt; Ithiopia shall stretch forth her hands unto JAH“.


E.H. Carr’s canonical text, The Twenty Years Crisis, is ok, so far as it goes. It does, though, embrace a colonial division of knowledge based on standards of civilization that differentiate the adequate knower from the inadequate known. Using Hobhouse’s racist assertion that “primitive peoples can’t separate emotion from truth”, Carr effectively charges the League with “primitive” Utopianism. Carr’s critique of realism and idealism masquerades as an abstract philosophical argument but in fact inhabits this colonial division of knowledge. The argument is ventriloquized almost exclusively through the voices of white European male thinkers, and the historical context that these voices emerge from and respond to is a European narrative mostly shorn of its colonial and imperial coordinates. In the last part of his argument, Carr addresses the present and future prospects of international order entirely through the imaginary of nations, states and citizens. Empires, colonies, and colonial subjects are absented.

There is, though, what Ashis Nandy would call a “recessive” trait in Carr’s text. Carr ironically notes that the nineteenth century harmony of interests was established by sacrificing “unfit” Africans and Asians. And the first sign of a clash – rather than harmony – of interests between Europeans emerges in the colonial context, that is, in the Jameson raid on the Transvaal Republic. Carr highlights the realist “adjustment of thought to practice” in the resolve by Mussolini to conquer Ethiopia and the subsequent definition of the polity as uncivilized. Meanwhile, the League’s mandate system highlights acutely for Carr the problematic relationship of international government to the self-interested pursuit of power. Relegated to a footnote, Carr even alludes to the crucial empirical fact that not all inhabitants of a territory are necessarily members of its community, for example, Jews in Germany, Africans in South Africa and “Negroes” in the United States.

Carr’s recessive trait brings into sharp relief the book’s provinciality and colonial mentality. These attributes also fix the originating point of IR. Recessive traits, though, can be redeemed. But is anyone prepared for that work? A central figure in UK IR told me recently that Carr might not be perfect but “he’s the best we’ve got”. Who’s got? I have others. Many others have many others.

There are two catechisms of Psalms 68:31. A standard of civilization determined by slavery, and an ethos of liberation determined by enslavement. Their story is that of a fundamental clash – cognitive and political. The clash is global in impact and affect. There is more than just one great debate being had over the twenty years crisis.


9 thoughts on “A Global Story of Psalms 68:31 | Against the Provinciality of the Twenty Years Crisis

  1. Interesting post. The international history of the non-European imperial polities that retained their independence and attempted to refashion themselves as states (Siam, Persia, the Ottoman empire etc.) seems really relevant for an understanding of the evolution of an unequal international order – great to see that research in this area is gathering pace.

    Regarding ‘The Twenty Years Crisis’: Carr regarded Italy, Germany and the USSR as the unsatisfied underdogs of the interwar era and was consistently hostile to the claims of small nations. Indeed, the nationalism of the borderlands of East and Central Europe are a central part of Carr’s mature explanation of the breakdown of the interwar international order. He looked forward to the transcendence of such noisy, particularistic nationalisms by the emergence of super-states (presumably along Soviet lines) and supra-national governance. In this he was in agreement with geopoliticians such as Mackinder who believed that continental superstates were the wave of the future. For Mackinder, this meant that Britain would have to maintain and strengthen its maritime empire. Like Carr, Mackinder devotes little attention to the capacity for agency of subordinate peoples. The parallels in the status ascribed to minor European nations and non-European peoples in international society are interesting, Eddie Keene has explored some of the connections between the two.

    Accommodating the claims of minor nations and subject peoples, rather than the claims of revisionist great powers, goes against major elements of Carr’s outlook on international relations. Given this, I agree with you that Carr doesn’t have that much to offer those who are seeking to develop a post-colonial and/or non-Eurocentric approach to international relations.


    • Good stuff Nicholas. There is presently a number of people from Eastern European countries who are picking up the “coloniality” approach and finding ways to connect the history and prospects of the “edges” of europe with those of the postcolonies. Much important work to be done here. Great points.


    • A sidebar: one reason Ethiopia wasn’t allowed to join the League until 1932 is that slavery was legal in Ethiopia. Haile Selassie was willing to abolish the institution, but faced resistance from his nobles, many of whom had large households of slaves. A compromise was eventually reached involving gradual emancipation.

      I don’t know if Carr dissects British policy vis-a-vis the invasion, but it’s quite noteworthy for its stupidity. The British could have stopped the Italian attack at any time, simply by closing the Suez Canal. They refused to because they entertained hopes of keeping Mussolini as the third pillar of an Anglo-French-Italian alliance designed to contain Hitler. This was not, in and of itself, a stupid idea, but Mussolini was simply too feckless to ever be a reliable ally, and this should have been quite obvious by 1935. However, the British, in pursuit of this chimera, managed to end up with the worst of all possible outcomes: they resisted enough to annoy Mussolini and drive him towards Hitler, but not nearly enough to save Ethiopia or the League.

      Genteel and not-so-genteel racism unquestionably played a part in these calculations. However, racism was just one factor of many, and shouldn’t be overemphasized; a couple of years later, the British and French would prove just as ready to abandon the Czechs, based on similarly short-sighted calculations.

      Doug M.


      • Thanks for comment Doug. Not simply racism but more important racial ordering: ethiopia, as a fully paid up member of the league, was still treated, procedurally, with suspicion of being not competent to excersise its sovereignty. quasi-sovereign/sovereign differences were not just enacted between the mandate system and “family of nations” but within the de jure family of nations too. Lasse Oppenheim’s still influential treatises on international law confirm explicitly that Ethiopia is a “christian state” in the chapter that deals with the polity explicitly as a non-christian state. African sovereignty, like today, is racially qualified or disavowed. long developed technologies for policing difference in the colonial world come back to hit the borderlands of europe itself, as with greece today. the european/western calculus of power always has had race as its key formula.


  2. Pingback: Shilliam on Subaltern Solidarity, Ethiopia, and Carr’s ‘The Twenty Years Crisis’ « Chaos and Governance

  3. Pingback: Janet McKenzie’s “Jesus of the People” | syncopated hustle

  4. I cannot find a definitive explanation to the image of the “Ethiopian Crossroads” icon (cross with asterisks on their points and wave circles and y’s or z’s) and wondered if someone might point me in the right direction. The closest I could come up with was Kalfu/Papa Legba symbols. Iconography is a minor hobby for me. Thank you for the article.


  5. Pingback: Lenten Reflection #2: stretch – Soul Feud

  6. Pingback: #TreasuresofDarkness, Day 3: Psalm 68:31 and the Stirrings of Revolution – Rev. Kwame Pitts – We Talk. We Listen.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s