Black Theology

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BLACK THEOLOGY . African Americans have a long, rich history of spiritually based advocacy for social change. African Americans read their religious texts through their experience. Consequently there is a long tradition of interpreting the Christian gospel in ways that reflect God's involvement in the struggles of oppressed peoples. This tradition is documented in several places, most notably in the life and work of David Walker (17851830), particularly in the classic Walker's Appeal in Four Articles (1829); Frederick Douglass (18171895); and Howard Thurman (19001981), particularly his classic text Jesus and the Disinherited (1949).

Black Theology as it is largely understood in the early twenty-first century refers to the movement initiated by James Cone (b. 1938) at Union Theological Seminary in New York and later taken up by his students and a successive generation of thinkers. It is a contextual liberation theology that draws its strength and focus from the historic African American struggle for freedom in North America as it was primarily, although not exclusively, manifested in and through the black church. In this sense it must not be thought of as in anyway an exhaustive or definitive account of African American religious reflection, reflection on African American religious or Christian experience or African American theology. Black Theology is therefore one among a variety of orientations to African American thought on Christian experience in particular and religious experience in general. "Most of us in this school of black theology have contended that we belong to a radical, but honorable and widely recognized, tradition in the African American community. Moreover we believe that this orientation, while not the only one, has been the most distinctive, persistent, and valuable part of the religious heritage of African Americans in the United States" (Cone, 2001, p. 147).

Although Black Theology is largely identified with the work of James Cone and his followers, other thinkers and theologians in what is referred to as the first generation, such as J. Deotis Roberts, Gayraud Wilmore, Joseph R. Washington, Albert B. Cleage, and Major Jones, played a prominent role in the founding of the movement and have continued (with the exception of perhaps Cleage) to exercise considerable influence in the early twenty-first century. Contributing to the formation of the Black Theology movement, they helped shape its substantive and methodological agenda. While other prominent African American scholars and thinkers, like Charles Long, a historian of religion; Cecil Cone, a theologian (and brother of James Cone); Vincent Harding, a historian; William R. Jones, a philosopher; and C. Eric Lincoln, a sociologist, all made valuable contributions to the formation of Black Theology, serving as invaluable resources for the standard interpretation of African American history as the history of resistance if not revolt and as interlocutors raising critical issues with respect to the methodology, epistemological status of, and interpretive claims on the nature of black religious experience as employed in Black Theology, they cannot be identified as "Black Theologians." All of these thinkers operated effectively in the long-standing tradition of academic reflection on African American and religious experience within their respective fields of study.

Origins of Black Theology

Black Theology arose from the ferment of the late 1960s as many African American clergy, scholars, and activists, disillusioned by the pace of social change in regard to the condition of the African American masses, moved from the integrationist perspective that served as the touchstone of the Civil Rights movement toward an affirmation of black power (i.e., black self-determination, cultural affirmation, political empowerment, and racial pride) and the identity politics of the early 1970s. The Black Theology movement was the Christian theological response to and expression of the burgeoning African American self-affirmation that crystallized during the period. The movement came in answer to the fundamental challenge posed by many in the African American community who saw in Christianity the epitome of not only American but also Western spiritual hypocrisy. Christianity's historical complicity in African American slavery, suffering, and oppression and the occlusion of the African American encounter with Christianity in the grand narrative of American church history and theology as well as its failure to respond courageously, aggressively, and positively to the ongoing struggle of the late 1960s read like a balance sheet on the moral and spiritual bankruptcy of the Christian faith.

There is a sense in which Black Theology can be read as an outcome of the larger problematic of Christianity's confrontation with modernity, rendering it more or less a variation on a theme. Classically conceived, this problematic is twofold, involving, first, the search for justice and, second, the encounter with science. Black Theology has yet to take on the issue of science in any meaningful sense, although the issue is implicated at least at the epistemological level inasmuch as it employs a particular understanding of history and an implicit metaphysics, moves into more dialogue with the social sciences, and attempts a more rigorous social analysis to substantiate claims and make purportedly objective statements about the sociocultural location of African Americans.

More to the point, however, is the issue of social justice. In spite of the efforts of some theologians to take the challenge for social justice seriously, European American theology remained strangely and disturbingly silent on the issue of race. The theological concern with social justice in the dominant theology prior to the rise of Black Theology made only passing reference to African Americans or their plight. Given the centrality of race and its concomitant ideologies in the shaping of modernity, from the role played by slavery in the Western articulation of capitalism, colonialism, and imperialist expansion to American Jim Crow, South African apartheid, institutionalized poverty, and second-class citizenship in the second half of the twentieth century, all sanctioned and justified by the dominant Christianity and grounded in its theological articulation. The failure of European American theology to figure in the utter centrality of race fatally compromised its legitimacy and forfeited all pretensions to universality. The centrality of race and the elimination of the epithet social from this new proclamation of the Gospel effectively and fundamentally distinguished the movement from previous articulations of the "Social Gospel."

Is Christianity the "white man's" religion? Are there resources in the Christian faith as experienced by black people for a liberating praxis, or is it the instrument of subjugation some of the more radical and educated voices in the black community have claimed it to be? Can Christianity become the vehicle for freedom, or should it be tossed to the dustbin of history with all the other lies and deceptions heaped upon the backs of the oppressed to keep them bent in bondage? These were the questions no serious-minded African American Christian could ignore. It was the genius of the first generation Black Theologians not only to resist the temptation to sidestep the issues with an apologetic for the failures of historical Christianity but to lead the charge in proclaiming them. Secondly, they turned to a rigorous examination of the African American tradition, confirming both its uniqueness and its affirmation of black humanity. They discovered that not only could African American Christianity provide a liberating vision and praxis for the oppressed but in fact it already had.

Black Theology's Message

Joseph R. Washington, in a ninety-degree turn from his earlier work, Black Religion (1964), where he argued that the solution to the Negro problem in Christianity was full-scale integration and assimilation into the "theologically grounded" white church, now argued in The Politics of God (1967) that the black church's mission was to bring the message of equality, freedom, and true democracy to the United States. As the new "suffering servant," the black person "bound" to the white person through slavery has been called to the task "not only of being released from bondage but of releasing [their] captors from their shackles as well" (Washington, 1967, p. 157). More than this prescriptive imputation of meaning to the struggle, the sheer identification of a stream of African American folk Christianity with the religion of freedom, equality, and justice was a major contribution. In addition Washington articulated what would become a major theological criterion or hermeneutical lens for evaluating the religious contributions of African Americans in Black Theology. "The authenticity of the Spirituals resides in their expression of the love and drive for freedom and equality with and for all men. The inauthenticity of the spirituals are those expressions of escape from this world" (Washington, 1967, p. 157). Later James Cone examined the spirituals as an expression of the spirit of liberation but dropped the qualifier "all men," affirming their exclusive relevance in Black Theology to black people.

In response to the internal critique from many African Americans and the external assumption of many whites that African Americans and their Christian faith was historically essentially quietistic and accommodatingly otherworldly, people such as Vincent Harding (There Is a River ) and Gayraud Wilmore (Black Religion, Black Radicalism ) uncovered a long, unbroken story of resistance and rebellion that ran through the black tapestry of African American history like a scarlet thread, beginning before the ships made shore in the Americas and continuing through the modern-day Civil Rights movement. The river Harding wrote of may not have always raged beyond its prescribed borders, but even contained the powerful current and strong undertow continued its flow wide and deep.

Black Theology and Black Power, published in 1969, was James Cone's first firm and fearless statement of the convergence of black power and Christian thought at an academic level. This revolutionary statement exploded expectations in the white church that African American Christians would aid and abet their comfortable conformity with the historically oppressive, traditional power structure and the more gradualist and conservative elements in the African American community. In Cone's Black Theology and Black Power and in another two of his books, A Black Theology of Liberation (1970) and God of the Oppressed (1975), which came in relatively quick succession, Black Theology proclaimed with a joyful and liberating resonance, particularly to those trapped in a paralyzing tension, that there was no conflict between black self-affirmation and self-determination, in a word black liberation, and the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In fact the struggle for black liberation as defined by black power advocates was the mandate of the Gospel, and its emergence was a contemporary manifestation of the liberating activity of the Jesus revealed in New Testament Scripture. Since God was the God of the oppressed, always on the side of the oppressed, and Jesus Christ was his self disclosure and a living historical presence, then he manifests himself amid the oppressed. In the United States, African Americans were the oppressed, and hence Jesus Christ would not only be among them in their struggle for freedom but would manifest himself in them and their struggle. Jesus Christ revealed himself in the black faces affirming their freedom. In the United States therefore Jesus was black.

Other voices forcefully entered the fray emphasizing other aspects of Black Theology, some at least implicitly and others explicitly critical of Cone. Black Theology for Cone was theology of, by, and for black people. J. Deotis Roberts insisted upon the preeminence of the theme of reconciliation. The emphasis on reconciliation was essential to preserve the doctrinal integrity of Black Theology, given its claim to be Christian and normative. In addition to reconciliation Roberts feared an unhealthy isolation of Black Theology as it divorced itself, through a kind of ideological separatism, from the larger Christian theological tradition. "If we unwisely mark off a little space for our operation as black scholars, most white scholars will gladly let us operate only within these bounds. There will be no need to admit the black theologian to the comprehensive field of theology. Some of us have fought too long and hard to give up this territory now" (Roberts, 1971, pp. 1920). Major J. Jones, continuing in this vein with some unique contributions and further elaboration, radicalized the approach to "reconciliation" in his Christian Ethics for Black Theology (1974), arguing that the concept presupposed "an ideal prior relationship" that blacks and whites did not share. In this work, while critically examining the Black Theology project, he suggested grounds for building "a totally new relationship that has never heretofore existed between black and white people in America" (Jones, 1974, p. 8).

Although Black Theology's essential critique of the white church gained wide acceptance, its constructive theological program drew heavy but primarily constructive criticism from several different quarters. Those that criticized Black Theology were no less committed to the struggle for African American liberation. They did not, however, accept James Cone's theological method, the rationality of his claims, or his interpretation of the essential nature of African American religious experience in which his theology claimed to be grounded. Nor did they accept the claim that it was somehow free of the traditional conceptual entanglements, challenges, and demands of academic accountability of the "white" theological tradition. Charles Long, in Significations (1986), and Cecil Cone, in a more strictly theological vein in The Identity Crisis in Black Theology (1975), argued that African American religious experience had to be more broadly interpreted in order to remain true to the nature of the "religious," the sources themselves, as well as maintain the theoretical integrity of theological method. Black Theology came under fire for reducing religious experience primarily to a selective interpretation of black church history. Many critics of Black Theology argue that its method is primarily tautological in that it formulates its conclusions, then shapes the interpretation of the sources it claims to be based on to fit them, dismissively excising or devaluing those dimensions of the experience that remain recalcitrant. In a word, critics have claimed that Black Theology has forced African American religious experience onto the procrustean bed of a quasi-political ideology in view of the methodological prominence of "black power."

A second generation of Black Theologians is attempting to meet some of these and other challenges by (1) broadening their reach into the sources, such as slave narratives, African American literature, and other cultural artifacts (see, for instance, Cut Loose Your Stammering Tongue: Black Theology in the Slave Narratives (2003), edited by Dwight N. Hopkins and George C. L. Cummings); (2) widening the scope of Black Theology by engaging in conversation with other third world and liberation theologies; and (3) placing themselves in dialogue with indigenous African religious traditions (see Josiah U. Young and Will Coleman).

There were other earlier attempts to respond to the limitations of the black theological vision, but these have garnered little attention, ironically, because of the academic ascendancy of the one particular vein. One such instructive effort, Black Theology II: Essays on the Formation and Outreach of Contemporary Black Theology (1987), edited by Calvin E. Bruce and William R. Jones, remains a valuable contribution to the ongoing development of the black theological project.

Womanist Theology

One of the most promising developments in the movement has been the emergence of Womanist Theology. The womanist perspective distinguishes itself by challenging the traditional neglect of black women's experience by black (and white) men in the academy and the church. In addition to challenging the neglect of their experience, they critique the openly oppressive nature of the black church, given the disproportional numbers of women who make up black congregations and their virtual absence in leadership roles in local congregations and denominational hierarchies. Womanists also distinguish themselves from white feminists, challenging their implicit and explicit racism, while affirming their distinctive contribution to the larger feminist dialogue (see White Women's Christ and Black Women's Jesus: Feminist Christology and Womanist Response [1989] by Jacquelyn Grant). The term womanist was derived from Alice Walker's definition of the term, which is comprised of a distinctive African American cultural inflection. Although some "Womanist" Theologians have expressed uneasiness about being identified too closely with a label that carries what many women in the black church consider morally ambiguous baggage, the term has become ensconced in the discourse as the recognized designation. Other notable figures in the Womanist movement are Delores S. Williams, Kelly Brown Douglas, Cheryl J. Sanders, M. Shawn Copeland, and Emily Townes. While the broader themes of Womanist Theology bring coherence to the movement, there are significant differences in approach, theoretical inflection, and theological sensibility (see Introducing Womanist Theology [2002] by Stephanie Mitchem).

See Also

Liberation Theology.


For a rich textured history of the beginning and later development of Black Theology through an assemblage of primary texts, consult Gayraud S. Wilmore and James H. Cone, eds., Black Theology: A Documentary History, 19661979 (Maryknoll, N.Y., 1979), and James H. Cone and Gayraud S. Wilmore, eds., Black Theology: A Documentary History, 2d ed. (Maryknoll, N.Y., 1993). See also James H. Cone, My Soul Looks Back (Nashville, Tenn., 1982) and Risks of Faith: The Emergence of a Black Theology of Liberation, 19681998 (Boston, 1999); and M. Shawn Copeland, "Black, Hispanic/Latino, and Native American Theologies," in The Modern Theologians: An Introduction to Christian Theology in the Twentieth Century, edited by David F. Ford (Cambridge, Mass., 1997).

Significant texts in the formation and development of the first generation of Black Theology are Joseph R. Washington, Black Religion: The Negro and Christianity in the United States (Boston, 1964) and The Politics of God (Boston, 1967); and James H. Cone, Black Theology and Black Power (New York, 1969) and A Black Theology of Liberation (Philadelphia, 1970). For valuable secondary material on Cone's 1970 text and the development of Black Theology, see Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation: Twentieth Anniversary Edition (Maryknoll, N.Y., 2001), The Spirituals and the Blues: An Interpretation (San Francisco, 1972), God of the Oppressed (New York, 1975); J. Deotis Roberts, Liberation and Reconciliation: A Black Theology (Philadelphia, 1971) and Black Theology in Dialogue (Philadelphia, 1987); Gayraud S. Wilmore, Black Religion and Black Radicalism (Garden City, N.Y., 1972); Major J. Jones, Christian Ethics for Black Theology: The Politics of Liberation (Nashville, Tenn., 1974); and James J. Gardiner and J. Deotis Roberts, eds., Quest for a Black Theology (Philadelphia, 1971).

Second-generation efforts to explicate Black Theology and expand its intellectual and social range include Dwight N. Hopkins, Introducing Black Theology of Liberation (Maryknoll, N.Y., 1999), Black Theology USA and South Africa: Politics, Culture, and Liberation (Maryknoll, N.Y., 1989), Down, Up, and Over: Slave Religion and Black Theology (Minneapolis, Minn., 2000), and with George C. L. Cummings, eds., Cut Loose Your Stammering Tongue: Black Theology in the Slave Narratives (Louisville, Ky., 2003); Josiah U. Young III, Pan-African Theology: Providence and the Legacies of the Ancestors (Trenton, N.J., 1992), Dogged Strength with the Veil: Africana Spirituality and the Mysterious Love of God (Harrisburg, Pa., 2003); and Will Coleman, Tribal Talk: Black Theology, Hermeneutics, and African/American Ways of "Telling the Story" (University Park, Pa., 2000). For an alternative vision, see Calvin E. Bruce and William R. Jones, eds., Black Theology II: Essays on the Formation and Outreach of Contemporary Black Theology (Lewisburg, Pa., 1978).

Critical responses to the Black Theology movement from within the African American community include Cecil Wayne Cone, The Identity Crisis in Black Theology (Nashville, Tenn., 1975); William R. Jones, Is God a White Racist: A Preamble to Black Theology (Boston, 1998); Charles H. Long, Significations: Signs, Symbols, and Images in the Interpretation of Religion (Philadelphia, 1986); and Dale P. Andrews, Practical Theology for Black Churches: Bridging Black Theology and African American Folk Religion (Louisville, Ky., 2002). For an engaging and positive assessment, see Theo Witvliet, The Way of the Black Messiah: The Hermeneutical Challenge of Black Theology as a Theology of Liberation (Oak Park, Ill., 1987).

For an introduction and overview of the Womanist development, see Stephanie Y. Mitchem, Introducing Womanist Theology (Maryknoll, N.Y., 2002). Additional important works include Jacquelyn Grant, White Women's Christ and Black Women's Jesus: Feminist Christology and Womanist Response (Atlanta, Ga., 1989); Emilie M. Townes, ed., A Troubling in My Soul: Womanist Perspectives on Evil and Suffering (Maryknoll, N.Y., 1993) and Embracing the Spirit: Womanist Perspectives on Hope, Salvation, and Transformation (Maryknoll, N.Y., 1997); Diana L. Hayes, And Still We Rise: An Introduction to Black Liberation Theology (New York, 1996); Delores S. Williams, Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk (Maryknoll, N.Y., 1995); Kelly Brown Douglas, The Black Christ (Maryknoll, N.Y., 1994); Cheryl J. Sanders, Ministry at the Margins: The Prophetic Mission of Women, Youth, and the Poor (Downers Grove, Ill., 1997); and Cheryl J. Sanders, ed., Living the Intersection: Womanism and Afrocentrism in Theology (Minneapolis, Minn., 1995) and.

Matthew V. Johnson, Sr. (2005)