Theology, Black

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Theology, Black

The phrase "black theology" was first used by a small group of African-American ministers and religious leaders in the late 1960s. It referred to their rejection of the dominant view of Christianity as passive and otherworldly and their definition of Christianity as a religion of liberation, consistent with black people's political struggle for justice in America and their cultural identification with Africa. The origin of black theology has two contexts: the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, largely associated with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the rise of the Black Power movement, strongly influenced by Malcolm X's philosophy of black nationalism.

All those who advocated the need for a black theology were deeply involved in the civil rights movement, and they participated in the protest demonstrations led by King. Unlike most theological movements in Europe and North America, black theology's origin did not take place in the seminary or university. It was created in the context of black people's struggle for racial justice, organized in the churches, and often led by ministers.

From the beginning, black theology was understood by its interpreters as a theological reflection upon the black struggle for liberation, defined primarily by King's ministry. When King and other black church people began to connect the Christian gospel with the struggle for racial justice, the great majority of the white churches and their theologians denied that such a connection existed. Conservative white Christians said that religion and politics did not mix. Liberals, with few exceptions during the 1950s and early 1960s, remained silent or advocated a form of gradualism that questioned the morality of boycotts, sit-ins, and freedom rides.

Contrary to popular opinion, King was not well received by the white church establishment when he and other blacks inaugurated the civil rights movement with the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955. Because black clergy received no theological support from white churches, they searched African-American history for the religious basis of their prior political commitment to fight for justice alongside the black poor. They found support in Henry Highland Garnet, Nat Turner, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Henry McNeal Turner, and many other pre- and post-Civil War black Christians. They discovered that the black freedom movement did not begin in the 1950s but had roots going back many years. Black Christians played major leadership roles in the abolition movement, always citing their religious faith as the primary reason for their political commitment. They claimed that the God of the Bible did not create them to be slaves or second-class citizens in the United States. In order to give an intellectual account of this religious conviction, black clergy radicals created a black theology that rejected racism and affirmed that the struggle for black liberation was supported by the gospel of Jesus.

After the March on Washington in August 1963, the integration theme began to lose ground to the black nationalist philosophy of Malcolm X. The riots in the ghettoes of U.S. cities were evidence that many blacks agreed with Malcolm's contention that their status in America was the subject not of a dream but of a nightmare. It was not until the summer of 1966, however, after Malcolm's assassination (1965), that the term Black Power began to replace the word integration among many civil rights activists. The occasion was the continuation of James Meredith's 1966 March against Fear (in Mississippi) by King, Stokely Carmichael, and other civil rights activists. Carmichael seized the occasion to proclaim the Black Power slogan, and it was heard throughout the United States.

The rise of Black Power had a profound effect on the appearance of black theology. When Carmichael and other radicals separated themselves from King's absolute commitment to nonviolence by proclaiming Black Power, white liberal Christians, especially clergymen, urged black clergy to denounce Black Power as unchristian. To the surprise of these white Christians, a small but significant group of black ministers refused to condemn Black Power. Instead they embraced it and wrote a "Black Power" statement that was published in the New York Times on July 31, 1966.

The publication of the "Black Power" statement was the beginning of the conscious development of a black theology. While blacks have always recognized the ethical heresy of white Christians ("Everybody talking about heaven ain't going there"), they still assumed that whites had the correct understanding of the Christian faith. However, the call for a black theology meant that black ministers, for the first time since the founding of black churches in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, recognized that white people's privilege in society created a defect not only in their ethical behavior but also in their theological reflections.

No longer able to accept white theology, which was silent on black oppression, black theologians began to make their own theology by rereading the Bible in the context of their participation in the liberation struggles of the black poor. They denounced white theology as racist and were unrelenting in their attack on the manifestations of racism in white denominations. Black clergy also created an ecumenical organization called the National Conference of Black Churchmen, as well as black caucuses in the National Council of Churches and in nearly all the white denominations. It was in this context that the phrase "black theology" emerged.

It was one thing to proclaim the need for a black theology, however, and another to define its intellectual content. Nearly all white ministers and theologians initially dismissed it as ideological rhetoric having nothing to do with real Christian theology. Since white theologians controlled public theological discourse in seminaries and university departments of religion, they made many blacks feel that only Europeans and persons who think like them could define what theology is. In order to challenge the white monopoly on the definition of theology, many young black scholars realized that they had to carry the fight on to the seminaries and universities where theology was being taught and written.

The first book on black theology was written in 1969 by James H. Cone under the title Black Theology and Black Power. That study identified the liberating elements of black power with the Christian gospel. Cone's second book, A Black Theology of Liberation (1970), made the liberation of the poor from oppression the organizing center of the author's theological perspective.

After Cone's works appeared, other black theologians joined him, supporting his theological project and also pointing to what they believed to be some of the limitations of his conclusions. In his Liberation and Reconciliation: A Black Theology (1971), J. Deotis Roberts, while supporting Cone's accent on liberation, claimed that Cone overlooked reconciliation as central to the gospel in black-white relations. Other black scholars argued that Cone's view of black theology was too dependent on the white European theology he claimed to have rejected, and thus not sufficiently aware of the African origin of black religion. This position was taken by Gayraud S. Wilmore, the author of Black Religion and Black Radicalism (1972).

While black scholars debated about black theology, they agreed that liberation is the central core of the gospel as found in the scriptures and the religious history of the African Americans. They claimed that the political meaning of the gospel is best illustrated in the Exodus, and its spiritual meaning is found in the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The Exodus was interpreted as analogous to Nat Turner's slave insurrection, Harriet Tubman's liberation of an estimated 300 slaves, and the Black Power revolution of the 1960s. Slave spirituals, sermons, prayers, and the religious fervor and suffering (including martyrs) that characterized the contemporary civil rights movement expressed the spiritual character of liberation found in the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

During the early part of the 1970s, black theology in the United States influenced the development of black theology in South Africa. Black theologians in the United States also began to have contact with theologians of liberation in Latin America and Asia. Although Latin-American theologians emphasized classism, in contrast to black theologians' accent on racism, they became partners in their opposition to the dominant theologies of Europe and the United States and in their identification of the gospel with the liberation of the poor. A similar partnership occurred with Asians regarding the importance of culture in defining theology.

In the late 1970s, a feminist consciousness began to emerge among black women as more women entered the ministry and the seminaries. Their critique of black theology as sexist led to the development of a "womanist theology." The term womanist was derived from Alice Walker's In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens: Womanist Prose (1983), and it was applied to theology by Delores Williams, Katie G. Cannon, Jacquelyn Grant, Kelly Brown-Douglas, and other black women scholars. It has been within the context of black theologians' dialogue with women and Third World peoples that the theological meaning of liberation has been enlarged and the universal character of the Christian faith reaffirmed. The enlargement of black theology's vision has been developed by a "second generation" of black theologians who have incorporated not only race but gender, class, and sexuality into their discourse. They include Dwight Hopkins, Anthony Pinn, and JoAnne Terrell.

See also Black Power Movement; Carmichael, Stokely; Cone, James H.; Garnet, Henry Highland; King, Martin Luther, Jr.; Liberation Theology; Malcolm X; Meredith, James H.; Nat Turner's Rebellion; Tubman, Harriet; Turner, Henry McNeal; Walker, Alice


Cone, James H. God of the Oppressed. New York: Seabury Press, 1975.

Cone, James H. For My People: Black Theology and the Black Church. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1984.

Cone, James H., and Gayraud S. Wilmore, eds. Black Theology: A Documentary History. Vol. One: 19661979. Rev. ed. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1992.

Cone, James H., and Gayraud S. Wilmore, eds. Black Theology: A Documentary History. Vol. Two: 19801992. Maryknoll, N.Y., 1992.

Cone, James H. Risks of Faith: The Emergence of a Black Theology of Liberation, 19681998. Boston, Mass.: Beacon Press, 1999.

Evans, James H., Jr. Black Theology: A Critical Assessment and Annotated Bibliography. New York: Greenwood Press, 1987.

Jones, William R. Is God a White Racist? A Preamble to Black Theology. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press, 1973.

james h. cone (1996)
Updated bibliography