#Blerd History Month: Black Theology

“The liberal, then, is one who sees “both sides” of the issue and shies away from “extremism” in any form. He wants to change the heart of the racist without ceasing to be his friend; he wants progress without conflict. […] He wants change without risk, victory without blood.” (James Hal Cone, Black Theology and Black Power, 27).

Critics contend (erroneously and simplistically) that even the use of the term “black” when referring to theology is a form of racism. Theology, the study of what persons have said about God’s being and doing in the world, is supposed to be a color-blind endeavor without regard to human bodily experiences. It’s supposed to be about contemplating the stars, speculation on the abstract, the general, what is universally transcendent beyond human limitations. I think these presumptions are false. Race is a social construct, no person is literally black in skin color, I mean except if they are of a different skin pigmentation like a Darth Maul.

Darth Maul (comics)

Darth Maul (comics) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The black in Black Theology refers refers to the fact that contemporary theological reflection is done in a post-Christopher Columbus world, where salvation was racialized in a scheme of the Chosen Ones of Western Europe set against the Reprobate of the East, Africa, and Eastern Europe. Conversations about God as well as interpretations of what religious persons consider to be divine revelation, holy books and traditions, are seen through the filters of this value-laden racial gaze.

Plaque for Olaudah Equiano

Plaque for Olaudah Equiano (Photo credit: zimpenfish)

The first theologians of color (on North American shores) were Native Americans and enslaved blacks who were forced to respond to oppressive theologies. These theologies were to be found in the published and unpublished slave narratives of persons such as Frederick Douglass, Briton Hammon, and Olaudah Equiano. You can find a link to Equiano’s narrative here and Briton Hammon’s here. Like their white Puritan forebears, these theologians used a form of journaling to express themselves religiously. In the same way that Gary Dorrien argues that Liberal Protestant theology rose (through the sermons of preachers rather than seminaries and universities), after Emancipation, the theology of Negro Americans came from the likes of preachers such as Reverend Francis J. Grimke, the Right Reverend Reverdy Ransom, and Bishop Henry M. Turner, who argued “God Is A Negro,” or more likely that God was eventually on the side of the Negro cause against the suffering of Jim Crow segregation and lynching.

What we now refer to as Black Theology all started because of the activism of Malcolm X & Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It was in 1969 that James Hal Cone published Black Theology and Black Power; this work has changed the way that theological knowledge is produced. In Cone’s BTBP, he makes it clear that he seems himself as invalidating the knowledge of good and evil in US American society in continuity with the late Dietrich Bonhoeffer (140). Much like the German Reformer Martin Luther generations before him (118), Bonhoeffer denied the absolute authority of the religious leaders of his day. The examples of Luther and Bonhoeffer are used by Cone to demonstrate what Cone saw Black theologians and Black Power advocates doing: challenging the truth regime of US American white liberal Protestantism. Rather than assuming that the truth regime was legit and natural, Cone critiqued false claims of universality by the white liberal US American theological establishment. Cone says,”The liberal white man is a strange creature; he verbalizes the right things. He intellectualizes on the racial problem beautifully.” he continues,”Blacks do not want his patronizing, condescending words of sympathy, They do not need his concern, his ‘love,’ his money.”

It is this revolutionary turn in theology that emboldened a group of students at Colgate-Rochester Crozer Divinity School in New York to take a stand a demand a space for Black religious intellectuals. Currently, in the United States, there are six Black Church Studies programs:

Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth, Texas

Candler School of Theology in Atlanta, Georgia

Colgate-Rochester Crozer Divinity School in Rochester, NY

Duke Divinity School in Durham, North Carolina

Kelly Miller Institute for Black Church Studies at Vanderbilt Divinity School in Nashville, Tennessee

Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY

The creation of this space set in motion the creation of space for scholars of religious thought from Latina/o, First Nations and Asian/Pacific Island backgrounds. My questions regarding Black Theologies are these: When will black theology make a visible impact on local communities on a larger? What parts of contemporary black theology do black churches reject and why? Lastly, what is the next stage for Black Theology in moving forward? Should it shift from being Black theology to theologies of blackness given the fluidity of the term “black” as a racial construct?

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