M Shawn Copeland

. . . for ourselves and for humanity, comrades, We must turn over a new leaf,

We must work out new concepts, and try set afoot a new man [sic].

Franz Fanon

From the angry wail of James Cone's polemic that irrupted in the aftermath of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., and veered ever so close to separatism to J. Deotis Roberts's poignant insistence that black Christians live out the reconciling love of God in white racist America; from Delores Williams's incisive protest at the marginalization and reduction of the lives and experiences of black women to Willa Boesak's unequivocal examination of black rage in order to expose and pose the need for a new ethics in postapartheid South Africa; from Bob Marley's lilting and incriminating music that unmasks the violence and misery endured by African peoples, to Robert Beckford's biting analysis of racism in Britain and black expressive culture's response of rahtid or righteous rage, to Musa Dube's unflinching disclosure of the crucial role of the Bible in facilitating Western imperialism: If we consider black theology as comprehensive critical reflection on the human condition, how could it not be political!

Even if this description elides black theology's contextual and theoretical development, it confirms that politics lies just beneath the skin - one scratch yields the political philosopher, two bring forth the theologian. Yet the thoroughgoing political character of black theology is grounded in its willingness to stand shoulder to shoulder with ordinary women and men and join with them in the exercise of nitty-gritty hermeneutics, that is, the reading and interpretation of the body of practices and assumptions, norms, habits, and expectations that shape and enclose the cultural and social (that is, the political, economic, and technological) matrix in which we live. Black political theology goes to school by listening to the vernacular: It absorbs street smarts as well as critical theory; it knows funk, reggae, rap, and dread; it does jazz, pop, and blues; it is "riddim wise and Scripture smart" (Middleton 2000: 257). For black political theology esteems ordinary people's critical consciousness of their own predicament and, thus, prizes what Michel Foucault has called subjugated knowledges. In theoretical response to the exigencies of epistemology and method, black political theology sides with Ngugi Wa Thiong'o (and Bernard Lonergan) in the struggle to decolonize the mind. The best of black political theology takes self-criticism seriously, and grasps theory as passionate, communal, collaborative intellectual engagement aimed to understand, interpret, and transform the culture through creative and healing social praxis grounded in the Gospel.

Black political theology interrogates the cultural and social horizons through which women and men seek to achieve and realize their humanity with joy and dignity in history, even in the thick of oppression and massive social suffering. Black theology does this by shining the spotlight on the complex relation between religion and societal expressions of cultural meanings and values. It explains the difference between the political as the legitimate use of authorized power and its vulgar reduction to predatory, acquisitive contrivance. Black political theology delineates the global market's subtle, yet violent, subjugation of body and mind, labor and spirit; it sniffs out covert and pseudo-innocent forms of antisemitism, sexism, racism, homophobia, imperialism, and colonialism. Black political theology lays bare modernity's subordination of politics to an economics that turns its back on any relation to society's common human good and "absolves" itself from any question about its legitimacy (Habermas 1983: 3-4). Further, black political theology clarifies the surrender of this economics to a technology that exalts a positivistic notion of science and so exiles metaphysics to "extravagance and mean-inglessness" (Habermas 1971: 67). This judgment discloses the mercenary, restless itch to displace, to repress irreducible incarnate spirit by technical rationality.

Black political theology does more than bemoan technological rule. As a Christian act of interpretation, black theology orients itself before the cross of Jesus of Nazareth. Thus, it is ever alert to the temptation of institutionalized religion - indeed, the temptation of all human institutions - to yield to a status quo that ever so politely can mask repressive patterns in the culture. Black political theology undertakes the responsibility to articulate a wisdom that slakes our thirst for the presence and reign of God. It strives for justice in neighbor-directed praxis and for humble, righteous anger as it nurtures compassion and solidarity in efforts to reverse structural injustices.

Black political theology interrupts the privatizing, individualizing tendencies that intrude upon human being; it coaxes forward and supports personal transformation of life by laying the foundation for new practices and habits out of which to live authentically in passion and compassion. Black political theology apprehends praxis as a way of life, a way of being authentically human and holy in the world. In other words, black political theology strives to incarnate a praxial answer to the question of Guatemalan poet Otto René Castillo: "What did you do when the poor / suffered, when tenderness / and life / burned out in them?" Thus, black political theology never can allow or permit any form of ranking of the social suffering of "other" human "others." The best of black political theology seeks to follow Jesus of Nazareth: to take up the cause of outcast, despised, and marginalized children, women, and men; to live at the disposal of the cross (Mark 8: 34).

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