Black Theology And The Struggle Against Racism

The black theology movement grew from a sense of solidarity in oppression, rooted in skin colour and aligned with slavery, poverty and inequality. Black people were the first community to create a vocabulary to counter the oppression of those defined by something other than class. Later concepts such as 'sisterhood' and 'gay power' helped to define movements of those whose experience of oppression was rooted in gender and sexual orientation. But it was the black struggle which provided the impetus for the later movements.

In the movement for civil rights in the USA, the black Church became the main sphere for the creation of survival strategies, and the context within which visions of liberation were nourished and expressed. More widely, the Church became a bulwark against the meaninglessness and desolation of the ghetto, and black Christian discourse became the principal language of subversive dissent and visionary energy. The black Church was, and in many places remains, a source of corporate and personal identity, a source for the definition of meaning and of humanity, while to this day, all over the United States, the prophetic black Church is a major source of social and political leadership.

In recent years the experience of black Christians, particularly in the United States, has found expression in the black theology of writers such as James Cone, Gayraud Wilmore, Cornel West and Katie Cannon (Cone 1970, 1972, 1975; Wilmore 1972; West 1982, 1988, 1993a, 1993b; Cannon 1988). Black theology is an effort to relate the experience of blackness to the tradition of Christian theology. From its beginnings it has been seen as a black theology of liberation. According to Cone and all writers in the tradition of black theology, if a theology is indifferent to liberation it is not Christian theology. There can be no theology without the experience of an oppressed community. Along with theological reflection has come a dynamic black spirituality, strongly biblical and prophetic, and rooted in the life of local communities. Black theologians are highly critical of those black churches which have moved towards conformity and away from a critical prophetic stance.

In Britain, the struggle against racism has brought together black and white Christians from a range of traditions. At the same time, as most white Christians have avoided committed social involvement, so there has been a resurgence of black pietism, and some have withdrawn into an otherworldly stance. The black-led churches have developed a spirituality which draws on classical Pentecostal sources (with their origins in the southern plantocracy and white revivalist missions) as well as on the prophetic tradition of the American black Church and on the experience of racism within the British urban context. Often these tendencies coexist in an uneasy tension, and what the future will bring is unclear. It may be that more radical groups within the black churches will form alliances across denominational divides, and that the conservatives will withdraw into the growing fundamentalist scene. It is likely too that alliances will be built between radical black groups, Christian and non-Christian. For many black and white Christians, the experience of racism has been a source of spiritual renewal and spiritual empowerment, a crucial point in the present-day conflict with the principalities and powers.

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