Black theology


There are several ways of approaching Black theology. One approach seeks to characterise it in terms of its history, that is, of its origins in the Civil Rights and Black Power movements of the 1960s. It maintains that the demands for racial justice embodied in these two movements provided the basis for the emergence of Black theology. I shall not follow this approach here since it is not the aim of this chapter to offer a detailed description of the relationship between movements of protest and Black theology n the 1960s. This has been done elsewhere,1

The second but related approach starts from an interpretation of the different ways in which African-American slaves appropriated and reworked Christian faith in the context of their experience of slavery. According to this understanding Black theology represents not just a faddish attempt to redefine Christian teaching in the light of the demands of the social and political forces of the 1960s but a critical search for a historically black Christian form of reflection on issues of racial justice and liberation. The materials for such reflection come from the twin realities of slavery in the past and the experience of racism in the present. One important difference between these two approaches is that, although they both share the same understanding of Black theology, the first is very much shaped by the politics of the recent past whereas the second locates its point of departure in the history of slavery itself, with the latter being seen as a historical expression of racism. Needless to say, these approaches are not mutually exclusive but they point to differences in methodological emphasis between the first generation of black theologians, i.e., its founders like James Cone, Gayraud Wilmore, Deotis Roberts and others and the second generation like Dwight Hopkins, Jacquelyn Grant, Josiah Young, Delores Williams and others.

The third route and one which I shall take here approaches Black theology through a critical elucidation of its main themes. This has several advantages over the other two approaches. First, it allows one to engage the actual thinking of black theologians on a variety of topics which have come to be central to Black theology's self-understanding. This has rarely been done.1 Many works on Black theology cither merely describe how it came into being, its relationship to the social movements of the 1960s or they are attempts to recover slave narratives in order to reconstitute them as appropriate modes for theological reflection. The second advantage of the approach I propose here is that it helps one to maintain a certain distance from the productions of black theologians. Such a critical distance is long overdue because, with a few exceptions, the bulk of what makes up the literature of Black theology remains largely uncritical of itself. This can perhaps be explained not only as a function of the character of that literature as a body of primary sources but also in terms of the self-understanding of Black theology as a form of social struggle rather than simply as an intellectual exercise,

What I do in this chapter, then, is to engage the writings of one of the leading black theologians of the first generation. I refer to James Cone, I choose Cone because he remains by far the most prominent and influential of all black theologians. He has, perhaps, published more works on Black theology than any living theologian and the extent of his influence can easily be seen in the fact that many of the second generation of black theologians studied under him at Union Theological Seminary where is the Distinguished Charles Briggs Professor of Systematic Theology. Cone has thus continued to provide the framework for the articulation of Black theology whether in America or in South Africa.

By focusing on Cone I do not wish to suggest that other black theologians or other varieties of Black theology {South African or Womanist Black theologies, for example) are unimportant or that there arc no real differences in approach and content between them. I wish simply to give the reader the opportunity to come to terms with the central presuppositions of Black theology as articulated in the writings of its most well-known advocate. Whatever differences may exist between black theologians, they are all agreed that the basic categories first formulated by Cone provide the most appropriate means for theological reflection on the problem of racism. The various schools of thought that have arisen within Black theology, then, fundamentally stand in continuity with Conian theology.

Black theology defined

I have so far used the term 'Black theology' as though the meaning of that phrase is self-evident. This, however, is not so; hence we need to attend to matters of definition before proceeding further. What, then, in the perspective of its exponents, is Black theology and what connection, if any, does it have with Christian theology? According to an official statement of the National Conference of Black Churchmen issued in June of 1969 (the same year in which Cone first published his Black Theology and Black Power):

Black Theology is a theology of liberation. It seeks to plumb the black condition in the light of God's revelation in Jesus Christ, so that the black community can see that the gospel is commensurate with the achievement of black humanity. Black Theology is a theology of 'blackness'. It is the affirmation of black humanity that emancipates black people from white racism, thus providing authentic freedom for both white and black people. It affirms the humanity of white people in that it says No to the encroachment of white oppression.*

Cone and Wilmore have defined it in the following terms.

Black theology, therefore, is that theology which arises out of the need to articulate the religious significance of [the] Black presence in a hostile White world. It is Black people reflecting on the Black experience under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, attempting to redefine the relevance of the Christian gospel for their lives.4

First, both definitions make reference to 'blackness* or the 'black condition* and, second, both claim some kind of relationship between this 'black condition' and the gospel* Both definitions also link blackness to white racism. According to these definitions, the central problem which Black theology seeks to address is that of the contradiction between racism and the demands of Christian faith. In order to understand this it is important to bear in mind that the reality of white racism has been a significant and pervasive feature of the experience of modernity for both blacks and whites. It is a reality which has historically formed the context of their often vexed encounter.

The centrality of race in the modern period can be seen not only in the fact that millions of people in countries as widely different as South Africa and Brazil or France and Australia, or again, Germany and America, Britain and Italy have been the victims of racist practiccs; it can also be observed in the existence of a large body of knowledge both popular and academic in which the 'being* of blacks has been classified (sometimes as less than human), ordered (as inferior to whites), labelled (as primitive, barbaric etc,) and interrogated (as to its utility; slavery and the exploitation of labour in much of the Third World being perhaps the best examples of this). It has now been established by a number of scholars, both white and non-white, that the philosophers of the Enlightenment and the scientists as well as the would-be scientists of the nineteenth century showed a great interest in the question of race; an interest in which the humanity of blacks was ridiculed and sometimes denied. The gurus of western philosophical thought, Kant, Hegel, Hume, Voltaire and other less well-known scholars, all produced works in which they openly displayed their racism against blacks. It is in the works of these men that 'the grammar of racialised discourse' which underlies much of modernity's view of the self as, among other things, a racial subject, was forged. When in Tancred or the New Crusade Disraeli says, 'All is race. There is no other truth*, he is merely repeating the sentiments of a long line of well-known figures in modernity: Renan, Taine, Le Bon, Gobineau, etc.5

The point is not that Black theology came into being in response to the discursive provocations of the theorists mentioned above. In fact, it has never really engaged the discourse of race in the modern period which, of course, remains one of its major theoretical weaknesses. What is important, however, is the fact that the level at which Black theology is forged as a critique of racism has been historically and sociologically determined by the pain and suffering which has resulted from the infliction of racism on blacks.

Thus when the above definitions of Black theology speak of white racism as the hostility of the world towards the black presence, it is not primarily the effects of the theoretical content of racialist discourse which form the basis of such a claim but rather the practical expression of that discourse, its lived experience, in the attitudes, institutions and modes of behaviour that constitute the oppression of blacks on the basis of their skin colour. In other words, for Black theology racism is not just a set of beliefs which say that inherited biological traits determine moral and intellectual dispositions so that some races are not only biologically but, therefore, morally and intellectually better off than others, it is also a mode of behaviour which prescribes discriminatory policies intended to work against those considered to be biologically less better off.

The basic claim of Black theology, then, is that it is in the context of the suffering caused by these discriminatory policies and modes of behaviour that black humanity has been negatively defined by whites. Its aim, therefore, is to critically reflect on what it means to be black in such a context.

According to the two definitions of Black theology quoted above this mode of reflection seeks to show that 'God's revelation in Jesus Christ, . . is commensurate with the achievement of black humanity'. Black theology is nothing short of a statement of affirmation of black humanity. The possibilities of such an affirmation, in other words, require a theology of liberation which takes race and the practices associated with belief in the idea of race seriously.

The identity of Black theology, it follows from this, is moulded by the circumstances or situation of black existence in which the gospel is appropriated, lived and reflected on such that doing Black theology becomes a dialectic between the two realities of 'context' and 'gospel5, 'situation' and 4kcrygma\ I shall argue in this chapter that this 'dialectic' of message and situation represents the regulative principle of the methodology of Black theology/

The twofold structure of Cone's thought

The methodological aspect

In order to illustrate this, I shall distinguish two broad categories into which the Black theology of James Cone may be divided: the methodological and the dogmatic. One deals with his approach to Black theology and the other with the content of that theology. As far as the first is concerned, I shall address Black theology's claim regarding the contextuality of all theological discourse and of Black theology in particular. With rcspect to the second category, I shall elucidate Cone's thought on the nature of revelation and christology.

The cofttextnality of theological discourse

Cone understands Christian theology to be 'human speech about God\ But, it is speech, like all human speech, always related to historical situations/ As we shall see shortly, this is an important claim for Black theology because it is committed, in all its variety, to the view that all human ideas, including theology, are marked by the identities of their productive agents: they represent the thoughts, interests and practices of those who producc them. In turn, who these are and what makes them what they are is largely a function of the social, political and economic context in which they live, move and have their existence,

For Cone this means that all theology is limited by the cultural conditions of its production and thus is not universal language, Or, to put it another way, it is precisely because it has no legitimate claims to such universality that it is interested language. Elsewhere Cone calls this the 'contextual-dialectical method1. According to this method, there arc no absolute, universal truths, not even in revelation itself-8

What makes this method dialectical is the fact that theology arises out of a specific historical context characterised by the movement of thought and experience between the reality of racism, which spells out the content of both context and experience, and the demands of the gospel which provide the framework for the struggle for racial justice. But this movement is not exhaustive of the nature of this dialectic since the latter is, theologically, also made up of a paradox that drives our interpretation of the gospel back to the original experience of racism in order to discern whether or not that interpretation has yielded any possibilities for black liberation.

he elements of this paradox are, first, the refusal to concede the possibility of divine, universal truths and, second, the affirmation of truth as a happening from beyond history, 'a divine event that invades our history'. Both the idea that revelation is not absolute or universal and that it is a divine event which operates through a process of self-historicisation (it invades our history) are meant to express the contextuality of thought and experience. It is important to observe here that Cone's dialectic is not neutral: for the context of its verification or realisation is the event of black liberation.

In other words, the aim of Cone's emphasis on the contextuality of theology is, ultimately, to show that it makes a difference to the identity of a theology whether the theologian is a slave or a slave master; whether he/ she speaks - even through elected silence - on behalf of the oppressor or the oppressed. Cone writes, \ . , thinking, or thought, can never be separated from our socio-political existence. If one is a slave, then one's thinking about God will have a different character than if one is a slave master.*9 That is, whereas the slave's experience of God and reality is mediated through 'the attempt to define himself [in his early writings Cone consistently used sexist language] without the ordinary possibilities of self-affirmation5, through the 'slave ship, the auction block and the plantation regime', that of the slave master is gained by 'extending white inhumanity to excruciating limits'.'0 Hence it follows that, even granting the similarity in their language about God, the slave and the slave master 'could not possibly be referring to the same realityY1 There is, therefore, a fundamental connection between thought and the social conditions of thought; between reflection and praxis, between theology and its social context, a connection illustrating the fact that black religion11 and white religion are not 'essentially the same'."

Cone puts the differences which separate these two modes of interpreting the Christian message down to the different 'mental grids' or perspectives through which they are structured. The argument here is that if we want to know why the white American apprehension of the reality of the gospel has not theologically appropriated the question of colour or racism as a central problematic in its consciousncss; if we want to find out why, instead, its concern is directed at the somewhat abstract issues of the status of religious statements and the problem of faith and history posed by the challenge of the Enlightenment, we must look not to the content of white theology, that is, its assertions about God, humanity, etc., but to the social presuppositions which have determined its shape and form. We must look to its social connections; to the goals and aspirations it serves/4

This refusal to explain the character of a given theology simply in terms of its objective assertions or content is, as we have already seen, a consequence of Cone's belief in the contextuality of all theological language. It is, however, not contextuality in general which furnishes grounds for Cone's critique of doctrinal objectivism but contextuality in its concrete aspect. In other words, for Cone the fundamental property of the cultural context is in fact its concreteness. The constitutive attribute which most aptly describes the meaning of Sitz im Leben (the context or situation of life) is, so to speak, its existentiality. This being so, Cone is then enabled to search for the origins of his theological commitment not primarily in intellectual processes, nor in abstract self-elucidation, but rather in what he calls 'the existential and social formation of my faith*. In fact, he goes so far as to say that the factors of biography,15 embedded as they are in the sociopolitical context, are methodologically and theologically the most decisive characteristic in the forming of a theological perspective,** Biography, and the existential elements mentioned here, refer, in the first instance, not to the life of the individual theologian or thinker, but to the collective self-understanding of which he is a product, This aspect of biography is linked to the use of the idea of narrative in Black theology. This can be seen in the extent to which many of the leading black theologians of the second generation are seeking to recover the memory of slavery through a rereading of slave-narratives as a framework for reworking a whole range of Christian teaching from biblical hermeneutics to eschatology and from ethics to church history in terms of blackness as a category of theological interpretation. These theologians understand blackness both as a context as well as a narrative- It is the story of how Africans were enslaved and subjected to racism by people who identified themselves and the societies they represented as Christian. That story has become the context within which the meaning of the gospel is being interrogated in the light of that narrative,

This notion of contextuality allows Black theology to formulate a hcrmen-eutic of liberation rooted in the reality of black experience itself.

According to Cone, two aspects, one negative and the other positive, are crucial to understanding liberation as the hub of such a hermeneutic. Negatively, Black theology's raison d'etre is the recognition that, for blacks, 'the world is not what God wills it to be5/7 God does not will racism for the people of colour and yet that is the pervasive reality which saturates their consciousness;1* a reality which refuses to acknowledge their humanity; which sees their blackness as a necessary condition for their negation. Positively, however, the knowledge that the world could be different leads precisely to the struggle for liberation. Thus, from the start, Black theology was, in the eyes of its exponents, nothing short of a theology of liberation. But unlike other forms of liberation theology, its perspective on oppression was not primarily elucidated through concepts such as 'class', the role of international capitalism or gender, but through the category of race, or more precisely, that of blackness.

In its early stages Black theology failed or refused to engage with questions of class and gender, because, as black theologians had it, racism was the most pressing social problem of the 1960s both in America and in Africa, It was thought that although categories such as class and gender were important they were, nevertheless, not suitable instruments for struggle because they distracted attention from attempts to defeat racism, But this stance resulted in criticism from Latin American liberation theologians as well as from feminists, I cannot go into the details of this debate here for reasons of space. But I wish to note the fact that there is now in Black theology a significant number of black women rewriting Black theology, and thus in some ways even redefining blackness itself, in terms of their own experiences of oppression at the hands of black men.l?

The concept of blackness

Two questions are in order at this point: first, how is this notion to be construed? and second, does the qualifier 'black' and its cognates add anything to our understanding of theology? Cone's formulation of Black theology turns, in the main, upon the significance which he attaches to the symbol of blackness. That symbolism or at least this particular one is important for Black theology can be glimpsed in the way in which Cone justifies his use of blackness by arguing (following Tillich) that, as well as being contextual, all theological speech is symbolic in character. In Cone's thought, if humanity correctly understands the reality of God, and if therefore it correctly understands the nature of theological language, it will be driven to speak of Him (sic) through the mediation of symbols; symbols

'that point to dimensions of reality that cannot be spoken of literally',10 Therefore, Cone concludes, (to speak of Black Theology is to speak with the Tillichian understanding of symbol in mind1.11 By so fastening on to the symbolic character of theological language, Cone is enabled to appropriate blackness as a theological topos.

The notion of blackness is important for Black theology because in Western culture the contrast between black and white is morally significant. It marks the difference between evil and good and provides the analogical framework within which both good and evil are named in terms of their signifiers. Thus in Western culture black signifies evil and white signifies good. The representation of blacks as evil, ugly, dirty etc. in Western culture was, therefore, at least partly, predicated upon that contrast. In other words, it is this contrast which served as a metaphysical basis for justifying the oppression of blacks in the name of the good (read white culture and supremacy)/*

For virtually all the advocates of Black theology, however, this negative function of blackness is of much more than just historical interest since it is still applicable today for the oppressor and oppressed alike; it delimits their perception of each other. For the oppressor, it intends his or her self-understanding of a given people as at least racially inferior and, therefore, as not deserving of equal human treatment/3 Thus, Deotis Roberts draws attention to the fact that, even in contemporary culture, blackness signifies shame, ostracism and inferiority; he illustrates his point by referring to how the Webster dictionary has £ugly\ 'fiendish5, 'eviP, 'everything undesirable' as basic characteristics of blackness/4

It is this symbolism, with regard to both its historical as well as its present function(s), that Black theology has appropriated in order to enunciate the historical possibilities for the self-affirmation and/or negation of the black subject. These possibilities are the 'black condition' which constitutes the fundamental datum of human experience and, thus, so to speak, the raw materials of Black theology itself/5 If, then, blackness in both its positive and negative aspects is concerned about structures of historical experience and with the social and cultural conditions for their realisation, it follows that, although its reference or meaning involves an element of skin colour, it is not reducible to this.

As the Taiwanese theologian Choan Seng Song has argued, 'blackness' as understood in Black theology embodies the whole history and culture built on the experience of slavery/6 But more than a historical or cultural phenomenon, (our blackness', says Desmond Tutu, cis an intractable onto-iogical surd*/7 In other words, what is at stake when we talk about blackness is nothing other than the being or humanity of black people. If, so

it is perhaps not too much to say that Black theology is, at one level, an attempt to work out a theological anthropology based on a conception of the self as a racialised subject. It represents a recognition that whatever race is, centrally involved in the different ways people define each other in modernity is a process of racialisation of identities.

It is true that Black theology has generally not worked out a precise relationship of the historical to the ontological claims of blackness. This, however, has not been its main aim: proponents of Black theology have not sought to define the nature and content of symbol as such but rather to identify the part played in the experience of blacks by a particular symbol. Indeed, even where both the 'external' and the "internal' aspects of symbol have been assimilated, there is a predilection for the historical dimension. We may illustrate this by considering more specifically the way this symbol is employed in Black theology.

The function of the symbolism of blackness

According to Cone, the symbolism of blackness performs a double function; first, it symbolises white oppression. Cone is here linking the characteristics 'ugly1, 'fiendish', cevil% 'dark5 etc. (which we saw earlier are imputed to blackness in Western consciousness) with the fact that a particular people bearing the skin whose colour has been alleged to symbolise these very features 'have been the victims of white brutality'. The other role of blackness is, paradoxically, to symbolise what blacks mean by liberation/8

Of course there is at once a problem here: how have we arrived at the harmonious juxtaposition of these apparently contradictory functions? Deotis Roberts has attempted to deal with precisely this problem. In his essay 'A Creative Response to Racism: Black Theology', he argues that the latter has salvaged, redefined and transmuted blackness into a basis for self-affirmation. As understood by Roberts, this process is analogous to the Christian transformation of 'the arch symbol of our faith, the Cross' whereby the Ccurse' of the Cross has been made into the ultimate symbol of salvation/9 Although Cone insists that 'blackness* refers to both oppression and liberation, he nowhere offers a theory of symbols or of their relationship to paradox. While this is true, it is equally true that he supplies a different - though not systematic - explanation of the double function of the symbol which concerns us here and which, seemingly, enables him to evade the need for such a theory. His explanation is interesting because it also introduces us to another aspect of his thought; namely, Black theology's anthropology which, in an important sense, underlies his whole theological project. The key terms of this explanation are 'liberation5 and 'freedom'. In A Black Theology of Liberation, Cone maintains that authentic human existence means 'being in freedom',30 But this is not freedom in the abstract. Freedom is genuine only if it is a concrete negation of oppression,31 When Christians speak of the image of God in man as the grounding aspect of human nature, what they ought to stress is not the analogia cntis side of the image, but image as analogia relationis. It is here that the 'divine-human encounter is made possible, it is here that human nature through liberation as a condition for its fulfillment is realized',31 In other words, since the image of God in man ultimately means liberation, and since liberation is achieved in relational rather than in ontological categories, man's real nature is revealed whenever man attempts to overthrow the powers that oppress him. Thus Cone asserts, , , the image is human nature in rebellion against the structures of oppression. It is humanity involved in the liberation struggle against the forces of inhumanity'.33 This approach originates from Cone's belief in the existentialist dictum, 'existence precedes essence'. The subject and consequently the meaning of this existence is concrete humanity, 'the point of departure of any phenomenological analysis of human existence'.14

Blackness as ultimate reality

Of course, terms such as 'freedom', 'historical' and the like do not in themselves describe in what way a given reality is concrete. But this hardly matters, since for Black theology, the emphasis is on "blackness1, and 'blackness5 is what gives a particular set of experiences their historical specificity. Moreover, black people's consciousness of history is suffused with blackness itself, with the double experience of oppression and the struggle for liberation. Indeed, Cone has no hesitation in positing this experience as the ultimate determinative factor in his theology. He writes, 'The fact that I am black is my ultimate reality.'35 Again, To put it simply,' says Cone, 'Black Theology knows no authority more binding than the experience of oppression itself. This alone must be the ultimate authority in religious matters*'3* This, then, is 'the supreme test of truth'; the basic, non-negotiable datum which gives meaning to ultimate reality itself,37 In making these contentious remarks Cone is fully aware that the 'Christian doctrine of God must logically precede the doctrine of manV8 He does not wish to subordinate the gospel to blackness- But is Cone being consistent? We shall deal with this question in a moment. First, it is necessary to point out that Cone's argument is that, even accepting the priority of God and of Christ, 'black people can view God only through black eyes that behold the brutalities of white racism'; their knowledge of Christ comes from their experience of his identification with them in the pain of oppression,39

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  • calleigh
    What are the various forms of black theology?
    2 years ago
  • Milena Trevisan
    What is the difference between black theology and other forms of theology?
    11 months ago

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