Christian History: Liberation Theologies – Black Theology and Criticisms

Black Theology and Black Power James Cone

Black theology, though significantly different in its creation and development, still exudes a similar focus on experience. James Cone establishes the first distinctly “black” theology. Seeing the circumstances of his time, the late 1960s, he saw violence and hatred against blacks continue even after the passing of the Civil Rights Acts how could he reconcile, or even believe, in Martin Luther King Jr.’s love ethic given the reality? Cone, seeing the devastating circumstances of his time, utilizes the recent development of “black power” (as well as Paul Tillich’s contextual theology), originally proposed by Malcolm X, to augment and supply the black community with the power to combat their oppression.

Cone defines black power as blacks taking the dominant role in the black-white relationship in society. Furthermore, it means complete emancipation of black people from white oppression by whatever means black people deem necessary. The need for black freedom, self-determination, and dignity becomes an ultimate necessity against white racism. Whites themselves are the oppressor and must be dealt with, whereas the solution becomes only the contextual solution for a distinct community: the African Americans. The struggle of this community brings an extreme response to an extreme problem, for if the black community cannot define itself and act accordingly in opposition to the white supremacist society, then white society will eliminate blacks and black identity. Sin cannot, alone, be responsible for the problems in society. American needs a radical, specific response the white race will not accept their terms of engagement, so Cone will establish his own.

Thus, black power becomes necessary because the very structure of society has been poised to oppress blacks in their quest for self-identity, especially white theology. White theology, for Cone, is a rational “working-out” of reasons for faith and belief, a kind of apologetics. The white church follows this same trend: it allowed for the oppression to occur until law in America made it illegal to support the system. Blacks, therefore, must reject the common societal structures. If a theologian like Cone does not abide by these white rules, then his views are quickly attacked and rejected. How can such a philosophical mode be applicable to the struggle of blacks in America? Such abstract ideas are not relevant to the poor, the widow or the oppressed these are white ideas. Black ideas provide and create a mental space for blacks to establish black identity in opposition to the prevailing ideology. Blacks should not want to assimilate; they should establish their own unique community, whatever the cost and however absurd and hopeless their task might be. This theology must liberate blacks from their circumstances through the proclamation of the gospel, as well as find relevance to their own circumstance.

As such, Cone associates the Christian Gospel with the oppressed. Using the story of the Exodus and Mount Sinai as normative, as well as adopting the kerygmatic proclamation of Barth with the cultural experience of Tillich, he develops a theology that embraces the poor and oppressed above all else. For Cone, that particular oppressed party is the African American community in America hence, a contextual theology. Cone merely calls this theology “black” because this is the side that God takes in this grand racial conflict in America between black identity and white racism. Jesus, as the revelation of God to humankind, embodies the liberative struggles of the black community. Jesus dies to save humanity, the crux and center of all human existence, a change and irruption in the status quo. His life, death, and resurrection, the way he was treated by the authorities of his time (as depicted by the Gospels, anyway) make apparent his significance to the black community. Jesus provides the out, the escape, and the redemption for an oppressed community to speak out and change their situation for the better. God entered into the life of humankind and sided with the oppressed thus, God sides with the black community to liberate them from the oppression of a white society.

However, from my view, the problem of specificity rears its head in these theologies. Is there any reason why problems of patriarchy or racism should become dominant? Should one kind of experience ever become primary over all others? The problem with a feminist or black theology is, again, with authority – is there any impetus to believe this, other than a “hope against hope”, railing against unreasonable circumstances? One could suppose that this same question could be asked of the Biblical texts, but that does not advocate an authority either inaccessible or supposedly imperceptible to one group other than through the texts of these authors.  I suppose one could say that Scripture is inaccessible to the illiterate, but oral tradition was just as effective without it being written down.

Any true pursuit of egalitarian religion will not include, as its mode of operation, an “oppressive reversal” – that is, placing a new group in power who can just as easily perform the same oppressive function as the latter. The dream of the matriarchal society, or a black-ruled America, perhaps? All Christians can agree that salvation, however construed, can be received by all human beings, and God does not discriminate based on gender or race. Paul’s famous lines in Galatians 3:28 have served the Church well over the years:

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

Who could find the situation anything but unreasonably difficult when these verses exist in said holy texts?  Even if these theologies were meant for particular persons and groups only, what does that say of Christian unity? In fact, feminist and black theologies represent a return to the earliest human societies. The intent is separation, conflict, and winning the war against one’s enemies, in this case the ideological oppressors and under the guise of academic scholarship.

The goal for these groups is conquest, victory, and regnancy for their particular interest group to which all others should bow, not an equal society. They believe in a cosmic narrative, of their own founding, which places them as the victims on the “right” side of history, and all who oppose them as the oppressors. Eventually, the tide of history will turn their way and the oppressor will be vanquished. Reinhold Niebuhr, intentionally or not, seems to have prefi gured these movements in their primarily political struggle.

Robert C. Neville notes of these revolutionary Christian theologies that they

…are themselves unrevolutionary modernist developments of European modern thought, the very thought against whose institutionalized culture the social revolutions are believed to have addressed.

In Neville’s thought, these “revolutionary” theologies rely on the Enlightenment idea of power and the idea of narrative. In that mathematical physics had removed the concept of value from the world, framing the conversation in terms of “inertial forces” whereby objects continue their motion until deflected by another object in motion. Thus, the perception of human beings began anew from the same scientific, valueless point.

One could say that individual subjectivity is intentionally directed inertial will, conscious or not. If humans are just a bundle of interests, then the objects pushing in the opposite direction – in this case, the male/white oppressors – must be brought low, and the oppressed brought higher to counteract that imbalance. Thus does the narrative of power struggle reach its zenith in the idea of inevitable human and social progress – there no need for the oppressed to address their own sinfulness, just that of the oppressor. Hence, the reflective gives way to the active, the inner life suppressed by that of the need for constant action.

Adding to this, the narrative of the universal matriarchal prehistory that Daly (and Ruether, to a much more limited degree) purport as historical fact was only a recent invention. Cynthia Eller, in her book The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory, basically states that the historical evidence for such a construct has little to no real weight, functioning as a religious myth to explain sexism rather than an objective fact. The matriarchal myth, with its emphasis on a prehistory where women ruled society and were worshiped as goddesses for their biological make-up, was actually founded by men whose goal was to show an evolutionary line from matriarchy to patriarchy – certainly not the goal of the feminist movement. Thus does the venture of this “myth”, as Eller calls it, amounts to a “oppressive reversal” that creates a static role for women in society.

It is, in fact, these disguised attempts to establish authority in experiential theologies that causes them to falter – always looking for a new authority to support their own preconceived assumptions, they reject whatever does not fit their experience and find something else instead. That would certainly work as a device for coping with inevitable doom, but not as the foundation for Christian self-understanding. Even in their attempts to “escape”, so to speak, they are caught in the throes of the very same language and socialized norms they attempt to avoid, and in that attempt (as Daly’s later vocabularies pan out) make themselves unintelligible to a non-academic audience.

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.