Black Liberation Theology – What It Is .
Black Liberation Theology arose in the turbulent 1960s. During that period, violent anarchy destroyed property and fire-bombed buildings in cities like Los Angeles, Detroit, and Newark. James Cone was the principle originator and developer of this theology which sought to explain, even to justify, this angry, destructive behavior.
Black Liberation Theology understood that THE issue in God’s activity in the world was, and is, the oppression of black people by white people, particularly in the United States. Some oppression may be obvious, such as in denial of voting or other civil rights; some may be more subtle, such as in prejudicial treatment of employees.
God is seen as the God of the oppressed – and therefore against the oppressors and their false god. Jesus is found in the movement for liberation and freedom. Jesus came as a liberator, and he identifies with those mobilized for liberation. He is therefore a “black Jesus,” although blackness “has very little to do with skin color.” If you want to find Jesus, you will do so only among oppressed people. Cone affirmed, “God’s self-disclosure must be found only in the person of Jesus Christ and that Jesus can only be found in the context of liberation.”i The definition of Christ as black means that he is the complete opposite of the values of the white culture.”ii
Cone continues to say black theology excludes other views. “There are two reasons why Black Theology is Christian theology and possibly the only expression of Christian theology in America.” The first is that Christian theology must arise from an oppressed community. The second is that it is Christ-centered – “The black community itself is where Christ is at work.”iii
Definitions in Black Theology are different from those of our tradition who are committed to the historic Gospel. For example, “In America, the Holy Spirit is black people making decisions about their togetherness, which means making preparations for an encounter with white people.”iv Cone said further, “This country was founded for white people, and everything that has happened in it has emerged from the white perspective. The Constitution is white, the Emancipation Proclamation was white, the government is white, business is white, the unions are white. What we need,” Cone wrote, “is the destruction of whiteness which is the source of human misery in the world.”v
Black Liberation Theology Evaluating its Sources
Black Liberation Theology did not arise in a vacuum. It did not come from “nowhere.”
The primary source is called “the black experience.” Many of us should simply admit that we cannot identify or even understand, “the black experience.” I spoke recently with a woman who recalled that Ocean City’s beach was open for her only two weeks of the year and that she was not allowed to worship in a Roman Catholic church in Maryland. I did not participate in “the black experience.” My ancestors were not slaves in the United States, torn from their homelands in Africa, subjected to degrading subhuman treatment and stature. But I offer two objections to the use of “the black experience” as a starting point.
First, I object to the severity of this description. “The black experience….is the totality of black existence in a white world where babies are tort u red, women are raped, and men are shot.”vi I also object to the following definition. “The black experience is the feeling one has when he strikes against the enemy of black humanity by thro wing a live Molotov cocktail into a white-owned building and watching it go up in flames. We know, of course, that there is more to getting rid of evil than burning buildings, but one must start somewhere.”vii
While some of us – no matter our color – may not be able to identify with the black experience, we can object to definitions that seem imbalanced and solutions to inequities that are destructive, criminal, and wrong.
Secondly, I wonder about the appropriateness of seeing the focus of God’s interest as being only oppressed black people in the United States. A Christian can surely be proud of his or her heritage and identity and can celebrate the Gospel in various ways. Any kind of oppression is wrong. However, is God’s interest only in the local black population, as the only oppressed people to command His attention? What of the people of Tibet, or the starving and beaten people of North Korea and its crushed Christian population, or the people living in starvation camps in Darfur, or the people of Myanmar/Burma dying of disease and hunger because their military government will not allow supplies to reach them, or the black and white people of Zimbabwe oppressed by President Mugabe, or unborn babies in the United States, perhaps the most powerless, oppressed, endangered population group?
All theology should begin with God, as the word itself indicates.
In contrast, the beginning for Black Liberation Theology is “the black experience.” The second source is the experience of Israel. Peoples who endure suffering and oppression can often find a similar experience in the history of Israel, especially in their time as slaves in Egypt, then set free by the intervention of God and moving toward the Promised Land.
In South Africa, for example, the first white settlers landed at Cape Town about the same time white settlers came to America. Fleeing persecution in Europe, they saw their journey through the middle of what is now South Africa to the Transvaal to be much like that of the people of Israel, free from oppression and moving through the wilderness. More recently, the many black Christians of South Africa have identified with the oppressed people of Israel as they sought freedom from the oppression of apartheid. People of both groups, white and black, identified with Israel and the God who delivers from oppression .
Black preaching has focused – understandably – on the work of God in delivering His people and leading them through the wilderness. “Our experience of oppression is like Israel’s experience,” or so it has been said.
But the experience of Israel is more than that of a people who were oppressed and set free by God’s special intervention and providential care. It began with the call to Abraham. They were a chosen people, before and well beyond their experience as an oppressed people. Through them all the nations were to be blessed, specifically in the coming of the Messiah, Jesus.
In A Black Theology of Liberation, Cone says much about Israel and the pivotal role their deliverance plays as a template for black experience. But he never mentions Abraham. He hardly mentions that the people of Israel became the oppressors in their new land, being told to destroy the gods and even the people of enemies in their new land.
The people of Israel were oppressed and chosen. Some peoples of our world are oppressed – some to the extreme, others in subtle ways – but none of them is the chosen people as was Israel. Selective use of Israel as a model allows subtle movement from saying, “There are similarities between our experience and that of Israel,” to affirming “We are God’s people, we are the new Israel.”
Thirdly, it comes from a view of Jesus that is based on the understanding that His work in the world today focuses on the liberation of black people, specifically in the United States. I have already indicated that the view that a person holds of the Bible’s authority will be reflected in what he or she thinks of Jesus and His ministry.
Let me frame some questions you might like to ask James Cone. The answers are quotations – yes, taken out of context – from his writing.
What do you think of the inerrancy of the Bible?- “… truth is not objective. It is subjective, a personal experience of the ultimate in the midst of degradation.”viii
Describe Jesus’ ministry. – “Christ is not a man for all people; he is a man for oppressed people…”ix
What is repentance?- “The appearance of Jesus as the Black Christ also means that the Black Revolution is God’s kingdom becoming a reality in America…. repentance has nothing to do with morality or religious piety in the white sense.”x
What is salvation?-“Black theology represents an attempt of the black community to see salvation in the light of their own earthly liberation….This is not to deny that salvation is a future reality; but it is hope that focuses on the present.” xi
What about efforts to help poor and unfortunate blacks? –“Such acts are sin offerings that represent a white way of assuring themselves that they are basically ‘good’ persons. Knowing God means being on the side of the oppressed, becoming one with them and participating in the goal of liberation. We must become black with God!”xii
We can understand how these statements can be derived from a view of arising out of experience. But we do not understand them to represent the revealed word of God concerning the work of Jesus, nor indeed what repentance and salvation actually are. David said, “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight.” What David did to Uriah and Bathsheba could not be corrected. The sin against God was on his permanent record. We all have records like David’s. Repentance and salvation are responses to God’s forgiving those sins and deleting their consequences.
How Should We Respond?
First of all, be grateful that the ultimate meaning of the cross of Jesus does not relate to an oppressed Jew winning freedom for Israel from a Roman oppressor. It is rather the high point in the struggle between the oppression of sin – with all of its severe consequences – and the freedom that new life in the risen Christ brings.
Secondly, be grateful for the revealed word of God in the Bible. Rejoice in the promised Messiah of the Old Testament and for the revealed Son of God in the New Testament.
However, also remember that a major focus of His ministry was toward the suffering and the poor. He worked among and taught about those who were oppressed, not only by sin, sickness and death, but by landowners, Pharisees, priests, and even tax collectors. Early in His ministry, He quoted Isaiah, applying it to Himself, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord ‘s favor.” I remind us all again of Jesus’ words. “I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.”
Pray that the Lord will give us eyes to see, ears to hear, and hearts to respond to people who suffer pain and deprivation of any kind. And ask for wisdom to know how to be the Christians we claim to be in every sphere of life. Jesus summed it up this way, “As the Father has sent me, so send I you.”
i James H. Cone in Thabiti M. Anyabwile, The Decline of African American Theology: From Biblical Faith to Cultural Captivity, (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2007), 49;
ii James H. Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1970), 215
iii Ibid., 24
iv Ibid., 122
v Ibid., 192-193
vi Ibid., 55
vii Ibid., 56-57
viii Ibid., 48
ix Ibid., 157
x Ibid., 221
x i Ibid., 226
xii Ibid., 226