* Black Liberation Theology

organization

Overview


What is black liberation theology?… A clear definition of black theology was first given formulation in 1969 by the National Committee of Black Church Men in the midst of the civil rights movement:

“Black theology is a theology of black 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 achievements 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.”

In the 1960s, black churches began to focus their attention beyond helping blacks cope with national racial discrimination, particularly in urban areas.

The notion of “blackness” is not merely a reference to skin color, but rather is a symbol of oppression that can be applied to all persons of color who have a history of oppression (except whites, of course). So in this sense, as [Jeremiah] Wright notes, “Jesus was a poor black man” because he lived in oppression at the hands of “rich white people.” The overall emphasis of black liberation theology is the black struggle for liberation from various forms of “white racism” and oppression.

James Cone, the chief architect of black liberation theology in his book A Black Theology of Liberation (1970), develops black theology as a system. In this new formulation, Christian theology is a theology of liberation – “a rational study of the being of God in the world in light of the existential situation of an oppressed community, relating the forces of liberation to the essence of the Gospel, which is Jesus Christ,” writes Cone. Black consciousness and the black experience of oppression orient black liberation theology – i.e., one of victimization from white oppression.

One of the tasks of black theology, says Cone, is to analyze the nature of the Gospel of Jesus Christ in light of the experience of oppressed blacks. For Cone, no theology is Christian theology unless it arises from oppressed communities and interprets Jesus’ work as that of liberation. Christian theology is understood in terms of systemic and structural relationships between two main groups: victims (the oppressed) and victimizers (oppressors). In Cone’s context, writing in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the great event of Christ’s liberation was freeing African Americans from the centuries-old tyranny of white racism and white oppression.

American white theology, which Cone never clearly defines, is charged with having failed to help blacks in the struggle for liberation. Black theology exists, because “white religionists” failed to relate the Gospel of Jesus to the pain of being black in a white racist society.

For black theologians, since white Americans do not have the ability to recognize the humanity in persons of color, blacks need their own theology to affirm their identity in terms of a reality that is anti-black. “Blackness” stands for all victims of white oppression. “White theology,” when formed in isolation from the black experience, becomes a theology of white oppressors, serving as divine sanction from criminal acts committed against blacks. Cone argues that even those white theologians who try to connect theology to black suffering rarely utter a word that is relevant to the black experience in America. White theology is not Christian theology at all. There is but one guiding principle of black theology: an unqualified commitment to the black community as that community seeks to define its existence in the light of God’s liberating work in the world.

As such, black theology is a survival theology, because it helps blacks navigate white dominance in American culture. In Cone’s view, whites consider blacks animals, outside of the realm of humanity, and attempted to destroy black identity through racial assimilation and integration programs – as if blacks have no legitimate existence apart from whiteness. Black theology is the theological expression of a people deprived of social and political power. God is not the God of white religion but the God of black existence. In Cone’s understanding, truth is not objective but subjective – a personal experience of the Ultimate in the midst of degradation….

Black liberation theology actually encourages a victim mentality among blacks. John McWhorters’ book Losing the Race, will be helpful here. Victimology, says McWhorter, is the adoption of victimhood as the core of one’s identity – for example, like one who suffers through living in “a country and who lived in a culture controlled by rich white people.” It is a subconscious, culturally inherited affirmation that life for blacks in America has been in the past and will be in the future a life of being victimized by the oppression of whites….

Black liberation theologians have explicitly stated a preference for Marxism as an ethical framework for the black church, because Marxist thought is predicated on a system of oppressor class (whites) versus victim class (blacks).

Black liberation theologians James Cone and Cornel West have worked diligently to embed Marxist thought into the black church since the 1970s. For Cone, Marxism best addressed remedies to the condition of blacks as victims of white oppression. In For My People, Cone explains that “the Christian faith does not possess in its nature the means for analyzing the structure of capitalism. Marxism as a tool of social analysis can disclose the gap between appearance and reality, and thereby help Christians to see how things really are.”

In God of the Oppressed, Cone said that Marx’s chief contribution is “his disclosure of the ideological character of bourgeois thought, indicating the connections between the ‘ruling material force of society’ and the ‘ruling intellectual’ force.” Marx’s thought is useful and attractive to Cone, because it allows black theologians to critique racism in America on the basis of power and revolution.

For Cone, integrating Marx into black theology helps theologians see just how much social perceptions determine theological questions and conclusions. Moreover, these questions and answers are “largely a reflection of the material condition of a given society.”

In 1979, Cornel West offered a critical integration of Marxism and black theology in his essay “Black Theology and Marxist Thought” because of the shared human experience of oppressed peoples as victims. West sees a strong correlation between black theology and Marxist thought, because “both focus on the plight of the exploited, oppressed, and degraded peoples of the world, their relative powerlessness and possible empowerment.” This common focus prompts West to call for “a serious dialogue between Black theologians and Marxist thinkers” – a dialogue that centers on the possibility of “mutually arrived-at political action.” …

* The text above is excerpted from “The Marxist Roots of Black Liberation Theology,” by Anthony B. Bradley, The Acton Institute (April 2, 2008). To read the full piece, click here


Additional Resources

The Marxist Roots of Black Liberation Theology
By Anthony B. Bradley
April 2, 2008

‘Context,’ You Say?
By Stanley Kurtz
May 19, 2008

Shocking Quotes from Black Liberation Doctrine
By StopObamaNow

Profiles of Individuals Who Embrace Black Liberation Theology:

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