Written by Juggernaut May 19th, 2010
Black liberation theology maintains that African Americans must be liberated from multiple forms of bondage — social, political, economic and religious. This formulation views Christian theology as 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 James Hal Cone.
Black Liberation Theology contends that dominant cultures have corrupted Christianity, and the result is a mainstream faith-based empire that serves its own interests, not God’s. Black Liberation Theology asks whose side should God be on – the side of the oppressed or the side of the oppressors. If God values justice over victimization, then God desires that all oppressed people should be liberated. According to Cone, if God is not just, if God does not desire justice, then God needs to be done away with. Liberation from a false god who privileges whites, and the realization of an alternative and true God who desires the empowerment of the oppressed through self-definition, self-affirmation, and self-determination is the core of Black Liberation Theology.
Cone’s view is that Jesus was black, which he felt was a very important view of black people to see. “It’s very important because you’ve got a lot of white images of Christ. In reality, Christ was not white, not European. That’s important to the psychic and to the spiritual consciousness of black people who live in a ghetto and in a white society in which their lord and savior looks just like people who victimize them. God is whatever color God needs to be in order to let people know they’re not nobodies, they’re somebodies.”
I want to begin by affirming that black theology has made some important contributions. I will mention only four here. First, black theology has reminded us that theology – if it is going to meet the needs of twentieth century (and beyond) Christians – must find practical expression in society. Second, black theology has reminded us that God is involved with His people in real-life situations. Third, black theology has focused our attention on the need to reach out to others in the body of Christ who are suffering. And fourth, black theology serves as an indictment against the racist views that have been all-too-often (but not always) present among white people. These contributions are important and extremely relevant.
Despite these contributions, however, there are some serious problems that must be addressed. As a preface to my criticisms, I want to draw attention to Part One of this series in which I criticized the hermeneutic of Latin American liberation theology. In that article, I pointed out that Latin American theologians have approached Scripture with a preunderstanding that has led them to interpret Scripture with a bias toward the poor. I emphasized that if we are to understand the biblical author’s intended meaning, it is imperative that preunderstandings be in harmony with Scripture and subject to correction by it.
In my critique of black liberation theology, I will focus my attention on the particular preunderstanding which interprets Scripture through the eyeglasses of “blackness.” More specifically, I shall address the question: Is it legitimate to make the black experience the fundamental criterion for interpreting Scripture?
Certainly I do not wish to minimize the importance of the black experience. Nor do I want to come across as unsympathetic to the plight of African Americans in a white-dominated society. There can be little doubt that black liberation theologians have a legitimate gripe regarding the treatment of their people throughout American history. But imposing the black experience (or any other experience – including feminist, gay, anti-supernaturalist, New Age, mystic, etc.) onto Scripture robs Scripture of its intrinsic authority and distorts its intended meaning.
Theologians who make black experience all-determinative have, in a way, made the same mistake some white racists did during the days of slavery – only in reverse. Just as some whites imposed their “experience” as slavemasters onto Scripture in order to justify slavery, so some blacks have imposed the “black experience” onto Scripture to justify their radical views on liberation. Both positions have erred. For blacks to use such an experience-oriented methodology is to condone the very kind of method used by those who enslaved them. In my thinking, this is self-defeating at best.
Black theologian Anthony Evans directly challenges Cone’s methodology by arguing that the black experience must be seen as “real but not revelatory, important but not inspired.” Black writer Tom Skinner agrees and argues that “like any theology, black theology must have a frame of reference There are some black theologians who seek to make their frame of reference purely the black experience, but this assumes the black experience is absolutely moral and absolutely just, and that is not the case. There must be a moral frame of reference through which the black experience can be judged.” That frame of reference must be Scripture.
To produce a biblical liberation theology, Scripture – not the “black experience” – must be the supreme authority in matters of faith and practice. By following this approach, a strong biblical case can be constructed against racism – something I would think should be at the very heart of a biblical black theology.
The unity of the human race, for example, is a consistent emphasis in Scripture – in terms of creation (Gen. 1:28), the sin problem (Rom. 3:23), God’s love for all men (John 3:16), and the scope of salvation (Matt. 28:19). The apostle Paul emphasized mankind’s unity in his sermon to the Athenians: “From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live” (Acts 17:26). Moreover, Revelation 5:9 tells us that God’s redeemed will be from “every tribe and tongue and people and nation.” Because of the unity of humanity, there is no place for racial discrimination – white, black, or otherwise – for all men are equal in God’s sight.
A biblical theology of liberation must include an emphasis on reconciliation among men, without which the theology ceases to be Christian (Eph. 2:14ff.). Black liberation theologian DeOtis Roberts (b. 1927), though committed to liberation, agrees with this and insists that black theology must speak of “reconciliation that brings black men together and of reconciliation that brings black and white men together.” Roberts says “it is my belief that true freedom overcomes estrangement and heals the brokenness between peoples.” However, Roberts argues, “reconciliation can take place only between equals. It cannot coexist with a situation of Whites over Blacks.”
Roberts’s point is well taken. Reconciliation and racism are birds of a different feather; they never fly together. Genuine reconciliation can come only if people – both black and white – commit to a scriptural view of their brothers of a different color, seeing all people as created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26) and of infinite value to God (1 Cor. 6:20; 1 Pet. 1:18).
There is much more that needs to be said on this important issue, but space forbids. As the theological dialogue continues in coming years, I would like to suggest the following goal: Let us all – both black and white – seek to build a body of unified believers who are so committed to the Scriptures and to Christ that the name Christian becomes truly descriptive of who they are, and not the color of their skin.