Making theological sense of our vocation in this racialized world was what we were called to do for the week. Fifty persons, demographically diverse, were cloistered together for seven days to work through what that means. And different we were. Generationally, culturally, regionally, philosophically, denominationally different. We were Anglican and Apostolic, Baptist and Evangelical, AME and UCC, Presbyterian and Pentecostal. Male and female. Straight and LGBT. Liberal and conservative. Reserved and libertine. By the end of the week many of us were friends, in spite (and even because) of our differences. And through that difference we discerned how we would move forward together even though there was much about which we vehemently disagreed.
One thing was certain though: we were all confident that we don’t live in a post-racial world. And we were convinced that theology—that wonderful discourse about God and our relationship to God and God’s redemptive acts—still has a purpose in our pursuit to make the world a better place. Oh, and above all, in surprising unity, we overwhelmingly believe that Jesus is our hope and stay. This made us odd in a time when theology and religion are seen as vestiges of a time gone by. But our God changes not; there is no shadow of turning in Him. God is the same today, yesterday, and forevermore. We, too, must not change our devotion to the God revealed to us in the Lord Christ Jesus of Nazareth for God’s glory and for the good of all people.
Nevertheless this diversity would suggest that we, like our predecessors, would be cacophonous in our responses to the critical questions before us. When James Cone wrote his Black Theology and Black Power in 1969, who knew that it would bring about a revolution in academic theological studies? But there was a man of the church wrestling with the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr and the emerging black power movement and the deadening silence of white theologians who said nothing regarding what King called the Negro Revolution. Cone rightly pondered what did Barth, Tillich, Luther, Swingli, Calvin, and others mean for those whose backs were against the wall? Said differently, what import did academic theology have on blacks struggling for full enfranchisement when theology before Cone’s publication rendered black people and our struggle invisible? Furthermore, Christianity as he knew it was unable, or unwilling, to address the crisis of his soul and of the nation’s and that posed an existential angst in him. No theologian kissed by nature sun could write and teach theology without, as Barth said, having the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. The theologian must not only speak clearly about God and God’s way, the theologian must also interpret the times and seasons with prophetic insight. Cone did that in the 1960s. He had to in order for him to stay located in the church and anchored in Jesus. We were being called upon to do that again today—here and now.
But as with Cone, whose black liberation theology was met with praise and criticism both within the academy and the church, we would have our interlocutors. Those unfamiliar with the genealogy of black liberation theology are often naïve to the nuances and internal debates within and beyond the discipline. The lay theologian who picks up a Cone publication, reads it, and seeks to apply it to their context hasn’t done enough homework, hasn’t placed Cone in conversation with his contemporaries and others after him who would challenge his blindspots. For instance, Cone’s brother Cecil and J. Deotis Roberts critique Cone’s exclusionary posture (wherein he reads all of biblical revelation and the person and work of Jesus through blackness) and his inability to affirm both liberation and reconciliation, the Christian goal for beloved community. Womanists like Katie Canon and Deloris Williams interrogated Cone’s inherent sexism and the ways that his liberation theology was unintentionally oppressive for black women who had no voice in his project. Then there are those new kids on the block like J. Kameron Carter who honor Cone’s courage but say his work doesn’t go far enough and is thus not fully liberatory. Cone would have to revise his liberation theology and its ethical implications a few times as to respond affirmatively to the criticisms of peers in the academy.
And what about the church, the people Cone loved so dearly? The church engaged Cone’s work with varying degrees of receptivity, embracing its prophetic critique of America’s original sin of racism, the idolatry of white supremacy, and the invisibility of black life in the Western academic theological enterprise. Some churches, like Trinity UCC in Chicago (President Obama’s former church), readily embraced Cone’s contextual theology wholesale. Just as some churches were thoroughly Thomistic, Augustinian, or Calvinist, Trinity, for example, was thoroughly Conian. But many other churches had a more dialectical approach to Cone: accepting what they affirmed, throwing away what they didn’t, and bringing forth something new and appropriate for their context. Others found Cone’s work too angry, too academic, and thus too irrelevant for everyday people trying to negotiate the cultures of death with Christian dignity.
And there was the antagonism Cone experienced from the Caribbean and Africa. Many theologians from those native lands were dismissive altogether of Cone’s project, saying it was entirely American and not global enough, even “black” or “African” enough, to speak to the particular needs of the postcolonial worlds in which they lived.
I labor to share this to say that black liberation theology isn’t monolithic. Different theologians and practitioners fall along a spectrum of thought and action. And just as it was with Cone and his contemporaries, so it was with the participants in the inaugural class of BTLI. We were different. We were along a spectrum. We come from different ministry contexts. But there we were, together, and having to work through our solutions to present problems. We were there because God entrusted to us ministries that must serve this present age.
And serve it we must. But not simply as black Americans, but as theologians, or as in my case, pastor-theologians. In a world still distressed by racism, classism, and sexism, the question is “Is there a word from the Lord?” This is God-talk, this is theological. Our answer to that question makes all the difference.
James Cone on his Black Liberation Theology: