Here is an excerpt taken from pages 23-28 of Black and Reformed: Seeing God’s Sovereignty in the African-American Christian Experience, Second Edition by Anthony J. Carter.
Do We Need a Black Theology?
Soon I will be done with the troubles of the world,
Troubles of the world, the troubles of the world.
Soon I will be done with the troubles of the world. Goin’ home to live with God.
Seminary was great! Sitting under the teaching of some of the most learned minds anywhere was a humbling yet enriching experience. Being directly exposed to the theological giants of past generations and discovering how God graciously used their lives and work was an encouragement well worth the price. Even more for me, however, seminary was an awakening. It was a time when I was forced to wrestle with my consciousness of who I am as a Christian in light of my cultural context. I had to ask myself whether the experiences that contributed to making me who I am had hindered or helped me in understanding the will of God for my life. Fortunately, God used several professors, some knowingly and others unknowingly, to facilitate my spiritual quest. In fact, one incident in particular served as the catalyst for this book.
In our first required systematic theology course we discussed the doctrines of God, man, and Scripture. During the term we were required to write a research paper on a related topic of our choice. I decided to write my paper on an examination of the God of black theology.*1 My intent was to give a brief history of black theology—its roots, ideology, major proponents, etc. Then I sought to give its views of God, man, Jesus Christ, and sin. I thought it would be a provocative and unique topic (surely no one else had approached the professor with this subject in mind) and would give me an opportunity for close study of the ideas of men such as James Cone and James Washington. On receiving the paper back from my professor, I noticed that, besides the grade, he had written a question that sparked in me a deeper interest in the subject. He asked, “Is it necessary to have a black theology?”
In my paper I did not seek to validate the black theology of James Cone, James Washington, and others; nor did I try to undermine the basic premise behind the movement. In fact, I complimented the black theologians for forcing the church to grapple with issues that conservative theologians have either dismissed or denied. Perhaps the professor took my stopping short of a total denunciation of the movement as tacit approval, which was far from the truth. Whatever the case, I found his question to be thought provoking. It did not take me long to come to an answer. Do we need a black theology? Do we need to speak theologically within the African-American context? Do we need to understand the African-American experience through a theological perspective that glorifies God and comforts his people? Emphatically and unfortunately, yes.
I say “emphatically” on two accounts:
Considering the Alternative
We need a sound, biblical black theological perspective because an unsound, unbiblical black theological perspective is the alternative. A large constituency of Christianity—namely, those of African-American descent—believes the truth claims of God, Christ, and the Scriptures, but feels that the larger body of Christian theology has ignored their cultural context and circumstances. A theological perspective that fails to speak contextually to African-American life, whether orthodox or liberal, will not gain a hearing among people who have become skeptical of the establishment. The liberation theology that spawned the black theology of the sixties gained recognition and a measure of popularity not because it was biblically accurate, but because it sought to contextualize the gospel message to people who were being oppressed, marginalized, and disenfranchised.
During the socially turbulent fifties and sixties, America was forced to grapple with her own identity and how she was going to respond to the outcries of her disenfranchised. The voice that played the lead of those who yearned to be free and equal was the black voice. Black America, after years of degradation and inhumane treatment, was rising and demanding to be heard. The black voice cried for justice, equality, and self-determination. It demanded an equal voice in the political and economic system. It demanded that this inclusion be brought about by any means necessary. The means of choice came to be known broadly as Black Power.
The phrase Black Power expressed the social and political struggle of black America. It was Black because blackness was no longer viewed as a liability but rather as an asset. Out of this change arose the expression “I’m Black and I’m Proud!” It was Power because blacks were historically castigated and their voice in society rendered impotent. Now, authority and power were not just requested, but demanded—and where not granted, taken. But because Black Power was a socioeconomic movement, it did not give power to the whole person. Something was lacking in the soul of black empowerment. Black theology developed in an attempt to fill that gap.
Black theology sought to give a spiritual and theological framework to the pressing and distressing blight of black Americans during that turbulent period. Whereas Black Power was the political expression of self-determinism among black Americans, black theology became the theological expression of Black Power. Ironically, black theology’s intent may have been noble, but its articulation and subsequent outcome has been less than noble. In fact, it has been theologically and biblically unacceptable. Yet without a solidly biblical voice setting African-American experience in a consistently redemptive and historical context, the black theology of the sixties and the subsequent ideologies based on it are the only alternatives.
Considering Cultural Contexts
We also need a sound black theology because theology in a cultural context not only has been permissible but has become normative. The tendency, however, is for the majority culture to see only its own thinking as normative—that is, to view its perspective as neutral, without any cultural trappings. Honesty demands that we recognize the ease with which theology is distinguished by culture. Noted evangelical author David Wells acknowledges this tendency.
That American Theology has characteristics that are distinctly American should not be surprising. We readily see that the Germans and the British, the South Americans and Asians have ways of thinking about Christian faith that seem obviously German, British, South American, and Asian. In America, however, theology is apparently not affected by its context. It is not American in content or tone. It is simply theology! At least, that is what is commonly assumed.*2
Whether it is German Lutheran, Dutch or Scottish Reformed, South American Liberation, British or American Puritanism, or even Northern and Southern Presbyterianism, theology has consistently had a distinct ethnicity or culture. To deny African Americans the right to formulate and sustain a biblical theology that speaks to the cultural and religious experience of African Americans is to deny them the privilege that other ethnic groups have enjoyed.
Nonetheless, I say that we “unfortunately” need a black theology. An African-American perspective on theology comes more as a reaction than as a theological initiative. It has been made necessary by conservative Christians’ failure to grapple with issues of African-American history and consciousness. This is particularly evident in the areas of racism and discrimination. The sad yet irrefutable fact is that the theology of Western Christianity, dominated by white males, has had scant if any direct answers to the evils of racism and the detrimental effect of institutionalized discrimination. The major contributors to conservative theological thought over the centuries have, consciously or not, spoken predominantly to and for white people. In fact, the unfortunate reality is that the ideologies of racism and elitism that have marred the landscape of Western civilization have had a uniquely conservative Christian flavor. Those who advocated a caste system of slavery and racial superiority in places such as the United States, England, South Africa, and India have often done so with the consent of a church defined by conservative theologians. And even though many white theologians have refuted these erroneous positions, very few have sought to positively set forth God and his providential hand in the life and struggle of African Americans.
Since the initiation of Africans to the shores of America, the destinies of white and black Americans have been inextricably intertwined. The question now is this: To what extent was this relationship destined to be that of the oppressor against the oppressed? The answer to this question, and similarly others, may not lie only in traditional American (white) theology. Rather, these questions are more satisfactorily answered in and from the context in which they are asked—thus providing a mandate for an African-American perspective on theology.
But this mandate is not without qualification. Even though there is a need for a distinctly African-American perspective on theology, the parameters of that theology must be observed: Scripture, history and tradition, and Christian experience.
*1. The National Committee of Black Churchmen defined “black theology” thus: “Black Theology is a theology of black liberation. It seeks to plumb the black con- dition in the light of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ, so that the black community can see that the gospel is commensurate with the achievement of black humanity” (Statement by the National Committee of Black Churchmen, June 13, 1969, quoted in James Cone and Gayraud Wilmore, eds., Black Theology: A Documentary History, 2 vols. [Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1998], 1:38).
*2. David Wells, No Place for Truth (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 137.
Excerpt taken from pages 23-28, Black and Reformed: Seeing God’s Sovereignty in the African-American Christian Experience, Second Edition by Anthony J. Carter, copyright 2016, P&R Publishing.