James Cone is one of the most commonly mentioned names in connection with the founding of Black Theology. The definition advanced by Cone requires one to view black theology in connection with black history and Black Power. “Black history is recovering a past deliberately destroyed by slave masters an attempt to revive old survival symbols and create new ones. Black Power is an attempt to shape our present economic, social and political existence according to those actions that destroy the oppressor’s hold on black flesh. Black theology places our past and present actions toward Black liberation in a theological context, seeking to destroy alien gods and to create value-structures according to the God of Black freedom” (Black Theology and Black Liberation, 1085). While there are many currents in the modern discipline of Black theology, most proponents affirm Cohen’s contention that its mandate requires the formation of a new definition of Black dignity among black people to oppose and gradually destroy white racism. Most proponents analyze the situation of black persons in the light of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ and seek to demonstrate the biblical character of their conclusions.
Thus, black theology is a theology of engagement. It is dedicated to the improvement of the social condition of the black man and it is militantly arrayed in a battle with white racism. The proponents of Black theology consider white racism to be a religion for which they have labels: “white religion,” “whitianity,” and “Christianity;” (contrasted by the black theologian to “true Christianity”).
Black theology begins with the mostly accepted principle that the God of Israel and the Church acts in history to affect the salvation of men and women. However, they contend that a salvation having exclusively spiritual connotations is an irresponsible theology that fails to capture the whole meaning of true Christianity. To the black theologian, social components are inherent in the concept of Christianity as well as economic and political dimensions. Black theology relies upon the book of Exodus and the Old Testament account of God’s dealing with Israel to make the argument that these dimensions are evident in Christian orthodoxy. They conclude that God’s election of His people and His freeing of them from bondage are inseparably linked to sound Christian doctrine. Tones of Liberation Theology, as first advanced by Karl Barth, are called up for verification: “In the relations and events in the life of His people, God always takes His stand unconditionally and passionately on this side alone; against those who already enjoy right and privilege and on behalf of those who are denied it and deprived of it.”
A case is made from the New Testament by citing Jesus’ deliberate identification with the underprivileged and insignificant people. Jesus’ own words serve as the biblical authority for the primary texts of Black theology (and for all of Liberation Theology). To black theology, Jesus principle ministry and concern was for the liberation of oppressed people. Many black theologians agree that the primary meaning of liberation vests in the spiritual context of conversion and new birth, but they argue that leaving social, economic, and political concerns out of the Gospel message makes it incomplete at best and probably a distortion.
To the advocate of Black theology both the Old Testament and the New Testament are claimed as a witness to the fact that God’s program of liberating underprivileged and oppressed people is mandatory for a proper understanding of God’s dealing with His people. According to this theology, it is assumed that in the 21st century Christ is radically identified with blackness. In the Old Testament and the earthly ministry of Jesus the Christ in the New Testament, God took the side of the weak and the oppressed. This forms the theological basis for Black theology to make the claim that identification with blackness is where God’s interests and emphases lie in our times. That being the case, it necessarily follows that obedience to God in the 21st century requires the faithful and knowledgeable Christian to identify with the poor and the oppressed, i.e., with blackness. Therefore, black theology defines any activity or teaching that denies the Lordship of Christ or a word that refuses to acknowledge His liberation activity in the struggle for freedom as heresy.
The Birth of Black Theology
The birth date of Black theology is hotly argued and far from settled. James Cone is regarded as the father of the movement by many scholars. There are two reasons for that conclusion. One is that Cone has written more articles on the subject than any other individual. Another reason is that Cone’s views establish a system and more accurately define the discipline. Even so, there are many students of the doctrine who do not afford James Cone that title. William Jones is another prominent name in the discussion. Jones takes the matter very seriously, observing that identifying any one person as the founder has far-reaching implications as to how black theology is defined. He, along with others, directs attention to 1964 when Black Religion was published as the most acceptable date of origin. In keeping with that conviction, Jones and others regard Joseph Washington, the author of Black Religion, as the founder of the movement. Because Washington uses the word black in his title Jones and his adherents regard this as expressing opposition to, and joining the contest with, white theology.” In theological circles, it is generally accepted dogma that while it is implied, there is no announced and expressed white theology. Jones and his brethren hold firm to the position that Black theology must identify and define white theology. It is only then that the two will be in tension and black theology can emerge.
A series of factors joined to persuade Jones to create a context to black theology that would make it acceptable to black peoples and to sympathetic theologians in the white community. One of the most prominent of these factors was the collapse of Colonialism on the international stage and the emergence of the Third World as a viable player on the stage of philosophical, theological, social, and political ideas. Another significant force was the impact on American communities that resulted from the black soldier returning from World War II. A very important consideration was the rise of the Black Muslim movement and the emphasis placed on black pride. Whether or not white theology recognized it or even knew about it a crucial change in attitudes was taking place in post World War II America. It was driven by the somewhat-hidden-but-nevertheless-real terms used by existential philosophy. Behind this discipline, was the persuasion that blacks were reacting with some degree of outrage to the absurdity of a nation positioning liberforex as Democratic but rejecting equality of all of its people and resisting the struggle for freedom. These were the considerations that motivated Jones and sponsored the rise of Black theology. Of course, Black theology existed long before Jones as a theological theory. From 1916 to 1927, Marcus Garvey strongly advocated and influenced for Black pride. Before that, Nat Turner, the leader of a slave rebellion in 1928, was very influential in the movement. Cone and others honored Turner. Their praise did not center on the bloody uprising but rather Turner’s recognition of God as a liberator of oppressed people. Many other unnamed black religious leaders never lost their faith and kept hope alive that liberation of black peoples would some day become a reality.
Black theologians have been involved in one perpetual issue. It is phrased as a question: is black theology a bona fide theology? This question is most often asked by white theology of black theology. Black theologians have a difficult time finding suitable criteria for answering the question without appearing to, and very often actually engaging in, an attack upon the white theologian’s doctrinal positions. When this conflict takes place between a questioner and an answerer who are both insincere and merely engaging in an academic skirmish it has little to add to or take from the cause of Black theology. The real problem arises when the white theologian is trying to understand the position of the black theologian with the thought in mind of possibly changing his views if he can understand what the black theologian to saying. In the overall context of the movement, it is then important for the black theologian to have answers that resonate if he is to find a theological meeting point. The inability of the black theologian to do that remains is a major problem in the dialogue.