Introduction Jim Crow, and even today under modern-day Jim

Introduction

Christianity
has been a theological, cultural, and personal institution in Black America
since the brutal forces of slavery captured and brought Africans to the United
States. Religion has served as a means of survival for the Black community
since abolition, Jim Crow, and even today under modern-day Jim Crow, such as
police brutality and mass incarceration. From the eighteenth century to the today,
Black Americans have adopted and embraced Christianity amid critiques of the
acceptance of the “white man’s religion”. However, as will be elaborated upon,
the difference between White Christianity and Black Christianity are stark, and
within Black Christianity, there have
emerged extraordinarily different views in theology1, cosmology2, soteriology3, hamartiology4, and eschatology5. It is critical in
studying and examining Black Christian thought to not overgeneralize or use
limiting theologies6,
as many thinkers can be included in the broad umbrella of Black Christianity;
however, there are major themes and perspectives that navigate most, if not all
Black Christian belief, and will be examined further.  In short, this essay seeks to capture the
complexity, strength, and hope of Black individuals and communities existing
within a country and culture that for centuries denied their humanity.

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What
Is It to Be Black? 7

The
distinct theological grounding of Black Christianity from White Christianity can
be understood simply in the mere nature of identity. This racial and doctrinal divide
has led to the emergence in the last century of a Black Theological Imagination8 which arose in contrast to
systematic, White, capitalistic, Euro-centric theological models. The leader of
this movement, arguably the most prolific Black theologian, is James H. Cone. In
his doctoral dissertation9 and his earliest published
works, Cone outlines a praxis in theological anthropology10  that seeks to understand what it means to be
human from the Black perspective, particularly as a Black Christian.

As
articulated in Cone’s A Black Theology of
Liberation, the foundation for being human is the freedom to freely express
oneself within the human community and the means to revolt against any form of
oppression that attempts to limit human creativity.11 Cone has a dualistic
approach to when viewing personhood; whereas, one can exist as a human being or
as a non-being. Existing as a human being gives way to non-being when people
are subjected to the dehumanizing effects of oppression and are forced into a
life which is controlled by others. Building upon this paradigm, freedom only
exists because there are human beings who are dehumanized by oppression, and
this dehumanization creates a necessity for those who are liberated from
oppression to work towards freedom for all people.12 In other words, to be
human is to intentionally transgress from all forms of dehumanization, even if
it requires one to take on the suffering of the oppressed. It is critical in
understanding this to place this praxis within the framework of Christianity
and the teachings of Jesus Christ. However, before looking at the connection
between Christianity and liberation, it is necessary to recognize the origins
of Christianity in American slave culture and their respective views on
humanity and identity.  

It
was through slavery and the synchronization of traditional African religious
concepts and White Christianity that gave birth to a new concept of what it
means to be Black and to be Christian. The themes of liberation and freedom
were critical in the slave’s view of the Bible and how they saw themselves in
relationship to God. Often slaves would cry out, “Why are we held in bondage by other Christians who profess the same
faith in God through Jesus Christ?”. The answer to this question is the
basis of Black Christianity and Black theology—any Christian that oppresses
instead of liberates cannot consider themselves a Christian. Black Christians
have always known that the God of Moses and of Jesus did not curse13 them to be slaves or
second-class citizens.14  Slaves knew they were created in the image of
God, God’s creation includes them, and they were made for the glory of God. This
view of scripture claims full humanity for slaves and their descendants and
holds that to deny Blackness is to deny God. Furthermore, this Blackness is
also found in Christ himself. As countless Black theologians have suggested, if
Blackness did mean being cursed, suffering, and facing rejection, then Jesus
could not have been White. Jesus’ suffering was as their suffering, and as
Jesus struggled and triumphed, so the Christian slaves believed that they would
triumph.

If
Cone’s theological anthropology can be summarized in one word, it is Blackness;
this concept captures the core of humanity within Black theological discourse.
It is in this struggle for freedom from oppression, as Cone posits, which has
led to the creation of Blackness. The teachings of White European Christianity
fostered a hatred of Blackness. As someone preached,

We are black, not
because we are cursed, for blackness is not a curse; it is a curse only if you
think so, and you know, it’s not really a curse then; it’s just the way you
think. Blackness, so far as truth is concerned, is the same as whiteness; for
God has all kinds of colors in his world,
in his universe, and he has not condemned any color. The only reason you
entertain a thought like that is because you have been culturally conditioned
by white people to think that way, and they conditioned you that way because
they use this as a means to an end, to give you a feeling of inferiority, and
to then take advantage of you socially, economically, and politically.15

 

Therefore, in order to be
free from this shackle of inferiority, the individual must transform their
dehumanization into empowerment. According to Cone, community is essential in
understanding and creating personhood. Being human within the Black community
involves a radical identification with others as a sign of solidarity; this is
a necessary relationship in the face of external forms of oppression. It is the communal nature of Black America that “decides
being because being is always being in
relation to others”

Womanist16 theologians have taken
Cone’s ideas on Blackness, and have expanded them to encompass the Black,
female body. Even more than Black male identity, which was at once denied, Black
female identity and bodies continue to be yet that which was reduced to the
skin and the flesh, as a sexual entity to be exploited. As womanist author, Hortense Spillers illustrates,
“Black women exist in the zone between dead flesh or inanimate meat and a
living body; they suffer in the body as sheer utility or in being deemed
rape-able flesh”.17 Womanist theology has
sought to craft ways where women of color can come together to reclaim their
bodies and minds.

The
ultimate question when studying Black theological anthropology is “what does it mean to be human to the
oppressed Black Christian?”. Cone answers, “the sole purpose of God in our
theology is to illuminate the black condition so that black people can see that
their liberation is the manifestation of his activity. We believe that we can
learn more about God and therefore about man,
by examining Black people as they get ready to do their thing”.18 By comprehending the
nature of the Black (wo)man in
Christianity, it then becomes clear in understanding its view of creation and
God. 

 “I’m Lonely—I’ll Make Me A World”19

            While one would
struggle to find theological references to scientific theories about the
origins of the universe, there is significant traditional Black theology with
the most extensive writing on creation and cosmology by theologian, educator,
and activist Howard Thurman.  In The Centering Moment, Thurman writes, “God
is the Creator of Life, the Creator of the living substance, the Creator of
existence, and as such expresses Himself through life. This is the meaning,
essentially, of the notion that life is alive and that this is a living
universe”.20
Similarly, ethicist and theologian Peter Paris provides evidence of the
similarities between this view of the universe and with the experience that the
Africans brought to the Americas. He explains that while they represented
various ethnic, cultural, and social groups with different languages, cultural
mores, and customs, they all seemed to possess similar worldviews established
on similar cosmological constructs.21 In Spirituality of African Peoples: The Search
for a Common Moral Discourse, Paris asserts that most Africans
subscribed to the notion of a supreme deity, or High God. This High God was
mediated through lesser deities and spirits.22 Additionally, Africans
who were brought as slaves had a significantly less rigid view, in comparison
to their masters, of the demarcations of the natural and supernatural worlds.23 Building upon the roots
of African beliefs, Black Christianity has led to an emphasis on the goodness
of creation.24
Enslaved Africans and their descendants drew from both African and Christian teachings
of the goodness of their Creator and of creation. This affirmation of the
goodness of the Divine and creation was important to the survival of enslaved
Africans in the new world. Both then and today, Black Christians hold firmly
that their God is a God of all creation and that in spite of the evil and suffering
in the world, creation is beautiful and
good. However, the presupposed goodness of creation is only one of the few instances
in which theologians agree upon; the most disputed is the nature of God. By
understanding God and God’s role in the universe, the understanding of creation
and the world is put in a different focus.

            Liberation theologians, like James Cone and Cornel West,
advocate for a God that is in solidarity with the oppressed, the poor, and the
weakest in society. From creation to the crucifixion, “Yahweh is the God of
justice who sides with the weak against the strong”. 25 For Cone, the scriptures
are “the revelation of God in Christ as the Liberator of the oppressed from
social oppression and towards political struggle, wherein the poor recognize
that their fight against poverty and injustice is not only consistent with the
gospel but is the gospel of Jesus Christ”.26 Cone goes even further by
purporting that both Christ and God, in both a Trinitarian and non-Trinitarian
view, are Black. In God of the Oppressed,
Cone ties Black suffering to the suffering of Christ:

His blackness is
literal in the sense that he truly becomes One with the oppressed blacks,
taking their suffering as his suffering and revealing that he is found in the
history of our struggle, the story of our pain…Christ really enters into our
world where the poor, the despised, and the black are, disclosing that he is
with them, enduring their humiliation and pain and transforming oppressed
selves into liberated servants.27

 

Proponents of womanist
theology challenge the God of Cone and other Black liberationists, most notably
Delores Williams. Williams specifically accuses Cone of promoting a
non-critical examination of scripture that seems to “cherry pick” narratives of
liberation performed by God and ignores God’s continued role in the oppression of various groups.28 While liberationist,
womanist, and other Black schools of thought29 debate over God as a liberating agent, there is more agreement on
the role Jesus plays as Liberator. Expanding Cone’s view of Black Jesus,
womanist scholars have developed a new Christology where Jesus, when acting on
the side of the oppressed, is a Black woman. Womanist scholar Kelly Brown
Douglas shifts the role of Jesus as Liberator, to Jesus as model of survival. Black women, like Jesus,
have been surrogates for the suffering of others. 30 For Douglas, Williams,
and other womanist scholars, Jesus’s significance is not in his death, but in
his life and in his sacrificial ministry.31 This connection to
ministry and the life of Jesus is often felt through the Holy Spirit, which is
an integral part of God’s creation and work in the world.

            The liberationist and womanist views on God the Father
and God the Son further manifest themselves through Holy Spirit and can be considered
from a pneumatological32 perspective. As
previously mentioned, Delores Williams understands Christianity as an aid in
surviving the world as a Black woman. One of the ways to endure a challenging
or hostile environment, what she describes as the “wilderness”, is with the
sustaining presence of God, also known as the Holy Spirit. 33 In her classic work Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenges of
Womanist God-Talk, Williams uses the imagery of the wilderness to connect
her experiences with those of her ancestors.

The
wilderness experience, as religious experience,
was transforming… So, for American-American slaves, male and female, the
wilderness was a positive place conductive
to uplifting the spirit and to strengthen religious life… Yet wilderness was a
place where the slave underwent intense struggle before gaining a
spiritual/religious identity…To the
slave’s way of thinking, then, the wilderness-experience was not easy. One
tarried and struggled in the wilderness with oneself and finally met Jesus.34

This sustaining presence
is also connected to the perspective of the Holy Spirit as the redeemer. Famed
theologian J. Deotis Roberts writes on the importance of the Spirit as an
entity that liberates the African American from isolation, alienation, and sin.
Roberts refers to the Spirit as, “…he who empowers.  The Holy Spirit is God within the life of the individual Christian and
the fellowship of believers in Christ. The Holy Spirit is the giver of
spiritual life. He comforts, guides, and strengthens us”.35 Both of these
understandings hold that the Spirit is constant within
the individual’s life and provides relief from the temptation and burdens of
the world.  The Holy Spirit can, in many
ways, be considered the opposite of sin or evil which is a key part of the Black
understanding of creation and the importance of Christ’s death and
resurrection.

            Unlike many Christian theologians who have sought to
explain the cause of sin and evil in the world, Cone has posited reasons36, most Black theologians
have sought to focus their writings on the ways in which to address evil and
suffering in the world. Sin, from a theological perspective, can be
demonstrated individually and collectively. Womanist theologies have focused
heavily on what are considered to be
“social sins”, or sins that are perpetuated by groups of people. The
devaluation and defilement of women through rape and violence, particularly
against Black women, throughout history is the foundation of womanist concepts
of sin. Womanist also concede to views on
individual sin that can manifest itself in capitulation to White power and
supremacy, internalized racism, failure to work towards Black empowerment, or
by participating in the patriarchy, classism, environmental degradation or any
other form of social oppression.37 While historically, Blacks
have not had the ability, either individually or collectively, to assert
political, economic or social power systematically, they do have the ability to
perpetuate sin. However, by God’s gift of
free-will, “Human beings can be agents of good as well as evil”.38 Herein lies the role of
the human in the world.

Speak
the Truth to the People39

While
there is sin, evil, and suffering in the world, God through the life and death
of Christ, provided a means to, “transform suffering into wholeness—to move the
person from victim to change agent”40 It is that transformation
of self and identity that is the epitome of Black Christianity. While most
theologians posit from armchairs and conceptualize religion, Black theologians
use their writings as a source of inspiration and as a call to action. Being a
Black Christian is a calling from God, similar to that which was given to the
Jews on Sinai. It is a call to serve and suffer with
God and to work towards the realization of justice and freedom in the world for
all people.41
This suffering has been seen as problematic by many theologians, but according
to Cone, “This suffering to which we have been called is not a passive endurance
of white people’s insults but, rather, a way of fighting for our freedom”. It
is this quest to achieve the freedom that
is essential to the life of Black Christian American. It is this freedom, as previously
discussed, that the Black identity is able to exist as a fully human one.

If
one is to reject their Blackness, it would be a matter of sin, according to
Cone. Historian Larry Murphy summarizes well Cone’s view on the loss of
identity and the estrangement of one’s being,

Black sin is “a
refusal to be what we are”; it is “saying yes to the white abusurdity”—it is accepting the world as it is,
structured on white terms, and conceding power and prerogative to define black
existence. To be in sin is to be contented
with white solutions for the “black problem” and not rebel against every
infringement of white being on black being.42

 

However, it is not solely
the aim of the individual to work towards liberation for Black people, but all
people. It is Christ’s reconciling work that Black Christians are called to do.
As Cone emphasizes, “For the oppressed, justice is the rescue from hurt; and
for the oppressors it is the removal of the power to hurt others—even against
their will—so that justice can be realized for all”.43 For Howard Thurman, to be
fully human requires being in relation, one with another, as well as with all
of creation. According to Thurman, “to be human is to experience one’s fellows
as human beings. This requires one transcending fears (of the other, of harm,
humiliation, loss of status, one’s self) as well as notions of kinship,
ethnicity, race, and nationality”.44 It means nurturing senses
of belonging to life, of being a part of existence: “It is to be alive in a
living world”.45
That living world is creation, and therefore several womanist scholars have
also emphasized the role of humans in relation to and responsibility to care
for divine creation. Emerging out of this discussion was the term ecowomanism46, which emphasized the
link between the oppression of the earth and the oppression of women of color.
As noted by Shamara Shantu Riley, “There is no use in womanists advocating
liberation politics if the planet cannot support people’s liberated lives, and
it is equally useless to advocate saving the planet without addressing the
social issues that determine the structure of human relations in the world”.47 Ecowomanists and other Black
thinkers view creation and all its benefits, as a gift to humanity for their
enrichment and fulfillment. More than that, however, it would be an injustice
to past and future generations and to God, to prioritize the Heavenly Kingdom
over the creating the Kingdom on Earth.48

            While it is important to note there are Black eschatological writings and perspectives, it
the focus on restorative justice on Earth that is the priority of humans on
Earth. The concept of a heaven and hell are largely put into the context of the
here and now, and how those concepts connect with God’s ultimate work of
establishing justice and equality for all people. As Black biblical scholar, Cain Felder writes, “eschatological justice
is not an emphasis on punishment of evil, but rather in the hope for justice
and the reward that accompanies repentance and carrying out justice by people
on earth”.49

Conclusion

Black Christianity is a
religion that is based upon hope. This
hope is found scripture, in tradition, in the life and death of Jesus Christ,
in the Holy Spirit, and in the broken hearts and souls of Black people
throughout history. Although the Black experience in America is marked by
trials and tribulations, the Black Christians continues
to contend that there is a “balm in Gilead” that gives hope to the discouraged
and helps them continue the struggle. While that struggle is hard and the road
to freedom seems far away, they know that Jesus is standing with them and
singing: 

            When
the storms of life are raging,

            Stand
by me.

            When
the world is tossing me,

            Like
a ship upon the sea;

            Thou
who rules the wind and water,

            Stand
by me.

            In
the midst of tribulation,

            Stand
by me;

            When
the hosts of hell assail,

            And
my strength begins to fail,

            Thou
who never lost a battle,

            Stand
by me.50