Black Theology

Black theology, or black liberation theology, refers to a theological perspective which originated among African-American seminarians and scholars, and in some black churches in the United States and later in other parts of the world. It contextualizes Christianity in an attempt to help those of African descent overcome oppression. It especially focuses on the injustices committed against African Americans and black South Africans during American segregation and apartheid, respectively.

Black theology seeks to liberate non-white people from multiple forms of political, social, economic, and religious subjugation and 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 H. Cone, one of the original advocates of the perspective. Black theology mixes Christianity with questions of civil rights, particularly raised by the Black Power movement and the Black Consciousness Movement. Further, black theology has led the way and contributed to the discussion, and conclusion, that all theology is contextual – even what is known as systematic theology.


Modern American origins of contemporary black theology can be traced to July 31, 1966, when an ad hoc group of 51 concerned clergy, calling themselves the National Committee of Negro Churchmen, bought a full page ad in The New York Times to publish their “Black Power Statement”, which proposed a more aggressive approach to combating racism using the Bible for inspiration.

In American history, ideas of race and slavery were supported by many Christians from particular readings of the Bible. The Southern Baptist Convention supported slavery and slaveholders; it was not until June 20, 1995, that the formal Declaration of Repentance was adopted. This non-binding resolution declared that racism, in all its forms, is deplorable” and “lamented on a national scale and is also repudiated in history as an act of evil from which a continued bitter harvest unfortunately is reaped.” The convention offered an apology for “condoning and/or perpetuating individual and systemic racism in our lifetime” and repentance for “racism of which many have been guilty, whether consciously or unconsciously. These historic events are used to associate Christianity with racism but the Bible stresses that race is irrelevant “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). Christianity is the most culturally diverse religion in the world. Yet Christ; the forerunner of christian behavior professed individuality and in living testimony is demonized for the pursuit of individually targeted sanctuary. Therefore, there must then be a dialogue regarding the implications of racism in today’s society and to what extent historical, intellectual, social factors affect the plight of the black community. Cone relates that, once upon a time it was acceptable to lynch a black man by hanging him from the tree; but today’s economics destroy him by crowding many into a ghetto and letting filth and despair (created by themselves) put final touch on a coveted death.

Black theology deals primarily with the African-American community to make Christianity real for black people. It explains Christianity as a matter of liberation here and now, rather than in an afterlife. The goal of black theology is not for special treatment. Instead, “All Black theologians are asking for is for freedom and justice. No more, and no less. In asking for this, the black theologians, turn to scripture as the sanction for their demand. The Psalmist writes for instance, “If God is going to see righteousness established in the land, he himself must be particularly active as “the helper of the fatherless” (Psalm 10:14) to “deliver the needy when he crieth; and the poor that hath no helper” (Psalm 72:12).

Black theology would eventually develop outside of the United States to the United Kingdom and parts of Africa, especially addressing apartheid in South Africa.

The 1918 A.M.E. Church, Cairo, Illinois.

The 1918 A.M.E. Church, Cairo, Illinois.

Black theology in the United States

James H. Cone first addressed this theology after Malcolm X’s proclamation in the 1950s against Christianity being taught as “a white man’s religion”. According to black religion expert Jonathan L. Walton:

James Cone believed that the New Testament revealed Jesus as one who identified with those suffering under oppression, the socially marginalized and the cultural outcasts. And since the socially constructed categories of race in America (i.e., whiteness and blackness) had come to culturally signify dominance (whiteness) and oppression (blackness), from a theological perspective, Cone argued that Jesus reveals himself as black in order to disrupt and dismantle white oppression.

Black 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 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 theology.

On God and Jesus Christ

Intricate and largely philosophical views of God are largely ignored in preference for the concerns of the oppressed. The Old Testament God of Moses freeing the ancient Hebrews from Egyptian rulers was the central theme of African-American popular religion, as well as abolitionists like Harriet Tubman. White Christian concepts taught to black persons that they are to be disregarded or ignored. The aspects of God’s person, his power and authority, as well as “subtle indications of God’s white maleness” are said not to relate to the black experience, to the extent of sometimes being antagonistic. While trinitarian theology is a big concern, Jesus is still considered to be God. The focus is given to God’s actions and his delivering of the oppressed because of his righteousness. Immanence is stressed over transcendence, and as a result God is seen to be “in flux” or “always changing”.

 black liberation flag

Black liberation flag

Likewise, Cone based much of his liberationist theology on God’s deliverance of Israel from Egypt in the Book of Exodus. He compared the United States to Egypt, predicting that oppressed people will soon be led to a promised land. For Cone, the theme of Yahweh’s concern was for “the lack of social, economic, and political justice for those who are poor and unwanted in society.” Cone also says that the same God is working for the oppressed black people of the 20th century, and that “God is helping oppressed Blacks and has identified with them, God Himself is spoken of as ‘black.'”

Cone saw Christ from the aspect of oppression and liberation. Cone uses the Gospel of Luke to illustrate this point: “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the good news preached to them” (Luke 7:22). “‘In Christ,’ Cone argues, ‘God enters human affairs and takes sides with the oppressed. Their suffering becomes his; their despair, divine despair.'” Cone also argues that, “We cannot solve ethical questions of the twentieth century by looking at what Jesus did in the first. Our choices are not the same as his. Being Christians does not mean following ‘in his steps.'”

Cone objected to the persistent portrayal of Jesus as white:

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.

Stylistic differences in the black religious community

Because of the differences in thought between the black and white community, most black religious leaders attempt to make their services more accessible to other African Americans, who must identify with the faith in order to accept it. Another notable difference is Cone’s suggestion as to what must occur if there is not reconciliation among the White community. He states, “Whether the American system is beyond redemption we will have to wait and see. But we can be certain that black patience has run out, and unless white America responds positively to the theory and activity of Black Power, then a bloody, protracted civil war is inevitable.”


Anthony Bradley of The Christian Post interprets that the language of “economic parity” and references to “mal-distribution” as nothing more than channeling the views of Karl Marx. He believes James H. Cone and Cornel West have worked to incorporate Marxist thought into the black church, forming an ethical framework predicated on a system of oppressor class versus a victim much like Marxism.

Trinity United Church of Christ, Chicago, has been cited in the press and by Cone as the best example of a church formally founded on the vision of black theology. The 2008 Jeremiah Wright controversy, over alleged racism and anti-Americanism in Wright’s sermons and statements, caused then-Senator Barack Obama to distance himself from his former pastor.

Stanley Kurtz of the National Review wrote about the perceived differences with “conventional American Christianity”. He quoted the black theologian Obery M. Hendricks Jr.: “According to Hendricks, ‘many good church-going folk have been deluded into behaving like modern-day Pharisees and Sadducees when they think they’re really being good Christians.’ Unwittingly, Hendricks says, these apparent Christians have actually become ‘like the false prophets of Ba’al.'” Kurtz also quotes Jeremiah Wright: “How do I tell my children about the African Jesus who is not the guy they see in the picture of the blond-haired, blue-eyed guy in their Bible or the figment of white supremacists [sic] imagination that they see in Mel Gibson’s movies?”

Black theology in South Africa

Black theology was popularized in southern Africa in the early 1970s by Basil Moore, a Methodist theologian in South Africa. It helped to give rise to and developed in parallel with, the Black Consciousness Movement. Black theology was particularly influential in South Africa and Namibia for motivating resistance to apartheid. This movement would also see be closely related to the South African Kairos Document.

Southern African black theologians include Barney Pityana, Allan Boesak, Itumeleng Mosala, Zephania Kameeta, Wesley Mabuza, and Maake Jonathan Masango.

On the African continent, black theology is often distinguished from African theology.

Black theology in Britain

In the United Kingdom, Robert Beckford is a prominent black theology practitioner. He was the first in the UK to develop and teach a course on black theology at an academic level.

Although it is not limited to the British context, an academic journal which has been a key outlet for the discourse around black theology in Britain has been Black Theology, edited by Anthony G. Reddie.

Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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