The black church of this country and beyond has been at the center of that struggle from its inception, because it was born to bring salvation to an oppressed people. The black church was tied to, but not bound by a black theology.
Allow me to recap where we are in this conversation. This began with some random musings about ghetto crackery and values which led to further musings about likening the journey of black folks to desert wanderings. Next came a meditation on ontological blackness, nigrescence, and looking at race as story. The story needed examining from the beginning, so we looked at an evolving theology of slavery and the subsequent miracle of the black church (and a black ancient-future faith). On the flip side of that story, we looked briefly at postcolonialism and what it means for mission trips, the colonizers, and the colonized.
Rod Garvin’s introductory quote sets the stage for what I wanted to talk about. Once we move past the illusion that there’s some way to be truly objective about anything, we can realize how much theology arises from our context of experience. I’m uncomfortable with the postmodernist (read: hypermodernist) tendency to make all truth an individual truth, but truth (note the small ‘t’) does have perspective. And if you don’t think truth changes over time or within a given cultural context, once again, let’s look back at the theology of slavery.
As mentioned before, black people had to have permission to marry and permission to have kids. The power of ownership extended not only to a lack of power over our own names, but also in our choice of religion. Christianity, the white man’s religion, was foisted upon black folks in the guise of evangelizing the heathens, but more to continue the mental and spiritual conditioning already at work inherent as a part of the institution of slavery. Many folks, understandably, couldn’t reconcile their religious faith with reality of their current bondage, seeing religion as an opiate meant to keep them passive–praying to a silent, indifferent God for refuge … Christianity was co-opted as a means of mental and spiritual survival. We saw the creation of the black church, believing that God is relevant to black life in a white society. God’s ways, while mysterious, would vindicate the unjust suffering. The key was to start kingdom living now. Jesus inspired courage and strength to hold on, representing God’s active presence in our lives.
There was a gospel message that was presented to slaves, a message that was both rejected and co-opted. Somehow a message was internalized that took folks from the condition (mentally and physically) of slavery and gave rise to the black church. A message transformed into something that met them at the reality of where they were and the condition they were in, yet held a promise, a hope, for what could be. A message that said kingdom living starts now, needs to be transformative now, needs to impact the world, the culture, the political and economic systems now – while pointing to a better reality.
So, is there such a thing as black theology? No. Theology is theology. Yes. Theology arises from life, reflects a people’s struggle, creates meaning in life. And, yes, I’ve been reading James Cone and feel where he was coming from when he said “I was within inches of leaving the Christian faith, because that faith as I had received it and learned it no longer explained the world to me satisfactorily.”
People hear the words “black theology” and let’s face it, we’ve been conditioned such that images of an affirmative action savior come to mind. Thus minds close because “there is only one gospel truth.” While that’s true, the idea of a “black theology” is not that strange or large a leap. You can’t separate ideas from social reality. There is a sociology of theology, what you think about God/Christ can’t be separated from your socio-political status in (your) society. Culture impacts the Gospel message (as presented and understood) as much as the Gospel hopes to transform society. It has to because in order for the Gospel to be transmitted into the culture, it has to know the markers of the culture.
The modern era of theology sprang from the age of the Enlightenment. The paradigm of modernism permeated the consciousness of the West. The church reacted to, then embedded itself within this paradigm. From Jonathan Edwards to Billy Graham, the Gospel adapted to spread to the culture and mindset it hoped to reach. The rise of systematic theology, that attempt to be culturally neutral arose from this: a discipline to expound and interpret Christian truth for any age or culture, reducing it to its essentials and dissecting its parts in order to organize it – laying bare the Christian truth for the church.
To a degree almost not discussed, theology is a reflection of class, interpreting the Gospel according to the cultural/political imperatives of the day. I’ve seen it first hand in my church planting experience. Our mother church is located in the fifth richest county in the country. Our church plant, though only a couple miles south but into the neighboring county, might as well be in another state. Completely different demographics, different modes of being a missional church. In other words, same Gospel message, different cultural context.
Clearly the Bible can speak across cultural lines, but it also needs a cultural context from which to speak. Theology is the subjective, human conceptualizing about God. It cannot be separated from culture, history, and experience. And it often tells us more about those who do the conceptualizing than about God. Black theology thus (explicitly) comes from our history, our faith, our cultural activities. It’s transformative into a new consciousness, one that moves us beyond race and into family. Community. Again, let’s be clear: Christ transcends the idea of race. In Christ we have a model for reconciliation as we have a starting point outside of our race/story, a meta-story that is the culmination, the resolution, of all stories. Specific to the story of black folks in America, Christ became the embodiment of hope, the Truth pointing out the lies of how black humanity was defined.
This sets the precedent for the case that black experience and Scripture combine for a “black theology”. Black theology is a hermeneutical principle for exegeting Scripture. A guiding principle of examining the meaning of the text. Christ as Liberator of the oppressed from social and to political struggle. Free from the system, join in Christ’s mission to subvert the system. Theology has to
be more than getting your own butt into heaven. The kingdom is now. So there is a call to social action now. However, part of my caution with the idea (label) of black theology lies with the fact that you can’t disentangle “black theology” from the teachings of the historic church. That’s like a tree trying to grow without its roots. We can’t just read anything we want into the biblical story, putting our (socio-political) agenda first with the Bible to prove it. While tradition is not the Gospel, it is an important bearer of an interpretation of the gospel through history.
Theological systems have to repeatedly go back to the essential truth of the Christian message and interpret that truth for every generation and cultural context. In other words, each generation, each culture must answer the question: what is the gospel? The practices and beliefs of the church need to spring from that understanding of theology. As I wrestle with the idea of “black theology,” the thing that I keep in mind about any systematic theology is that a theology, a hermeneutic, only avoids heresy by how clearly it points to Christ. Christ transcends culture, yet can only be communicated through culture – divine revelation within history. It becomes a liberating theology of survival, as a practical application. Theology provides a way, a rule of life, hope, and a sense of transcendence. The reality of our grasp of the truth will always be reflected in our actions.