Young blacks contend that the black churches of today, with very few exceptions, are not involved in liberation but primarily concerned with how much money they raise for a new church building or the preachers anniversary. This critique of the Black Church is not limited to young college students. Many black people view the church as a hindrance to black liberation, because black preachers and church members appear to be more concerned about their own institutional survival than the freedom of the poor people in their communities.

A friend of mine was asked why James Cone’s ideas of black theology didn’t seem to get as much play within the black community. I’m not sure how I would answer that question although maybe “black theology” only puts a label on what the historic black church has been doing from its inception. Ever get that feeling that you are about to expose your ignorance by writing on something you’ve got no business writing about? After my previous blog, my “ignorance sense” is tingling, but I wanted to engage this conversation on Cone’s ideas at some level.

The over-arching story of the Bible is one that specifically resonates with oppressed people. The poor have the Exodus gospel/model to look to. How the Israelites rise up, decry oppressive powers, looking to Yahweh as savior to an oppressed people. As slaves in Egypt, He heard their groaning. We see in the story of Israel the history of our own people – from their Exodus out slavery to their Exile in a land not their own, with their hope of future Exaltation.

Black theology is liberation theology. It understands theology as social, shaped to affect our present situation. It understands evil as systemic (not only individual as the American brand of gospel is prone to promulgate). It understands financial ascendancy, money, power, and politics; how money can be a means of oppression while reminding us that God is for the oppressed, the marginalized, the forgotten – or, as James puts it, the widows and orphans.

There is a tradition or story or understanding of how God shares in our suffering (because this is the story of Jesus’ suffering on the cross) as opposed to reaching down with power and rescuing us from our suffering. Jesus’ story is the story of poverty: God humbling himself, becoming poor and weak. Human. In order to free the oppressed from poverty and powerlessness. Becomes a victim in our place (at the hands of a corrupt justice system no less) and transforms the condition of bondage. A new vision, a new paradigm.

Though make no mistake about it, God, at least as I read the Bible, is involved in history, the story of us. His revelation is intertwined with the social and political affairs of Israel. So much so that the Israelites looked for their Messiah to do much the same and Jesus wasn’t what they were looking for, say, to speak to the oppression and rule of the Roman Empire. The gospel is accepting freedom. Rejection of role of revolutionary messiah, at least as military leader or political ruler. Instead adopting revolutionary methods of peace and love. We rest and are moved into action by the fact that God hates injustice and that He is the ultimate Judge.

Black theology or liberation could be easily seen as “Broke ass theology” (my term, not Cone’s). Those without wealth don’t hear the same message as those in poverty. American gospel often interprets poor as a spiritual condition, as opposed to those who were really hungry, really persecuted, really afflicted, really without clothes, without shelter, without hope. When you are poor and a preacher talks about being thirsty and hungry, it takes on a more immediate dimension. American Gospel preaches sacrifice, the need to pick up your cross, and die to your self – things that are easier to do for the entitled.

Have no illusions, there is a difference between being poor in America and being poor in India, for example. Think about how the sermon on the mount sounds to those who are oppressed or poor: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth … Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:3-10). Even the lyrics to the familiar hymn, Amazing Grace, have a special resonance from the vantage point of the poor. When Paul writes in Galatians about the freedom found in Christ, it goes much deeper than whether or not I can have a beer if I want.

The Gospel speaks to the disinherited, the poor, the disenfranchised , the oppression of the weak by the powerful. The gospel is an offense to the rich and powerful. It’s the death of their ideas of wealth and power, those priorities. The greater the gap between the rich and the poor, with any erosion of the middle class, liberation theology gains a greater resonance.

Black/liberation theology starts off as a reactionary theology, however it’s not to say that God has a fondness for the oppressed regardless of how they live. There is no carte blanche to act immoral or unethically. It is easy to let built in advantages breed built in resentment. Call (systematic) evil what it is, evil, but don’t use the same means to combat it. Call for justice, equality, peace using Christ’s revolutionary tactics of peace and love.

From the deliverance of the children of Israel to the Civil Rights Movement. Christ is the Liberator with a mission of liberation. Maybe the reason why the historic black church is adrift and without focus is because we have lost sight of whom and what we need liberation from. When the struggle/enemy is clear, like slavery or Civil Rights, it is easy to rally around. To free us from the bonds of this world and its systems, it’s not as simple a fight, but it is one equally worth struggling against.