I continue with an examination of James Cone’s seminal book Black Theology and Black Power, oft cited as a formative factor in the vitriolic preaching of Jeremiah Wright. [ Part 1 here and Part 2 here] Liberation theology takes many forms, many dependent on the particular geography and culture in which it foments. Particular to Reverend Wright’s brand of theological discourse is the Black experience in America and its effect on the psyche of both black and white Americans.
The Black church found its roots in the same oppression that gave rise to the ideals of Black power, enslavement. Initiated by the white oppressive slave owner as one more way to deny the African heritage of the men and women dehumanized by him, the black church nonetheless found that it must develop from within its own theological perspective. The black church was unwilling to accept the notion that Christianity was concerned only with the freedom of a man’s soul but not his body. Furthermore, Cone reminds us, the black churchman did not readily accept the prevailing myth that God had ordained slavery for them.
The Black church was born carrying these twin concerns in its DNA and an attitude of accepting Christian tenets while rejecting the place that the white church offered. The independent Black church became the first institution free from White power and at liberty to focus on the concerns of freedom and equality for Black humanity. Cone quotes Mays and Nicholson; ” Relatively early the church, and particularly the independent Negro church, furnished the one and only organized field in which the slaves suppressed emotions could be released, and the opportunities for him to develop his own leadership.” As with all institutions organized by fallen humans, the rhetoric heated to the point that outright rebellion against the oppressive forces could be heard from the pulpit. Early responses to this cry included Nat Turner’s revolt which returned a measure of violence against the slave owners.
Early theological reflection in the Black church surprisingly did not lead most black preachers to decide that God was against slavery. The oppression and violence were counter to the character of God to be sure but they struggled to understand (in a Job-like manner) why He allowed such misery to be visited upon people He loved. While some church leaders were able to sustain a patience for God’s passivity towards their misery and the evil practiced by their white brothers, others could not. Many black churchmen came to the theological conclusion that God’s character demanded a more active response linked to His absolute abhorrence of slavery. Taking this expectation contrasted to His supposed silence, some in the Black church began to speculate on the very existence of God, wondering as Daniel Payne of the A.M.E. church did, “Is there no God?”
The post-emancipation Black church displayed gradual changes in its theological underpinnings. While rejoicing in the freedom granted from slavery, black men and women faced new challenges in segregation and a more subtle dehumanization in Jim Crow. Blacks were certainly free from the bondage they had suffered but their freedom continued to be tempered by the fact that the White population at large failed to see them as fully human, denying the image of God within them. The former slaves lost their chains but had new bonds tied to them in the form of continued racist attitudes that led the black theologian to turn his focus from explorations of freedom to return to the White church’s theology of a better life ahead in the next world. No longer in rebellion, the Black church succumbed to the question, ‘what must be change about ourselves in order to be liked by our oppressors, thus making the evil stop?’ Cone points to this era saying “The black minister thus became a most devoted “Uncle Tom,” the transmitter of white wishes, the admonisher of obedience to the caste system.”
He makes this as the point at which a decline in the Black church began as the forces of capitulation to white demands for continued obedience softened the pulpit message. This weakness in the Black preacher is partly justified by Cone as he points out that to continue to challenge the White power was to put his church and his people at risk; an explanation perhaps, but the lack of obedience to Christ that it involved was a sin. The Black church convinced itself that they were doing the right thing in advocating obedience to white oppression in order to experience heaven in a future age. Albeit for different reasons, the apostasy of the Black church mirrored that of the slavery supporting White church.
Cone moves quickly forward to the turning point brought to life with the ascension of Martin Luther King and the return to confrontation between Blacks and Whites in America. He saw in MLK a rapid refocus in the Black church on the social justice Gospel that threatened Whites in their evil and also lead to the leader’s death. The author’s thesis comes full circle at this point in the book as he demands that Black power (the demand that Whites recognize the full humanity of Blacks and treat them with full equality as men (and women)) be at the center of the Black church and it’s theology. The first order of the Black church must be to re-instill in Blacks the gospel message that they are made beautiful and strong in the image of their Creator and that anyone who attempts to destroy this message (i.e. the White church and White culture) runs counter to the will of God. Cone reiterates, “The existence of the Church is grounded exclusively in Christ. An in twentieth-century America, Christ means Black Power!” Responding to the call of the gospel requires, in his mind, a return to the rebellion of the pre-Civil War black church and complete identification with the rejected and downtrodden, as Christ the Lord did.