Two Black Voices: Assessing ‘Black Theology’

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I did not plan on publishing this on June 19th, but it is not now lost on me as to what day this is. It’s a day of celebrating freedom for our black brothers and sisters. Hopefully this post will cause us to pause and consider the breadth of that freedom. What I am now addressing is what I consider a spiritual and relational freedom that is found in Christ.

As Christians and Americans, we are in a critical cultural moment. We have, no doubt, had many critical moments in our history, but we find ourselves in yet another intense cultural engagement concerning racism and justice. There is much that should be considered in relation to the various political and civil implications of racism in this nation, and there are many fruitful conversations happening all over America right now. There are many conversations taking place in churches and religious communities all over the United States, and the world, about how to address issues like systemic racism, “whiteness,” critical race theory, transformative justice, racial solidarity, reparations, intersectionality, redistribution, criminal justice reform, and black liberation theology. I certainly have my own positions on all those terms and issues, but I don’t plan to address them all at this time.

Yes, it is helpful for us to add our voices to the countless conversations taking place on social media about the global and national institutions and policies that need to change, but more than anything we need to start addressing our own communities. For me, this means the Body of Christ in the ethnically diverse city of Lynchburg, VA. As a Christian from an evangelical and baptist tradition, it’s important for me to listen to, and address, how my Christian neighbors are processing the important questions and beliefs raised in this luminous moment. The clouds are opening up for many, and they are gaining the opportunity to see things in a different light. It’s important that we take advantage of this moment to listen to the voices that we say we care about, and weigh them with the biblical scriptures and allow the Spirit of God to guide us in framing and solidifying new convictions.

I’d like to highlight one man’s assessment of one black theologian’s perspective on the Gospel and how it relates to black people and white people. Although I encourage you to read the whole article, I will highlight one passage that I believe gives clarity about the unhealthy way that I believe many black and white brothers and sisters in Christ are now approaching the racial tension in our nation. I believe that the assessment given by the Rev. James Ellis III in the referenced article points out the dangers of Dr. James Cone’s black theology (Some reference it as black liberation theology, and there is validity for doing so, but Cone uses the term black theology and therefore I will reference it as such in this post). Let me also mention that ‘black theology‘ is a theological system akin to liberation theology, if not a subset of it. It is absolutely not the same thing as theology done by black scholars, which represents countless perspectives ranging from Dr. Voddie Baucham Jr. and Dr. Carl Ellis Jr. to Rev. Dr. Emilie M. Townes, Dr. Dwight N. Hopkins, and Dr. Yolanda Pierce. And it is this difference that gets at the heart of what this post is about.

To be transparent, I do not agree with all of Rev. Ellis’ theological and political positions, nor do I share all of his assessment concerning Dr. Cone’s teachings, but he speaks with a clarity concerning Dr. Cone’s black theology, and I believe that clarity originates from a biblical Christocentric foundation. Let me first introduce Rev. Ellis to you. The Rev. James Ellis III serves as the University Chaplain and Director of Student Ministries at Trinity Western University in British Columbia. Before that he was chaplain at Hope College in Michigan. He earned a Master of Sacred Theology at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, Master of Theological Studies at George W. Truett Theological Seminary at Baylor University, and Bachelor of Arts in African American Studies at the University of Maryland. He was a 2013 Guthrie Scholar at Columbia Theological Seminary and 2012-13 Lewis Fellow at Wesley Theological Seminary.

I chose Rev. Ellis’ assessment of Dr. Cone to highlight my concerns of black theology because he holds to orthodox biblical Christianity, he is a black citizen of the United States, he is well educated in African American history and culture, he has an honest and gentle approach to those he disagrees with, and he has studied Dr. James Cone and black theology thoroughly. Again, I would encourage you to read the whole article. But before you read Rev. Ellis’ gracious and balanced assessment, I want you to have a context for what Rev. Ellis is responding to. These statements by Dr. Cone concerning how a black human is to view God and white humans is just a fragment of what Rev. Ellis is responding to. Here is the voice of Dr. Cone drawn from some excerpts from his book, A Black Theology of Liberation:

Black theology refuses to accept a God who is not identified totally with the goals of the black community. If God is not for us and against white people, then he is a murderer, and we had better kill him. The task of black theology is to kill Gods who do not belong to the black community. (pg. 28)

Black theology cannot accept a view of God which does not represent God as being for oppressed blacks and thus against white oppressors. Living in a world of white oppressors, blacks have no time for a neutral God. The brutalities are too great and the pain too severe, and this means we must know where God is and what God is doing in the revolution. There is no use for a God who loves white oppressors the same as oppressed blacks. We have had too much of white love, the love that tells blacks to turn the other cheek and go the second mile. What we need is the divine love as expressed in black power, which is the power of blacks to destroy their oppressors, here and now, by any means at their disposal. Unless God is participating in this holy activity, we must reject God’s love. (pg. 74)

How could white scholars know that love means turning the other cheek? They have never had to do so. Only those who live in an oppressed condition can know what their love-response out to be to their oppressors. Their oppressors certainly cannot answer that question for them! (pg. 76)

It takes a special kind of reasoning to conclude that God’s love means that God is no respecter of persons in a society filled with hate, where some think they have the right to define the course of human history for all. Ungodly in their very relationship to blacks, they want to tell us what God’s love means. There is only one explanation for this attitude. They are white and can think only in white thought-patterns, even in reference to God. (pg. 76)

If blacks can take christology seriously, then it follows that the meaning of our anthropology is also found in and through our oppressed condition, as we do what we have to about the presence of white racism. (Pg. 90)

[B]lack theology is suspicious of those who appeal to a universal, ideal humanity. Oppressors are ardent lovers of humanity. They can love all persons in general, even black persons, because intellectually they can put blacks in the category called Humanity. With this perspective they can participate in civil rights and help blacks purely on the premise that they are part of a universal category. But when it comes to dealing with particular blacks, statistics transformed into black encounter, they are at a loss. They remind us of Dostoevski’s doctor, who said, “I love humanity, but I wonder at myself. The more I love humanity in general, the less I love man in particular. (pg. 90)

The basic mistake of our white opponents is their failure to see that God did not become a universal human being but an oppressed Jew, thereby disclosing to us that both human nature and divine nature are inseparable from oppression and liberation. To know who the human person is is to focus on the Oppressed One and what he does for an oppressed community as it liberates itself from slavery. (90-91)

Hopefully these excerpts give you a feel for Dr. Cone’s anthropology, ethical system, and for his theological commitments. When I first read some of Dr. Cone’s writings back in 2005, I was struct by the power and validity of so many of his thoughts, and they have given me much to consider in relation to my past perspectives and how I currently understand the challenges faced by other ethnicities. Therefore, I resonate with Rev. Ellis concerning the conflicted relationship that he has with Dr. Cone’s approach to Jesus Christ and Christianity. Here is Rev. Ellis’ voice responding to Cone:

 According to Cone, “The grounding of Christian ethics in the oppressed community means that the oppressor cannot decide what Christian behavior is.”[16] I appreciate his critique, but it presupposes righteousness on the oppressed, which begs questions about who decides the qualifications for those descriptors-“oppressed” and “oppressor.” What then does this mean for the non-oppressive white Christian; that he/she is incapable of responsibly representing Christ because of the inherited social privilege that their skin color provides or that doing so outside of an ultra liberal theology is somehow less valuable before the Lord? What does it mean for the black Christian whose racialized social position renders him or her oppressed, but whose lifestyle and behavior nonetheless classifies them as an oppressor just the same? Are we to neglect that within all oppressed communities there exist those who also oppress? Furthermore, what do non-black minority Christians make of all of this? With Cone’s grounding ethic of minority community, how are they to relate to the diverse cornucopia of fellow Christians that they encounter? Cone’s black theology rests on a very slippery slope. (The Cone quotation mentioned by Ellis is from God of the Oppressed, pg. 191)

The point being made by Rev. Ellis is that Cone’s black theology leaves no room for anyone who is considered to be an oppressor to be “right” before our Lord. This is further complexified when the oppressor and oppressed have a general skin color ascribed to them. It also assumes that anyone who identifies as oppressed has a special claim to righteousness that allows them to evade theological and ethical accountability. Rev. Ellis appropriately points out that life doesn’t work that way. There are oppressors among the oppressed and oppressed among the oppressors. The law reveals the brokenness in all of us and indicts us all of pride, arrogance, prejudice, discrimination, hatred, lust, and a desire for revenge. No sin of the other is excused by the presence of sin in ourselves. Sin is universal within all humanity and righteousness is exclusively found in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, who invites all, the oppressor and the oppressed, to come to Him as one body.

I’m thankful for the voices of these two black men. Without them I would not have a clearer understanding of the struggles and perspectives of my black brothers and sisters and would not have had the opportunity to check my own heart as thoroughly for sin that can so easily entangle and corrupt. My brothers and sisters in Christ, we need to address the sin of racism when it is found and observed among us, but we need to have a healthy biblical understanding of what that sin looks like and how to properly address it. Thank you for taking the time to read my thoughts on this vitally important issue.

The full article from Rev. Ellis:

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