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Learnings of a White Theologian from Black Theology

Posted on: June 21, 2020

Category: Theology

Learnings of a White Theologian from Black Theology

The seminal book that introduced black theology to me was James H. Cone’s A Black Theology of Liberation (New York: Orbis Books, 1986). When I first learned of Cone (1938–2018), I was either too young or too neo-orthodox to appreciate how this writing called me beyond whiteness to a black God.

It can be difficult for a white person, even a white progressive, to say that God is black. In white culture, my theological experiences have involved putting the meaning of God up for question, thinking about the limited sphere of human knowledge, and examining how religion is a cultural construct. When I was younger, to say that God is black or that blackness is God’s nature, as Cone said, seemed equivalent to saying that God is of a particular culture. I’m sure I thought that such a claim was a type of idolatry. I have since changed.

Over time, I learned to understand that black theology is liberation theology and that God, even as a cultural construct, is meaningless if the term God remains purely an abstract and philosophical concept. It may be interesting to debate the meaning of God, to employ phenomenology, and to contemplate the hermeneutical difficulties involved in human knowledge, but such speculation indicates a privileged theology. There is nothing at stake in such white speculation. As Cone put it in his book, it is true that white radicals might say God is about liberation, but then they will go on “to talk about God and secularization or some other white problem unrelated to the emancipation of blacks” (A Black Theology of Liberation, 69). As a white person, it is hard but important to admit that my concerns about theology come from a privileged perspective where liberation is not a problem.

If I were a black theologian, God would not be a speculative question but a personal or existential imperative; God would be about revolution, about changing the economic and social structures of society, about justice, liberation, and freedom. From the privileged perspective of whites, the prospect of a revolutionary change in society is terrifying, and this very terror is evidence of systemic racism. The basis of racism, like all forms of prejudice, is fear. The fear was on full display when the racist president of the United States took shelter in the White House bunker because a significant crowd outside the White House had gathered to say that black lives matter. To uphold that black lives matter is also to uphold that the social system must change from top to bottom. A president who actually read the Bible would not run and hide from such a challenge.

Black theology is liberation theology, and God is black because God is liberation. In another culture and another time God could be white if white people were oppressed and were the location of liberation. But Western history has resulted in white people being oppressors and being the oppressing class—which is an important point because oppression is not about good or bad individuals but about a social structure. The critique of whiteness should not be taken personally by whites. Justice cannot change society if the pursuit of justice is taken as a personal insult rather than a call for social transformation. One thing privileged whites can do in a justice crisis is to become one with the oppressed. In black theology, this means that through the blackness of God, privileged whites can become black with God. This involves the act of hearing the call for transformation and standing in solidarity with the oppressed. It is certainly a biblical act to support social transformation in light of suffering and injustice.

To be sure, history makes things tough. When a privileged white person is stirred to call for and act for social transformation, the collective white history of systemic racism is a barrier to identify and overcome. Whites have a particular responsibility to understand systemic racism because it has benefitted them at the expense of others. White people are the colonial settlers of North America who stole land from indigenous nations and who stole lives from Africa. White settlers tend to think that they built this land and that, without their pioneering efforts, there would be little to nothing of value. The very word “pioneer,” in the context of colonialism, betrays a troubling and racist assumption about divine will or providence guiding a white people to “unoccupied” lands where they have an unrestricted privilege to reap commercial benefits. The white God of selfish commercialism is the real idol of our society; the black God of social liberation is the real God of the Bible.

Cone, in his great book, was very explicit about the blackness of God. With this phrase, he meant that it is wrong to reduce God to a philosophical problem and right to understand God as the call of liberation. The question about the existence of God is outside the question about the spirit of liberation. God is real when liberation is real, and the reality of God is found in the blackness of God. That is Cone’s main thesis and also Cone’s main challenge to white theologians: “We must become black with God” (69).

©By David Galston

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