The emergence of black theology is owing largely to the civil rights movement of the 1960s. The latter awakened in blacks a new self-consciousness and sense of personal dignity that was distinctly tied to their ethnicity and social plight. Grenz and Olson:
"Black theology was not concerned with the intellectual problems of secularized culture; its concern lay instead with the realities of the experience of Blacks in America. As a result, Black theologians did not debate the question as to how the idea of God could be made palatable to the modern mindset, for this was not an issue among their people. They sought rather to harness the biblical imagery for the goal of the advancement of the Black community" (Twentieth-Century Theology, 202).
In other words, it wasn't the intellectual relevance of God that concerned them but the relevance of God for a people who suffered the unique characteristics of social and economic oppression of the 20th century black person. Emphasis was placed on concrete activity that contributed to liberation, not abstract contemplation that failed to touch people physically and financially. Theology itself was redefined as critical reflection on "praxis" or reflection on action in the service of liberation.
According to the Committee on Theological Perspectives of the National Conference of Black Churchmen in the United States (1966),
'Black Theology is a theology of black liberation. It seeks to plumb the black condition in the light of God's revelation in Jesus Christ, so that the black community can see that the gospel is commensurate with the achievement of black humanity. Black Theology is a theology of "blackness." It is the affirmation of black humanity that emancipates black people from white racism, thus providing authentic freedom for both white and black people. It affirms the humanity of white people in that it says "No" to the encroachment of white oppression.'
Some early spokesmen for black theology, such as Joseph R. Washington, Jr. (Black Religion: The Negro and Christianity in the United States, 1964) advocated going beyond integration to assimilation. Washington "challenged Black congregations to 'go out of business' and Black Christians to enter the White congregations en masse. Only by voluntarily giving up their segregated worship life and demanding assimilation in the Christian community . . . could the material gains Blacks were attaining 'be matched by spiritual growth'" (G/O, 204).
Washington's proposal failed and soon gave way to black militarism with its attack on white churches and their leaders. The goal of black theology soon became liberation from white oppression, not reconciliation between oppressed and oppressors. The new spokesman was James H. Cone, professor of theology at Union Theological Seminary, New York.
Black Theology and Black Power (1969)
A Black Theology of Liberation (1970)
Some radical advocates of black power insisted that Christianity was a "white" religion, used by the latter to oppress the black community. Cone, on the other hand, appealed to Christianity as the only hope for the black community. Characteristics:
(1) Black theology insists that the biblical portrait of God is one in which he consistently takes his stand with and on behalf of the poor and oppressed and consistently denounces and judges the privileged oppressors. Hence, obedience to God = identification with the poor and oppressed, i.e., blacks.
(2) Black theology is distinctly ethnocentric: it is a theology of blacks and for blacks and about blacks alone:
"Prior to the 1960s theologians, regardless of their theological orientation, perceived their efforts and their discipline in terms of the engagement in the quest for truth on behalf of all humankind. Black theologians, in contrast, openly asserted that their task was properly limited to their own ethnic community. It was a theology by Blacks and for Blacks" (G/O, 209).
Others, however, argue that "blackness" is about more than mere skin color. It is a symbol that points to rejection, dehumanization and oppression. Thus, God is "black" in the sense that he has made the oppressed condition his own. Jesus is "black" insofar as he entered the world as a "slave" and identified with the oppressed of the earth. Thus "blackness is that which all oppressed people share in solidarity with each other and with the God who is on the side of the oppressed" (Bruce Fields, Introducing Black Theology, 14).
(3) The study of God in black theology is not the study of his nature or his existence independently of the black condition but the study of God in action for the sake of liberation. God cannot be known apart from seeking him in the midst of his commitment to the liberation of blacks. Thus black theology is done from the perspective of an oppressed people and against the backdrop of both historical and contemporary racism.
(4) Central to black theology is the theme of liberation in Christ's words of Luke 4:18-19 (hence, liberation is the gospel). God is viewed as having identified himself with the black condition; he is therefore known and seen in whatever context people suffer oppression; his nature is disclosed insofar as he works to liberate people from suffering and bondage
(5) A hermeneutical criterion soon emerged: if a doctrine or "truth" failed to contribute to black liberation, it was false (or at least, irrelevant). Black theologians approach the traditional interpretation of Scripture with a hermeneutics of suspicion:
"This means that within a framework of determining appropriate biblical teaching and models to provide solutions to the condition of black oppression, black biblical interpreters must be conscious of the ways biblical interpretation in the dominant culture has contributed to oppression" (Fields, 33).
Critical to black hermeneutical practice is "whether the members of the interpretive community are engaging in a sociocritical or a sociopragmatic approach" (Fields, 80). Anthony Thiselton defines this as "an approach to texts (or to traditions and institutions) which seeks to penetrate beneath their surface-function to expose their role as instruments of power, domination, or social manipulation" (New Horizons in Hermeneutics, 379). The aim is to expose any manipulation or "interpretation" of the text that perpetuates various forms of oppression.
(6) The concept of sin in black theology takes on at least two notable characteristics. First, the essence of sin is racism, not in general, but white racism and its concomitant political, social, educational oppression. Second, sin is more than individual acts of rebellion against God. Sin is systemic and structural. Redemption is thus more than forgiveness of sins. It also entails reversal of the status quo to the extent that the latter perpetuates injustice. The church's proclamation of "salvation' and its understanding of the 'kingdom of God' has little to do with forgiveness from sins in preparation for the next life and everything to do with socio-economic justice to enhance one's condition in this life.
(7) Virtually all Christian 'doctrines' were re-cast in terms relevant to the struggle for black liberation. For example, human nature was not viewed or interpreted distinct from the oppressive conditions in which humans actually live; hence, the 'image of God' was not an abstract property in man, such as rationality or morality or self-consciousness, but man so far as he is involved in the struggle for liberation.
Jesus is himself seen primarily in terms of the oppression he endured and the message of social liberation he proclaimed. His death on the cross is often viewed not so much as substitutionary in the traditional sense, whereby he suffers divine wrath, but rather as an expression or demonstration of God's solidarity with the poor and marginalized of society. James Cone explains:
"The cross of Jesus reveals the extent of God's involvement in the suffering of the weak. God is not merely sympathetic with the social pain of the poor but becomes totally identified with them in their agony and pain. The pain of the oppressed is God's pain, for God takes their suffering as God's own, thereby freeing them from its ultimate control of their lives. . . . God in Christ became the Suffering Servant and thus took the humiliation and suffering of the oppressed into God's own history. This divine event that happened on the cross liberated the oppressed to fight against suffering while not being determined by it" (God of the Oppressed, 161).