Introduction - What is Black Theology?
With new perspectives being explored in the theological arena from other cultural, sociological and even gender points-of-view, new attitudes to the nature of God and faith are emerging. Black Theology naturally considers matters of faith and practice from the Black perspective, and in particular from within a variety of modes of Black consciousness. As with other 'consciousness-raising' theologies this is an attempt to give real meaning to ideas where this might have been lost, and at the same time help people relate practically to God and each other.
One way Black Theology challenges us to reconsider our beliefs about God, is through the nature of the imagery used when referring to the Divine. For instance, for many years in Christianity it was common to find pictures of Jesus depicted as a white man (and a quick search on the web for images of Christ will show you that it still is). White missionaries also took the message of Christianity to people whose skin-colour was different to their own. Some might see nothing wrong with this, but subconsciously 'non-whites' were being fed the notion that Jesus (and God) were 'white', and that the 'white-man's' religion (Christianity) was spiritually and morally better than their own.
Over the years this created a spiritual dilemma for Blacks, especially when the issue of slavery was taken into account. For if the 'white man' is the oppressor of Blacks, then surely this implies that the white man's God is an oppressor of blacks too. Furthermore, if the white man's God is in control of all events in the world (i.e. God is sovereign), then this too suggests that God has allowed Blacks to be oppressed and appears to have wanted this to happen.
Looking at the history of missions from this perspective, we can begin to understand why the Christian God might be labelled a 'white racist' as far as Black communities concerned:
"Their god is an idol, a god who is historically on the side of the white settlers, who dispossess Black people of their land and who gives most of the land to 'his chosen people.' " (The Kairos Document)*
What is Black Theodicy?
In Christianity, a theodicy (from the Greek words theos (god) and dike (justice)), is an attempt to justify the presence of evil and suffering in the world, with that of God’s benevolence (all-goodness). Black Theodicy attempts to makes sense of Black suffering, and seek to explore what God's involvement or non-involvement has been in all this. In other types of theodicy suffering is typically understood in general terms (i.e. why humans suffer), but in Black theodicies the matter is specifically explored in relation to the Black community, and in particular the matter of slavery and racism.
Typically there have been four ways to address the relationship between God and evil, and each of these have been explored by members of the Black community in order to try and help believers make sense of the suffering they or their ancestors have endured. These are:
- To re-consider the nature and purpose of suffering (i.e. 'suffering' is something God wills as either a means for human betterment, or for political/spiritual liberation).
- To re-consider the omnipotence of God (i.e. To suggest that God might not be able to do some things due to human freewill, and as such cannot be blamed for acts that lead to suffering especially when humans have chosen to do them).
- To deny that God exists (atheism).
- To deny that God is all good (benevolent).
The most pressing concern for Black theologians is whether the degree and manner in which Blacks have suffered over the years, will lead them to conclude that God is a white racist:
"There is, first, its maldistribution. It is suffering confined to a specific ethnic group; it is not spread, more or less impartially, upon mankind as a whole... There is second its enormity... [It] extends over long periods of history... [and as such] we contend that the peculiar nature of Black suffering raises the question of divine racism." (William Jones, A question for Black Theology: Is God a white racist? [Brackets mine])
Many Black theologians believe the question of God's racism should be the central concern in any Black Theodicy. For without this matter being addressed in any satisfactory way there appears to be no reason why members of the Black community should worship and devote themselves to God, or even believe that such a God exists! It also raises the question as to whether God's so-called universal love and goodness for all, includes the Black community.
Some responses to Black suffering
The following is a summary of (and responses to) various theodicies proposed by Black theologians:
Joseph R. Washington
Joseph Washington believes that understanding the nature and causes of Black suffering, begins by associating the Black community with that of Isaiah’s suffering servant:
"He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed." (Isaiah 53:5)
On the basis of this association, Washington proposes the idea that God's plan for humanity is fulfilled through Black suffering! However, what exactly is this 'plan'? Well, according to Washington God's plan is for humanity is for people to be set free from racism. This means as those who suffer, the Black community has a mission to free (liberate) non-Blacks from their sin (i.e. racism). This also means that as a result of their divine calling, Blacks have suffered and continue to suffer for the sake others.
A concern with Washington's theodicy is that the only evidence Black's have of their divine calling, is that they are suffering. Yet surely in order to know they are appointed to this 'mission' they need some additional evidence that in the end their mission will be successful (making their suffering worthwhile), otherwise, how do they know they are not suffering for some other reason?
One could say that evidence will come 'at the end of time', but this gives no guarantee that Blacks aren’t suffering now because God is against them (i.e. a racist). Furthermore, if Black suffering is for the 'salvation' of non-Blacks (esp. whites) then this seems to rather one-sided, for there appears to be no corresponding “suffering servant” for those who have committed the sin of racism against Blacks. Rather than suffering, non-blacks have simply inherited the many freedoms bought through Black blood, lost lives, and untold misery.
James Cone believed that God was fundamentally interested in liberation (freedom). He argues there are numerous examples of God liberating people in the Bible (E.g. God bringing the Israelites out of Egypt - the Exodus), so why not liberate the Black community as well? This means if God is fundamentally interested in liberation and working in the world to liberate the oppressed, then Black communities are also God's chosen people (as they are the one's most in need of being liberated ('set free') in the world). The fact that God has freed oppressed groups in the past, is also good reason for the Black community to trust that God will do the same for them in the future. All in all, this means Black suffering is due to non-Black oppression, not God, and as such God cannot be accused of being a racist:
"God is presently participating in the Black struggle for freedom." (James Cone)
One problem with Cone's theodicy is that his assurances that God will liberate Blacks is grounded in examples of non-Black liberation. For example, the Exodus liberated Jews, not Blacks! Also, the only reason Cone believes Blacks are set apart as being 'chosen', is because they are suffering. If Blacks were to fight for their liberation, and in the process lose their life, they might actually (unwittingly) be working to achieve Black genocide, which could be God’s Will. As such Cone's theodicy still gives no assurances that God is not against the Black community, and therefore not a racist!
Albert Cleage begins his theodicy with the idea that God is literally Black! His argument for this is grounded in the Biblical notion of God creating humanity in God's image (Genesis 1:26f). If all humanity is created in God's image, then as there are more non-whites than whites in the world, this must mean God is more Black than white. This also means that as a 'soul brother' God is not to be blamed for Black suffering:
"One drop of Black blood makes one Black." (Albert Cleage)
However, if God is a “soul brother” why is the Black community suffering? Cleage's answer to this is simple: because Blacks have have not stood up to their oppressors. In other words, Blacks are reaping the consequences of being too passive! If Blacks want suffering to end, they must stand up to non-Blacks. God is not responsible for suffering occurring, nor is God responsible for ending it. It is Blacks who must take both the blame and initiative here! All God does is provide strength for the 'fight' ahead.
Cleage's notion that God is Black because most people in the world are non-white can be extended to include all manner of humans characteristics and traits. In fact, why not simply say that God is completely human, or even that there is one god for Blacks, one for whites etc. (polytheism). Also, although Cleage claims God is not responsible for Black suffering, the fact that they are said to be suffering for not being more pro-active in addressing racism, essentially means they are being punished for their passivity. Therefore, logically their suffering becomes deserved (and God-given)!
Yet if this is the case we are left once again addressing an earlier concern, this being that if Blacks are being punished for failing to address racism then what punishment is being demanded from their oppressors?
"Cleage must explain how it is that Blacks are God's chosen people in light of the fact that whites were allowed to get on top and stay there." (William Jones)
*The Kairos Document was produced by a number of South African theologians in 1985 as a protest against apartheid. One hundred and fifty theologians signed the document, which outlined why South African Christians should stand against the civil authorities on the side of the oppressed, and against the apartheid regime.