Black Christianity and the Prophetic Church

Insights from the Black Theology of James H. Cone

by Dr. Jan Garrett

Presented October 1, 2000,

at the Unitarian-Universalist Church of Bowling Green KY
Modified November 8, 2000
God is not dead--nor is he an indifferent onlooker at what is going on in this world. One day he will make restitution for blood; He will call the oppressors to account. Justice may sleep, but it never dies. The individual, race, or nation which does wrong, which sets at defiance God's great law, especially God's great law of love, of brotherhood, will be sure, sooner or late, to pay the penalty. We reap as we sow. With that measure we mete, it shall be measured to us again.

Rev. Francis J. Grimke (1902), cited in Cone 1986, 83.

I. Introduction

I understand this talk as a continuation of my January talk about how religions and religious denominations relate to one another, and how liberal religious people should relate to other religions ("Universal Religion and Religious Diversity," January 9, 2000). One of my main points at that time was that, even while respecting other religions and the sincerity of belief of many of their members, we should be under no illusion that all religions are the same. Indeed, part of what it means to respect other religions is to respect their differences, even to some extent appreciating and celebrating both sides of those differences, except perhaps where those religions take stands on urgent moral questions that directly clash with our positions on those issues.

The thought did not occur to me in January that religions of oppressed groups might differ from religions of non-oppressed or oppressor groups so that liberal religious people ought to adopt a special approach to religions of the oppressed. Perhaps the experiences of oppressed peoples will sometimes produce a greater than usual concern for social justice and this concern will be expressed in religious experience as it develops within such communities. Because Unitarian Universalism is, at least in significant part, a social justice religion, this fact should be important to it. But if most Unitarian Universalists do not feel the heel of oppression as members of oppressed communities do, they may have to seek out, and listen to, especially articulate voices coming from these communities, if they are to understand the form of religion that has evolved there.

II. The Work of James H. Cone

I have learned the most on this topic recently from James H. Cone, a leading black theologian who is Distinguished Professor of Systematic Theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. James Cone's adult life spans the same period as mine. His latest book, Risks of Faith (Beacon Press, 1999) is subtitled The Emergence of a Black Theology of Liberation 1968-1998. I have also gained much from his book Speaking the Truth: Ecumenism, Liberation, and Black Theology (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1986). In Risks of Faith we read Cone's contributions to the dialogue among reflective black people from the civil rights period and black power movement of the 1960's through recent responses to globalization and environmental crisis. At the center of Cone's thinking is the religious significance of the black experience and the role of black Christianity in North America.

Cone grew up a black child in Bearden, Arkansas, a community of 1200 people, during the 40's and 50's. This was still the age of "Jim Crow," i.e., legally enforced segregation of the races. He observed "the contempt and brutality that white law meted out to the blacks who transgressed [white people's] racial mores or who dared to question their authority" (1999, ix). His Christian identity was shaped primarily at the Macedonia A.M.E. Church in Bearden. "Every Sunday and sometimes on weeknights I encountered Jesus through rousing sermons, fervent prayers, spirited gospel songs, and the passionate testimonies of the people. Jesus was the dominant reality at Macedonia and in black life in Bearden" (1999, ix).

What puzzled Jim Cone most "about the religion of Jesus was . . . the rather conspicuous presence of the color bar in white churches. In Bearden, like the rest of America, Sunday was the most segregated day of the week" (1999, xi). Blacks knew that the "Welcome" signs outside the white churches were not addressed to them.

Young Jim Cone did not find that all was well in the black church, however. He noticed that an uncritical faith dominated black churches. Black churches seemed to condone or even promote anti-intellectualism, as whites condoned or promoted racism. "I found it hard to believe that the God of Jesus condoned ignorance as if it were a virtue." (1999, xiii).

Obviously a bright student, his search for a more reasoned faith led him to study at Garrett-Theological Seminary. Theology became his favorite subject and he remained at Garrett and Northwestern University for a Ph. D. in systematic theology. He got so absorbed in the texts of European theologians and debates of theology graduate students about God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and the Church that for a time he found himself pulled away from his own people (1999, xiii-xiv).

The civil rights movement and later the Black Power movement of the 1960's pulled him back. He discovered that, for all their value, the European theologians seriously missed the boat on issues important to black people and the black churches. Cone's first work in black theology reflected his theological training in white theology as well as the critical stance the civil rights and black power movements influenced him to take into relation to white theology.

This would continue to be a theme throughout his career, but it would often take back seat to other issues that had more to do with the real struggles of black people in North America and with the historical experiences of black people as expressed in the history of black Christianity from the slave period through the present.

III. The Origins of Black Christianity

According to Cone, "theology as ‘rational reflection' about God was foreign to the intellectual and religious sensibilities of African slaves. Most could not read or write, and the few who could were . . . forced to apply what they believed about God to the survival and liberation of their people rather than to consider it systematically." (Cone 1986: 83- 84)

The justice of God has been the dominant theme of black religious thought. Blacks, says Cone, have always believed in the living presence of the God who establishes the right by punishing the wicked and liberating their victims from oppression. "No one . . . can escape the judgment of God." This may happen "sooner" (in this world) or it may happen "later" (in the next). Because whites continued to prosper materially as they increased their victimization of blacks, black religion came to speak more often of the later than of the sooner.

But the idea of hope is closely linked to the themes of justice and liberation. Cone says that black people's hope is based on their faith in God's promise not to "leave the little ones alone in bondage." (1986, 84)

African slaves brought their own African religions with them to the Americas, but the white slave masters, especially in English-speaking North America, did not permit them to practice it openly, since they noticed a connection between African religion and slave insurrections. Yet African elements survived, according to Cone, in music, dance, speech patterns and thought.

Originally, African slaves were not taught Christianity (1986, 132), because some Christians held that Christian baptism required emancipation and there were too many references to freedom in the Bible (Ibid.). But eventually white missionaries convinced the slave masters that Christianity made blacks more docile and obedient. One slaveholder put it this way, "The deeper the piety of the slave, the more valuable he is in every respect." Before the rapid growth of the Methodists and the Baptists in the late 18thand early 19th centuries, African slaves remained outside the belief systems of Christianity.

IV. African Slaves Craft Their Own Version of Christianity

Once the African slaves converted to Christianity, their conversion was different from the conversion of their white owners. As Cone puts it,

if worship is inseparably connected with life, then we must assume that the worship services of slaves could not have had the same meaning as the worship services of slave holders, because they did not share the same life. They may have used the same words in prayers, songs, and testimony, or even preached similar sermons. But slaves and slave holders could not mean the same thing . . . because their social and political realities were radically different. (1986, 87)

These differences are expressed in two development in the period before the Civil War: the so-called invisible institution in the South and independent black churches in the North.

The slaves developed and kept their distinctive faith alive in intimate communication between friends and within families, as well as in larger secret meetings, which scholars call the invisible institution or the secret church. White preachers would say that God permitted or even ordained slavery, but black slaves refused to give up the idea that God willed their freedom. They risked a terrible beating and perhaps death to "steal away" into the woods or swamps at night in order to sing, preach, and pray for their liberation (1986, 88). These secret meetings, Cone tells us, were the birthing places not only of slave insurrections but also a black version of the gospel consistent with the search for freedom. So-called "Negro Spirituals" were the product of these secret meetings: "Go Down Moses/Way down in Egypt land/Tell old Pharoah/To let my people go." Liberation themes are also to be found in "Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho,"Oh Mary don't you weep," and "My lord delivered Daniel" (1986, 88).

Cone cites a slave inspired by these meetings, "White folk's got a heap to answer for the way they've done to colored folks. So much they won't never pray it away." Songs expressed the same point, "Dere's no hidin' place down here" and "You shall reap jes what you sow." (1986, 89)

Cone disputes the interpretation many scholars have given black religion when they emphasize its "otherworldly" dimension. Heaven in black religion, says Cone, signifies not only a reality beyond space and time, but also earthly places regarded as lands of freedom, particularly Africa, Canada, and the northern United States. Frederick Douglass already noted the double meaning of the black spirituals. The song whose words went "‘Oh Canaan, sweet Canaan, I am bound for the land of Canaan,' meant more than the hope of reaching heaven. We meant to reach the North, and the north was our Canaan" (cited in Cone 1986, 89).

Independent black churches emerged very early in the North when in 1787 black members of Philadelphia's St. George Methodist church refused to accept segregation and discrimination within the church. The separatist movement, reflecting free blacks' rejection of the prejudices of their white coreligionists, led to the formation of the AME Church (1816), the AME Zion Church (1821), the Colored ME Church (1870) and many Baptist churches around the same time. In leaving the St. George Methodist Church in 1787 Richard Allen and others expressed . . . their view that segregation in the Lord's House was, to cite Rev. Allen's later reflections, "very degrading and insulting" (cited in 1986, 91-92).

Independent black churches became heavily involved in the abolitionist movement and were "stations" for runaway slaves during the period of the underground railroad. The AMEZ Church (whose Bowling Green church sponsored the Community Unity meeting two months ago) was so deeply involved it became known as the "Freedom Church." (1986, 92)

Some Northern blacks, including Rev. Francis Grimke whom I cited above about God's justice, remained within the white churches in order fight racism there. Cone notes that even when blacks remained within white churches, Christianity meant something to them quite different from what it meant for whites. Henry Highland Garnet was a Presbyterian minister, David Walker a Methodist layperson. Yet Walker's Appeal of 1829 and Garnet's Address to the Slaves of America (1843) shocked even radical white abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison. Garnet wrote:

It is as wrong for your lordly oppressors to keep you in slavery, as it was for the man thief to steal our ancestors from the coast of Africa. You should therefore now use the same manner of resistance, as would have been just in our ancestors, when the bloody footprints of the first remorseless soul thief was placed upon the shores of our fatherland . . . Liberty is a spirit sent out from God, and like its great Author, is no respecter of persons. (Cited in 1986, 93)

The central theological question for black preachers was this: Why did the God of liberation, justice, and love permit millions of Africans to be stolen from their homeland and enslaved in North America? Nathaniel Paul, another black Christian who remained in the white church, put it in the following agonizing way:

Tell me, ye might waters, why did ye sustain the ponderous load of misery? Or speak, ye winds, and say why it was that ye executed your office to waft them onward to the still more dismal state; and ye proud waves, why did you refuse to lend your aid and to have overwhelmed them with your billows? Then they should have slept sweetly in the bosom of the great deep, and so have been hid from sorrow. And, oh thou immaculate God, be not angry with us, while we come into thy sanctuary, and make the bold inquiry in this they temple, why it was that thou didst look on with calm indifference of an unconcerned spectator, when thy holy law was violated, thy divine authority despised and a portion of thine own creatures reduced to a state of mere vassalage and misery? (1986, 93-94)

V. The Meaning of the Bible for Black Christianity

When African slaves became Christians and were exposed to the Bible, they naturally gravitated to certain parts of it, such as the liberation of the Israelites from captivity in Egypt, the theme of the Promised Land, and the hoped-for redemption at the end of a period of suffering. From the New Testament they drew sustenance from a doctrine that Unitarians have often regarded as intellectually absurd: namely, the idea that God or God's son Jesus (the distinction was not very important in black Christianity according to Cone) so identified with the suffering people, the victims of injustice, that he became one of them and suffered a terrible death as a result.

The conclusion many black Christians drew from this was that God took the side of the victims of injustice; and the statement (which they took to be fact) that Jesus was resurrected, and thereby vindicated, symbolized God's promise that they too would someday be victorious: it might not be in this life, and yet again it might.

VI. Black Christianity in the Twentieth Century

The prophetic or justice-oriented element of black religion ebbed and flowed. It was in one such partial ebb, in the early part of the twentieth century, that the key civil rights organizations such as the NAACP were formed. Yet "civil rights organizations not only internalized the ideas about justice, liberation, hope, love and suffering that had been preached in the churches; they also used church property to convene their own meetings and usually made appeals for support at church conferences" (1986, 97).

In Cone's estimation the most significant figure in the recent history of black religious thought is Martin Luther King Jr. Much has been written about King's graduate education and the influence on him of white theologians, the essayist and maverick Henry David Thoreau, and the Indian pacifist and nonviolent freedom fighter Mahatma Gandhi. Cone insists that although the influences of these men on King was significant, King was more than anything a product of black Christianity and its tradition. It's true that King used the intellectual tools of white thinkers and Gandhi to explain what he stood for to the white public. But, insists Cone, King derived "his convictions about God from his acceptance of black faith and his application of it to the civil rights struggle" (1986, 99). At the core of King's faith were the ideas of love, justice, liberation, hope, and redemptive suffering. King interpreted love "in the light of justice for the poor, liberation for all, and the . . . hope that God has not left this world alone" in the hands of evil persons (1986, 99).

Martin King believed that those who fight for justice must be prepared to suffer in the struggle, yet they must never inflict suffering on others. Cone says that King "took the democratic tradition of freedom and combined it with the biblical tradition of justice and liberation as found in the book of Exodus and the prophets" (100). With this he integrated both traditions with the New Testament idea of love and suffering as found in the story of Jesus' death. Thus, says Cone, King fashioned a theology that was able to challenge all Americans to "create the beloved community in which all persons are equal." The Gandhian method of nonviolence provided the civil rights movement with its strategy, but, as King himself said, this method became an integral part of the struggle through the black church (100).

King hoped that through nonviolent suffering blacks would liberate themselves from bitterness and a feeling of inferiority in relation to whites and that such suffering would also affect the conscience of whites, liberating them from their attitude of superiority. This approach initially put King at odds with the Black Power movement, which occasionally suggested hate toward whites (though this point, exaggerated by the white media, was never its main significance). When black power first made its appearance, King "said he would continue to preach nonviolence even if he became its only advocate" (101).

Yet King himself became more radical during this period. He realized that the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Bill did not significantly alter the life chances of the poor, and he judged President Johnson's War on Poverty a dismal failure. Like Malcolm X, King became a scathing critic of the entire political and economic order. The famous dream of his 1963 speech had turned into a nightmare. He began to see connections between the failure to overcome poverty and the expenditures for the escalating Vietnam War. Against the advice of many of his closest associates among black ministers and white liberals, he spoke out in the tradition of the Old Testament prophets. In an address to a large audience he condemned America as "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today" (cited in 1986, 101)--a statement which was plausible to many young people of my generation and Cone's, especially young blacks, at the time King uttered it. King insisted that God would break the backbone of U.S. power if the nation did not bring justice to the poor and peace to the world. He was attacked from many sides as he proclaimed God's indignation against the three great evils of war, racism, and poverty. Yet in his isolation he found hope in the tradition of his people. Cone cites King from this period as follows:

Centuries ago Jeremiah raised a question, "Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician?" He raised it because he saw the good people suffering so often and the evil people prospering. Centuries later our slave foreparents came along and they too saw the injustices of life and had nothing to look forward to morning after morning, but the rawhide whip of the overseer, long rows of cotton, and the sizzling heat, but they did an amazing thing. They looked back across the centuries and they took Jeremiah's question mark and straightened it into an exclamation point. And they could sing, "There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole. There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sinsick soul." (Cited in 1986, 102)

The sinsickness which oppressed the slaves of whom King spoke and which, at one remove, oppressed him in the 1960's, was not mainly a sickness that oppressed people had brought on themselves through sinfulness; rather it was a sickness, a depression of the soul, created by systematic injustice and, in King's case, by the isolation--may it only be temporary--of the prophetic voice.

Another important strand of Cone's study relates to black nationalism. The black nationalist perspective is deeply embedded in the history of black religious thought. Malcolm X was not the first black nationalist and the non-Christian Nation of Islam not the first religious expression of black nationalism within black religion. Bishop Henry M. Turner of the AME Church once claimed that "We have as much right biblically and otherwise to believe that God is a Negro as you white people have to believe that God is a fine-looking, symmetrical and ornamental white man" (cited in 1986, 103).

But Malcolm X was the most persuasive voice for of black nationalism during the 1960's when Cone's own theological outlook was being formed. Malcolm emphasized black unity instead of the beloved community, self-defense in instead of nonviolence, and self-love instead of turning the other cheek.

After the Watts riot in 1965 black clergy began to think more positively about Malcolm X's philosophy, especially his critique of Christianity and American society. Malcolm's claim that America was a nightmare and not a dream began to seem true as black clergy watched their communities go up in flames. Black power, inspired by Malcolm X, forced black clergy to question how black faith was related to white religion. As Cone puts it, black theologians always recognized white Christianity as an ethical heresy--racism, after all, contradicts the message of universal love--but they did not always extend this critique to European and American theology, the kind taught in the elite seminaries. Now a small group of black clergy separated themselves from King's absolute commitment to nonviolence; yet, unlike Malcolm X (who by then had been assassinated) and unlike most Black Power advocates, these clergy decided to remain within the black Christian fold. Several of them came together in The National Conference of Black Churchmen. They published in July 1966 in the New York Times a "black power" statement in which they sharply distinguished their view of the Christian gospel and the theology of white churches (1986, 105).

Thus "black theology" was born. The term "liberation" emerged as its dominant theme while Martin Luther King's message of justice, love, hope, and suffering was re- conceived in light of the political implications of liberation. Black clergy decided that they would not permit a white theology that refused to attack racism to separate them from suffering blacks in the central cities (1986, 105). "By rejecting white theology as heresy, the proponents of black theology were...forced to create a new theology of the black poor, one that would empower them in their struggle for justice" (1986, 110).

For black theology an important issue has been the reconnecting black religion in America with African history and culture (1986, 107). A related emphasis was the need of black theology to derive its meaning from the history and culture of the people in whose name it claims to speak. Cone himself responded to this need in his book The Spirituals and the Blues and other later works. He began to move away from his early use of white theologians in the 1960's (of course even then he had been critical of them) "to a greater use of slave narratives, sermons, prayers and songs as chief sources for the development of the themes of justice, liberation, . . . and hope in black theology" (108).

VII. Concluding Observations

I am convinced that Cone has described a large and significant aspect of the history of black Christianity. He has a solid empirical basis for the story he tells. This story is important for Unitarian Universalism in North America, because Unitarians and Universalists have been, at least in principle from early times, committed to social justice. As a little research into liberal religious roots in the unitarian Christianity of the Polish Socinians shows, this goes back at least to the sixteenth century.

As I suggested at the beginning it is important to distinguish between religions and theologies born of oppression and the struggle for justice and those, however interesting in other respects, that reflect or are somehow complicit with systematic injustice. It follows that, other things equal, liberal religious people should relate to the black Christian movement described by Cone somewhat differently from the way they relate to the various white denominations. They should expect that black Baptists and white Baptists may understand very differently the whole idea of God becoming flesh in Jesus. Should they have occasion to discuss theology with black Baptists, they might say something like this:

Perhaps we wouldn't use the language you use when you describe God's becoming flesh in Jesus because He is on the side of the poor and downtrodden or when you identify with the crucified Jesus as a victim of Roman imperial oppression who is vindicated by God when he is resurrected. But we welcome the way your religion gives you power to speak out against injustice and keep up the struggle for dignity. We want to be allies with such a spirit of justice, liberation, and hope.