National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Summer Books
Issue Date:  May 21, 2004

Edited by Linda E. Thomas
Fortress Press, 240 pages, $19
The challenge of black theology


In 1969, James Cone, currently professor of theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, began a revolution in Christian theology. His landmark text, Black Theology and Black Power, initiated a new movement called black theology. Prior to the publication of Latin American theological works, Cone used the concept of “liberation” as the touchstone for his reflection on God and the human condition. He argued that one cannot do theology with integrity in the U.S. context in abstraction from -- or in opposition to -- God’s will to do justice for the racially oppressed. Theology, he said, must follow the mandate to act in solidarity with those pressing for racial justice. Cone concluded that any “God-talk” that neglected or contributed to black suffering was both “blasphemous” and “heretical.”

In this edited work, Linda Thomas, a professor of theology and anthropology at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago, has collected essays authored by those who have built upon and further developed Cone’s seminal insights. The book’s 19 chapters were originally talks given at a conference convened to celebrate the achievements of the black theological movement. They demonstrate how a new generation of racially diverse thinkers is both indebted to and yet subtly critical of Cone’s original and continuing efforts. They expand his initial vision to include a concern not only for racism, but also for issues of class, gender, sexual orientation and care for the environment. All of these concerns, the contributors argue, must be forthrightly addressed if Cone’s concern for the well-being of the entire black community is to be realized.

As is typical for a volume of this type, the contributions vary considerably in length and insight. Among the most valuable chapters are those of Jeremiah Wright, who discusses the pastoral appropriation of black theology in a predominately black worshiping community; Linda Thomas and Emilie Townes, who show the contributions of black women’s theological reflection; Rosemary Radford Ruether, D. Stephen Long and Jim Perkinson, who provocatively detail the challenges of black theology to white theologians; and M. Shawn Copeland, who in a moving sermon provides both a concise overview of black theology and a window into its profound spirituality. Essays by Cone begin and end this collection by looking forward to the future challenges for black theology and considering the vocational call of the theologian.

Perhaps the most critical question raised by a book like this is the question of audience: To whom is it addressed? I raise this question not in the narrow sense of the book’s targeted “market,” but to pose the deeper challenge of how -- or even if -- white Americans engage the thinking of black scholars and theologians. As Linda Thomas notes in the book’s introduction, the questions a work like this raises include, “What is the relationship between black theology and the white church?” and “Can the white church change racism without having a conversation with black theology?”

Such questions are especially pertinent for the Catholic community because, with few exceptions, Catholic engagement with black theological thought has been anemic at best and, at worst, nonexistent. Even with more than 35 years having passed since its inception, most Catholics still are woefully ignorant of this mode of theological reflection.

By way of contrast, note that in Catholic educational institutions and institutes of religious formation, one now sees growing interest in and fascination with interreligious dialogue. Courses and seminars in Judaism, Islam and Buddhism are increasingly common. Sensitivity to the religious “other” is considered important for preparing students to live in and minister to a global society of religious pluralism and complexity.

Contrast this with the scant evidence of a similar interest in the racially “other” in our very midst: that black “other” who cannot be studied from a safe distance and who bears the burden of the dominant society’s unexamined psychological and cultural baggage. Many reasons can be cited for this lack of engagement:

  • a more or less subconsciously pervasive belief that black people are intellectually inferior, and thus incapable of doing “real” theology;
  • a fear that blacks may say what whites do not want to hear, that is, by calling the white church to an uncomfortable accountability for both personal collusion and institutional injustice;
  • a fear that those whom Langston Hughes calls “the darker brother and sister” will expose the dominant understanding of Christianity as lacking, inadequate or even complicit with racism by either passive neglect or active abandon;
  • perhaps because, as Martin Luther King observed, the dominant group is sincerely troubled by racial injustice, but not troubled enough to do anything effective to combat it;
  • and most poignantly, perhaps because whites fear that an encounter with black liberation theology will strip away their masks of racial innocence -- masks, as James Baldwin insightfully noted, they know they cannot live within but fear they cannot live without.

These are but a few of the reasons why one of the essayists observes, “The white church would seem to be an as-yet ‘unmoved mover’ before the prophetic bombast of black liberation theology.”

This, then, is the major challenge posed by Living Stones: Whose voices and experiences count in the work of theological reflection and social transformation? Or more pointedly, how can we claim to have an adequate account of what God is saying to the church if we exclude or ignore the voices of black women and men who speak a different understanding of faith -- one that proclaims that God is a God of justice, freedom and inclusion, who desires that all be welcomed to and granted a place at the eucharistic table, the seminar table and the conference table? This book, then, is an invitation addressed to theologians, informed pastors and responsible church leaders to face their fears, overcome a pattern of studious neglect and embrace a wider understanding of God’s call to justice.

Fr. Bryan N. Massingale is a priest of the Milwaukee archdiocese and a professor of moral theology at St. Francis Seminary in Milwaukee.

National Catholic Reporter, May 21, 2004

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