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Origins of Black Liberation Theology

Updated on February 1, 2020
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Barry is the founder and director of Expositors International Ministry and dean of Bible Expositors Seminary, Philippines.

Liberation Theology

Black Liberation Theology, as the name suggests, is a form of Liberation Theology. Liberation Theology finds its origin in the Catholic Church in Central and South America. In 1971, Gustavo Gutierrez, a Dominican priest, wrote A Theology of Liberation. He called on the Church to align itself with the poor and oppressed to change the existing social-economic structures. The idea spread throughout Latin and South America but was highly criticized for its overt Marxism.

Black Theology can be traced to Union Theological Seminary and Dr. James Cone. It draws from Liberation Theology and applies the same principles to “black” racial struggles in America. Classical Marxism advocated for the working class to rise and overthrow the owners of production. Liberation Theology called on the church to unite with the poor as a force of change. Black Liberation Theology says that “white people” have oppressed and taken what was due to “black people” and black-skinned people must regain their losses. Cone said he brought together the Christianity of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the political activism of Malcolm X.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

To better understand Cone’s position, we need to know who were the people that Cone drew his inspiration from. Martin Luther King, Jr. is known for his activism in the southern US against segregation. Segregation was the policy that blacks and whites were equal but should remain separate. King claims to have been influenced by Mahatma Gandhi. While Malcolm X and the Black Panther movement were calling for armed resistance, King advocated non-violent, civil disobedience."The Civil Rights Act" was passed in 1964 and King was awarded the Noble Peace Prize. He was assassinated in 1968.

Theological Education

King’s father was a pastor. King himself often preached in his father’s church and was known as a good orator. After college, King wanted to go to seminary but because of his average grades, he had a difficult time finding a place that would admit him. Finally, Crozer Theological Seminary accepted him. As a student, King was mediocre. He was often criticized for the lack of scholarship. In many of his papers, there were no proper notations and possible plagiarism.[1]

At Crozer, King was taught that even if the Bible was based on myth it still was valuable. Proof of the Old Testament should be grounded in archaeology. He was exposed to the teaching of Dr. Morton Scott Enslin. Enslin is the author of The Prophet from Nazareth and Christian Beginnings. Enslin did not believe that the Gospels were written by the authors of their titles but that they were assembled later from various documents.

MLKJ was also taught by George Washington Davis. Davis was a northern Baptist pastor and graduate of Yale. He wrote Existentialism and Theology: An Investigation of the Contribution of Rudolf Bultmann to Theological Thought, in 1957. Who was Bultmann? Bultmann rejected the Liberal idea of the historical Jesus. He said that the New Testament needed to be “demythologize.” He believed that the Scripture was a mix of myth and 1st-century understandings. He started the “New Hermeneutic” movement which became the seed for neo-orthodoxy. In the “New Hermeneutic,” the Bible is interrupted through existential philosophy. In the New Hermeneutic what matters is how the current audience is interacting with the text, not the historical grounding of the text.

Davis had also studied the social gospel of Walter Rauschenbusch. Rauschenbusch (who died in 1918) was the son of a Lutheran missionary to the US. He was influenced by Henry George, an economist, and author of Progress and Poverty (1876). This was an early book on economic class differences. He postulated that economies increase for some because of the economic oppression of others. George’s theories never gained traction but they did influence those within the progressive social movement like Rauschbusch.

Under the teachings of Kenneth L. Smith, King was exposed to Liberation Theology and the Marxists critics of capitalism. King's education was thoroughly grounded in liberal theology. He seems to mix his liberalism with his traditional views of spirituality. He is influenced by three streams: the Fundamentalism of his father, Liberalism and the critic of Liberalism leading to Neo-orthodoxy from his seminary education.

Malcolm X

Like King, Malcolm Little’s father was also a Baptist minister. His father was a follower of the black nationalist leader Marcus Garvey. Malcolm, unlike King, was a good student. He, however, became a drug dealer and led a gang of thieves in Harlem, NY during the 1940s. He was eventually sent to prison and served a sentence from 1946 to 1952. It was there that he was converted to the Nation of Islam. The Nation of Islam combined black nationalism with Muslim beliefs.

He changed his last name from Little to “X”. The Nation rejected their last names as “slave” names. Malcolm met the leader Elijah Mohammed in 1952 and he quickly became a close follower of Mohammad. Mohammed taught that the whites were the devil and the blacks were superior. Elijah was under scrutiny for alleged moral violations (including having 6 children out of marriage). When X spoke out for violence, he and Mohammed parted ways and X founded the Muslim Mosque, Inc. He later moved to Orthodox Islam. Malcolm X was assassinated by a member of the Nation of Islam.

Conclusion

Cone’s starting place for BLT is not the Bible but Liberal Theology, the black nationalist's movement and the human rights movement of King. It should be noted that all those whom Cone draws inspiration from were not Christian, in the sense of being born again and following the authority of the Scriptures. They certainly did not hold any views that would remotely resemble orthodox Christian theology. Frankly, Black Theology would probably remain on the margins of the Church except for renewed interest by the Social Justice Movement in the last several years. Black Liberation Theology was rolled into Critical Theory and the movement is now part of the broader attacks on Western Culture in the U.S.

James Cone Quotes

“The scandal is that the gospel means liberation, that this liberation comes to the poor, and that it gives them the strength and the courage to break the conditions of servitude.” (God of the Oppressed)

“Any theology that is different to the theme of liberation is not Christian theology.” (A Black Theology of Liberation, p.9, Orbis Books, 1970)

“The coming of Christ means a denial of what we thought we were. It means destroying the white devil in us. Reconciliation to God means that white people are prepared to deny themselves (whiteness), take up the cross (blackness) and follow Christ (black ghetto).” (Black Theology and Black Power, Orbis Books)

“To be Christian is to be one of those whom God has chosen. God has chosen black people!” (ibid.)

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