In the national discussion that followed the recent speech on race by presidential candidate Barack Obama, the phrase "black liberation theology" surfaced to describe the body of thought out of which the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, his former pastor, developed his view of the world, of the United States and of people of color.
But in many ways black liberation theology is as obscure and unknown to white Americans as the lived experiences of the black Americans it speaks to.
The political theology, which links the struggle of people of African descent to the biblical struggle of the Israelites and envisions a God squarely on the side of the oppressed, was born at the same time as the liberation theology that grew out of Latin America in the 1960s.
Black liberation theology's origins are political and intensely temporal, like the liberation theology of Gustavo Gutierrez that inspired the Christian base communities of Guatemala and El Salvador and condemned the economic and political oppression of Latin American people. Both theologies allow Christ to escape the safety of church. As in the New Testament, he is in the street, deeply concerned about justice for the oppressed.
The black theology's originator and first proponent was the Rev. James Cone, who published Black Theology and Black Power in 1969. Considered the father of black liberation theology, Cone is the Charles A. Briggs Professor of Theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York and still a giant in the field.
He wrote in his second book, A Black Theology of Liberation, that the God of the Bible was most concerned with "the lack of social, economic and political justice for those who are poor and unwanted in the society." Cone argued that that God works for the liberation of oppressed blacks in contemporary America. Because God is helping oppressed blacks and has identified with them, God himself is spoken of as "black."
M. Shawn Copeland, associate professor of theology at Boston College, called black liberation theology one of a cluster of theologies--or ways of studying God--that developed alongside the social and political movements of the past four decades.
"Black theology developed out of the political ferment of the civil rights and black power movements," she said in an interview with NCR. "It responded to a collapse of meaning at that time. The old meanings no longer fit the situation."
In the wake of the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, at a time of incredible upheaval in the decapitated civil rights movement itself, Cone's analysis presented a new way of viewing the faith, she said. "People were looking for a way to hold on to the Gospel and be part of the contemporary issues," like Black Power and civil rights.
A black Christ who suffered with the people of the African diaspora made sense. A God the father who shepherded that diaspora as he did the wandering Israelites of the Hebrew scriptures presented a way to understand Christianity as radically relevant to present-day concerns. …