THE YEARS FOLLOWING WORLD WAR II were ones of great flux in the United States and around the world. Individuals and nations were beginning to look at their situations and to raise questions that, combined with a praxis that emerged from reflecting on their lives and experiences historically, led to revolutionary efforts to change the status quo. In the U.S., African Americans who, despite the end of legal slavery, still lived, especially in the South, tied to the land they worked for others, began to challenge "Jim-Crow" laws that restricted every part of their lives. Those who had experienced the freedom of other countries during the war questioned their inferior status at home and vowed to change things.
In the Christian churches globally, new ideas and understandings were also emerging in the aftermath of the horrors that had taken place during the war. What was the responsibility of the Church in the secular realm? Should it challenge the oppression that continued to exist or work to overcome it? In the U.S. as federal legislation opened the doors to higher learning for many who would otherwise have taken up jobs in the factories and mills of the country, they too began to question their faith and church teachings and practice in company with theologians in Europe and elsewhere. The resulting "raising of conscience" was a factor in the emergence of the Civil Rights Movement for American Blacks and the calling of the Second Vatican Council for Roman Catholics, movements that resulted in changes that swept the nation and the Church, challenging former beliefs and habits while empowering those who had previously been silent and invisible.
In this article, I look at the emergence of Black theology as a liberation movement by focusing on the way in which James Cone, one of the earliest to call for a new way of "doing" theology by critiquing the ideological distortions of the Christian tradition, developed a hermeneutic of language that fostered that emergence. Black theology is grounded in the experience and praxis, most particularly, of those whose ancestors had endured centuries of slavery and second-class citizenship within the U.S.(1) Cone used the language of symbol and metaphor, narrative and testimony to bring about a critically different understanding of the role that Christianity had played and continued to play in the lives of African Americans. He and other Black theologians recognized that "... the task of theology invites not only the critique of nonreligious ideologies that dominate the consciousness of societies, but also the critique of those very ideologies permeating and fostered by religious traditions."(2)
Although several different methodologies may be discerned in the work of Cone ranging from the existential anthropological stress of his earliest writings to the sociopolitical-cultural emphasis of his later work, it is his hermeneutical language which most clearly presents, in my opinion, the importance of the Black historical experience in the U.S. as a source for theologizing.(3)
It should be understood from the outset that Cone has not designated any particular methodology as his own. As with most liberation theologians who theologize from a contextual basis, his starting point is not a method but a people--the lived experience of an oppressed and marginalized group. Thus, his emphasis is not on method but on praxis. The act of doing theology in a viable manner (orthopraxis), living one's faith out in the world, is the first step; reflection on that action, the second step, results in theology. Both steps are of equal importance and, in reality, usually interact.
Rather than speaking of a hermeneutical circle from which such theology emerges, I prefer to speak of a hermeneutical spiral which more clearly reveals that liberation theology does not simply repeat itself but builds upon praxis and reflection leading to greater understanding as well as a change in the circumstances of those "doing" the theologizing at every level. Thus Cone's hermeneutical language provides the lens through which we come to an understanding of Black Christianity and the critical role it played in the formation and survival of the Black community in the U.S. It also enables us to understand that community of faith and its influence upon Christianity itself in the U.S.(4)
Cone's presentation and development of the symbols and language of the Christian message reveal his grounding in the Black Church and community and result in a startling shift in how we see and understand God the Creator and Jesus Christ. His message is one directed to two audiences, White Christians, in an effort to reveal to them their abuse of their Christian faith, and Black Americans in order to enable them to see how God has worked in their lives and continues to do so.
The Black historical experience serves as the content and method for Cone's hermeneutics. That is the "situation" out of which he theologizes. His anthropology is that of Black humanity and it is around that humanity that his theological investigations are organized. Thus, the gospel message is seen as a contextual one that must be re-interpreted by each and every generation. It cannot be and has never been static. Cone affirms that any experience of God, to be genuinely and authentically Christian, must be identified as such by the Christian community and, for Cone, that community is Black.
There is no truth for and about black people that does not emerge out of the context of their experience. Truth in this sense is black truth, a truth disclosed in the history and culture of black people. This means that there can be no Black Theology which does not take the black experience as a source for its starting point. Black Theology is a theology of and for black people, an examination of their stories, tales, and sayings. It is an investigation of the mind into the raw materials of our pilgrimage, telling the story of "how we got over." For theology to be black, it must reflect upon what it means to be black. Black Theology must uncover the structures and forms of the black experience, because the categories of interpretation must arise out of the thought forms of the black experience itself.(5)
Christ, therefore, is the Black Christ, Black because he has identified himself in his Incarnation with the poor and the oppressed. He is the norm by which the interpretation given by the Black historical experience is structured, presented, and validated. But it is that experience which also interprets the meaning of Christ as God's revelation today. For God is present in human experience. Human experience is the location of God's involvement with humanity and, thus, is the beginning of theological reflection. "The Incarnation is a historical event, but its universality lives on wherever the Church assumes the social and cultural conditions of the people among whom she dwells.... The Church must incarnate herself in every race, as Christ has incarnated himself in the Jewish race."(6)
Cone engages symbol, metaphor, narrative, and testimony as a hermeneutical basis for exploring and critiquing the doctrine of God/Christ (symbol/metaphor) as set forth in the Christianity of the dominant culture and in the Black community, the Black story/history (narrative), and the witness of the Black community and the Black Church (testimony). In so doing, a theology of, by, and for Black Americans evolves. For the symbol of God and Christ Jesus as the creator and liberator of Black people; the metaphor of God and Christ as themselves Black; the story (history) of Blacks in the U.S. and the testimony of their lives as those who have been able to survive because of their faith is the foundation for Black religious discourse. It helps one to understand the hope-filled belief of African Americans in their eventual freedom--social, economic, physical and eschatological--and their conviction that such freedom could only come from God.
GOD AND JESUS CHRIST AS SYMBOL
Paul Ricoeur affirms in his study on the nature of language and symbol that "... man can only understand his own existence, can only understand himself, through the signs--personal and cultural--scattered in the world, and he only understands as he interprets those signs."(7) Interpretation, the discernment of a hidden meaning in an apparent sense, is critical for the development of personhood since it is only in the building up of meaning particular to oneself that a person becomes who he or she is. That meaning can only be built up through interpretation of the signs of the world, interpretation that is, however, affected and influenced by one's culture, heritage, and traditions, in other words, the community into which one is born and in which one lives and develops self-understanding and understanding of the surrounding world.
Symbols are those signs that develop, change, or grow in meaning, as they move from one worldview to another. As worldviews change and develop, so are symbols enriched or impoverished of meaning. Constant critique of these changes, however, is both necessary and vital, for the symbols and for the worldviews themselves, in order for one to be aware not only of the flow of historical understanding (tradition) but also of the contemporary understanding of them.
Both symbols and worldview influence each other and the observer's understanding of them. However, it is necessary to have a symbol or set of symbols within a given worldview that controls or colors one's understanding of all else that arises. In Christianity, this controlling symbol is the Christ as the sign of the unique revelation of God to all humanity. It is this symbol …