Black theology consists of a mixture of ideas and beliefs generated by black churches, the Civil Rights Movement and the proponents of Black Power. The traditional norms of theology as practiced in black churches throughout America were threatened by the tide of liberal thought in the 1960s.
Black theology, in its contemporary form, combined black religion and black power. Black religion provides the spiritual aspect; it is the product of African inheritance and slave culture. As preached in black churches on southern plantations, black religion asserts the dignity of black people as creations of God. Black churches placed special emphasis on images of God in the Bible as a redeeming entity, one that would personally save the African Americans from their enslavement. These images became so interwoven with black theology that it is impossible to understand black theology without having some knowledge of the Bible. This slave religion provided a safe haven for blacks; a place distinctly separate from white culture and religion. Prayers, songs, stories and folklore directly reflected the black experience in America; black theology developed over time as a reaction to white oppression and the hardships of slavery.
Black liberation is considered synonymous with black theology as it equates social liberation with religious salvation. The black image of Jesus is one of a poor, oppressed man; one who died a slave and was reborn free from the shackles of earthly existence. The Holy Spirit embodies the spirit of freedom. God is the proactive, redeeming force that will save the black people from persecution just as the Jewish slaves in Egypt were saved. James Hal Cone is a black theologian and major advocate for black theology, specifically black liberation theology. In his book, A Black Theology of Liberation, Cone describes the nature of God as one which reflects that of oppressed people, specifically the African-American community: "The black theologian must reject any conception of God which stifles black self-determination by picturing God as a God of all peoples. Either God is identified with the oppressed to the point that their experience becomes God's experience, or God is a God of racism.... The blackness of God means that God has made the oppressed condition God's own condition. This is the essence of the Biblical revelation." Cone identifies the black experience not in racial terms but in experiential terms; as those who have experienced oppression and dispossession.
Just as black theology promotes liberation on a social and political level, so too do its churches promote a personal, spiritual liberation. When she visited an African-American church, Mircea Eliade, a leading scholar of religious experience, was awed and inspired by the experience: "One has the impression of being projected into the religious universe of children. The authenticity, the naive realism of the faith that greets you in the Negro spirituals -- all that does not belong to the world of adults... Here one has the impression that the discovery of the miracle of the Nativity (or other hierophanies) is too elating for the children's souls, and that, finally, the children begin to shout, to clap their hands, to cry for joy, for sadness, for longing." African Americans were accused of falsely imitating American Christianity by incorporating heathen ritual and paganism into it. Due to the Black Power movement, which emphasized African inheritance and racial pride, the Black Church is unencumbered by prejudice or criticism.
Iain MacRobert, a British theologian, recognized the African dimensions of religious practice in black churches: "The relevance and integration of religion and the supernatural in all of life and the joyous celebration of life was expressed in forms of liturgy which originated in West Africa. The African desire and respect for spiritual power and belief in Spirit possession was central to the movement. . . . This possession took place to the accompaniment of music, dancing and motor behavior which was essentially West African in origin." One of the most well-known aspects of Black Church customs stems from ancient African rituals. The worshiper being possessed by a spirit has evolved from its pagan conception into a Christian spiritual experience.
Feminist theologians have critiqued black liberation theology for not including the woman's experience and need for liberation. Black women have undergone two forms of oppression: racism and sexism. Black feminists claim that black liberation theology will only earn validity once it rejects any and all forms of prejudice which have the power to exclude not only race but also gender. In its early stages, black theology only addressed the needs of black men and black churches discriminated against women to the same extent that white churches did.