Communion Ecclesiology and Black Liberation Theology

By Phelps, Jamie T. | Theological Studies, December 2000 | Go to article overview

Communion Ecclesiology and Black Liberation Theology


Phelps, Jamie T., Theological Studies


THE INTERNATIONAL BISHOPS' SYNOD of 1985 identified communio or koinonia as the fundamental idea of the Second Vatican Council. This judgment has promoted a notable emphasis on ecclesial communion in subsequent papal and other magisterial documents. In most instances, this has led to increased emphasis on the internal relationship between the local churches and its members and has led also to stress on communion as the goal for ecumenical and interreligious dialogue.(1) While these discussions are important to a fuller understanding of the mission of the Church, this new emphasis on the Church as communion also provides a term by which to argue its mission to foster the recognition and manifestation of the essential unity of the whole human family.

Here I argue that the central theme of the unity of the human community is the teleological focus of both Black liberation theology and communion ecclesiology. The synodal and papal documents on social justice promulgated following Vatican II were an elaboration of the churches' self-understanding of communion that linked the intraecclesial communion of the Christian churches with the extraecclesial communion of the human community. This unity of the human community is also an explicit central value of African traditional religions and the African American religious tradition.

The historical development of the Black Church and Black organizations and conferences within predominantly White churches has been motivated by the desire of Black people to maintain their human dignity and their sense of human equality in the context of a dominant social and ecclesial context previously denied to them. Protestant and Catholic churches compromised Christianity by conforming to the social institutions that embodied a White supremacist ideology and the social patterns of slavery, segregation, and Black servitude. Ecclesial institutions themselves adopted the White supremacist ideology which allowed its members to own slaves, and restricted the participation of its Black members. The emergence of a formal Black liberation theology, within the context of the Civil Rights Movement, provided a theological interpretation of Black people's quest for liberation. It identified and critiqued the structures and patterns of relationships that continued to marginalize, devalue, exploit, and otherwise perpetuate the oppression and dehumanization of Black people in the United States as antithetical to the gospel of Jesus Christ. This theology focused on racism as the root ideology that legitimized the oppression of Black people. In a similar vein, Latin American liberation theology provided a theological interpretation for the class oppression experienced by the poor and marginalized people within Latin America. Both theologies reread the tradition to identify a previously de-emphasized image of the historical Jesus. Jesus is and was the Liberator and God of the oppressed. Many U.S. Catholic social-justice activists, including theologians, engaged Latin American liberation theology and took up the war against poverty and oppression in Latin America. But many of these same activists, blinded by bias, ignored Black liberation theology and the racial oppression identified as a root cause of poverty and oppression within the U.S.

Black liberation theology has called the churches to become a model of the pattern of relationship that it seeks to establish in the world. It challenges all churches to refute the dehumanization of Blacks and all oppressed peoples within their communities as they assist the oppressed in the struggle to obtain full freedom and equality in society. This challenge of Black liberation theology makes clear that the final goal of liberation theology is identical with the ultimate goal of communion. At the 1985 synod the bishops focused on intraecclesial communion, ecumenical communion, and the social challenges facing society. These foci suggest that commitment to justice, peace, and freedom of men and women, and to a new civilization of love, is a fundamental perspective for the Church as communion.

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