Magazine article Cross Currents

Jesus and Justice: An Outline of Liberation Theology within Black Churches

Magazine article Cross Currents

Jesus and Justice: An Outline of Liberation Theology within Black Churches

Article excerpt

The institutional development and infrastructure that mark the various African American denominations provide the physical structures through which African American Christians live out their doctrine, their beliefs. However, we often forget that there are links between the thought (or theology) and history (institutional structure and infrastructure) of African American denominations. That is to say, the evolution of the various black denominations is an outgrowth of what African American Christians believed and thought.

A potent approach to social transformation within churches during the 1800s and early 1900s was the Social Gospel (or social Christianity as it is commonly called). This activist interpretation of the Gospel of Christ first hit print and church agendas with figures such as Walter Rausenchbush, who urged Christians to apply their faith to the elevation of poverty. Religious leaders and theologians like Rausenchbush recognized that the industrialization marking the twentieth century was at best a mixed blessing in that it promoted the wealth and stability of the United States as a major force. Yet, only a small percentage of the population benefited from capitalism's economic boom. In essence, the cliche is correct: the "rich got richer and the poor got poorer." Although beneficial on the surface, this Social Gospel often held a racial chauvinism. In other words, for some social gospellers the movement of Christians in the social realm was justified by a racist sense of manifest destiny by which white Christians in the United States were recognized as God's chosen people, divinely selected to dominant the earth. Appeal to chosen status did not first emerge with these religious teachers. To think this is to dismiss, for example, the rationale for the movement of Pilgrims across the Atlantic Ocean. However, the twentieth century brought technological advances that increased the scope and depth of this philosophy's impact.

African American ministers who found troubling the lack of attention to racism by white social gospellers rethought social Christianity in light of African Americans' experience. Although not consistently observed, this race sensitive social Christianity was the general principle that shaped Black Church activity during reconstruction and before. And, it continued to be the operational stratagem for activist preachers throughout the twentieth century.

In keeping with this call for a mirroring of Jesus' activity on behalf of the despised, a minority of preachers including Reverdy C. Ransom of the AME Church, James Walker Hood of the AMEZ Church, Baptist ministers L. K. Williams, and Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., argued that the Gospel called Christians to work for the betterment of African Americans by meeting a full range of needs. That is to say, spiritual development is only authentic if it pushes Christians to live the gospel's message in their mundane dealings. Churches with the necessary resources formalized this commitment by constructing "institutional" churches that provided job training, childcare, educational opportunities, and housing as part of their religious instruction.

Restrictions on ministry opportunities meant women expressed the social gospel through alternate forms of leadership. For example, as a journalists and activists, Ida Wells-Barnett did more than most to bring mob violence, rooted in a warped desire for social control, to the attention of the American public. The Black Church, at its best, has moved in part out of the energy and push of religious black women such as Jarena Lee, Maria Stewart, Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth during the 18th and 19th centuries, and by women such as Nannie H. Burroughs, Fannie Barrier Williams, and Wells-Barnett during the early to mid-twentieth century. But we must also remain mindful of the National Federation of Afro-American Women founded in 1895. Through this organization, black women from a variety of denominations worked toward racial uplift. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.