From the initial movement of European explorers forward, the creation of what became the United States entailed the destruction and rearrangement of cultures and worldviews. The United States has always been a contested terrain, forged through often violent and destructive sociopolitical arrangements. Markers of “difference” such as race and gender are embedded in the formation and development of this country. One cannot forget, however, that much of the struggle relating to this development took place within the framework of religious belief and commitment that informed, justified, and shaped the self-understanding of the nation.
In the nascent United States, religion and religious discourse would function not only as a safeguard of the status quo but also as a justifier of oppression. Yet while religious discourse buttressed oppressive activities such as the destruction of native populations and the enslavement of Africans, oppressed communities also made use of religion to critique and challenge this abuse. As demonstrated by the chapters in this volume, one of the most forceful presentations of this latter use of religion and religious thought takes the form of liberation theologies. Liberation theologies emerged in the late 20th century, concerned with the transformation of social existence (i.e., liberation) as a religious quest. They are contextual, tied to the experiences and needs of concrete communities. They are political in nature and religious in commitment. For most people in the United States, Latin American liberation theology is typically the first form of liberation theology of which they become aware. While the importance and influence of Latin American liberation theology cannot be ignored, within the U.S. context, liberation theology was first presented in the form of Black theology. It was James Cone’s Black Theology and Black Power and A Black Theology of Liberation that set the initial tone for liberation theology in the United States as a systematic theology.1
What is often said of theology in general is certainly true of liberation theologies as well: theology is a second-order enterprise. That is, theology can be understood as a reflection on “faith-based” commitments and activities.