Humanism: African American Liberation '(A)theology'

By Ficek, Douglas | Free Inquiry, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview

Humanism: African American Liberation '(A)theology'


Ficek, Douglas, Free Inquiry


Once upon a today and yesterday and nevermore there were 7 men and women all locked / up in prison cells. Now these 7 men and women were innocent of any crimes; they were in prison because their skins were black. Day after day, the prisoners paced their cells, pining for their freedom. And the non-black jailers would laugh at the prisoners and beat them with sticks and throw their food on the floor:

Etheridge Knight [1]

And poor God cannot pass the buck, he made the buck.

Thylias Moss [2]

Strategies for Black liberation have varied extensively over time. Often they have been mutually exclusive: integration or separation, assimilation or nationalism, emigration or Pan-Africanism, passive religiosity or secular militancy. Of course, these examples do not represent the entire scope of Black liberation strategies, nor are they absolutely exclusive from each other. But they demonstrate the sort of ideological conflict that makes substantial progress difficult, if not unlikely Etheridge Knight illustrates this conflict through his seven prisoners: "'No-no,' they / all cried, 'come and follow me. I have the / way, the only way to freedom.'" [3] Thus he concludes, "And so they argued, and to this day they are still arguing, and to this day they are still in their prison cells, their stomachs / trembling with fear." [4]

In this article I will compare three current approaches toward Black liberation. One is the liberation theology of many Black Christian and Muslim churches. Another is the "nitty-gritty hermeneutics" espoused by philosopher-theologian Anthony Plan, which is open to religious interpretations but considers "misguided" any presumption that "the black church is the best, if not the only way, to harness the energy, strength, and commitment of African Americans." [5] A third is explicit, nontheistic Black humanism, a method also defended by Finn.

How DOES THEOLOGY FALL SHORT?

In Bad Faith and Anti-Black Racism, Lewis R. Gordon addresses the existential tension between humanism and theism.

To seek humanity isn't a problem..." But it can also be argued that since God is ... lost, and since God is a fundamental feature of human desire, to regain humanity, we must seek God .... Yet this route seems to be flawed, for to introduce God again requires putting to the side humanity as a project. [7]

As Anthony Pinn notes in Why Lord? Suffering and Evil in Black Theology, any attempt to yoke theology to the cause of liberation must confront the philosophical, theological, and existential problem of evil, "a natural question for members of an oppressed community." [8] Pinn asserts that the "problem of evil and 'theodicy' interchangeably connote attempts at resolving the contradiction between traditional Christian understandings of God as powerful, just, and good, and the presence of suffering." [11]

According to Pinn, there are four ways to resolve the problem of evil, three of which pose great difficulties for traditional theists. The first approach is to question God's omnipotence; if God is not all-powerful, he cannot be held responsible for human suffering. A second, more controversial approach questions God's omnibenevolence. God is released from responsibility when we recognize his moral imperfection, or even his depravity. A third approach questions God's existence altogether: if God does not exist, he cannot be responsible for anything. The fourth approach seeks somehow to explain away and essentially justify human suffering. Because the first three approaches theologically backfire--that is, they deny the qualities of existence, omnipotence, and omnibenevolence traditional believers consider essential to their notion of God--this fourth approach is heavily relied upon by theologians.

As Pinn recognizes, the problem of evil has always loomed large for African American philosophers and theologians. "Brought here as chattel in the early 1600s, African Americans have faced the brutalities of dehumanization through the destruction of their culture, the ripping apart of family units, rapes, beatings, and other actions that linked the control of black bodies with the increase of plantation profits. …

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