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For My People: Black Theology and the Black Church

For My People: Black Theology and the Black Church

by James H. Cone

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Orbis Books
Publication date:
Bishop Henry McNeal Turner Studies in North American Black Religion Series , #1
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5.39(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.84(d)

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Chapter One

The Origin of Black Theology

All people need power, whether black or white. We regard it sheer hypocrisy or as a blind and dangerous illusion the view that opposes love to power. Love must be the controlling element in power, not power itself. So long as white churchmen continue to moralize and misinterpret Christian love, so long will justice continue to be subverted in this land.

National Committee of Negro Churchmen,
"Black Power Statement," July 31, 1966

    The idea of "black theology" emerged when a small group of radical black clergy began to reinterpret the meaning of the Christian faith from the standpoint of the black struggle for liberation in the United States during the second half of the 1960s. To theologize from within the black experience rather than be confined to duplicating the theology of Europe or white North America was the main objective of the new black theology. It represented the theological reflections of a radical black clergy seeking to interpret the meaning of God's liberating presence in a society where blacks were being economically exploited and politically marginalized because of their skin color.

    What does it mean to be black and Christian? If God is the Creator of all persons and through Christ has made salvation possible for everyone, why are some oppressed and segregated in the churches and in society on the basis of color? How can whitesclaim Christian identity, which emphasizes the love and justice of God, and still support and tolerate the injustice committed against blacks by churches and by society? Why do blacks accept white interpretations of Christianity that deny their humanity and ignore their own encounter of God (extending back to Africa) as the liberator and protector of black victims of oppression? These are the questions that challenged the black clergy and black theologians to reflect more deeply about the meaning of God in a society that had no place for blacks to be fully human. In this chapter, I shall describe the origin of black theology, including the events that gave birth to it, the organizations that promoted it, and the stages of its development.


    The origin of black theology has three major contexts: (1) the civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s, largely associated with Martin Luther King, Jr.; (2) the publication of Joseph Washington's book, Black Religion (1964); and (3) the rise of the black power movement, strongly influenced by Malcolm X's philosophy of black nationalism.

Civil Rights Movement

    All those involved in the creation of black theology were also deeply involved in the civil rights movement, including the protest demonstrations led by Martin Luther King, Jr. Unlike most other contemporary theological movements in Europe and North America, black theology did not arise in the seminary or the university. In fact, most of its early interpreters did not even hold advanced academic degrees. Black theology came into being in the context of the struggle of black persons for racial justice, which was initiated in the black churches, but chiefly identified with such civil rights organizations as the Southern Christian Leadership conference (SCLC), the National Conference of Black Churchmen (NCBC), the Interreligious Foundation for Community Organization (IFCO), and many black caucuses in white churches.

    From the beginning, black theology was understood by its creators as Christian theological reflection upon the black struggle for justice and liberation, strongly influenced by the life and thought of Martin Luther King, Jr. When King and other black church persons began to relate the Christian gospel to the struggle for racial justice in American society, the great majority of white churches and their theologians denied that such a relationship existed. Conservative white Christians claimed that religion and politics did not mix. Liberal white Christians, with few exceptions during the 1950s and early '60s, remained silent on the theme or they advocated a form of gradualism that denounced boycotts, sit-ins, and freedom rides.

    Contrary to popular opinion now, King was not well received by the white American church establishment when he inaugurated the civil rights movement with the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955. Because blacks received little or no theological support from white churches and their theologians (who were preoccupied with Barth, Bultmann, and the death-of-God controversy!), blacks themselves had to search deeply into their own history in order to find a theological basis for their prior political commitment to liberate the black poor. They found support in Richard Allen (founder of the African Methodist Episcopal [AME] Church in 1816), Henry Highland Garnet (a nineteenth-century Presbyterian preacher who urged slaves to resist slavery), Nat Turner (a slave Baptist preacher who led an insurrection that killed sixty whites), Henry McNeal Turner (an AME bishop who claimed in 1898 that "God is a Negro"), and many others.

    When blacks investigated their religious history, they were reminded that their struggle for political freedom did not begin in the 1950s and '60s but had roots stretching back to the days of slavery. They were also reminded that their struggle for political justice in the United States had always been associated with their churches. Whether in the independent northern churches (AME, African Methodist Episcopal Zion [AMEZ], Baptist, etc.) or in the so-called invisible institution among slaves in the south (which merged with the independent black churches after the Civil War) or as members of white denominations, black Christians have always known that the God of Moses and of Jesus did not create them to be slaves or second-class citizens in North America. In order to forge a theological witness to this religious knowledge, black preachers and civil rights activists of the 1960s initiated the development of a black theology that rejected racism and affirmed the black struggle for liberation as consistent with the gospel of Jesus.

Joseph Washington

    When black preachers and lay activist Christians began to search for the radical side of their black church history, they also began to ask about the distinctive religious and theological contributions of black persons. It was generally assumed, by most whites and many blacks as well, that black culture had no unique contribution to make to Christianity in particular and humanity in general. Indeed white liberal Christians understood integration to mean assimilation: that blacks would reject their cultural past by becoming like whites, adopting European cultural values. The assumption behind the white definition of integration was the belief that African cultural retentions among North American blacks were completely destroyed during slavery. Therefore, if blacks were to develop a cultural knowledge of themselves, they had to find it in their identification with white American values.

    Joseph Washington, a black scholar, wrote his Black Religion in the context of the hegemony of integration in black-white relationships in America. Contrary to the dominant view, Washington contended that there was a unique black culture, a distinctive black religion that can be placed alongside Protestantism, Catholicism, Judaism, and secularism. Black religion is not identical with white Protestantism or any other expression of Euro-American Christianity.

    Washington, however, was not pleased with the continued existence of black religion, and he placed the blame squarely upon white Christians. He contended that black religion exists only because blacks have been excluded from the genuine Christianity of white churches. Because blacks were excluded from the faith of white churches, black churches are not genuine Christian churches. And if there are no genuine Christian churches, there can be no Christian theology. Blacks have only folk religion and folk theology. In Washington's own words:

Negro congregations are not churches but religious societies—religion can choose to worship whatever gods are pleasing. But a church without a theology, the interpretation of a response of the will of God for the faithful, is a contradiction in terms.

    Although Black Religion was received with enthusiasm in the white church community, receiving major attention from white scholars, it was strongly denounced in the black church community. Black Christians did not deny that white churches were Christian and had excluded them from their community; but they vehemently rejected Washington's claim that exclusion from white churches and seminaries also meant exclusion from the spiritual and theological riches of the biblical faith. They refused to accept his assumption that whites had a monopoly on what the true church is, and how theology is to be defined. Indeed, black theology, in part, was created in order to refute Washington's book. The black clergy wanted to correct two flagrant misconceptions: (1) that black religion is not Christian and thus has no Christian theology, and (2) that the Christian gospel has nothing to do with the struggle for justice in society.

    The black clergy contended that Washington had everything backward. It was black religion that was truly Christian, and it was Christian precisely because it had identified the gospel with the struggle for justice in society. White churches were hypocritical: they said one thing but did another; they preached love but ignored justice, and then developed a theology that justified it.

    The black clergy intuitively knew that a people's Christian identity did not depend upon its intellectual ability to engage in such theoretical discussions as the relationship between faith and reason, religion and science, theology and philosophy, or being and nonbeing. Such discussions may be interesting for white scholars and even useful in the educational programs of white churches; but they do not necessarily constitute the area in which the central meaning of the faith is identified. Black Christians believe that the God of Moses and of Jesus is first and foremost the God of love and of justice who is "ever present in time of trouble."

    In the process of developing a theological alternative to Washington's thesis, some black Christian thinkers began to view white churches as un-Christian, because they concluded that faith without obedience defined by the struggle for justice is in fact not the genuine biblical faith.

Black Power Movement

    After the March on Washington in August 1963, the integration theme in the black community began to lose ground to the black nationalist philosophy of Malcolm X. The riots in the ghettoes of U.S. cities were shocking evidence that many blacks agreed with Malcolm X's contention that America was not a dream but a nightmare.

    However, it was not until the summer of 1966, after Malcolm X's assassination (February 21, 1965), that the term "black power" began to replace the term "integration" among many civil rights activists. The occasion was the continuation of the James Meredith "march against fear" (in Mississippi) by Martin Luther King, Jr., Stokely Carmichael, and other civil rights activists. Stokely Carmichael seized this occasion to sound the black power slogan, and it was heard loud and clear throughout the U.S.A.

    The rise of black power had a profound effect upon the appearance of black theology. When Carmichael and other radical black activists separated themselves from King's absolute commitment to nonviolence by proclaiming black power, white Christians, especially members of the clergy, called upon their black brothers and sisters in the gospel to denounce black power as un-Christian. To the surprise of white Christians, the National Committee of Negro Churchmen (NCNC; later to become the NCBC) refused to follow their advice and instead wrote a "Black Power Statement" that was published in the New York Times, July 31, 1966.

    The publication of the "Black Power Statement" may be regarded as the beginning of the conscious development of a black theology in which black ministers separated their understanding of the gospel of Jesus from white Christianity and identified it with the struggles of the black poor for justice. This theological initiative was unprecedented in the history of mainline black churches or among blacks in white churches. Although black Christians always contended that the racist behavior of white churches was un-Christian, they also assumed that the theology of whites was essentially correct.

    The "Black Power Statement" represents the beginning of a radical theological movement toward the development of an independent black perspective on the Christian faith. The black clergy, in its response to black power, was suggesting for the first time that white Christianity and the theology that justified it were bankrupt. Black leadership believed that the time had come for black Christians to make their own interpretation of the gospel by separating black religion from white religion, and then connecting the former with their African heritage and their contemporary fight for justice. Black church leaders would soon openly denounce white racism as the Antichrist and would become unrelenting in their attack on its demonic presence in white denominations. It was in this context that the term "black theology" emerged.


    In order to give practical guidance to a newly discovered theological idea (namely, that blackness, justice, and power were not antithetical to the Christian faith), members of the radical black clergy created ecumenical organizations and black caucuses in white churches and other religious groups. Among them were the Alamo Black Clergy of the San Francisco Bay area, Black Methodists for Church Renewal (BMCR), the Interreligious Foundation for Community Organization (IFCO), and the Philadelphia Council of Black Clergy. Reacting to the conservatism in black denominations, a similar radical caucus, called the Sons of Varick, also emerged in the AMEZ Church.

    Although several radical black organizations influenced the development of black theology, the impact of the National Conference of Black Churchmen (NCBC) on its origin was unique. The NCBC began as an ad hoc group of black ministers who initially called themselves the National Committee of Negro Churchmen (NCNC). They had come together and written their statement entitled "Black Power" because they were "deeply disturbed about the crisis brought upon our country by historic distortions of important human realities in the controversy about 'black power.'"

    They claimed in that statement:

The fundamental distortion ... in the controversy about "black power" is rooted in a gross imbalance of power and conscience between Negroes and white Americans. It is this distortion, mainly, which is responsible for the widespread ... assumption that white people are justified in getting what they want through the use of power, but that Negro Americans must, either by nature or by circumstance, make their appeal only through conscience. As a result the power of white men and the conscience of black men have been corrupted. The power of white men is corrupted because it meets little meaningful resistance from Negroes to temper it and keep white men from aping God. The conscience of black men is corrupted because, having no power to implement the demands of conscience, the concern for justice is transmuted to a distorted form of love, which, in the absence of justice, becomes chaotic self-surrender. Powerlessness breeds a race of beggars. We are faced now with a situation where conscienceless power meets powerless conscience, threatening the very foundation of our nation.

    After defining the issue in terms of the "conscienceless power" of whites and the "powerless conscience" of blacks, the NCNC statement proceeded to address four groups: the leaders of America, the white clergy, black citizens, and the mass media. In each case, they emphasized the need of blacks for power and they connected it with the Christian faith.

    The "Black Power Statement" by members of the radical black clergy created nearly as much controversy in white churches as secular advocates of black power did in white society. The white clergy was caught off guard and found it difficult to believe that its trusted black colleagues were now associating themselves openly with the "un-Christian" idea of black power. Whites asked their black colleagues whether they had forgotten about the Christian ideas of love and nonviolence that were so clearly expressed in the biblical portrayal of Jesus and in the speeches and actions of Martin Luther King, Jr.

    Because black ministers were responding to the crisis initiated by urban riots and the rhetoric of black power, they were neither organizationally nor theologically prepared to answer the concerns that whites would address to them. Their belief that white Christianity was bankrupt and that black religion was prophetically relevant for the present situation was based more upon their instinctive acceptance of the black experience than upon disciplined theological reflection. They were not ready to debate the issues in the halls of white academia or in white-controlled church conferences. The chief concern of black ministers was not their acceptance by white ministerial colleagues; rather, they desperately wanted to be accepted by their own people, and the identification of black Christianity with the religion of white churches prevented that. Black ministers were searching for ethical guidelines to questions not found in the theological deliberations of white American theologians and preachers. As Gayraud Wilmore put it, they were asking:

What is the responsibility of the churches of the oppressed when the oppressed revolt? How much of the truth should one tell the police when the children of one's own parish are liable to police brutality and summary arrest? What should be the Christian position regarding violence against property as a tactic of insurrection in the face of extreme deprivation and exploitation by the white power structure—city hall, the banks, the landlords, the police?

    A theology created for comfortable white suburbia could not answer questions that blacks were asking in their struggle for dignity in the wretched conditions of the riot-torn ghettoes of U.S. cities. Black church leaders had to create their own theological perspective from within the context of the ghetto, using whatever resources they knew from black history and culture. They knew that they could not condemn their own people, even though they "did not condone the violence and criminal behavior of the street people." However "they understood its causes only too well and were caught up in it as leaders whose first impulse was to look to the safety and welfare of their people."

    Although the writers and signers of the "Black Power Statement" had no intention of forming a permanent organization, the controversy and confusion that followed its publication forced black ministers to organize so as to think through the practical and theoretical implications of their theological claims about black power. The formational meeting was held in Dallas, Texas (October 1967). It is significant to note that a theological commission was formed whose chief task was to provide theological direction for a black perspective on the gospel that was being developed from black history and culture as interpreted by the contemporary black demands for justice and power.

    Between the summer of 1966 and the fall of 1969, the NCBC held three major convocations (in Dallas, St. Louis, and Oakland) and wrote several statements, responding to the political crises of the time and also laying the foundation for the subsequent development of black theology. During this three-year period there was a rapid movement from integration to militant black separatism, from King's idea of the beloved community toward Malcolm X's nationalist philosophy. This movement can be noticed in the change of name from National Committee of Negro Churchmen to National Conference of Black Churchmen, "conference" suggesting a permanent body and "black" a change in identity.


Excerpted from For My People by James H. Cone. Copyright © 1984 by James H. Cone. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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