Black Theology Revisited
Bruce L. Fields
134 pages, $13.99
Heart And Head:
Dwight N. Hopkins
222 pages, $26.95
In 1980 one of America's activist evangelical theologians, Ronald J. Sider, wrote that liberation theologies were "the most significant theological development of the decade." Black, feminist, and Latin American theologies of liberation, he wrote, attempt to fundamentally rethink theology from the standpoint of the oppressed. God, after all, is on their side.
Having turned the corner into the 21st century, the challenge now is to consider the relevance of these theologies for our Christian formation and our life together in churches. Two recent volumes consider the status of black theology. Both emerge out of the authors' contact with the first generation of black theologians and the issues raised in the final three decades of the 20th century. Both writers are African Americans involved deeply in their community, as well as in other circles in the United States and abroad. Both belong to the second generation of black theologians.
The first question Bruce L. Fields asks in Introducing Black Theology is "What is black theology?" It is theology from the perspective of an oppressed people. It seeks to interpret the gospel of Jesus Christ against the backdrop of historical and contemporary racism. The message of black theology is that the African American struggle for liberation is consistent with the gospel—every theological statement must be consistent with, and perpetuate, the goals of liberation.
Why should liberation be considered the essence of the gospel? As an evangelical, Fields clearly frames the gospel in the familiar language of personal salvation through Jesus Christ, as well as the Spirit-led witness to the surrounding culture; the message of liberation is a necessary companion. Liberation implies not only the condemnation of racism in all its forms, but also the struggle for justice, both personally and in society.
African Americans must be liberated from multiple forms of bondage—social, political, economic, and religious. This liberation involves empowerment and "also demands the right of self-definition, self-affirmation, and self-determination."
Fields, assistant professor of biblical and systematic theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, relies on James H. Cone, the architect of American black theology from Union Theological Seminary, for delineating the sources of black theology—the historical and religious experience of African American people, the revelation of God at work in the black experience, the witness of Scripture, the truth in Jesus Christ, and church tradition.
Fields' second question is "What can black theology teach the evangelical church?" Plenty, he answers. He minces no words in critiquing the racism that pervades churches, as well as the systemic racism prevalent in U.S. society. Black liberation theology speaks directly to those ills. For instance, Fields asserts that grappling with black liberation theology can lead to a profound renewed study of the church's prophetic calling. Also, he notes, it could remind the evangelical church of the need for dialogue with "the theology of the Two-Thirds World."
Fields is firm and pointed in his plea for clarity and discernment. "My basic premise is that unless black theology remains within the parameters of certain biblical and traditional confessions, its power will dissipate and will be rendered ineffective as a servant to the black church in particular, and to the church in general. Some may hold that close proximity to traditional belief will lead to a blunting of black theology's liberative message and form. I must concede the fact that this is a possibility. I would insist, however, that it is not a necessity."