White moderates who have sincerely worked to ameliorate the situation of blacks within our society are constantly perplexed as they try to understand the dynamics of black activism in our time. In 1966–67, after a coalition of non-violent blacks and white liberals worked for integration as a national goal, the majority group suddenly heard of black power. Similarly, after seeking to meet the black community at least half-way in theological matters, moderate and liberal churchmen heard to their astonishment the assertion that only a black theology would help blacks fulfill their needs.

The term black theology seems at the moment to be a nebulous one; the system is still being articulated by the black theological community. While it no longer frightens the white community as did the term black power, it does need some explanation. Black radicalism in general takes two forms. On the one hand, there is the radical political movement, which finds its most concrete institutional form in the Black Panther party. This group seems obsessed with the idea that the root of the basic ills of our society, including racism, is to be found in the capitalistic order, which it vows to destroy.

On the other hand, there are the black cultural radicals. These radicals are concerned primarily with racial identity. They insist upon a return to the cultural roots of black men and women, a recapture of the sense of blackness. Their immediate goal is to achieve an identity distinct from the dominant white culture. In some cases, they seek to make common cause with the advocates of a white youth subculture, which also seeks to achieve identity upon the basis of visible differences between itself and the white cultural milieu.

The movement toward a black theology is, in general, a phase of the black cultural, rather than the black political, radicalism. Those Who seek such a theology have in mind the reinforcement of black cultural separation by a form of theological thinking that has its own visibility factor. Such a theology would serve, among other things, to legitimate blackness, both among blacks themselves and in the eyes of the white culture.

As part of the black cultural movement toward separatism, the theologian of blackness faces the problem of the degree to which he will repudiate whiteness; or to put the matter another way, he must determine what aspects of current Christian theology may be identified and rejected as “white.” Like the broader cultural radical, the radical black theologian sees the need for immediate self-transformation; he feels that as blacks are themselves changed, society will be forced to change. Theology is to serve this objective.

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It is too early to determine whether radical theologians of blackness wish to carve out theological and ecclesiastical enclaves in the land, after the manner of black political radicals. If the theological separatists seek, by articulating a black theology, to engage in a form of radical religious secession, they would certainly cause concern within the WCC and COCU ranks.

What actually is meant by black theology? Last year I participated in a conference at Howard University on the Black Religious Experience and Theological Education. This congress, which was sponsored by the American Association of Theological Schools, was attended by a minority of whites and encouraged the frankest discussion and criticism of the dominant Protestant culture of America.

The blacks who directed the meeting were not themselves of one mind. One group felt that the solution to the predicament of blacks lay in a radical severance of black theology from the “white acculturated” forms that conventional Christian theology has allegedly assumed. It was suggested that the real genius of black religion might well be found by a recapture of preslavery usages. One speaker advocated that blacks should “fly again to the religious gifts of our fathers,” and embrace again some of the forms of animistic practice that bound blacks to the soil of Africa. This would mean a cultural and religious return to an era before white men both degraded blacks through the slave trade and, perhaps more evilly, divided their sense of black solidarity by the introduction of Western denominationalism.

Others felt—and this position was generally dominant—that the dignity of black personhood could be restored within a theological context marked by less radical methods. Rejecting a return to African tribalism as a means of achieving black spiritual manhood, more moderate thinkers still felt that the needs of blacks demanded a radical revision—in some cases a rejection—of current theological formulations and church structures. It was felt that only a radical restatement of Christian theology can make possible the development by blacks of institutions within which their dignity and their rights can be maintained.

A theology of essential blackness must serve to reinforce the common memories, aspirations, and interests that bind the black community together. The degree to which it will be indigenized is not clear. Certainly it must reflect the shared experiences of a people who, after long being set aside in the march of peoples, are determined to take their legitimate place in society.

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A black theology must, as a minimum, delete those features that the white church has used, whether directly or indirectly, to assert white superiority and maintain white dominance. It will inevitably modify the conventional eschatology, by which, it is alleged, white religious leaders have sought to direct black worshipers to concentrate on “rewards in heaven” while their affairs on earth are directed by worldly whites. Black theology will doubtless insist upon a great deal of life-fulfillment for blacks here on earth.

In some quarters, the essence of a black theology seems to inhere in the assertion of the blackness of God, Jesus, Mary, and angels. This may be little more than an attempt to domesticate the Deity in black terms, as the dominant religious culture has covertly tried to capture him in terms of whiteness. Quite probably the formulation will ultimately be less in terms of a black iconology, and more in terms of a functional theology that will serve to enhance the blacks’ sense of personhood. Certainly, as the National Committee of Black Churchmen maintains, it will need to offer a constructive alternative to racism.

It is possible that in their quest for distinctiveness, black theologians may create a color theology of their own. Such a procedure may ultimately be as self-defeating as that of those who “do theology” in white terms, which blacks rightly reject.

One can certainly understand Dr. James H. Cone’s rejection of the idea of an ostensibly “colorless God” who is crypto-white and as such made the servant of white interests. The real question is whether a theology that centers in conceiving the “color” of God or of theology as black can succeed, in the long pull, in delivering black men and women from the injustice and suffering they undergo at the hands of white society.

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