Black Liberation Theology in North America

Black Power vs. White Christian Racism

Black Priest
Black Priest. Jeremy Woodhouse/Blend Images/Getty

The primary architect of Black Liberation Theology in North America is James Cone. A Protestant minister who grew up in Arkansas under the heavy hand of segregation, Cone observed first-hand the way white Christians treated blacks — even after desegregation was ordered by the federal government. The Christian messages of peace and brotherly love contrasted sharply with Christians' bigoted behavior, and this left a lasting mark on Cone's thinking.

Eventually Cone developed a "black theology" of liberation from oppression, racism, and poverty — and independently of the work of Gustavo Gutiérrez. Cone argued that the white church and white theologians had all failed in their duties to uphold biblical principles of helping the poor and marginalized of society. Indeed, Christians had become actively complicit in making the lives of others worse.


White Christians

Because of this, it was no longer acceptable to leave the interpretation of the Bible to white Christians. Blacks must take responsibility for their own religion and their own relationship with . Black liberation theology has a great deal in common with the Black Power movement that also developed in the 1960s. In his book Black Theology and Black Power, Cone writes:

A moral or theological appeal based on a white definition of morality or theology will serve as a detriment to our attainment of black freedom.

The only option we blacks have is to fight in every way possible, so that we can create a definition of freedom based on our own history and culture. We must not expect white people to give us freedom. Freedom is not a gift, but a responsibility, and thus must be taken against the will of those who hold us in bondage.

White Christians in America might have preached a message of love and peace, but at every turn they failed to live up to their own words. The existence of segregated denominations and segregated churches proved this. Cone could also point to the long history of Christian theologians using religious arguments to defend both slavery and segregation.

Although Cone's most obvious target was racism, his message was actually much broader. He also criticized middle-class black churches and argued that racism was only part of the problem. The much larger issue was the failure of Christianity to properly motivate people to care for others. Instead of acting on Christian principles of love and charity, they remain isolated in social or cultural groups.


Criticism & Praise

Cone could also at times find some good things to say about white European theologians. He pointed to the examples of Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer who, at great risk to themselves, used their theological writings to aid resistance to Hitler. Against this Cone contrasted the passivity of American theologians in the face of oppression aimed against blacks and other minorities.

Most of the time, though, Cone was critical of the ideas of European theologians that were part of the American experience.

He noted, for example, that many white Christians emphasized ideas like justification by faith and grace as central Christian themes. Against this he argued that, from the perspective of black Christians, the idea of liberation from oppression was much more important and had a much more immediate relevancy to their lives.

The story of the Jews' liberation in the book of Exodus naturally figured prominently in Cone's arguments. Cone also cited the prophets, many of whom were frequent critics of the status quo and the failure of Israel to properly fulfill their duties to the poor in society. In both the Old and the New Testaments, Cone identified the establishment of justice for all, rich and poor alike, as the key principle that God has been trying to get humanity to understand.