The Common Good

Howard's Liberation Theology Weekend Reflects on Black Church's 'Identity Crisis'

For many pundits and observers, last week’s election proved that a “new normal” has emerged in America: record numbers of women and ethnic minorities were voted into the House and the Senate, and the House will also see its first Hindu representative in January. Voters in Maine and Maryland approved same-sex marriage, and a diverse coalition of social minorities came together to re-elect the nation's first black president.

But for black theologians, the election has also been an occasion to reflect on how the black church faces an identity crisis, losing track of its mission to lead the way in issues of justice and liberation.

“Something happened to the black church after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968,” said Dr. Gayraud Wilmore, one of the founders of black theology, adding that when King died, it seemed that in black congregations, the enthusiasm for black history and racial identity also died.

And for Wilmore, the last 44 years — even the election and re-election of a black president — have done little to abate this crisis.

“We still face the specter of racism and the wounded presence of black boys and girls, men and women, who have lost their way and are wondering, what are these churches for?” he said. “What are they doing? What am I being called to be and to do in the light of this history that goes back before the Civil War of black Christians coming together in their own houses of worship to pledge themselves to the struggle for liberation and justice?”

This weekend’s Liberation Theology Weekend at the Howard University School of Divinity kicked off with a panel discussion about the future of black theology — at which Wilmore made remarks — and the message was clear: black churches have turned away from their calling.

Panelist Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas, author and professor of religion at Goucher College, noted that instead of heralding liberation, black churches have largely turned a blind eye to the social justice issues facing both the nation and the black community. 

She says the black church has been indifferent to the HIV/AIDS epidemic and nearly silent on the issue of violence against women, despite the fact that intimate partner violence is the No. 1 killer of black women between the ages of 15 and 34. In some instances, black churches have even become the perpetrators of oppression.

Douglas notes that gays and lesbians are perhaps the most targeted minority today and this trend has found a home in black churches.

“… Black LGBTQ people are considered vile people within the collective conscious of the black church,” she said.

For panelist Dr. Dennis Wiley, co-pastor of Covenant Baptist United Church of Christ in Washington, D.C., the churches that ought to be beacons of hope have been able to become perpetrators of oppression because of a chasm between the pulpit and the seminary. 

Today, black liberation theology, he said, is viewed “more as academic theory than as ecclesiological practice” because many black people consider it to be a socio-political movement rather than a vehicle of pastoral care.

Furthermore, Wiley said, those churches preaching black liberation theology are quickly demonized, and black theology is often characterized as a theology of hate, noting the 2008 controversy Jeremiah Wright controversy, which Wiley said was based on comments taken out of context and reduced to sound bites.

Yet, despite the difficulties, the panelists agreed that black theology is still as important today as it was 150 or 50 years ago. Not just in the United States, but around the world.

“[Black theology] matters as long as blackness makes a difference in how you live your life,” said Douglas. “Theological reflection is not a luxury. The task is real, and the time is now.”

Dawn Araujo is editorial assistant at Sojourners magazine.

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