The Common Good
May 2004

Currents and Crosscurrents

by Malinda Elizabeth Berry | May 2004

This year marks the 35th anniversary of James Cone'

This year marks the 35th anniversary of James Cone’s legendary volume Black Theology and Black Power. Last year was the 10th anniversary of Delores Williams’ landmark text Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk. The goodly theological heritage established by Cone over past decades has set the tone for exploring what it means to be black and Christian (as well as white and Christian) and created the space for diverse points of view to emerge everywhere from the seminar room in the academy to the Bible study circle in the church basement. While Black Theology and Black Power and Sisters in the Wilderness were not the first black or womanist theological texts, they both stand as identity-forming books for pastors, scholars, and laypeople who share theological voice and vision as African-American Christians with the pioneering work of Cone and Williams.

Indeed, these two theologians, Cone in particular, represent the major currents of contemporary black theology—black liberation and womanist theologies. In the introduction to Living Stones in the Household of God, Linda Thomas writes, "Black theology has created a vision of faith and purpose of life for black people in light of the situation of the black oppressed." She continues by describing the essays in this collection as offering readers a "careful, sustained look at how the black theological legacy affects the black church, other Christian communities, the global religious scene, and the perennial challenge of transforming people’s lives through faith." Divided into four parts that correspond to this four-fold goal, Living Stones opens up new streams of conversation based on those begun at a 1997 conference held by the Center for the Church and the Black Experience at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary.

These streams are important because, as several contributors point out, too often black theological projects are noted but not engaged by the white Christian mainstream (from the mainline to evangelicals) or written off as rocking the boat in traditionalist circles among historical black denominations. By taking a look into what black theology means for the black church, the white church, global religions, and Christian vocation and calling, Thomas has given Christians of all colors and locales an opportunity to talk about the ways liberation can and might take shape everywhere. In her essay that shares a title with the book, M. Shawn Copeland describes the scriptural metaphor for black theologians in this work: "Only in prayer and in study, in commitment and in humility, in unsparing honesty and in passionate self-control can we, thus, be built up into the precious living stones, an edifice for the Spirit, the precious household of God."

And indeed honesty is required to allow the Spirit to do its work. For example, when Jeremiah Wright explains how new people join Trinity United Church of Christ (in Chicago) and declare they are "unashamedly black and unapologetically Christian!" how does that inform white Christians’ understanding of a shared identity as "Christian"? Or how can folk come together in intentional ways to break what Laceye Warner describes as "the overwhelming silence with regard to the implications of racism within evangelical scholarship" in light of Cone’s pointed critique: "Whatever the exegesis of Scripture and tradition one may advocate, one fact is certain: When a particular interpretation of Scripture benefits people who hold positions of power, it can never be the gospel of Jesus." One way is by reading Thomas’ book together—recognizing the vulnerability that such an endeavor takes yet anticipating the joy that can be found in, as Cone puts it, pursuing the truth that makes us free.

Each of the essays demonstrates the variety of ways and places that the authors have waded into the currents of black theology. Within this diversity are some important "crosscurrents" that ought not be lost.

First is Thomas’ own essay on womanist theology and epistemology (that is, the nature of knowledge). In her careful, precise call for a new way of doing the work of womanist theology, she writes, "We must view books written about poor black women as secondary sources and employ anthropological techniques to collect stories and publish ethnographies of women who are still alive." Recording black women’s "direct speech," she argues, is a vital way to continue creating a "holistic God-talk for the oppressed," one of womanist theology’s primary aims. At a time when womanist theology is being criticized for lacking clear direction and purpose, Thomas has offered us a way to move forward. While the risk is worth taking, the question remains: Will this methodology take womanist theology to another shore, or will we end up back where we started?

Second is Rosemary Radford Ruether’s autobiographical essay in which she challenges the popular story line of white feminists who have "always" ignored issues of race, class, and geographical contexts. In this provocative, setting-the-record-straight piece, Ruether ends by simply saying that among white feminist theologians, "pluralism was not invented in 1990." Ruether’s essay struck me because I am one of those people who tells the very story she debunks. I am grateful to Thomas for providing a context where Ruether can tell her story.

Third, in reading the essays on ecumenism and interfaith dialogue, I was again reminded of how little meaningful ecumenical conversation happens among Christians in the United States across "color lines" (that is, white folks and everybody else). Black theology has indeed made an incredible contribution to ecumenical conversation through the Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians. Additionally, Iva Carruthers’ overview of the Black Theology Project initiated by leaders such as Cone and Gayraud Wilmore is an important story that describes the emergence of many particular liberation theologies among communities of color in the United States. But what is missing is not an omission on Thomas’ part. Rather it is an omission on the part of those establishment Christians who do not yet see what D. Stephen Long sees: Black theology "discloses how the health and salvation of our communities are necessarily linked."

Thomas’ book models intergenerational, interracial, interreligious, and intervocational conversation rooted in and inspired by black liberation theology while at the same time being the future of black liberation theology.

Malinda Berry is a doctoral student at Union Theological Seminary in New York City.

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