The Christian Post ran an op-ed on Sunday, April 29 that caught my attention. The article commemorated the recent passing of Dr. James Cone, a theologian and the founder of black liberation theology, a controversial race-based approach to Christian teaching.
The author, Dr. Peter G. Heltzel of New York Theological Seminary, asserts, "The beating heart of Christian Theology is Black Liberation" and "May Dr. James Cone's Black Liberationist vision be resurrected in a new generation of evangelicals committed to racial justice, prophetic integrity, and large-hearted love."
The new generation of Evangelicals to which Heltzel is referring include participants in the upcoming "Voices Conference," a leadership development gathering for Evangelicals of color taking place in Philadelphia on May 4-5. "Gatherings of forward-thinking prophetic evangelicalism are happening on the periphery in places like Philadelphia, challenging the center in places like Wheaton, with evangelical leaders ... who represent the new face of evangelicalism," writes Heltzel.
American Evangelicals should indeed celebrate and foster greater ethnic and cultural diversity reflective of God's Kingdom. White Evangelicals should speak out against institutional racism, injustices and abuses, and actively seek reconciliation. But is Heltzel right to suggest Cone's black liberation theology is the answer to American Evangelicalism's current racial divisions?
Dr. Derryck Green, a theologian, cultural commentator, and regular contributor to Juicy Ecumenism, disagrees. He remarked over e-mail that "no racialized theological framework" adequately or appropriately answers "the problem of white Evangelicals' reluctance to maturely address the sin of racial discrimination from a theological perspective."
"The idea that, 'the beating heart of Christian Theology is Black Liberation' seems to suggest that there was no 'beating heart' prior to Cone's innovative hermeneutic to understand theodicy and the black condition in America," wrote Green. "To insinuate there was no appropriate, life-giving essence at the center of Christian theology is in many obvious ways, a precariously unwise and inaccurate position to have."
Green, who earned his Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary, and his doctorate in Theology and Spiritual Leadership with a concentration in Identity Formation from Azusa Pacific University, spent a portion of his dissertation examining Cone's black liberation theology and its shortcomings for African Americans and the American church.
"Black liberation theology was Cone's attempt to religiously/theologically validate the secular political agenda of black pride and black power," Green explained. "This was done for many reasons—one being that the black power movement lacked the religious moral authority to justify its claims and objectives, unlike the civil rights movement."
One major critique of black liberation theology (alongside other, often Marxist-associated liberation theologies that emerged in the 20th century) is that it revisions Jesus as a political revolutionary instead of Savior of the world. Green seemed to acknowledge this critique, noting, "Spiritual salvation was exchanged for divinely-approved, collective material/physical liberation, and politics was seen as the vehicle to achieve this goal. This position doesn't qualify theologically."
Still another reason for Cone's method was to re-instill a racial dignity and humanity in blacks that had been undermined resulting from segregation and oppression. Though laudable, any anthropology primarily centered in racial or ethnic identities rather than centered in the reality that human dignity comes from being created in the image of God and renewed in the image of Christ, is insufficient.
I think people can and should honor the work of the late theologian. However, people should also be honest about the theological shortcomings of Cone's methodology, and resist the temptation to elevate radical black theology (which black liberation theology is) to a status within Christian tradition that it doesn't warrant.
Green cautions Evangelicals to be careful of further politicizing the Gospel by allowing our politics to shape Christian teaching.
"Dangerous things happen when our politics impacts our theologies," noted Green. "We see it on both sides of the political aisle."
"Also, we should remember that biblical justice isn't compartmentalized ('racial justice,' 'social justice,' etc.). It's a comprehensive way of life that has at its foundation, loving one's neighbor as oneself, and loving God with all our being," offered Green.
"Our horizontal relationship with our neighbor, regardless of race, bears witness to our vertical relationship with God. That's justice, which is untethered to earthly modifications that reinforce division," he continued.
May the Almighty mend American Evangelicals' racial divisions and heal deep-seated tensions and wounds. Unity is possible for, I believe, the beating heart of Christian theology is Christ's sacrificial love and salvation offered to the world.