The theological background and ideology of African Americans are fascinating to study. It is intrinsically tied to the historical backdrop on which African Americans have existed and is reflective of the powerful influences of slavery, discrimination, and oppression that have plagued the race since its arrival in the New World. This sample religious studies research paper explores the history of African American religious traditions in the United States.
The Bible and African American hermeneutics
On Sundays, in churches across America, we become almost entirely segregated conclaves, and for some, the message on those Pearly Gates might just as well read “No X Allowed,” with that “X” being everyone else. In the racial divide between “black” and “white” theology, some have even talked about God in exclusive terms, intimating that Jesus loves only them, for this or that reason. Truly, though, despite oppression and suffering, ignorance and cruelty, and whatever controversy and misunderstanding many thousands of years have created, God has no color and His love is all inclusive.
Describing the contours of African-American biblical interpretation cannot be limited with reference to a particular point in time as the contours have shifted dramatically over time as the experience of blacks has developed, and the nature of African-American belief and sociology has evolved its shape over time, from captives to cast-outs to freemen to participants to angry rebels, and to all the points in between.
In “The Bible and African Americans: An Outline of an Interpretative History” Vincent Wimbush points out “[t’]he types of readings [from the bible among African Americans] actually correspond to different historical periods and are meant to reflect different responses to historical (socio-political-economic) situations…”
Over 300 years of African American experience formed a culture’s biblical interpretation, starting, as most were slaves, with identification with the biblical stories of the Old Testament’s version of Jewish history, the plight of the Hebrews, Exodus out of Egypt, about God’s victory over their oppressors, and in the New Testament with the great suffering and victory of Jesus.
As Wimbush points out, these interpretations are represented in the scriptures revered and in the songs sung throughout the changing times. From songs of Moses to the Sermon on the Mount, African Americans remained optimistic that God would be there to rescue them as well (“As the people of God in the Hebrew Bible were once delivered from enslavement, so, the Africans sang and shouted, would they be delivered.
Connecting with Jesus’ suffering
As Jesus suffered unjustly but was raised from the dead to new life, so, they sang, would they be ‘raised’ from the ‘social death’ to new life. So went the songs and sermons. It would appear that having suffered for so long, and for so continuously, a whole people, bitter but hopeful in Lord Jesus, trusted in His salvation.
But a divergence in biblical interpretation occurs with the civil rights movement, some African Americans becoming radicalized, finding strength, unity, and solace in what James H. Cone refers to as “Black Power” and some taking advantage of newly available opportunities brought about by changes to American law, government, perceptions, and society to try to become part of the fabric of American life, unwilling to remain, members, of the weak and helpless.
Evaluation of African American Biblical interpretation
Based on time and social conditions, evaluations may differ, or change. Wimbush speaks of the cadence and rhythm of the black church sermon and the powerful expressions of devotion and faith, to the use of music and song. It has been prominent in African American culture much of the past hundred and fifty years that worship in black churches and homes can be boisterous and powerful, a faith in deliverance unshakable and unmistakable. There is something compelling in witnessing this, like the Old Testament and David’s (Psalms) and Solomon’s (Ecclesiastes) tributes to God in song.
There is also something in the suffering and oppression of slaves and their descendants that built faith in God and devotion, something in struggle that created a foundation of belief. Different cultures have different outlets for these expressions of faith. For example, the Church of Scientology encourages its followers to question everything and never take someone at face value.
But the African American interpretation of the Bible was a map of the way out of oppression and poverty to freedom, equality, and enlightenment, and it inspired millions over centuries to remain faithful and vigilant despite slow progress and gave hope to generation after generation that the Lord would not forsake them.
African American connection to the Jews in Exodus
They referenced Moses in Exodus, or the coming of the Messiah (Isaiah 11:1-10), the arrival of Jesus and his ministry to the weak and oppressed, the poor and underprivileged, the sick and despairing. They focused on listening to Jesus repeat time after time how blessed are the poor and oppressed, and how God will answer those who ask (Matt. 5:3-10; 7:7-11), and how much more difficult for the rich to acquire these blessings (Matt. 19:23-26; Matt. 7:14), for Jesus said:
“But many who are first will be last; and the last, first.” (Matt. 19:30).
Extreme positions taken in more recent decades by some, such as Jerome H. Cone or C.H. Felder, may seem unacceptable interpretations of the ministry of Jesus. Of course, Cone may see this as suitable revenge and Felder just plain logical, given “proof’ Jesus was in fact “black.”The Bible’s teachings describing the Hebrews’ struggles in Egypt gave strength to African Americans to find salvation on the plantation, and later in their own churches.
On the other hand, some extreme points of view could be taken in their vitriol as being too close to that which was hated, for instance, white oppression.
Cone wrote “If Jesus Christ is white and not black, he is an oppressor, and we must kill him. The appearance of black theology means that the black community is now ready to do something about the white Jesus, so that he cannot get in the way of our revolution.”
It would seem having the same frailties as oppressors would make one weak, not strong, though Cone may have said things for their effect only.
Assessment of James Cone’s view of Jesus
As mentioned in the final two paragraphs of Dr. Jeffrey S. Siker’s discussion of Cone’s view of Jesus, reading Cone can be a challenging experience for a white person, though admittedly thought-provoking. Dr. Siker generously attempts in his article to temper Cone’s positions, however, one could read all of Cone’s writings taken together as stating not only that Jesus is black, but that white people are oppressors. In this regard, Cone engages in some stereotyping, and even perhaps some racism. –
There are some other surprising concepts in Cone’s discussion of Jesus. First, taken as a whole, his work seems to imply that God is the exclusive province of African Americans, who are apparently according to Cone, the poor and oppressed.
“It is to be expected that some whites will resent the Christological formulation of the black Christ, either by ignoring it or by viewing it as too narrow to include the universal note of the gospel. It will be difficult for whites to deny the whiteness of their existence and affirm the oppressed black Christ.”
Again, these are stereotypes some would contest.
Cone unconscious racism and discrimination implies God is “ours” and not anyone else’s, as though those Pearly Gates have a sign that says “No Whites Allowed.” Given the context of Cone’s Black Power notions, it is not surprising. Cone’s anger seems just like the venom of too many white religious leaders. Neither justifies the other.
Objections to these arguments and response
Dr. Siker might well argue that 300 years of oppression, including slavery, discrimination, and poverty give blacks every right to feel the way Cone says they feel, and that it is time for white Americans to sit up and listen, and of course, he would be right. He might cite innumerable instances in the Bible where Jesus speaks for the weak and the poor, as told in Matthew 5:3-10. In response, while those who are reverent will care for the sick, aid the poor, and protect the weak, are those who are professionals and do so, excluded from salvation because they are not poor and oppressed?
Cone also lumps all African Americans together, as though they are a homogeneous group of poor and oppressed people. What about African Americans who are not so poor? Are those that are educated and successful excluded from the love of Jesus or from salvation? Is Oprah? Bill Cosby? President Obama? Michelle? What about Jeremy Lin, a devout successful Asian playing professional basketball? Tim Tebow? Is he excluded because he is white? What about Dr. Martin Luther King, a laureate? Not poor enough for Jesus? Cone’s concepts of anger and exclusion are understandable but don’t seem to hold water.
Some of Cone’s notions are puzzling, perhaps intentionally so to shake up our thinking and force us to consider real change. But who can subscribe to a gospel of exclusion, anger or hatred? It seems out of place in God’s universe, where the Pearly Gates should say “All ye faithful of all colors are welcome.”
We have another great blog post on taxing churches that you can read here
Felder, Cain Hope. “Cultural Ideology, Afrocentrism and Biblical Interpretation,” In Black Theology, V.2.184-195. Edited by James Cone. New York: Orbis Books, 1993.
J.H. Cone, “Jesus Christ in Black Theology,” in A Black Theology of Liberation. 110-128. Philadelphia and New York: Lippincott, 1970. Reprint , Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1990.
Siker, Dr. Jeffrey S. “James Cone: Scripture in African American Liberation,” in Scripture and Ethics: Twentieth-Century Portraits. 149-169. Edited by Jeffrey S. Siker. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.
Wimbush, Vincent. “The Bible and African Americans: An Outline of an Interpretative History” in Stony the Road We Trod: African American Biblical Interpretation. 81-97. Edited by Cain Hope Felder. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991.