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Practicing Liberation in the Black Church

by James Henry Harris

James Henry Harris is pastor of Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in Norfolk, Virginia, and adjunct assistant professor of philosophy at Old Dominion University. This article is adapted from his forthcoming book A Black Pastoral Theology (Fortress, 1991) This article appeared in the Christian Century, June 13-20, 1990, copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Black theology has apparently been dialoguing with everyone except "Aunt Jane" and the black preacher. Few ministers and laypeople laboring in the trenches are aware of black theology, and those who are remain somewhat indifferent to its teachings. Ironically, while black theology theoretically relies heavily upon expressions of the people, such as freedom and sorrow songs and sermons, the more academic elites of black theology -- those who have the luxury of tenure and endowed professorships in prestigious white seminaries and universities -- seem to have little respect for the modern black church. Meanwhile, black churches that have succeeded in white-dominated society tend to neglect aspects of black theology that preserve and celebrate African-American culture. While black theologians like J. Deotis Roberts and Gayraud Wilmore have called for a nexus between theology and ministry, to date the relationship remains undeveloped.

Theology is both an academic discipline and a practical responsibility of the church. In its academic form, it is generally foreign to the church. After completing theological school, most young ministers have to struggle to make their new knowledge relevant to the ordinary folk who constitute the church. Most churchgoers are not interested in arguments about the existence of God or the nature of God. They are interested in what God has done and can do to help with their particular concerns and problems.

Black folk expect the preacher to reassure them of God’s power, not to question or doubt it. They expect the pastor to help them cope with joblessness, poverty and discrimination by transforming their despair into hope. Black theology needs to provide the content and method for changing the social, economic and political obstacles for blacks.

Somehow, academic theology is thought to be more important and profound than the practical theology that grows out of the black church experience. This is why black theologians, following their white counterparts, often articulate the black experience in language that is meant to impress one other rather than the "folk" about whom they speak. The language needs to be understandable to the masses. As long as the vocabulary of black theology -- like theology in general -- remains arcane, James Cone’s assertion that "black theology is not academic theology" will continue to confound black preachers while they desperately try to interpret the meaning of such statements. Black theology will have meaning and power when the masses of blacks begin to understand and practice it.

This cannot happen without the direct involvement of black preachers and parishioners. For example, black pastors question how the Society for the Study of Black Religion really can understand the religion of blacks when absent from this group are black preachers who minister to those who are unemployed, underemployed, addicted to alcohol and drugs, illiterate and apathetic. Academic theologians should not place the black church on the same level as prominent secular institutions. The church deserves a more influential role in shaping black theology. The two should inform each other.

Its major proponents describe black theology as situational, contextual and liberation-oriented. Cone sees liberation as the essence of the gospel of Jesus Christ. and a persistent theme in the Old and New Testaments. The history of the Israelites’ bondage in Egypt and their subsequent freedom is a critical corollary to the experience of black folk in America -- except that the Pharaohs of modern times continue to oppress us. Cone makes it clear that the church, in order to be authentic, must actively participate in human liberation.

Wilmore’s theology emphasizes black self-affirmation with the understanding that God wills black folk to be free, equal and at peace with themselves. Major Jones, in The Color of God, asserts that black theology encourages black folk to be free "from their traditional fear of whites, so that they not only can articulate their feelings but also so that they will act upon them." This suggests that black theology should enable blacks to stop victimizing each other, such as through black-on-black crime, or perpetuating the poor self-esteem engendered through years of living in a racist society. Black theology should be the method of analyzing the gospel’s concern with breaking the chains of oppression. Theory and practice should join hands to counter oppression and injustice.

The black church needs a practical theology that can help liberate it from social, political and economic oppression. Though academic black theology purports that Jesus is the liberator and that God sides with the oppressed, these assertions, however hermeneutically sound and exegetically valid, fail to deal with the systemic poverty and suffering that disproportionately affect the black community.

One obvious point of division between black theologians and black church people is that black theology is not generally taught in black churches, state and national conventions, regional associations, ministers’ conferences or Christian education congresses. Pastors must begin to do liberation theology on a microcosmic scale -- within the local church. Clergy and laypeople spend much of their time debating parochial questions of internal authority and power, conforming to a white evangelistic model of the church patterned after the approaches of Billy Graham, Robert Schuller or Oral Roberts. These white high-profile preachers seldom, if ever, relate the gospel to injustice and oppression. They do not provide an appropriate model for black churches -- in fact, they are part of the problem.

The black church, on the other hand, has a moral obligation to free its people from the despair and powerlessness that grip their bodies and souls. It can use black theology as the framework for this. In their mutual pursuit of black liberation, the black church and black theology need to expose and replace the myriad religious icons that contradict black Christian experience and consciousness. The prominent display of pictures and murals of a white Jesus in black churches is a slap in the face to those who understand Jesus as the liberator of oppressed blacks.

One of my most difficult experiences as a pastor arose when I removed a mural of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane that had graced the sanctuary for many years. Several members became quite indignant and disturbed. God may be black for academic theologians, but this perspective has not trickled down to the majority of folk who preach and worship in the black church.

Miseducation, poor self-esteem and the failure of black Christians to understand and appreciate their own history and culture is a real problem in black churches. This is evident not only in the absence of black icons but also in the rejection by many black churchgoers of the term African-American. Churches can use black theology to help people overcome oppressive images of the past and present -- in some cases, paradoxically, white images that have been financed and constructed by blacks.

Sexism against black women should also be addressed by black theology and the black church. Women in black churches outnumber men by more than two to one; yet in positions of authority and responsibility the ratio is reversed. Though women are gradually entering ministry as bishops, pastors, deacons and elders, many men and women still resist and fear that development. When our church licensed a woman to the preaching ministry over a decade ago, almost all the male deacons and many women members opposed the action by appealing to tradition and selected Scripture passages. Black theology and the black church must deal with the double bondage of black women in church and society.

Two ways they can do so are, first, to treat black women with the same respect as men. This means that women who are qualified for ministry must be given the same opportunities as men to become pastors and to serve in such leadership positions as deacons, stewards, trustees, etc. Second, theology and the church must eliminate exclusionist language, attitudes or practices, however benign or unintended, in order to benefit fully from the talents of women.

Improving the economic conditions of black folk will also hasten their freedom. Too many blacks survive from paycheck to paycheck while simultaneously trying to keep up with the Joneses. Most black churches are independent and financially solvent. But the individuals who constitute the church and community are often plagued by poverty and hampered by discrimination, underemployment and racism. Economically secure blacks within the church have a moral obligation to use their success to enhance the wider black community.

Every black churchgoer, especially the economically secure, should understand that tithing or some larger form of proportionate giving significantly affects the liberation of black folk. A tithing church will be able to influence public policy issues such as housing for the poor and equal-employment opportunities. It would not have to spend time and energy raising money to meet the ordinary demands of ministry and mission. It can actually do ministry by using its financial resources to develop ways to stem the tide of drug abuse, teenage pregnancy, divorce and family violence.

Black churches can also adopt public schools, into which they can send volunteers to "testify" to young blacks about he value of a quality education. Churches could provide "education mentors" to work with teachers and counselors in order to help children increase educational achievement, develop self-esteem, and enhance moral and intellectual integrity. This would be the first step toward a decentralized educational structure that would enable communities and churches to take control of the future of our young people. In this scheme, churches would monitor the progress of their young parishioners from kindergarten through 12th grade and find tutors or provide volunteers qualified to teach subjects in which children need help.

Third, black churches need to pool their financial resources by withdrawing funds from institutions that do not address the development needs of the black community. In our society, money talks. Therefore, black folk should assume control of their hard-earned money and invest it in financial institutions that will challenge traditional models of risk management. Thus they will begin the process of nurturing our neglected communities back to health. The fiscal integrity of the black church and community depend on biblical ethical principles such as working together, loving one another and caring for the poor. In order for the black community to become a viable place for external investment, blacks will first have to invest in themselves. The church must invest in black youth and in the black community before society will invest in the black community.

Fourth, each black congregation should assess the needs of its constituents within a certain radius of the church. This will enable the pastor and staff better to understand their ministry context and to address specific community needs. For example, some neighbors need to learn how to read, while others may need better access to medical care. Still others may simply need to know that there are people nearby who care about their families and are willing to offer a helping hand.

Black theology teaches self-respect and self-esteem in spite of social and political condescension to and oppression of blacks. Black pastors should put this into action by developing programs and policies to transform the status of the poor. They could do this by sharing historical and biographical stories of black accomplishment. Blacks have to regain the confidence that they can persevere despite modern pandemic manifestations of oppression and injustice. These lessons on determination, freedom and faith can be correlated with biblical stories that express similar virtues.

As a pastor, I invite my church’s young people to speak or read during the worship service. Moreover, I publicly acknowledge their educational accomplishments by recognizing the high achievers and encouraging others to strive toward excellence. This helps to develop their self-esteem, sense of achievement and social skills. It also gives me an opportunity to work closely with those who may need to be motivated or encouraged. I have encouraged the church to provide opportunities for young people to develop leadership skills that can be transferred to other areas of life.

These kinds of activities should start early with children and youth in order that they may become self-supporting individuals, committed to the betterment of the family, church and community. Black folk have built some beautiful, expansive and glorious church buildings. Now they should harness that same creativity and commitment to building up the economic security of the black community.

Practicing Christianity has for African-Americans meant turning the other cheek, walking in humility, and enduring cruel and debasing treatment. During three centuries of slavery, black folk learned how to sublimate their anger; they increased their chances for survival by tolerating the oppressors. This constitutes real faith in the promise of God -- i.e., faith as action. Blacks still sing, "There Is a Bright Side Somewhere" and "Climbing Up the Rough Side of the Mountain," and all understand and identify with these words of suffering and hope, jubilation and reflection. Black theology uses the language of the masses to make plain the feelings, hopes, dreams, experiences and practices of black folk.

Unfortunately, there is a tendency for socially and economically successful black Christians to ignore black theology’s call to remember this history. These blacks often imitate the white style of worship, with services characterized by brevity, quietness, and pomp and circumstance. They regard this behavior as a reflection of their sophistication and education. This lack of solidarity with the masses obscures the struggle for freedom and unnecessarily dichotomizes the black church and community. The model suggested by black theology should remind these Christians of the reality of their heritage, and help them become proud of the struggles that their parents and forebears endured. Cultural pride should manifest itself in not being ashamed to say "Amen" in worship services or to testify about difficult experiences. Jesse Jackson’s references to the slop jar and the slave ship in his speech to the 1988 Democratic National Convention reflects how his heritage and struggle to survive shaped his ideology and his commitment to equity, fairness and justice. All black folk should acknowledge this aspect of black experience in America.

Black upper-middle-class Christians generally attend the Episcopal, Methodist or Baptist church in their area that fits their socioeconomic circumstances. These blacks often practice a cooled-down version of black religion. They act as if they are trying to forget the days that Jackson chronicles. Some don’t seem to appreciate gospel music, youth choirs, innovative worship structures, or the use of musical instruments in the worship setting other than the organ and piano. This imitation of the oppressor’s style of worship distances these churches from the rejoicing and weeping of their less-advantaged black brothers and sisters.

Black theology has little practical value apart from the black church because liberation cannot be achieved without the church. Cone, in his very compassionate book For My People, says that "black liberation is, in part, dependent upon the attitude and role that the church assumes in relation to it." Although black preachers and theologians may disagree on the relation of black theology to the church, the time for antagonism between preachers and theologians has passed. It is now time for unity and action -- time to practice what we teach and preach.


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