Black Theology, White Eyes: A Primer for the Privileged

Black Theology, White Eyes: A Primer for the Privileged by Ben Garrett
Ben Garrett

Ben Garrett

Blogger at Basileus
Ben is an independent communications and strategy consultant to churches and social enterprises. A graduate of the University of Chicago Divinity School, his interests are asset-based community development, liberation theology, critical theory, Christian anarchism, trauma studies, and mountain biking. He lives in Marietta, Georgia, with his wife Candra and dog Winnie.
Ben Garrett

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Jay Deotis Roberts in his classic work, Liberation and Reconciliation, claims the songs, “‘Nobody Knows the Troubles I’ve Seen’ and ‘Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child’ make immediate contact with the black experience. When such pieces are rendered in a white church, they are art; but in a black church they are worship.”[i] I was struck by this juxtaposition. It is not surprising that people might have different experiences of the same work or text. What is striking about Roberts’ claim is that black people and white people can experience the same work and have two fundamentally different kinds of encounters: with these works white folk encounter transcendence, black folk encounter the Divine.

This is not the only time Roberts makes this claim. Later on he says, “The appearance of a black Madonna in Europe is art. But the appearance of the same symbol, to blacks in Africa or America in search of a savior, is religion.”[ii] Here again, Roberts suggests that white people can encounter black art as aesthetic, transcendent, wholly other in a powerful way, while black folks encounter black art as Holy Other.[iii]

It is not a huge leap to see that these differences in experiences contribute to miscommunication in race reconciliation dialogues. “Communication between blacks and whites is hampered by lack of sensitivity and urgency, by procrastination and playing games on the part of many whites. Blacks, on the other hand, if they really understand their plight, are deadly serious. They have life-and-death decisions to make.”[iv] It was this comparison that I felt most deeply. I have participated in multiple “conversations” on reconciliation and to recognize the gulf between my experience of these conversations and that of my black brothers and sisters is painful. For me, the lack of movement in these conversations is frustrating. For black folks the lack of movement in these conversations is a threat to their very existence. From the perspective of most white folks, denying the humanity of black people (and others) costs us nothing, for black folks it can cost everything.

This difference in stakes led me to reconsider how best to approach not only black religious art, music, and conversations around reconciliation but also how to approach black theology. I would like to offer these reflections on how white people might engage black theology in hopes that they might prove useful, or if they prove wanting, that my own way of thinking might be refined.

While there are a number of different ways of characterising black theology (ranging from those put forward by theologians like Roberts and Cone and relatedly Womanist Theology as expressed by Grant or Williams) it seems safe to say that black theology is theology which explicitly and intentionally utilizes the experience of black people in the United States as a source for theological reflection. Roberts puts it this way,

Black consciousness or awareness is a realistic foundation for our theological task. When blacks move from color blindness to color consciousness, it becomes difficult to avoid the implications of Black Power.[v] Black Power has psychological, sociological, economic, political, and religious implications. The black theologian needs to take into account all these factors that shape human life. The black theologian is free, however, to decide how he or she will interpret black experience. He or she is obligated to provide an understanding of black consciousness, black pride, black self-determination—in a word, Black Power. He or she must be faithful to the believing community as a theologian. But he or she is required, at the same time, to give a helpful interpretation of the Christian faith to those who honestly seek to be their true black selves and Christian at the same time.”[vi]

While the more orthodox among us might worry that elevating experience to this degree puts other sources of theological reflection at risk (Scripture or Tradition), it should be clear from Roberts’ understanding that Scripture and Tradition are crucial components of the black theological task. Each of these sources is meant to remain in dialogue with the other. Furthermore, Roberts is careful to point out that the black theologian provides interpretation, which implies there is a source that demands interpretation. In other words, Scripture qua Scripture (for Roberts) remains, to a certain extent, outside any possible manipulations by theologians

For those who still feel uneasy about this foregrounding of experience, I would like to point out that what black theologians (and other liberation theologians) do explicitly, racially privileged theologians do implicitly. To pick up and read theology written by white people or to listen to a sermon by a white pastor is often to encounter a discourse that appears universal. Rarely do white authors or pastors locate their theology historically or culturally. For example, white pastors often exhort parishioners to be more generous with their time and money. They encourage volunteership and philanthropy (both inside and outside of the specific church institution). This is spoken of in the language of Christian duty, of doing what Jesus would do. This exhortation sounds as if it is a universal command to all Christians. Yet it is actually a message aimed at a particularly privileged audience. It is hard to imagine Jesus telling a single mother working 80 hours a week for minimum (or less than minimum) wage to feed her children that what she ought to do is volunteer at the local soup kitchen.[vii] Rather than foregrounding the social location from which they are preaching and to whom they are preaching, privileged pastors speak as if providing universal law and undoubtedly heap guilt and anxiety upon their materially poorer parishioners.

Perhaps the point I most wish to draw here is that I see black theology as characteristically honest. It clearly defines the sources of its reflections and makes explicit how they are being used. Those of us doing theology from places of privilege should imitate this methodological transparency.

Now, what are useful and meaningful ways for white folks to interact with black theology? I would say first of all that white people should just read black theology in the first place. My personal experience leads me to believe that most white Christians have read little to no black theology. The ones that have did so while pursuing formal theological training. If you fall into this camp I would encourage you to seek out one of these texts the next time you are jonesing for some theology.

This is not just a call for theological diversity (remember, to read black theology is to read a discourse about life and death). To read black theology as a white person is to truly see one’s own racially biased, white theology for the first time. Black theologians are attempting to rescue Christianity from an unjustly universalized white interpretation and therefore are deft surgeons when it comes to excising cultural whiteness from Christian theology. Reading black theology is almost always also reading the history of both black theology and white theology, with the latter’s (economic, political, racial) motivations laid bare. White theology did not drop from heaven; it is a pastiche with importations that demand further reflection. Black theologians do white theologians the tremendous favor of articulating the contextual nature of our own theology.

Given this favor white people would do well to engage black theology with respect. Additionally, and more importantly, I return again to the recognition that black theology is not a mere intellectual exercise.[viii] Black theology is a theology whose stakes are life and death. When Roberts is talking about black peoplehood he is saying that black people should be protected from arbitrary violence. When Delores Williams takes up the story of Rahab she is talking about the actual practice of sexual exploitation enacted upon black women. Black theology is a discourse about black bodies in peril and their redemption: physical, mental, spiritual.

When white folks read black theology, this is the mindset they must be in. We must understand that the conversation we are overhearing is one where life and death decisions are being made.

This should not lead us to the other extreme, namely that tendency amongst more “progressive” persons to never critique anything a person of color says.[ix] Roberts himself notes this tendency and implies that white folks may not be doing what they ought to when they neglect genuine critique.[x] I would argue that this refusal to critique is just as dehumanizing as white supremacy. Humans dialogue with other humans. Dialogue is the foundation of community; knowledge is a communal achievement. To abstain from dialogue is to abstain from community and ignore the pursuit of true knowledge which requires dialogue with others. True dialogue requires honesty and this honesty will demand critique because it is impossible for us to truly agree about everything.

At the same time, this willingness to critique must take into consideration the life and death nature of black theology as well as the fact that black theology comes from sources not one’s own. Our critiques must respect the gravity of black theology’s situation and recognize that our disagreements or criticisms of black theology may derive from our differences of experience, sources of theological reflection, or existential stakes.

Lastly, when white folks read black theology we must understand that we are joining our black brothers and sisters on a journey to a place we have only glimpsed but never truly seen. As John Perkins and Mark Charles point out, re-conciliation may be a misnomer because we have never been conciled. We have only images, visions, of reconciliation: a sheet falling from heaven and God declaring what was once considered unclean now clean, a brother forgiving the brothers who sold him into slavery, God in a Jewish body walking with Samaritans. This journey will require each of us giving our best and many of us giving our all. We must engage in a spirit of partnership and friendship. We must always act as sisters and brothers seeking a shared promised land.



[i] Pg. 66

[ii] Pg. 72

[iii] The play of (w)holly is borrowed from Derrida.

[iv] Pg. 5

[v] I would encourage those who are not familiar with this term or its history to do some investigation into its history and various deployments. Liberation and Reconciliation, the book from which this quote is drawn, is a solid introduction not only because it draws out the contours of Black Power but also because it shows that Black Power is a contested term.

[vi] Pgs. 1-2 Emphasis mine.

[vii] Reading Mark 12:38-44 might give us an idea about how Jesus would respond.

[viii] Nor is white theology, though it often takes more work on the part of the reader to identify the tangible import of white theologian’s reflections.

[ix] I put “progressive” is scare quotes because it is both an implicit insult and because to identify a position as progressive assumes we know where history is going. We do not.

[x] Pgs. 4-5