Southeastern Offers its First Course on Black Theology: January 2014

airport_in_amsterdam1(Note: This is a guest post by Walter Strickland, who serves as Special Advisor to the President for Diversity & Instructor of Theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. This post was first published at Prof. Strickland’s personal website.)

At first glance, a course on Black Theology at Southeastern Seminary is like spotting Lil Wayne at a Taylor Swift concert… it just doesn’t seem to fit. In my estimation, the racial and cultural incongruence of the average Southeasterner and a ‘dyed in the wool’ black theologian is exactly what makes this course so dynamic!

In recent years there seems to be a rediscovery of value in having Christian community with believers in various stages of life. As each person brings their unique perspective and experience into the community, there are fewer blind-spots, new opportunities to apply Scripture, and new awareness of needs in society. Doing theology is no different; the introduction of a new ‘voice’ into a theological dialogue will unearth biases, illuminate blind-spots, and sharpen the thinking of all who earnestly take part in the dialogue. This is why a course on Black Theology is valuable to Southeastern’s campus.

As a teaser for the course, I’ll offer a brief sketch of the historical developments that led to the advent of Black Theology, and in this blog I’ll offer more specific reasons for how a course in will benefit the average Southeasterner.

The African American community has nurtured a long-standing Christian commitment, particularly since the Second Great Awakening. The revivalistic Christian faith that slaves and freedmen received carried a marginalized people through chattel slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow Segregation, and into the era that is commonly known as the Civil Rights Movement. During the Civil Rights Movement the Christian beliefs that had long undergirded this community were leveraged to speak prophetically into the political, social, and economic injustices blotted the African American landscape of the 1960s. This matrix of events sets the general stage for the emergence of Black Theology.

After having faithfully followed Martin Luther King, Jr. for nearly a decade, the Movement’s “foot soldiers” began to grow weary of the frequent sit-ins, marches, and imprisonments that were part and parcel with King’s nonviolent methods. By contrast, the more aggressive tactics of Malcolm X began to catch the attention of the masses, including some Christians. The 1968 assassination of MLK served as a tipping point that triggered a methodological shift in the minds of many. In the words of Dwight Hopkins, “With [the bullet that killed Dr. King], the movement for peace, non-violence, and racial fellowship ground to a halt. Within a week of King’s murder, one hundred and thirty cities went up in flames… forty-six civilians died, over three thousand were injured, and twenty-seven thousand were arrested.”

In 1969 James Cone published his first monograph with the express purpose of demonstrating that the politics of Black Power was the gospel of Jesus Christ. In emotive terms, Cone’s book Black Theology and Black Power articulated a means for blacks to hold fast to black church traditions and teachings (the longstanding backbone of the black community), while providing license to embrace the Black Power movement that sought liberation ‘by any means necessary.’

Cone’s 1969 volume solidified Black Theology as an academic discipline and in short order other black theologians proposed alternative ways of relating the Christian Scriptures to the black experience (i.e. cultural context). In the course, we will spend the majority of our time exploring three major black theologians and their approaches to the relationship between the Scripture and the black context. Beyond James Cone, we will dive deeply into the work of J. Deotis Roberts who emphases the necessity of liberation in order to have reconciliation in the church as a testimony of the Gospel. We will also examine William R. Jones who insisted that the primary concern of Black Theology should be theodicy (the problem of evil). For Jones, until that paradox is satisfied there is no reason to initiate constructive theology in the black context.

This simplistic historical sketch offers a window into some of the cultural dynamics and theological issues that we will tackle together in the two-week course. I look forward to seeing you in class (THE 7950) from January 6th-17th from 8 am to noon each day.