“The end of patriarchal religion, which we are experiencing, has a liberating character only if it calls us into resistance. The question posed to organized religion is not how much the Father can be salvaged but how much power of resistance we can receive from God, the Ground of Life, and how long life is still possible. At the end of the patriarchal era of religion, other images of God are emerging among us.” 1
“To speak of God and God’s participation in the liberation of the oppressed of the land is a risky venture in any society. But if the society is racist and also uses God-language as an instrument to further the cause of human humiliation, then the task of authentic theological is even more dangerous and difficult.”2
Imaging the Divine
Since the beginning of religion’s history, human beings have, with few exceptions, have anthropomorphized the divine. Examples of this range from crude pre-historic carvings to culture-defining epics such as Gilgamesh to Egyptian hieroglyphics to the illustrations presented to children in today’s Christian culture. Though they may seem insignificant, these images are a sharp reflection of a society’s views on the nature of the divine.
More recently within the Christian tradition, there has been a growing interest in society’s images of the divine. Coming mainly from the areas of black and feminist theologies of liberation. These theologies are both relatively young, having come into existence in the 60’s and 70’s. They are concerned with freeing blacks and women, respectively, from all forms of societal oppression. They look at the mission of Jesus and see the message of the Gospels as one of freedom from oppression as opposed to one of freedom from sin and the redemption of the individual soul. Scriptures such as Luke 4:18-19 outline their vision of Jesus’ mission on Earth. These ideas of been furthered through the years by theologians such as James H. Cone, Albert Cleage, and Cornell West in black theology, and Rosemary Ruther and Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza in feminist theology. Though there are some differences in their methods and ideologies, one aspect of both black and feminist theologies of liberation is an attempt to rearrange society’s perceptions of the physicality of the divine in order to bring about more just attitudes.
In adhering to the trinitine dogma of the modern Christian church, these theologies approach the characterization of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit as three separate entities. Other biblical figures are often referred to as well, in order to more effectively develop a spiritual paradigm that speaks to the oppressed sectors of society. 3
Black Liberation Theology
Black liberation theology began to come into existence in the latter half of the 20th century, around the time of the Civil Rights movement. Albert Cleage’s The Black Messiah and James H. Cone’s A Black Theology of Liberation are two early seminal works from 1969 and 1970, respectively. One issue that they both stressed was the transformation of society’s images of God and Jesus.
Says theologian James H. Cone, “the reality of God is presupposed in black theology.”4 God is an integral part of black spirituality. The real issue is determining where God’s loyalties lie. As is evidenced by God’s redemption of the oppressed people of Israel and the message of liberation brought God’s immanent messenger, Jesus, Cone says “the God of the oppressed is a God of revolution who breaks the chains of slavery.”5 In American society, the black community is clearly an oppressed group. Besides having been literally enslaved by white America until the latter half of the 19th century, it took until the latter half of the 20th century before blacks were afforded the full legal rights of white citizens. Even since that, blacks still have a lower median income and higher incidence of imprisonment than the white community. Accounting for all of these things, blacks have received nearly four centuries of oppression that flowed directly from the white community, making them perhaps the single most viciously oppressed American racial demographic. 6
Assuming that God is indeed on the side of the oppressed, it is impossible to refute the statement that God is on the side of the black community. But what does this have to do with the physicality of God? According to Cone, “there is no place in black theology for a colorless God in a society where human beings suffer precisely because of their color.”7 God must be identified with the oppressed, as any amount of “siding” with the oppressor contains an implicit approval of their actions. The white, or “colorless” God is the God of theologians who would claim that God is indeed concerned with the liberation of blacks, and then do nothing in order to further the liberation of blacks themselves.8 Thus, God must be black in order to have no association with the racism-steeped, Western European white theology that, even today, fuels the fires of mainline Christian denominations.
Having asserted the blackness of God, what of Jesus Christ, God’s earthly son? Here too, black liberation theology would claim that the blackness of this divine figure is necessary to achieve freedom from oppression. The first task that black theologians work toward is breaking down the image of the white Christ that is so prevalent in American churches, both of the past and of today. In his many writings, W.E.B Du Bois attempts to do this. In one statement, Du Bois states that the historical Jesus was definitely not white. “He was a ‘Syrian Jew,’ one whom Du Bois described as perhaps bearing a ‘hooked nose and curled hair.’ Christ may have ‘even inherited Ethiopian blood.’”9
More important than Jesus’ biological race, however, is the spiritual element of the debate. In Albert B. Cleage’s The Black Messiah, he insists that the white Christ presented to the black slave community is a Christ that allows oppression, and is thus not the Christ of Christianity. “Black people cannot build dignity on their knees worshipping a white Christ.”10 What they need instead is a Christ who lives in solidarity with their suffering, and who demonstrates the humanity, holiness, and dignity implicit in the human condition while still having dark skin.11 In addition to this, Christ must be a figure around which the entire black community can rally. “The problem of being black in a white man’s world is just too big,” no single person can overcome it.12 There is power, however, in community. Jesus’ mission was to demonstrate this and begin the work of liberating the oppressed.
Even Jesus’ death demonstrates the necessity of his blackness. Jesus spent his ministry teaching about freedom for the oppressed and the eventual downfall of the powerful. Because of this revolutionary message, he was persecuted and eventually killed by the powerful elements of society. Despite this, he is resurrected. Jesus does not stay dead, demonstrating the literally immortal power of liberation. Christ must be black so that blacks can be sure that his liberation is their own. 13
Feminist Liberation Theology
Another theology of liberation that has recently developed has come from the feminist sector of society. Feminist theologies of liberation really began in the 1960’s with the second wave of feminism. Faced with the patriarchy and the androcentrism of the Christian church, a number of female theologians began speaking out and developing models of spirituality that would better allow them to participate in the life of the church.
One of the first ways of reforming the Christian practice was to challenge the traditional views of God as male.14 According to theologian Mary Grey, to enter into dialogue about a female God is to “enter hotly-disputed terrain…Accusations of a new paganism are in the air, and the exploration of ‘God as She’ take on a semi-heretical hue.”15 But why portray God as “she?” Why not move toward a genderless view of God? The views are many, but one key reason would be to counteract centuries of negative anthropology toward women. There exists a traditional binary that separates “masculine” spirituality, rationality, and dominance from “feminine” earthliness, emotion, and nurturing. The earthly feminine, then, has been linked with human baseness while masculinity is transcendent.16 Rendering a feminine image of God, then, works toward undoing these associations. It also places a higher value on qualities such as nurturing and reproduction. Suddenly, femininity is not something to be scorned, but to be praised. “Thus, after an accumulation of negative images, the need for women to rediscover self-worth, the sense of being created in the image of God, to own a healed and healing bodiliness has fuelled much of the contemporary re-imagining.”17
A more difficult re-imaging comes when one considers the case of Jesus. If one accepts the Bible as a historical record, Jesus was male. That point has been, and remains, fairly undisputed. Images used for Jesus include a shepherd, a lord, and a king. All of these images imply some sort of dominance and are easily utilized to prop up a patriarchal system. In addition, they are often linked with images reflecting servanthood, further undermining the egalitarian kingdom that was the focus of Jesus’ message.18 How then, can feminist liberation theology redefine the image of a dominant, male Jesus to something more palatable to an egalitarian Church? The key lies in drawing a difference between the historical Jesus and the post-resurrection Christ. Theologian Rita Nakashima Brock suggests that the real power of Christ comes from community, which she dubs “Christa/Community.”19 The erotic20 power of the Christa/Community is what the Church uses to build new relationships and to fight against the brokenness of humanity, with the eventual goal of restoring right relationships among all people, thus fulfilling the biblical idea of the Kingdom of God.21
The establishment of the Kingdom of God remains the goal for both black and feminist liberation theologies, and though they both use some similar methods to attempt to achieve it, there are a few important nuances that make the two theologies different in their approach. The first is the relation between power and liberation. Black liberation theologians such as James Cone are often concerned with looking at where power flows from, and who wields it. Since the power comes from the white elements of society, asserting the blackness of God and Christ is a major step at removing that power. Instead of merely negating it, however, black God gives power to the black community to use in the fight for their own liberation by being in direct opposition to the white oppressors.
Feminist theologies of liberation focus more on developing systems of spirituality that allow women to participate in the Church in ways that are meaningful to them by abolishing the system of patriarchy that currently runs through the Church. Feminist liberation theologies work to achieve this by reforming images of the divine as male and reversing the denigration of the female sex and the traits associated with it.22 Developing the Church community and using the power inherent in it to liberative ends can achieve this. There is a much smaller focus on achieving power to wield in a direct, war-like struggle against oppression.
Both of these theologies, however, are essentially about the same issue: freedom from oppression in a society in which oppression is embedded in nearly every social structure by restoring and maintaining dignity for all citizens. Since images are a direct display of societal attitudes, changing these images becomes one major step in freedom from oppression. After all, how could a Christian society who imagines God as a black woman oppress anyone who so closely resembled God? Christian theology must move in the direction of liberation for all people, because “any message that is not related to the liberation of the poor in a society is not Christ’s message. Any theology that is indifferent to the cause of liberation is not Christian theology.” 23
1. Mary Grey, Introducing Feminist Images of God (Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 2001), 20.
2. James H. Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation (New York: Obris Books, 1990), 55.
3. I feel like this is a good point at which to mention that, due to my birth as a white male and thus my inherent lack of ontological privilege, I am essentially 100% incapable of creating a truly effective analysis of any theology that isn’t, in theologian James Cone's words, an “Antichrist White Eurocentric Theology of Oppression.” If this seems a little vitriolic, it’s probably because James Cone is a very, very angry man. Thus, this paper ultimately amounts to little more than academic masturbation. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
4. Ibid. 55.
5. Ibid. 58.
6. The only exception that springs to mind is that of the Native Americans. Europeans have been oppressing them nearly to the point of genocide ever since 1492.
7. Ibid. 63.
8. Ibid. 65.
9. Edward J. Blum, “’There won’t be any rich people in heaven’: The Black Christ, White Hypocrisy, and the Gospel According to W. E. B. Du Bois.” Journal of African American History 90, no. 4 (2005): 368. Retrieved May 14, 2006 from Academic Search Premier. .
10. Cone, James H. and Gayraud S. Wilmore, eds. Black Theology: A Documentary History, Vol. I (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1993), 101.
11. Ibid. 103.
12. Ibid. 102.
13. James H. Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation (New York: Obris Books, 1990), 120.
14. This is a struggle that is still going on, and will likely never be resolved in a manner that satisfies all parties. Such is the life of the Church.
15. Mary Grey, Introducing Feminist Images of God (Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 2001), 20.
16. Ibid. 21.
17. Ibid. 22.
18. Rita Nakashima Brock, Journeys by Heart: A Christology of Erotic Power (New York: The Crossroads Publishing Company, 1988), 69.
19. Ibid. 67.
20. In this case, erotic is used in the sense that it involves give-and-take intimacy. It is based off of the eros form of love as opposed to the self-sacrificing agape.
21. Ibid 69.
22. Earthliness, emotionality, sensuality, and reproduction are only a few of these traits.
23. James H. Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation (New York: Obris Books, 1990), v.