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What Is Black Liberation Theology?

Black Liberation Theology is a movement that intertwines the fight for social justice with Christian teachings, emphasizing the liberation of oppressed Black communities. It challenges traditional religious narratives, advocating for a faith that confronts racial injustices. As it redefines spirituality's role in activism, one might wonder how this theology shapes the broader conversation on equality and faith. What are your thoughts?
Dan Harkins
Dan Harkins

Created in the cultural upheaval of the early 1960s, black liberation theology attempts to apply Christian religious traditions and belief to directly address the long subjugation of African Americans. According to its American founder, Christian theologian James Cone, the church combines and continues the spirit of several black leaders from differing faiths, like the Rev. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. It holds that Christianity's chief mission should be to deliver grace to the poor, the subjugated and the disenfranchised.

The actual philosophy of black liberation theology owes its greatest debt to the work and words of Cone, a prominent theological academic who took to heart Malcolm X's 1950s assertion that Christianity was a "white man's religion." The Rev. Martin Luther King, whose many recorded sermons and writings attempt to apply Christian belief to black oppressive conditions, is another major influence on those subscribing to this branch of mainline Protestant theology. It was Malcolm X, whose power of activism and community-building is widely credited for spurring Cone's early writings and sermons. Cone credits a melange of Christian theologians, however, for creating the core of his Christian beliefs, including influential white theologians like Paul Tillich and Karl Barth.

Sculpture of Martin Luther King Jr., a famous black activist.
Sculpture of Martin Luther King Jr., a famous black activist.

By 1966, Cone and 50 other pastors from across the nation had put a full-page ad in The New York Times. The ministers — representing several denominations, from Baptist to United Church of Christ — called themselves the National Committee of Negro Churchmen, with an aim of using the Bible to end racism. Cone's Black Theology and Black Power, written in 1969 further articulated the reasons and methods for implementing black liberation theology.

Though mainly focused on the African American experience, black liberation theology can easily be compared to the secular approach of A People's History of the United States, a socially responsible history book by Boston University political science professor Howard Zinn, who died in 2010. Selling 2,000,000 copies, as of 2011, the book explores America's key historical moments through the filter of various marginalized cultures, as opposed to the predominantly white, male, power-conscious view of history that normally prevails. Preachers of black liberation employ a similar mindset when sermonizing on Christian values, which through history have been presided upon by the powerful and not the weak.

In the lead up to the presidential election of 2008, media buzz centered on the longtime minister of now-President Barack Obama, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright of Chicago's Trinity United Church of Christ. Rev. Wright was recorded as telling congregants that "God Bless America" should really be "God Damn America" for the several centuries of oppression and subjugation. Some decried the spirit of the sermon, while many others appreciated the honesty.

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Discussion Comments


@Vincenzo -- That is true, but Black Liberation Theology moved from being an unorganized desire by a lot of people to a force to be reckoned with during the 1960s. The difference was organization. With that in place, the Civil Rights movement became a reality rather than a fond wish.


Honestly, black liberation theology has been around for longer than that. A good number of the so-called "negro spirituals" that were written in the 18th and 19th centuries and sung by slaves in the United States hinged on Biblical themes of redemption, freedom and other concepts.

Even back then, a good number of slaves saw their people as being oppressed as harshly and unfairly as the Egyptians oppressed the Jews in the Old Testament and called on God to deliver them.

While the term "black liberation theology" may have been coined in the 1960s, that movement started long before then. Ignoring that history discredits the work and suffering of a heck of a lot of people.

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    • Sculpture of Martin Luther King Jr., a famous black activist.
      Sculpture of Martin Luther King Jr., a famous black activist.