Black Theological-Political Selfhood

If power relations between the powerless and the powerful is essential to understanding the task of political theology, Black theological-political selfhood, as I define it, is shaped in reference to power. I would go so far to conclude that a Black theological-political self is specifically construed in relation to power. In fact, I would argue that a Black theological-political self is developed from knowing that, within the power paradigm, it is among the powerless. This is so, since, as James Evans Jr. asserts, “power is necessary for human existence.”[1] Blackness, in this regard, is a mode of human existence that is keenly aware of the role that power plays in the powerlessness of Blackness.

Evans would agree with this, particularly when considering that he supposes that “in order to describe what is essential in human existence from an African-American perspective, it is necessary to move from a consideration of the virtue of black folk to a consideration of their power.”[2] I find that what Evans is suggesting is that, when existence is extrapolated from an African-American perspective, that existence is a unique one. Its uniqueness is in a certain set of circumstances that, in their totality, provide for a relative powerlessness in a world where power is essential to authentic existence –if it is possible to say that power authenticates existence. In other words, “Blackness” is an existence that manifests from a specific existential situation: the limitations placed on Blackness within social power structures define Blackness as a state of powerlessness. Perhaps, this can best be illustrated further with Evans arguing the following: “power is the animus of human existence because people need the ability to individuate –that is, to exercise freedom –and the ability to relate –that is, to exercise love. If power is essential to authentic human existence, then the question with which early black theologians were faced with was the function of that power.”[3] So, if I may extend the argument that Evans makes, the facticity of power that functions against the facticity of Blackness dictates the need for theologizing about God in a way that arises from the Black experience.

In my view, when the facticity of Blackness yields the facticity of an existential situation governed by powerlessness, the Black theological-political self theologizes from the predicament of their experience. Essentially, this kind of theologizing is black political theology. To that end, as M. Shawn Copeland correctly ascertains, “black political theology esteems ordinary people’s critical consciousness of their own predicament.”[4] The predicament, in other words, is the totality of facts, which, as Ludwig Wittgenstein describes, becomes “the case.”[5] I view this as a collective understanding of the following facts: the facticity of existence, the facticity of Blackness, the facticity of the existential situation, and the facticity of the predicament of powerlessness. This is “the case.” But, recognizing “the case” as such is not possible without some form of inward reflection about the outward manifestation of Blackness, and how that Blackness shapes a specialized being-in-the-world that is problematic. There is a great degree of self-reflection occurring here. As such, black political theology, as Copeland argues, “takes self-criticism seriously, and grasps theory as passionate, communal, collaborative intellectual engagement aimed to understand, interpret, and transform the culture through creative and healing social praxis grounded in the Gospel.”[6] What Copeland calls “creative and healing social praxis” is what Black Theology is all about: using hermeneutical skills to read and apply scripture to the Black experience.

To define oneself as a Black theological-political self means to not only be cognizant of their Black experience, but be in search of a contingent truth[7] about it. That is, that the Black experience “is” what it is, and cannot be construed as something else. This contingent truth is undeniable and an essential starting point in Black Theology. James H. Cone, who first systematized Black Theology as a synthesis of the thought of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, asserts that “there is no truth for and about black people that does not emerge out of the context of their experience [and] truth in this sense is black truth, a truth disclosed in the history and culture of black people.”[8] I would argue that this contingent truth –or what Cone calls a “black truth” –is what a Black theological-political self uses to negotiate Black Theology with Political Theology into a “Black Political Theology.” In doing this, the Black theological-political self acknowledges that the contingent truth of their Black experience and the relative powerlessness inherent in it must be re-appropriated into an empowering and meaningful sense of selfhood. Cone would certainly refer to this as “Black Power,” which he defines as “an attitude, an inward affirmation of the essential worth of blackness.”[9] The importance in such a statement is in the term “affirmation.” Black theological-political selfhood is constructed on that kind of “affirmation,” particularly with respect to Black Power, which J. Deotis Roberts argues in A Black Political Theology, “affirms a self-understanding that asserts [a Black theological-political self’s] humanity.”[10] Moreover, Roberts goes on to surmise that this kind of affirmation, or Black Power, or what I would call empowering Blackness, “suggest[s] that blacks as a people must unite and take the appropriate steps to win their liberation from white oppression.”[11] I am not sure if I would agree completely with Roberts about winning “liberation from white oppression,” since I am more inclined to argue that it is about winning liberation from the oppressive actions of anyone in a position of power.

A Black theological-political self, who is situated in a position of powerlessness against the oppressive actions of anyone in a position of power, does, as Roberts accurately ascertains, “seek a balance between the quest for meaning and protest against injustices.”[12] However, I would add that this balance is also sought between the Black theological-political self’s adherence to their faith, their relationship with God, their roles in the Black Church, and the fact that the predicament of their being-in-the-world is as much existential[13] as it is due to the political arrangements of the power-structured society in which they live and hope to change.

[1] James H. Evans Jr., We Have Been Believers: An African-American Systematic Theology (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1992), 110.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] M. Shawn Copeland, “Black Political Theologies,” in The Blackwell Companion to Political Theology, eds. Peter Scott and William T. Cavanaugh (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 2004), 271.

[5] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Translated by C. K. Ogden (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications  Inc., 1999), 29.

[6] M. Shawn Copeland, “Black Political Theologies,” in The Blackwell Companion to Political Theology, eds. Peter Scott and William T. Cavanaugh (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 2004), 271-272.

[7] This is a term used by G. W. Leibniz. Leibniz uses this term to imply, in brief, that a contingent truth shows that there is more reason for that which has been done than there is for its opposite. G.W. Leibniz, Philosophical Essays, Translated by Roger Ariew and Daniel Garber (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1989), 101.

[8] James H. Cone, God of the Oppressed (New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers, 1975), 17.

[9] James H. Cone, Black Theology and Black Power (New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers, 1969), 8.

[10] J. Deotis Roberts, A Black Political Theology (Philadelphia, PA: The Westminster Press, 1974), 72.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., 58.

[13] What I mean here is the existential situation of Blackness, or, as I have mentioned earlier, the facticity of Blackness.

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