Part 1 of 2

Part 2 of 2:

1. What are some of the cautions and warnings you would communicate to Blacks who decide to enter an evangelical seminary?

This is a difficult question to address. Before going into some particulars, I need to mention some preliminary points. First, in the midst of the things I want to share, I must caution that these things do not apply to everyone in an evangelical seminary setting. I certainly want to be fair. This leads to a second consideration, that being that so much in matters of race are measured by intention. “I do not intend to be prejudiced, or racist, therefore everything I do or say, even if problematic, should be seen against the backdrop of my “intention.” This can create the atmosphere that basically says, that there may be problems, but because they are not intended, they can be acknowledged but not directly confronted. If particular conversations are mentioned that cause some African American students to feel uncomfortable, or put down, they are not intended. What such people fail to consider is the effects, despite their “intentions.” Intention is one thing, but results, or perpetuation of negative elements of the community, have to be confronted. From what I can determine, evangelicals hang out with evangelicals, often of their own race. How do they come to see themselves differently, or begin to see the perspectives of others, particularly the marginalized in the community?

Students going to an evangelical seminary should be aware of three things, at least from my perspective. First, there is both a subtle and sometimes blatant pressure to conform in more ways than just the doctrinal statement of the institution. It is as if you must suppress any characteristics or thoughts that are the products of your emergence from the experience of being an African American. In order to be considered as worthy of engagement, you must speak a certain way and about certain things. This manner and the required topics happen to be that which is considered mainstream to the community and therefore, “safe.” Since there are often small numbers of sisters and brothers with darker skin around the school, one can want fellowship and acceptance but it often comes with a price. A particular price may be letting someone else of the dominant community tell an African American what he/she “really thinks,” or should think, on a given matter.

Another type of experience available at an evangelical institution is a marginalization of burdens unique to the student and to the African American community. A school can have a type of ethos, but a minority student hopes for engagements with the disciplines so that they are more equipped to deal with issues that he/she will face in and outside of the church. Such engagements would be more immediately accessible to students of the dominant culture. Classes, for the most part are more oriented toward the majority. Overall, this is fair enough, but there should be means that the institution can adopt to show an awareness and an affirmation of the needs of the African American community. I am advocating specific attention to this community because of the unique history that has existed between Caucasians and African Americans in this country, the effects of which, we are still experiencing. The seminary community may invite African American students to “contextualize” what they are learning, but students must be aware of a concurrent issue. African American students must prove that they know mainstream discussions encountered in class in order to have the chance of being considered authentic. Professors and students of the dominant community can be considered authentic without knowing the issues and questions of African American students.

Majority students may not want to get to know African American and Latin@ students, for that matter, unless they are considered “safe.” They cannot be too expressive of their culture, or confrontational. Many of the dominant culture will not deal with a minority student who may challenge them to look at themselves in ways that are different from the way they may want to view themselves.

2. What do you believe to be the current state of Black Evangelicalism in America? What is the future of Black Evangelicalism and what do you see as the future scholarship among Black Evanglicals?

I must confess much ignorance here. I have not surveyed the terrain, so I respond fearing a great deal of ignorance. I can say that I have the impression that the Black Evangelical community is fragmented, not in terms of theology, but in all else that makes up community. We have spheres of leadership often in the form of pastors which is appropriate. Leadership should emerge primarily in the Church. But then again where are our community centers? Pastors have to give so much attention to their flocks that attention elsewhere, on a larger scope, is difficult. Seminary settings can help in terms of keeping tabs on the larger terrain and informing the local bodies, while also learning from the local churches and being accountable to them.

On the seminary level, however, we have no home. We involved in seminary training are often parts of larger seminary communities that are governed by primarily Caucasian sisters and brothers. We have no place where we can engage in sustained conversations and research to learn from one another on more than the academic/information plane. We have no place where we can build sustained relationships, build trust, and invite sisters and brothers from other theological slants to our place for dialogue. Trust in relationships can render unnecessary a lot of debate. We can then sharpen our interaction and response. Much more may be accomplished over a game of Bid Whiss (sp?) than during a debate at AAR. Oh well, wishful thinking.

If we can find ways to come together, we have a future. By this I mean a future of effective ministry not only for the Black Church, but for the Church in general. As matters relate to the Black Church, however, we must find ways to build bridges between fundamental theological confession and the specific issues facing the Black community and the Black Church. How does the doctrine of the image of God inform upon our humanity and how should we live in light of this reality? How does various doctrines speak to the matter of addictions: alcohol, drugs, sex, and the like? What does the doctrine of the Church as a divinely initiated community have to say to marriages in the Black community, or to the alternative community offered in gangs? The needs and the possibility of research are endless. We will be continually challenged to show the relevance of biblical and systematic theology in the issues confronting the Black community.

Related to all this is the need for a base where such reflections can take place in a more concentrated and sustained way. This to me, is also one of the challenges we face.

3. You wrote a book, Introducing Black Theology. For those who have not read your book, why did you as an evangelical, write a book that introduced Black Theology?

My position as an evangelical is one of confession. My confession may have interwoven sociocultural elements, but it is primarily a theological stance. I am also one shaped by my African American background. I have been shaped by a number of people and events, overall I have been shaped by what Michael Emerson and Christian Smith identify as “racialization.” It can be understood as the totality of experiences that one encounters in life because of their race. To me this is simply a less threatening way of speaking of racism.

Part of the effects was when I became a believer I downplayed the contributions of my African American church background. It was not explicitly stated as such, but the Christians that I initially began to spend time around, did not affirm the particularity of my race, or my church background. I was made to feel that God did not pay attention to color, but it was interesting that the result was the establishment of the dominant cultures’ view of “Christian” as standard. I was affirmed if I spoke a certain way, thought a certain way, and looked a certain way. This was “Christian,” but it did not completely fit me. In addition there was always a part of me that wanted to believe that the Black church had much going for it, it contributed to “Christianity,” it was still relevant.

I did not hear of Liberation, or Black theology until after the completion of my MDiv year. It was intriguing to hear of them, because I never knew previously that they existed. I was intensely interested in Black theology because of its focus on the Black experience. I never had the idea that God might have something to say about it, other than we should get these things behind us so that we can be one. I believed this, ultimately, but it was exciting to think that we could be more than receivers of theology, we could actually do it.

When I began reading James Cone, much of what he said was foreign to me in terms of expression. I did not know until later on of the influence of his Barthian training. There was much however, that I could understand particularly from a historical perspective and the contemporary analysis of racism. I believed that Cone and others raised some poignant criticisms of the white and the black church. It was painful for me to find that some of these Black theologians had background in conservative spheres. In some ways they got burned and looked for answers elsewhere. Because of my commitment to the historic, biblical faith, I could criticize aspects of Black theology. Concurrently, I could raise criticisms of the white evangelical church as well. This balance is what I attempted in my book. I wanted to express concerns about Black theology. At the same time I wanted to bring reminder that the Church sometimes facilitates the rise of problematic movements because of its neglect, or hypocrisy.

At Trinity, we are encouraged to interact and evaluate biblical and theological positions. We are very selective, however. We tend toward white, Western European, or North American males for our dialogue partners. This tendency is changing, but not fast enough from my view. We can still be informed by thinkers on the margins, particularly, African American, Latin@, and Native American thinkers.

4. One of the classes you teach deals with Black Theology. What do you see as the pros and cons of a Black Theology?

To be as clear as possible, I teach a class on “Political Theologies” and Black Theology is among those that I use as representative of a political theology. Years ago when formulating the class, I was warned that no one at Trinity would take a course in Liberation, or Black theology. The small numbers over the years have, more or less, verified this. Numbers have picked up in the past two years largely because of the influence of Dr. Peter Cha who teaches a course in Social Hermeneutics. He has always given me a strong word of affirmation. In addition, this year we have a number of former students who have taken this course from me who are now working in the admissions office and they steer students to me.

Typically, I would point out the following as comprising a network of pros. First, Black theology reminds all in the theological community, particularly evangelicals, that theology is somewhat culture-bound. What is formulated is not only a product of biblical engagement, consultation with history of doctrine and the like, such formulation is also the product of the issues and questions that the theologian seeks to resolve against the backdrop of all else. We evangelicals tend to act at times as if our theology came through divine inspiration right along with Scripture itself. Such movements as Black Theology bring reminder of the “occasionalness” of our theology. Second, Black Theology presses afresh the need for orthodoxy, but more specifically, orthopraxis. We have to be continually concerned about the question: does our walk match our talk. Third, it is an encouragement to African American theological scholars and others in the Black community to seek to do theology with the Black experience as focal. We need affirmation of our personhood, our community, and all that this entails. I may not agree with all that is formulated, but I feel affirmed by the attempts. Finally, Black theology is mindful of Western Europeans and North American theological worlds. After all, we are often trained in schools governed by members of the dominant culture. We are position to inculcate strengths, and yet also uniquely positioned to criticize such theological reflections in order to identify blindspots. The blindspot identification is part of Black theology’s contribution to the Church in general.

Among the cons, we can focus on the following in light of Cone’s own assessment. First, a theological movement cannot long exist if its reason for existence is only reaction to other movements. Black Theology has still to prove its benefits in the concrete existence of the church and the Black community. Second, I applaud the recognition of some that recognize that racism is not the only problem that we face. They are many other related crises that we face. Work needs to be done, however, to identify the roots and nature of such crises, and what are the need responses to them. Third, some are advocating a position of formulation and application away from the Black church. They see it as theologically archaic, sexist, and homophobic. All I can say to them is: “Lot’s of luck.” Move away from that which has kept us alive and together for centuries because of contemporary passing movements? This is not wise, and will eventually lead to the destruction of Black Theology. Finally, in more recent developments we can ask the question: “Who, or what are our legitimate dialogue partners?” I know that some are revisiting Traditional African Religion of liberative models, but how are they to be measured in terms of appropriateness and effectiveness? What about engagements with other world religions in the name of interaction? What is the role of such engagements? These are questions that I want to ask of leadership in the movement.