Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Black Liberation Theology and Holistic Human Development

               There is a universal thread of love which runs through the world's most respected religious, philosophical and ideological traditions - a thread which serves as a call to action - and though it might look slightly different in practice, the focus of this particular love element is very similar in attending to the needs of the poor and oppressed in a given society.  In the Christian tradition, Jesus was not only poor but according to the New Testament chose to identify and surround Himself with those who were the poorest and most oppressed of his time.  The life of Christ serves as a call to Christians to not only address issues of oppression, but to make the concerns of poverty, social marginalization and therefore positive human development a direct part of their lives if they are serious about following Jesus' example.  Further, it is argued here that it is incumbent upon those who carry a love ethic of any kind - religious or otherwise - to stand up, identify and fight with the oppressed against the structures that control their lives and threaten existential destruction. To not do so, or to do otherwise is a denial of humanity and indicates a lack of love. 
                This analysis will focus on the modern radical black theology of the Christian tradition, as first articulated by James Cone in the form of Black Liberation Theology (Cone, 1990).  Cone is arguably the first African-American theologian to present an entirely American black philosophy of religion based upon the idea of oppression, and the inseparability of theology from the here and now of social conditions inhibiting the full development of humanity in general and the oppressed in particular.  What this means pragmatically is that history, consciousness and praxis inform each other in a confrontation with oppressive structural conditions in the social, political and economic arenas of our present day society.  It means that liberation (and salvation) can only come through confronting these structures - directly and forcefully - in a deliberate attempt at their destruction.  Cone (1990) directs his confrontation towards the "white" structures of power as related to the African-American condition in modern times.  His theology - first articulated in 1969 in his book Black Theology & Black Power - has created a modern theology which very much concerns the present, and is centered on an existential concept of the application of spirituality, not some future glory in the form of an afterlife.
                As Cone's theology was first formulated a number of decades ago, I will incorporate his principle of bringing things current by applying his idea of liberation to the 21st century.  To do this, I will utilize corollary philosophies in the tradition of Liberationist Theology and secular theory, as well as looking at the present day example of the prison-industrial crisis in America as it relates to full humanity or full development.   This will provide a context for present day issues of racial oppression, which of course are still very much alive albeit in much more politically correct forms of articulation. 

History Informs The Present:  Oppression and Liberation
                Amartya Sen (2000) argues that development "can be seen as a process of expanding freedoms" (p. 3).  Sen's view of freedom is wide-ranging and all inclusive, focused on political, social and economic opportunities, as well as transparency in structures of power, and the freedom for protective security from violence/oppression.  This wide-ranging micro and macro view of freedom leaves no room for oppression, racism or discrimination of any kind - as they all serve to negate one's humanity.   Freedom is referred to in human-scale (i.e. the individual, micro level) development as the very essence of being a fully developed human, or unfolding to our full potential according to  Johan Galtung (2010).
                It is the understanding of freedom as inseparable from one's humanity that Cone utilizes in his historical narrative of the African-American (Cone, 1990).  Tying this to the Christian theology of the crucified Christ, the historical becomes the existential current in that freedom means becoming free in the present through shaking off the structures applied externally, from the oppressor's interpretation of a historical narrative concerning who one is.   It is through the reclamation of freedom and dignity that the African-American casts off the dehumanized objectification applied to them by a racist society and thus helps the society itself to be re-born.  The oppressed person disavows the society that has sought to strip their humanity, and through doing so acknowledges that their own physical being could cease-to-be in the process of revolutionizing a society that does not allow their full humanity, and considers their claims to humanity to be a threat (Cone, 1990). 
                The historical narrative of the African-American slave as the present target of racism is the modern-day representation of the historical oppressed Christ.  It is through who Christ was that Cone (1990) identifies who He is in the present, and who the professing Christian must now be if they are to be a follower of the Christian faith. 
                Given this understanding of the historical Christ-as-one with oppressed humanity we recognize that the present day structures of American society dictate Christ assume the condition of the African-American and become the black Christ.  The personification of American oppression in Cone's time of 1969-1970 as well as today possesses a face of color.  Thus, it is only through identification with this face of oppression that the Christian can hope to exemplify and follow Christ's teachings (Cone, 1990).  The co-optation of the Christ figure as the oppressor god  traced back to the time of Constantine accounts for His portrayal in modern America as the white Christ - someone who is un-relatable to the black condition (Cone, 1990).  From the Constantinian perspective, Christ is viewed as the god who gives justification to the actions of the nation-state. 
                In the face of Constantianism or the religion of the oppressor class, Cone (1990) uses language similar to Malcolm X in that a religion of oppression is not a true religion nor one that he will acknowledge.  Cone uses powerful imagery to convey this point, stating that the white Christ - the god of the racists - must be killed, destroyed, eliminated as a false god - along with all who follow that god (Cone, 1990). 
                There is no room for existential non-dualism or neutral ground in the position of black theology.  Modern versions - sometimes referred to as prophetic Christianity (West, 2010) - reiterate Cone's emphasis of choosing sides in situations of injustice.  Everyone from Cornel West to South African leader Desmond Tutu have made remarks to indicate that neutrality in unjust contexts means assuming the side of the oppressor (West, 2000).  West in particular has followed in the tradition of Cone by comparing the modern empire of imperialist America directly to the Roman Empire of Jesus day and its identification as the power that executed Him (Morrison & West, 2006).  West along with Cone stands against these nation-state empires which signify oppressive power.  This is not to say that Cone or other black theologians are looking to exclude through dualistic perceptions of the nature of race relations, but that a challenge is issued to all who are looking to manifest justice in the face of racial oppression to become one with the oppressed. 
                This unity of the spiritual with the existential is where space can be found to insert the non-dualism of love into a theology that demands identifying with a particular side.  It is also the place where I can claim Black Liberation Theology as part of the universal nature of my own spiritual thinking.  For it is through love that we become fully human, and the ultimate example of love in Black Theology is the Christ example of becoming one with oppression in order to transcend it in the achievement of a non-dualistic humanity for all.  At the moment of claiming liberation for the black person in America - not merely approving of it, but becoming the liberating aspect - we are fully realized spiritual and existential beings.  Cone (1990) quotes Marx in this respect in that "freedom is the essence of is not something outside one who freely is, it is the specific mode or structure of being" (p. 89). 

The Responsibility of Consciousness
                By truly recognizing freedom as an intrinsic part of our human nature, we have no choice but to side with the oppressed, and this is true whether we consider ourselves Christians or not.  It is at this point that the historical narrative of African-American oppression through slavery, Jim Crow and the modern prison system touches consciousness as an awareness of these structural conditions demands a response.  Once we can clearly see the racism in our society, we must seek to destroy it, or risk our own humanity by continuing to participate in this racist society, thus giving validation to its existence as an oppressive entity that inhibits development.  Later, we will explore how this consciousness is being challenged in the modern day through the denial of continuing racist structural conditions. 
                Much of what I've been saying is not only central to an understanding of Cone, but applies equally to the more secular liberation theory of people such as Paulo Freire (2007).  While Freire would not use language involving Christ, I would argue that the difference between his philosophy and Cone's is semantic.  In books such as Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire (2007) discusses love and universal humanization in parallel to Cone's Christ and the assumption of blackness.  Freire's philosophy is the more general description of the contextual Black Liberation Theology in modern day America.  Philosophies such as Freire's and Cone's mix so well because they all point to the same universal truth and unity that I express as the ultimate divinity or love.  Cone (1990) would seem to make allusions to people such as Freire as effectively being Christian in action through scriptures such as Matthew 25:31 which shows the surprise on the part of those welcomed into heaven by a Christ who commends them for identifying with "the least of these".  In other places, Cone continues this thread of theology by confronting the modern Western conception of Christianity and its focus on codes of morality and theological intricacies at the expense of engaging and living the life of Christ through loving action (Cone, 1990). 

Praxis Through Identification
                From a development standpoint, the full unfolding of humanity as described by Galtung cannot exist in a dualistic setting of dehumanization.  Freire (2007) emphasizes that humanity is not something that one can determine for another, or something that can be assigned or taken away from a person as it is the essence of being.  It is the oppressed themselves that must be conscientious of the structures they are under, even though this awareness can produce fear in the responsibility it carries.  But it is this responsibility, I believe, that provides the full opportunity for self-actualization and agency.  Both Cone and Freire describe this awareness which by nature leads to the praxis of revolution as an expression of love towards the humanity that has not only been denied to the oppressed revolutionary, but to the oppressor as well through their warped worldview. 
                The possession of the humanity of the oppressed is not something that the oppressor can own and yet remain human themselves.  Humanity is only available to the individual as self-humanity.  It is not something that one can "own" from another and still retain their own humanity.   The two do not mix, for the process of owning creates a commodity and takes away the spiritual element of our human condition.  The oppressor may possess and even kill the physical body, but the humanity itself is something that they have no control over.  Cone (1990) would say that this is where God is evident in Black Liberation Theology, and particularly in the Godly concept of freedom.  We are each the possessor and along with God, the only possessor of our humanity.  The key is awareness of this fact, and what it requires of us. 
                We are now beginning to see how history, consciousness and praxis are so intertwined that it is very difficult to talk about one without including all.  The historical condition of "being black" in America gives the black person alone the ability to obtain freedom from racism for all of us through the conscious awareness and praxis of liberating revolution.  However, it is not enough for those of us whose historical narrative is not identical to the African American to simply show support without active involvement.  The black American is the only one able to obtain a society liberated from racism through revolution - Black Liberation Theology states this as a fact tied directly to the meaning of liberation in the life (and death) of Christ (Cone, 1990).  What this means for the rest of us is that we must assume this same "black identity" or be on the side of the oppressor.  In this sense, blackness is freedom, blackness is a calling to be "Christ-like" in modern America.  Blackness in America equals liberation precisely because of its oppressed nature (Cone, 1990).  If we are going to be serious about the development of all on a global scale, then we must start at home, and we must do so by being aware that our identity as humans is inextricably tied into all of us "becoming black".  This then will restore humanity to all so that domestic development can truly begin in a unified liberated communal structure of freedom rather than oppression.  

Modern Racial Dialogue
                One of the biggest threats to consciousness that I have observed in personal experience is the masterful re-articulation of post-racial colorblindness combined with racial fatigue in many people, both white and black.  I have black friends who recognize and acknowledge racism, but I have just as many who are ready to move past the rhetoric in the age of Obama and are honest in saying that they are tired of the debate.  This makes it very difficult for me as a white man to engage in dialogue concerning issues of race with my black friends.  It is a bit unnerving as well in that this can create issues of uncertainty as to the proper role for those of us who are white and concerned about total human development in America. 
                For me, this has become especially true over the past few years as my awareness has increased in that individual freedom is contingent upon universal freedom.  It is an all or nothing approach to freedom as expressed in full human development that has been brought to me through the knowledge that my own human development has come out of personal trauma and the concomitant responsibility that I have seen placed on me as a result.  This awareness showed me how de-humanized I had allowed myself to become by too closely identifying with and being a part of a system of excess which obtains its benefits through oppressing others, and particularly African Americans in the United States.  The structure of racism in the existential sense is current, but the current condition is only possible through the historical narrative, which continues to point to the fact that this country was built on the shoulders of black slave labor. 
                Racism has become incredibly well integrated into the complex structures of modern American society and rhetoric, and it is often difficult to recognize since an open expression of racial bias is taboo in the present day.  Many who think like me want to believe that this scourge is gone from our present day structures, but the statistics - particularly in rates of African American incarceration - show otherwise (Alexander, 2010).  The elimination of widespread openly racist language would be welcome in a different context, but considering that the racism itself has not disappeared with the rhetoric, this lack of overt racism is dangerous in that it evades the issues and allows ignorance to the fact of continued racism.  Better to have racism out in the open - even if it is openly offensive - so that we can know what challenges need to be met, rather than having to deal with a structural oppression that works quite effectively because the exact structures are so intelligently disguised. 
                American society has gained a consciousness of denial through justifying its declaration of post-racial conditions by pointing to the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. (honored by a holiday/national monument) and the election of a half-black President.  It is a phenomenon that is similar, and in fact very closely tied to the spirit of dissatisfaction with the oppressive structures of Capitalism that became a global revolutionary movement in the 1960's, and then faded into obscurity as it came close to overturning but ultimately succumbing to the power of global Capital and its continued exploitation of the poor.  From my vantage point, it would appear that Capitalism gained a societal currency and justification in its defeat of communism.  As communism was the portrayed great evil and enemy, the sins of Capitalism were much easier to ignore and bury. 
                In the case of racism, Capitalism simply assimilated and introduced small tokens to justify its new "recognition" of past injustices by providing programs such as affirmative action and outlawing segregation and overt legalized discrimination of African Americans (Alexander, 2010).  Yet Michelle Alexander (2010) has illustrated just how much of a smokescreen this illegality of discrimination has become by pointing to several legal precedents, such as the Supreme Court case Alexander v. Sandoval in 2001 that effectively eliminated the opportunity to challenge criminal convictions on the basis of racial bias. 

Modern Racism as Incarceration
                Alexander's book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration In The Age Of Colorblindness (2010) is a concrete useful analysis of racism in the midst of a complex modern America.  In the present day, structural components of racism are perhaps stronger than ever, but their strength lies in their interconnection, not as individual elements.  It is because of the interconnectedness of modern structural racism that it so difficult to isolate components of the larger system in an attempt to eliminate or even identify them (Alexander, 2010).    This makes constructive dialogue surrounding racist issues frustrating in our time as we are often hard pressed to define specific examples of what racism looks like. 
                Racism has been so integral to the existence and origin of America (e.g. elimination of the Amerindians as a threat and a people combined with black slave labor in the colonies), that the historical narrative of the nation is impossible to discuss without reference to the Indian or the black person.  One of the factors in covering up the atrocities in the national consciousness - I believe - is that the narrative has presented itself in the past tense, dealing with racism as a topic which time itself has eliminated.  The skillful manipulation of rhetoric and presentation of the glorious American narrative has allowed it a mythical status comparable to the Bible in the minds of many nationalists (and as such, it is a topic that is not to be challenged).  Therefore, since racism is woven into the Indra's Net construction of all that we call "American", it is inextricably a part of everything that involves tangible national dialogue.  It is no longer necessary to discuss race precisely because it is so ubiquitous.  The lack of dealing with racism is not a matter of apathy, it is a subconscious matter of survival to the nation as we know it.  To properly deal with racism would require the unraveling of a national narrative and the reconstruction of a new honest one.  In fact, from the very beginning of our nation, The United States has been living a lie.  Martin Luther King has famously called America to account for not living up the creed of its founders (King, 1992), which of course states that all are created equal. 
                Michelle Alexander (2010) has used this underlying component of racism in our national narrative to help explain why the new Jim Crow is the disproportionate incarceration and resulting demonization of African Americans.  In her book, she walks us through the various stages of the penal and justice systems, showing how money, legal precedents, national rhetoric and most importantly, the war on drugs all add their own layers to the system of containment that surround the African-American both figuratively and literally (Alexander, 2010). 
                As Alexander (2010) herself states, it is impossible to examine all the ways that racism is tied into the structures of American society in an abbreviated fashion, but the war on drugs is a particularly illustrative example.  In major American cities, up to 80% of young African American males have criminal records directly tied to their use or possession of drugs (Alexander, 2010).  This is despite the fact that the rate of drug use among African Americans is no higher and sometimes less than that of whites.  Yet 80-90% of people incarcerated for drug use are African American (Alexander, 2010).  If this alone doesn't cause suspicion at the injustice and racism of the system, it's hard to imagine what it will take to convince the willfully blind. 
                But the incarceration of African Americans is not the worst part of what we call the "criminal justice system" in America.  Once a person has been labeled a felon (and in some states - including Nevada, my home for ten years - even marijuana possession is a felony), they are stuck with that label for life.  So one joint, one smoke in the presence of a police officer has the potential to effectively ostracize a person from being able to function as a self-sufficient individual for the rest of their lives.  The label of "felon" bars people from employment, college loans, voting, housing and numerous other areas that are essential to day to day existence and long-term human development (Alexander, 2010).  It doesn't take a great deal of critical thinking to realize that when a person is left with little or no choice to feed themselves or obtain money, then they are much more likely to return to crime, particularly if they have already committed similar crimes in the past.   Given these facts, issues surrounding the prison system as it relates to African Americans is far from being irrelevant to development questions.  It is at the very heart of what it means to develop modern American society into its full potential. 
                This is also the case when considering - as Tim Wise does in his book Colorblind (2010) - the continued discrimination against minorities in the workplace.  Using multiple studies, Wise points to the fact that 600,000 African Americans annually experience blatant discrimination that directly affects their ability to find gainful employment (Wise, 2010).  These studies do not even take into consideration the challenges faced by former felons (the study only tracked applicants with non-criminal records), nor do they identify the indeterminate amount of informal application processes where it is impossible to gauge the factor that racism plays.

The Cross Of The Modern Black Christ
                Having spent my younger years growing up in the Christian church, the depth of the sacrifice that Jesus made was constantly emphasized to us by the fact that crucifixion was reserved for only the worst of criminals in the Roman Empire.  In other words, it was the most degrading punishment and form of death that one can imagine.  Jesus chose to become the lowest and most ostracized of human beings - even in death - in order to assume a liberation that would give freedom to all. 
                Understanding this nature of the death of Christ, what do we find when we combine it with a foundational theology rooted in the black experience, and articulated by James Cone, Cornel West, Martin Luther King Jr, and even Paul Freire and Malcolm X among others?  Keeping in mind that Black Liberation Theology places a great emphasis on the here and now tangible, flesh and blood application of Christianity,  I put forth the argument that the cross of the black Christ in modern day America is the prison.  No other structure has such power in stripping away the life and humanity of an entire community of people.  No other structure creates such disdain for its inhabitants and effectively marginalizes them and makes it socially acceptable to hate and avoid them.  Jesus was despised at the time of His death by the powers and society that He was a part of, yet it was through this that He transcended all and obtained a liberation for those who identified and continue to identify with Him. 
                Alexander (2010) has stated that the most damaging aspect of the justice system is the permanent stigma placed on the convicted felon.  It is not hard to understand why, for not only does it bare the person from employment in the face of an already discriminatory system as stated above, but it increases the chances that the felon will become a repeat offender simply to survive.  In addition, the chances of the person turning to drugs and/or alcohol as a means of escapism from an existential nightmare is substantially increased.  Thus, the former felon once again risks arrest for possession and use of illicit substances in the senseless and cyclical "War on Drugs".  Of course their poverty continues as well in that they find it harder and harder to make money through legal employment. 

Setting The Captives Free
                In looking for answers in dealing with modern issues of race, we have come full circle in our discussion of history, consciousness and praxis.  Racism has been deeply embedded in America by way of European culture, colonialism and institutionalism over a process of centuries.  It will not be dismantled simply from a couple of decades of intense activism and legislation in the mid 20th century. In the post-counterculture era of carefully chosen rhetoric and politically correct public personas, the lack of discussion has created a cover for perhaps the most dangerous manifestation of racism to date as it intertwines itself through structures culminating in the prison system.  Each individual component is visible from afar, but is very difficult to identify as we try to look closely at it.  This is true - as both Tim Wise (2010) and Michelle Alexander (2010) inform us - in the way that the police (legally) place undue emphasis upon monitoring "poor urban" (read: "black") communities looking for drug offenders as it is in judges imposing disproportionate sentencing guidelines based on race. 
                For those of us in modern day America, the road is a long and difficult one, but it is attainable through a continued emphasis on history, consciousness and praxis in all areas of human development.  This means that we must be aware that racism is a part of our national fabric, that it is this racism and the human objects of it that hold the very keys to liberation, and that any praxis of development which doesn't identify directly with the oppressed - the African American and other minorities - will be a futile spiritual and existential exercise. 

Concluding Thoughts:  How Will We Answer The Call?
                For the Christian and those of other love traditions, the challenge articulated by Cone cannot be ignored.  What will we do when made conscious of the oppressed African American?  Our consciousness is an awesome responsibility.  In my own life, my political and social awakening created a restlessness in me that culminated in the ending of a career for a life of activism and peacebuilding.  The more conscious I became, the more I was unable to ignore the spiritual nature of the call upon my life.  While I would not identify it as coming strictly from Christ, I wouldn't disavow the Christ-like nature of the call.  Cone is another of those authors who has effectively articulated what I have long sensed in my own being - that is to say that there is unity in the natural order of all that exists, and that the free nature of existence is only as strong as its weakest member, which is why we find liberation to achieve full human development and the key to obtaining it for all at the very place where oppression exists and in the actions of those who are subject to it.  We can then begin by fully identifying with the oppressed as possessing the same humanity we find in ourselves (by not doing so we in fact become oppressed ourselves) and re-igniting the national consciousness and dialogue surrounding issues of race.  We have to not only re-start the racial dialogue, but re-frame it for those who are racially fatigued.   Fatigue could be looked at as another component in the perpetuation of racist cultural dynamics, and is an effective tool in the oppressor's hands in the fight against racial equity. 
                How we overcome racism will require some creative revolutionary thinking in addressing centuries old problems.  The system as it now stands will need to be reconstructed or at the very least re-storied.  We must develop a new national narrative and dialogue that properly accords issues of race its place in history.  As we trace racial dynamics back to the founding of the country, and follow their path through our history, perhaps then we can recognize how the historical has informed the present and created the structures that we have today.  If necessary, and if we have the will, those structures may have to be completely destroyed and rebuilt again in order for the country to survive.  The future of America depends upon full human development which cannot be attained until we achieve full racial liberation through identifying and realizing what it means to be the least of these in our society.  

Alexander, M. (2010). The new jim crow: mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness. New York: The New Press.
Cone, J. (1990). A black theology of liberation: twentieth anniversary edition. Maryknoll: Orbis Books.
Cone, J. (1997). Black theology and black power. Maryknoll: Orbis Books.
Freire, P. (2007). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Continuum.
Galtung, J. (2010). A theory of development: overcoming structural violence. Oslo: Transcend University Press.
Jr., M. L. (1992). I have a dream: writings & speeches that changed the world. New York: HarperCollins.
Sen, A. (2000). Freedom as development. New York: Random House.
West, C. (2010). Brother west: living and loving out loud, a memoir. New York: Smiley Books.
West, C. (1999). The cornel west reader. New York: Basic Civitas Books.
West, C., & Morrison, T. (2006, August 26). Toni morrison & cornel west in conversation. Retrieved April 2012, from You tube:
Wise, T. (2010). Colorblind: the rise of post-racial politics and the retreat from equity. San Francisco: City Lights Books.
X, M. (1965). Malcolm x speaks. New York: Grove Press.


Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for this!! I am attempting to see how black liberation theology speaks to the humanity of the felon.. i am finding the discourse is shallow at best.

timradioboy said...

Thank you for the comment. I'd love to dialogue more with you on the humanity of the felon as you described it. Much of my current work is on just that very topic. You (or anyone) can feel free to e-mail me at