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Making Religion Relevant:
"What Does It Mean To Be Black And Christian?"

by Jacqueline Trussell
Founder and President of

In October 1992, a group of African American religious leaders gathered at Vanderbilt University’s School of Divinity to wrestle with the question, "what does it mean to be black and Christian?" The meeting was aimed at bringing the pulpit, the pew and the academy into national dialogue. According to Forrest C. Harris, director of the Kelly Miller Smith Institute on Black Church Studies and convener of the conference, the program’s purpose was to challenge African American understanding of these two critical and crucial pieces of African American religious identity. "What does it mean to be Black and Christian?" Harris writes, "is an identity question that lies at the center of the Black community’s struggle for liberation." (1) The battle to interpret this question is being waged by clergy and with black Christian lay people who fill the seats on Sunday. African American theologians are engaging in this enterprise to help them relate their scholarly research with the spiritual lives of everyday people.

Comparatively, African theologians have raised similar issues on the continent of Africa. "Wrestling with the question of African Christian identity entailed not only confronting constantly the problem of how ‘old’ and ‘new’ in African religious consciousness could become integrated in a unified vision of what it meant to be Christian and African."(2) In their search for answers to these questions, both the African and the African American theologian turned to the Bible. Thus, we will briefly examine how African and African American theologians have searched for a black Christian identity in the Scriptures while trying to make religion relevant for the pulpit, the pew and the academy.

Liberation language is integral to how African Americans interpret the Bible. From the Exodus story of Moses in the Hebrew Bible to Jesus’ ministry to the poor and oppressed in the New Testament, African Americans have embraced the Word of God and made it their own. As Harris says, "The end goal of the dialogue is to encourage ways in which liberation ministry can be effectively reproduced not only through Black theological reflection in both the academy and in Black churches."(3) The aim was clear--to establish a methodology for bringing together the interests of those who teach and preach the Word with those who hear the Word.

One means of theological reflection has been through the application of an African American biblical hermeneutic, i.e. interpretation, to the scriptures. While efforts at this type of scholarship are not new, its acceptance in colleges, universities and schools of divinity has been slow, particularly because the dominant paradigm emphasizes scholars of European descent. Similarly, when black theology was first introduced as a discipline to be considered for serious study, white theologians were less than receptive. University of Chicago Divinity School professor Dwight N. Hopkins knows the difficulty and his work is trying to rectify the situation. "I’m working to get black theology accepted as part of the mainstream theological curriculum, so that it’s taught not only in predominantly black schools, but in every leading seminary and divinity school across the country," he said. (4) Hopkins is among a new generation of black theologians who are seeking to increase the visibility of the subject matter into the mainstream.

Establishing a place for black theology within the academy has been strongly identified with the work of Union Theological Seminary professor, James Cone. In 1969 Cone’s book, Black Theology and Black Power impacted future discussions on African American Christian identity. For the next thirty years, Cone and others would ask, "Is it possible for men to be really black and still feel any identity with the biblical tradition expressed in the Old and the New Testaments? Is it possible to strip the gospel as it has been interpreted of its ‘whiteness,’ so that its real message will become a live option for radical advocates of black consciousness?"(5) As Cone addressed these questions to the white theological establishment, African American biblical scholars were emerging whose work would provide evidence of a positive black identity and presence in the Bible. However, the scholarship produced by this group of biblical interpreters was even slower in finding validity within the academy.

Thus, if those doing research were unable to have their findings published in journals of scholarly repute, how then were those in the pulpit and the pew to know what was taking place? Had anyone noticed how African Americans read scripture? Was there an effort to consider what African Americans brought to the text or found in the text? The answers are yes. One of the earliest appropriations by an African American biblical scholar is that of Rev. R. A. Morrisey, Colored People and Bible History, published in 1925. The book detailed the genealogy of Ham in Genesis 10 and 1 Chronicles 1. It took several decades before another publication raised questions of black Christian identity. In 1968,  Albert Cleage wrote, The Black Messiah. Ironically, as the civil rights movement struggled for liberation from the throes of racism, so too did some within the African American community seek freedom from the images of the white Jesus.

During the 1970s important works were written in the area of African American biblical interpretation. To name a few, Robert A. Bennett's four articles including: "Africa and the Biblical Period", "Black Experience and the Bible"; "Biblical Hermeneutics and the Black Preacher", and "Biblical Theology and Black Theology". Bennett received his doctorate in Old Testament from Harvard Divinity School in 1974. Charles Copher is another who has become known for his pioneering work in the field. "Perspectives and Questions: The Black Religious Experience", first appeared in 1970 and "The Black Man in the Biblical World", was written in 1974. In 1993, much of Copher’s work was collected into the book, Black Biblical Studies: An Anthology of Charles B. Copher, Biblical and Theological Issues on the Black Presence in the Bible. More recently, he contributed articles in Stony the Road We Trod: African American Biblical Interpretation and in a volume on African American religious studies. It should be noted here that many of the articles written throughout the 1970s and early 1980s were published in journals associated with black institutions.

As the pursuit for locating a cultural identity in the Bible increased within the consciousness of the African American community, scholarship on black biblical studies expanded and gained credibility. Black prophetic Christian clergy added kente cloth to their ministerial robes, hung portraits of Jesus as a black man in their sanctuaries and some adopted the theme, "unapologetically black, unashamedly Christian." (6) The black church began to embrace an African centered ideology and worship experience. To be effective in the pulpit, these ministers needed the research produced by black biblical scholars to help in translating the Bible into a language that spoke to the people’s African roots. Renita Weems, an Old Testament scholar at Vanderbilt Divinity School wrote, Just a Sister Away: A Womanist Vision of Women’s Relationship in the Bible in 1988. Howard Divinity School scholar, Cain Hope Felder followed in 1989 with Troubling Biblical Waters: Race, Class and Family. Clergy turned to these works as resources for interpreting the scripture in praxis, that is, applying black biblical scholarship to the lives of the people in their congregations.

In Africans Who Shaped Our Faith, the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr., offers the reader twelve sermons delivered from the pulpit of his church, Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, Illinois. The messages exemplify the use of black biblical interpretation in delivering the word of God to the people in the pew. Wright dispels the myth of the "white man’s religion" as he weaves the lives of black biblical characters with that of ordinary Christians. In sermon after sermon we observe the influence of a black biblical hermeneutic applied to familiar stories from the Old and New Testaments.

Thus we see the progression: from the freedom movement of the 1960s to the black power call to conscious in the 1970s onward to affirmative action and political enfranchisement in the latter half of the twentieth century. Simultaneously, black theology and black biblical interpretation assisted African American religious institutions, clergy and congregants in gaining answers to the question of finding an African American Christian identity. 

Several thousand miles away, the question of a black African and Christian identity was being raised by scholars engaged in a discourse similar to their African American colleagues across the ocean. North African theologians like the previously quoted Bediako and South African black theologians such as Itumeleng J. Mosala, searched the Bible for an African and Christian identity in their own struggles for liberation. As Mosala points out, "Black theology in South Africa first emerged in the context of the black consciousness movement during the late 1960s and early 1970s."(7) This statement could just as easily been written on the sources of black theology in America. The parallels of the struggle for liberation taking place on two separate continents and the results produced by each, are interesting and are looked at in other studies, but it is not our purpose. 

Mosala is critical of what he calls black theology's failure to reach the masses of people. He writes, "It [black theology] has remained the monopoly of educated black Christians and has often been unable to interest the white theologians against whose theology it was supposedly first developed. Further, it has been unable to develop organic links with the popular struggles of especially the black working-class people, the most exploited segment of the black community."(8) This criticism has also been thrust at African American theologians who some say have developed theoretical frameworks rather than a methodology of application for the ordinary African American Christian. While I agree that this may have been the case for most of the thirty years or so of black American theological inquiry, I would argue that in the latter half of the twentieth century there has been an increase in the number of clergy, churches and congregations actively engaged in the practice of black theology or what I and others call, applied black theology. 

This type of theology, "works with the oppressed black community for their full humanity."(9) This definition of black theology as used by Dwight Hopkins, is observed when black Christian masses, who hear the Word of God translated into a language relevant to their lives and experience as African American Christians, applies a pro-active response to the needs of the communities where they live, work and serve. Thus the practical aspect of implementing what has been researched and taught by the academy and heard from the pulpit begins. Rev. J. Alfred Smith, pastor emeritus of Allen Temple Baptist Church in Oakland, California knows how this principle operates. Smith states, "I believe that the Church in the world is to continue the work agenda of our Lord in a servant ministry to a world in need of healing and reconciliation."(10) He continues by prompting the church to act. "...I believe in the ability of the parish church to incarnate the heart and mind of Jesus Christ, in action [emphasis mine] to humanize and personalize its life in a dehumanized and depersonalized environment."

At Allen Temple, ministries are designed to include the community. Examples of the types of ministries at the church include: an elementary school and after school tutoring program; a community health and counseling center, a federal credit union and food center, a homeless shelter, prison ministry, teen, crime and youth delinquency prevention programs, political education and the rehabilitation of neighborhood housing. I would like to suggest that Mosala, on the one hand, would argue that this church has moved beyond "analysis" and gotten to "the bottom of real events, relationships, structures, and so forth."(11)

Bediako, on the other hand, would point to the relevance of translating the Bible into "vernacular" language that transforms the human understanding of the Word of God thus moving the church to action. African Christians must learn to utilize their knowledge of biblical messages to engage in what Justin Ukpong calls inculturation hermeneutics. Here is where the process of, as he states, "rereading the Bible with African eyes,"(12) begins--with an African interpretation that includes the social and cultural context. What results is the formation of a black African Christian identity that is lived rather than discussed.

The South African fight for the liberation of black African people and the wars and famines in other parts of the continent have helped shape the influence of black theology in these lands. The formation of an African and Christian identity is a continual struggle due in part to the overwhelming influence of history’s past. African Americans face a similar conflict. However, the hope is the same. "Almost every Black Christian knows or should know Revelation 1:14-15. It is the only passage in the Bible where a physical description of Jesus is given...He was a real man from Africa. The African who shaped our faith more than any other African was, of course, Jesus."(13)

Jacqueline Trussell is founder and president of

(1)  Forrest C. Harris, Sr., ed., What Does It Mean To Be Black and Christian? (Nashville: Townsend Press, 1995). p. x.
(2)  Kwame Bediako, epilogue to On Their Way Rejoicing: The history and role of the Bible in Africa, by Ype Schaaf (United            Kingdom: The Paternoster Press, 1996), p. 249.
(3)  Harris, p. xi.
(4)  Dwight N. Hopkins, "A Conversation with Dwight N. Hopkins," interview in The University of Chicago Chronicle, April 3, 1997, p. 5.
(5)  James Cone, Black Theology and Black Power (New York: The Seabury Press, 1969), p. 33.
(6)  This is the motto of Trinity United Church of Christ adopted in the 1970s.
(7)  Itumeleng J. Mosala, Biblical Hermeneutics and Black Theology in South Africa (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1989) p. 1.
(8)  Mosala, p. 2.
(9)  Hopkins, p. 5.
(10) Harris, p. 153.
(11) Mosala, p. 4.
(12) Justin S. Ukpong, "Rereading the Bible with African Eyes," in Journal of Theology for Southern Africa 91: 3-14, 1995.
(13) Jeremiah W. Wright, Jr., Africans Who Shaped Our Faith (Chicago: Urban Ministries, 1995), p. 141.

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