ATL (A Theology of Liberation)
Saturday, May 13, 2006, James Cone, one of the greatest Christian thinkers of our time boycotted the commencement ceremony at International Theological Seminary in Atlanta, Georgia. Cone decided to fore go the honorary doctorate he was to receive because of theological differences with the very gifted, prominent and influential Bishop Eddie Long who served as commencement speaker. Before this unexpected move by Cone, a substantial faction of graduating seniors issued an open letter to the school president protesting the invitation to Long. The entire matter became very contentious, but ultimately Long did fulfill his requested role to the praise of some and chagrin of others.
The protest of the ITS students cited "questionable administrative practices, theological irresponsibility, and consistent denigration of the value of theological education" as their primary reasons for their contention. To my knowledge Cone has not made any public comments on exactly why he decided to decline his invitation, but as someone who is familiar with his theological outlook, it is safe to assume that that he took issue with Long's preaching, which some critics think is an overly financially focused message or what has commonly been referred to as a "prosperity gospel". In his defense, Long is much more well rounded than his ITS critics acknowledge in their petition. The inspirational quality of his preaching and his long list of good works surely outweighs any theological foibles and questionable financial activities. Then again, I could be biased, because my family has a special connection to the Bishop.
Given that association, I am not sure if I would have participated in the student protest. I do commend the effort, however, because I believe that the soul of the church and the black church in particular is in jeopardy. Whether or not you agree with the student's characterization of Long's theology, we can all wake up to the fact that our faith has become more and more self-serving over the years. It's not about what I can do for God, it's about what God can do for me (and maybe my immediate family and close circle of friends).
Though the number of black preachers and churches who challenged slavery, segregation and injustice were always in the minority, they were a formidable remnant that dominated the public stage similar to how the Religious Right and the fatalistic "rapture" crowd do today. Atlanta, the birthplace of Martin Luther King, Jr., our nation's most celebrated preacher, has a rich legacy of political activism on behalf of the cause of equality and justice. The black church of this country and beyond has been at the center of that struggle from its inception, because it was born to bring salvation to an oppressed people. The black church was tied to, but not bound by a black theology.
In his essay, "Black Theology and the Black Church: Where Do We Go from Here?," Cone discusses the historic relationship between prophetic, black religious thought and practice, as well as it's potential demise:
Black Theology, I have contended, is a theology of liberation, because it has emerged out of and is accountable to a Black church that has always been involved in our historical fight for justice. When black preachers and laypeople hear this message, they respond enthusiastically and with a sense of pride that they belong to a radical and creative tradition. But when I speak to young blacks in colleges and universities, most are surprised that such a radical Black Church tradition really exists. After hearing about David Walker's "Appeal" in 1829, Henry H. Garnet's "Address to the Slaves" in 1843, and Henry M. Turner's affirmation that "God is a Negro" in 1898, these young blacks are shocked. Invariably they ask, "Whatever happened to the black churches of today? Why don't we have the same radical spirit in our preachers and churches?" Young blacks contend that the black churches of today, with very few exceptions, are not involved in liberation but primarily concerned with how much money they raise for a new church building or the preachers anniversary.Cone wrote these comments in 1977 (two years after I was born). How relevant are the criticisms he identifies to the black church of today? There are many black churches that do tremendous good in their communities and some throughout the world. But, does their collective theology develop more congregants into agents of justice or agents of "just me"?
This critique of the Black Church is not limited to young college students. Many black people view the church as a hindrance to black liberation, because black preachers and church members appear to be more concerned about their own institutional survival than the freedom of the poor people in their communities. "Historically," many black radical blacks say, "the Black Church was involved in the struggle but today it is not." They often turn the question back upon me: "All right, granted what you say about the historical black church, but where is an institutional Black church denomination that still embodies the vision that brought it into existence? Are you saying that the present-day A.M.E. Church or A.M.E. Zion Church has the same historical commitment for justice that it had under the leadership of Allen and Payne or Rush and Varick? Sensing they have a point difficult to refute, these radicals then say it is not only impossible to find a Black Church denomination committed to black liberation but also difficult to find a local congregation that defines its ministry in terms of the needs of the oppressed and their liberation.
Whatever we might think about the unfairness of this severe indictment, we would be foolish to ignore it.