Black Theology & Latin America

That Justice is a blind goddess
Is a thing to which we black are wise:
Her bandage hides two festering sores
That once perhaps were eyes. 

Justice, Langston Hughes (1902-1967)

 Martin Luther King Jr., theologian, pastor & civil rights activist

Martin Luther King Jr., theologian, pastor & civil rights activist

What is Latin American theology? What is it about? 

Most white Anglo-Saxon Protestants in the United States are highly suspicious of theology done outside their comfort zones. The Bible read from any other perspective or geographical latitudes seems suspiscious from the get go. 

In order to easily discard theology from minority groups it is often called "third-world" theology or pejoratively "ideological". All biblical interpretation and spirituality is subject to our language and culture. This does not mean that God cannot work through culture - the incarnation reassures us of God's ability to work not in spite of culture but through human experience in order to make Himself known. European or North American, Anglo-Saxon Protestant theology is just as ideological in this sense as is Latin American theology - just founded upon different ideas. 

How can white North Americans begin to discover the beauty and power of Latin American theology? Here's an idea: start closer to home. Begin reading Black theology. 

But before you begin reading Black theology, try reading black literature. 

African American literature, both fiction and non-fiction can open up your eyes to the reality of the black experience in the U.S. Here is short list of some of my favorite authors:

Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me. New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2015. 

Toni Morrison, The Origin of Others. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2017. 

Maya Angelou, The Complete Poetry. New York: Random House, 2015. 

James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time. New York: Vintage International, 1993. 

 

In one of her most well known short stories, "The Artificial Nigger", Flannery O'Connor describes what happens to white people who have preconceived notions of black people. In light of her literary warning, I urge you to read African American literature with open hearts and minds as an exercise in empathy. Not only that, let's pray we will not need an eschatological vision like O'Connor's character, Mrs. Turpin in "Revelation" in order to understand "we're all God's children". 

 

Once you have gained a greater perspective on the condition of black lives in the United States, you will be much more prepared to delve into Black theology. Here are a few titles that serve as good introductions, in my humble opinion, to major themes in Black theology. 

Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited. Boston: Beacon Press, 1996. 

Martin Luther King Jr., Strength to Love. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010. 

James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2013. 

James H. Cone, God of the Oppressed. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1997. 

 

If you can read African American literature and not be moved by Te-Nehisi Coates' account of growing up on the streets of Baltimore, Toni Morrison's masterful literary critique of white literature concerning the black experience, Maya Angelou's writings about caged birds singing and James Baldwin's struggle with hate, love and forgiveness, there is little hope that you can begin to understand what it is like to walk in someone else's shoes. 

African American literature and Black theology give a testimony that while all people are equal before God, they are not so before the laws of men. 

I began reading Black theology after a decade in Latin America. After having served four years in an ethnically diverse ministry during my college years I thought I had an elementary notion of what it meant to be black in the United States. May God forgive me for being so blind and ignorant. I still have no way of understanding completely what it means to be black in the U.S. Nevertheless, I am thankful for African American literature and for black theologians and social activists such as Dr. Cornel West for opening my heart and mind to other realities.

 

So once again, to my dear friends in North America, if you would like to better understand Latin American theology, start closer to home. Read some superb literature, give these writers an attentive ear and an open heart. Let God change your imagination then return to the Word and listen for God's call of liberation. It won't sound so scandalous or even socialist once you've begun to understand what it means to be black in the U.S.