Christology from the Perspective of the African American and Insights Gained in Understanding Black Theology from the Viewpoints of African American Theologians and Scholars.
This research paper will explore the doctrine of Christology from the perspective of the African American and insights gained in understanding Black Theology from the viewpoints of African American theologians and scholars. This paper will provide a basic definition of the doctrine and present various perspectives of Black male theologians as well as Womanist theologians as they relate to Christology, along with central themes of Black Theology as they relate to the person of Jesus Christ.This research paper will explore the doctrine of Christology from the perspective of the African American and insights gained in understanding Black Theology from the viewpoints of African American theologians and scholars. This paper will provide a basic definition of the doctrine and present various perspectives of Black male theologians as well as Womanist theologians as they relate to Christology, along with central themes of Black Theology as they relate to the person of Jesus Christ.
Before we can begin to examine Christology from the African American perspective we must first define Christology within the theological framework of the Christian church. Alister E. McGrath''s "Glossary of Theological Terms defines Christology as the section of theology dealing with the identity of Jesus Christ particularly the question of the relation of his divine and human nature.
The Catholic Dictionary defines Christology as that part of theology that deals with "Our Lord Jesus Christ. It comprises the doctrines concerning the person of Christ and His works. The person of Jesus Christ is the second person of the Most Holy Trinity, the Son of the Word of the Father, who "was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary and was made man. The stories and mysteries, which were foretold in Old Testament, are revealed in the person of Christ and in the New Testament.
Many scholars refer to Christology as the branch of theology that seeks to explain the saving work or Christ from the approach of describing who the person, Jesus was. In traditional Christian theology Christology logically precedes soteriology, the doctrine that deals with Christ''s saving work. However in the history of the Christian church soteriology actually preceded Christology because of the belief of the early Christians that the work Jesus did, the miracles, healing and teaching led to the claims about who he was.
The doctrine of Christology originated in the early Christian Church in an attempt to answer the questions: "Who was or who is Jesus? Why was he called the Messiah and believed by many to be the anointed one? What did/does Jesus represent in regards to the salvation of human beings and eternal life? These are just a few of the questions that theologians wrestle with concerning the doctrine of Christology.
The Greek word "christos" means "anointed one" and "logos" means "word about." Therefore Christology is concerned with the union of the divine and human natures. Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ and the one divine Person, the Son of God. Christians believe that Jesus is God or the second person of the Trinity who became incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth.
The Christian Scriptures, and particularly the Gospels serves as our primary sources for learning about the person of Christ. One theme is consistent throughout the Canon. All of the books deal in some way with the life and ministry of Jesus and the impact he had on the early Christian community and his followers. The responses to Jesus'' question "Who do you say that I am" have helped Christians understand their faith and witness since Peter''s first answer that Jesus is the Messiah. (Matthew 16:16) In a rich variety of images and concepts the New Testament describes, teaches and affirms who Jesus is, what he has done and what remains to be done.
It was the issue of slavery and the treatment of African Americans by Christians who preached Jesus as savior of all that led to the development of Black Theology, which seeks to answer the question "Who is Jesus Christ for African Americans? Indeed the answer to this question encompasses a lengthy discourse along with indepth research concerning Christology. The response to the question definitely requires an examination of the culture and the experience of African Americans in their journeys through the Christian faith. It also entails a major discussion of the black theology that has emerged in the United States as a result of slavery and the black experience in America.
But the point, which must be made in response to Jesus'' question "But who do you say that I am?" in dealing with the African American perspective concerning Christology can only be understood through religious discourse that has deep cultural roots and profound theological implications. Both African American male theologians as well as women theologians are doing much work in the area of Christology.
James Cone, one of the first black theologians to emphasize the need for a black theology affirms that Christian theology begins and ends with Christology. Cone states that because Jesus Christ is the focal point of all we know about the Christian gospel, it is therefore necessary to explore the person of Jesus Christ and his work in light of the black perspective. Cone believes that in order to make Jesus Christ relevant to black reality, the task of black theology must begin with asking the question "What does Jesus Christ mean for the oppressed blacks of the land?" (Cone: Black theology of Liberation 110-111)
Cone further contends that the investigation of Jesus Christ must involve the identity of the historical Jesus. Without knowledge of the character and behavior of the historical Jesus of Galilee it is impossible for blacks to assess who Jesus of the 21st century is. Before we can determine the mode of Jesus existence today we must take seriously the examination of the historical Jesus and it''s implication on the African American''s practice of the Christian faith. According to Cone, black theology must show that Albert Cleage''s description Jesus as the Black Messiah "is not the product of minds distorted by their own oppressed condition, but is rather the most meaningful christological statement in our time. (Cone ? 111-114)
Demonstration of the relationship of the historical Jesus Christ and the oppressed, begins with a serious encounter with the biblical revelation beginning with the birth of Jesus Christ, continuing on to Jesus'' baptism and temptation, next understanding Jesus'' ministry, and finally a critical examination of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Cone concludes that the gospels are not biographies of Jesus; they are "gospel?that is good news about what God has done in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus." Christology from the black perspective must begin with this focus, which recognizes history as an indispensable foundation of Christology. This foundation prevents us from making Jesus what we wish him to be at certain moments of existence. By taking a serious and critical historical examination of Jesus in the New Testament, we know who Jesus is today and who he was. (Cone 119)
James H. Evans dialogues with other black theologians from the perspective of "Jesus Christ: Liberator and Mediator," in We Have Been Believers. Evans states that the idea of Jesus is so deeply ingrained in the black religious experience that some have given a negative assessment of black religion and the doctrine of Christology. They have gone so far as to say in a negative assessment that the "Christianity of African people in the United States is, in essence, Jesusology. James Evans is clear to distinguish that "implicit within this criticism is a curious dichotomy between the humanity and divinity of Jesus the Christ, that is indeed inconsistent with African-American theological thought."
Evans details the development of Christology in two clearly defined positions regarding Jesus. The first focuses on the idea of Jesus as the "Messiah" with all the Hebraic implications and Biblical interpretations, where Jesus is referred to as a liberator of an oppressed humanity, freeing them from powers of sin and social structures. The spiritual implications existent in this position found in the Luken text quoted by Howard Thurman; "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, to preach good news to the poor..." provides the foundation. The second position focuses on the notion of Jesus as "the Christ," who is first and foremost understood to be the "Son of God." From this standpoint Jesus is referred to as a "mediator between the forces of evil, the effects of sin, and the forces of good, the powers of redemption." Most black theologians fall somewhere between these two positions.
Regarding a black Messiah noted black theologians such J. Deotis Roberts, James Cone, and Gayraud Wilmore who hold centrist positions regarding Christology agree primarily on the position that the notion of a "black Messiah in African-American religious thought is primarily symbolic, however it is important as a theological symbol because it grounds the biblical teaching in the context of the black culture and the black experience."
African American theologians struggle with the christological issues the same as their contemporary European scholars. However it is important to note that the particular shape that a doctrine of Christ that will be understood in the black community and the black church is that which is closest in the hearts of African American Christians. The two emerging issues for Christology in black theology in the twenty-first century according to James Evans are: 1) the "mediation of traditional sources of sustenance and resistance in African American religious expressions, and 2) the liberation of oppressed persons." The issue of mediation of traditional sources is evident in the writings of womanist theologians, such as Jacquelyn Grant, another topic for a separate research paper. The second topic of liberation is central to the mindset of many black Christian theologians.
Jacquelyn Grant, in her book White Women''s Christ and Black Women''s Jesus, challenges the feminist perspective of Christology and argues that a womanist Christology must center on the humanity of Jesus and not on Jesus'' maleness. The humanity of Jesus serves as the primary reference for the liberation freedom that black women have experienced in today''s society. As an African American woman I am in agreement with Grant that Jesus the Christ represents " a three-fold significance," in that Jesus identifies with the "little people," or the people in the margins, secondly Jesus affirms the basic humanity of these, as "the least," and thirdly Jesus inspires active hope in the struggle for a resurrected and liberated existence."
Grant outlines the beginnings of Womanist Christology based on the black woman''s expression of faith as revealed in the black church. Although she rejects the traditional "male image of the divine," emphasizing that the significance of Christology is not found in the maleness of Jesus, but rather in his humanity, she does not however, question the fact that Jesus died on the cross in order to save us from our sin ? the heart of the Christian faith. Grant''s Christology has been shaped has been shaped by the black church experience through the voices of women like Jareena Lee and Sojourner Truth.
Another voice among black women is that of Katie Canon who contends that the Bible is the highest source of authority for most black women. It is in the Bible that black women come to relate to Jesus and find hope for the life situations and dilemmas they struggle with on a daily basis. As God-fearing women these women maintain that life in the black community is more than a defensive reaction to oppressive circumstances. The life that these women live is the "rich, colorful creativity that emerged and reemerges in the Black quest for human dignity." And it is Jesus who provides the necessary soul for liberation.
Elaine A. Crawford in her essay "Womanist Christology: Where Have We Come From and Where Are We Going?" provides an excellent overview of the Womanist perspectives concerning the contextual theological and Christological questions, "who is Jesus," and "how is Jesus related to humanity?"
These questions that have been sources of debate since the first century give rise to womanist views regarding the person, presence, participation, and purpose of Jesus Christ. Crawford explains that although womanist theology is a relatively new discipline in theological discourse, black women have been "critiquing, reconstructing, and theologizing since Hagar''s radical theological move in the wilderness to name her God." According to Crawford the question "Where Have We Come From and Where Are We Going?" is foundational in understanding Christology from the perspective of a womanist theology and to the emergence of black women''s consciousness.
For black women the life of Jesus Christ serves as the hermeneutical key or "interpretive reality" in one''s understanding of self and humanity. Womanist as well as feminist theologies have brought a hermeneutic of suspicion to Biblical texts and have thus developed a hermeneutical perspective that uplifts the experiences of women.
There are many voices within the Womanist theological camp as there are approaches to guiding a womanist understanding of Christ. The voices include many of those womanist theologians whose works have been cited in this research paper along with those whose struggle for freedom from slavery, civil rights and women''s rights are too numerous to mention. One other voice that should be mentioned with regard to the doctrine of Christology is that of Renita Weems, Professor of Old Testament at Vanderbilt Divinity School, Nashville, Tennessee.
Weems informs us that Jesus was changing the lives of women even before he was born and Jesus'' ministry on earth profoundly challenged society''s restrictions on women''s roles in the Jewish tradition.
Weems also reminds us of the women who followed Jesus to the bitter end. The women who knew only too well what it was like to be rejected, renounced and condemned, stood at the cross where Jesus was crucified. These women who had been with him from the beginning affirmed his Messiahship, served him and prayed for him. Like their contemporary sisters who continue to be ignored, omitted, dismissed and resented by a Euro centric culture, these women found peace and encouragement in each other and in the life and words of their Savior.
Theologically, the heart and mind of the black church and the black preacher are and have always been centered in Christology.
While the stories and characters of the Old Testament have played a tremendous role in the life of the black church and in the experience of the black preacher, Christology has been central. Black churchgoers have identified traditionally with Jesus, Calvary and "early Sunday morning," as understood from the perspective of New Testament. The whole of the Black experience can be understood in the identification of the suffering Jesus. Jesus identified more readily with the oppressed, the downcast, the poor, the imprisoned, and the powerless minorities in societies (Luke 4:18,19; 15). It is this image of Christ that black people ground their theological identity in the association of their lives to that of Jesus Christ. (Jubilee Bible)
Black theologians whether male or female hold that the Jesus of history is important in the African American understanding of who he was and his significance for us today. More than anyone they have captured the essence of the significance of Jesus in the lives of Black people. They have affirmed that Jesus is the Christ, God incarnate and have argued that in light of the Black experience, Jesus is freedom. As Jesus identified with the lowly of his day, he now identifies with the lowly of this day. Jesus has provided freedom from socio-psychological, psycho-cultural, economic and political oppression of Black people. (Black Theology, 283)
In conclusion the issue of Christology and one Christ, or many Christ, or that of a Black Messiah is far from being resolved within the theological spectrum today. Whether the doctrine is tied to the classical or traditional belief or viewed from the perspectives of feminist theologians, contemporary theologians, liberationist theologians, or African American male or womanist theologians, the question posed by Jesus still remains crucial. "But who do you say that I am?" The basic understanding as Christians must be affirmed that Jesus the Christ is the way and the hope for all of humanity. Jesus liberates us from our sins and from injustice and oppression and from indifference. Jesus brings to light the God in each of us and empowers us to share that light and bear witness to others of God''s grace and salvation through the risen Christ.
In the words of Bishop Joseph A Johnson, Jr., "The Church believed that Jesus came into the world for a special purpose. He did not come into the world to give us information on questions of history or science. Jesus came into the world to bring humanity back to God and a real part of Jesus'' saving work was to impart to humankind something of his own vision of the truth of God. Jesus came to reveal the character of God and God''s purpose for humankind.
The fulfillment of Jesus mission granted obedience to the will of God."Alister E. McGrath. Christian Theology, An Introduction. (Oxford University: Blackwell Publishers, 1997.)
McBrien, Richard. The Harper Collins Encyclopedia of Catholicism. San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1995.
McBrien. James H. Evans, Jr. We Have Been Believers. (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 1992)
Jacquelyn Grant. White Women''s Christ and Black Woman''s Jesus. Feminist Christology and Womanist Response. (Atlanta: Scholar''s Press, 1989.)
Letty M. Russell, Editor. "The Emergence of Black Feminist Consciousness." Feminist Interpretation of the Bible. (Westminster Press: Philadelphia, 1985).
Elaine Crawford. "Womanist Christology: "Where Have We Come From and Where are We Going?" Review and Expositor Journal, Vol. 95, 1998. 367-380
Renita J. Weems. Just a Sister Away. (Lura Media: San Diego CA, 1988)
Alan L. Joplin