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Why Lord? Suffering and Evil in Black Theology.

Reviewed by

Dwight N. Hopkins The Divinity School of the University of Chicago

Throughout the history of black religion - from its origin during slavery, through the post-bellum proliferation of black churches, to today's institutionalization of black theology in the academy and churches - African American Christians have maintained steadfastly two cardinal tenets: (1) God is all-powerful, good, and just, yet (2) evil and suffering exist. Traditionally, within such an apparent paradox, black believers never blame God for racial oppression. Furthermore, black churches have preached fervently a gospel advocating how suffering for the black race has built strong positive character, moral leadership for the nation, and religious humility requisite for the eventual goal of equality, and this gospel, in certain cases, engendered radical calls for protest politics. Such a faith not only arises out of a pragmatic need to explain the mundane and catastrophic pain in black American experiences, but it also emerges from a theological doctrine grounded in the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. The defining moment of Christianity, African Americans proclaim, comes with the ultimate suffering displayed on the cross. With this sacrificial death, all humankind, especially the oppressed, enjoy hope of a new life and a full humanity.

In Why Lord?, Anthony Pinn problematizes this cornerstone of black Christianity and rejects the reality of God in the process. Specifically, he argues that the Christian doctrine of redemptive suffering is fundamentally and irreparably flawed. Suffering can never be positive or fruitful (i.e., redemptive) for African Americans. In fact, a faith in the empowering nature of suffering, for Pinn, has been one of the most debilitating impediments in the history of the African American movement for social transformation. Redemptive suffering instills quietism in humanity and exposes not a just and all-powerful God, but a malevolent Christian divinity. This theological construct, furthermore, directly or indirectly implies that God sanctions suffering, relieves oppressors of their accountability, and clouds the oppressed understanding of suffering as demonic. To rectify this situation, Pinn attempts to abolish the redemptive suffering doctrine within a black theology of liberation while, at the same time, substituting a "strong humanism" for the existence of God. Because all suffering is bad for blacks and because any God condoning any aspect of suffering as beneficial is a harmful deity, the freedom of African Americans will result only from exclusive reliance on black humanity and not from an external being.

To substantiate his claim, Pinn offers four parts to his thesis resolution. The first move is a careful analysis of various responses to the evils of suffering revealed in African American history - responses to the conceptualization of suffering as a positive prerequisite for salvation. Historically and today, the black community's answers to pain have involved acknowledging (1) the evilness of suffering as it provides redemptive consequences; (2) a limit to God's power, thus urging humanity to be co-laborers with the divine; and (3) the strong possibility of God's being a white racist, hence contesting divine goodness and righteousness. The first position rethinks the nature and purpose of evil; the second postulates a limited God; and the third questions or denies God's goodness, or even existence.

The second moment in Pinn's argument entails a critique of black theologians who have reputedly discarded the redemptive suffering doctrine but, for Pinn, fail in their project, though they demarcate suffering into positive and negative dimensions. Third, Pinn draws on non-Christian sources such as the blues and rap music to craft his unique "nitty-gritty hermeneutics." This interpretive lens questions accepted theological and religious assumptions, doctrinal structures, and the biblical message. It, moreover, comes from the so-called secular undercurrents of black religion. It is not inherently Christian and theistic. The central tenet of nitty-gritty hermeneutics is to present the full complexity of black life free from the stultifying grip of tradition.

Finally, having demonstrated the equivalency of redemptive suffering with deleterious attempts counter to liberation and having explored some potential non-theistic expressive forms (e.g., blues and rap), Pinn asks black liberation theology and black churches to allow for a broader reply to the problem of evil and suffering. To state the matter baldly, a strong black humanism should be allowed in the religious conversation as a credible voice for social transformation.

Pinn thinks his position is cogent and compelling for the following reasons. The doctrine of fruitful suffering necessitates a compromise with suffering because it presupposes divine goodness, and one therefore has to discover some goodness and utility in black suffering. Yet any approval of African American oppression merely reinforces the pain of the black predicament and, furthermore, logically leads to a God supportive of some types of African American suffering. To resolve this dilemma, Pinn's method shuns allegiance to any doctrine (i.e., a deductive justification) but starts from the unpredictable, nitty-gritty exigencies of life (i.e., an inductive inquiry). Such a novel method for black theology and such a bold rethinking of African American tradition is designed to produce a religiosity of black humanism as the way to relieve massive African American suffering. Basically, Pinn believes the urgency of black freedom cries out for all possible alternatives, including those beyond the black church.

Despite his nuanced reflection and intricate argument, several queries remain which seriously challenge his fundamental thesis. Using his own criterion of "experience" rather than doctrinal and theological obligations, one could strongly argue that experience has shown the most progressive social change organizations and movements in African American history to have come out of black theistic religious influences, whereas the experience of non-theistic spirituals, rap music, folk tales, and black literature so far have not created sustained organizations for fundamental social change.

Even Pinn's own textured explanation of how enslaved Africans and African Americans created and deployed the redemptive suffering in the spirituals reveals, in practice, how some forms of suffering enabled enslaved ebony bodies to endure, hope, and struggle. Therefore, the only positive and negative tests of redemptive suffering are whether or not they sustain poor black Christians in their efforts for survival and liberation. The intellectual debate over God's goodness (and existence) and fruitful pain becomes secondary once contextualized within the daily crucible of poor people having faith in a religion that has, for them, yielded affirmative results through the centuries. Many black Christians believe in redemptive suffering (which they epitomize in the Jew Jesus) because life has shown them that their black race would have undergone possible genocide without such an understanding of evil.

To refute their reality, one has to demonstrate how this belief in positive suffering has prevented attempts at full black freedom. Or one has to prove that, though blacks believe that redemptive suffering has worked in their lives, in actuality something else has facilitated their survival and equality efforts. What, then, is this "something else"?

In addition, Pinn does not entertain seriously the full range of responses to the suffering issue. In some African cosmologies, evil and good simply co-exist; they just are. One acknowledges both as a fact of life, both in the material and spiritual lives. One governs oneself and one's affairs according to two powerful forces, while maintaining a theistic world view. The presence of evil does not, in this outlook, negate belief in a divinity.

Another alternative to Pinn's employs the criterion of empowering oppressed communities as the primary indication of the harmful or helpful nature of life's experiences. If belief in fruitful suffering motivates people of theistic faith to fight for a better earthly social reconfiguration, then redemptive suffering is beneficial.

Pinn also calls for broadening the conversation around evil and suffering to include his voice of non-theistic humanism. But his position seems to deny the existence of God and claims that anyone believing in any positive reality to suffering is wrong and dangerous for the betterment of oppressed black humanity. Given his conclusion and instructions regarding the way forward for black liberation, what motivation is there for someone holding the condemned contrary position to enter into dialogue with Pinn's viewpoint? In short, his call for broadening interlocutors and the united front of disparate voices joined for full black humanity is a dialogical method undercut by his apparent exclusion (via seemingly absolute condemnation) of those with whom he disagrees.

Despite these apparent weaknesses, Why Lord? is a positive contribution to the discourse of black theology in particular, and the debate over suffering and freedom in the African American community in general. Within the black experience, Pinn offers the reader variegated sources, well-nuanced and thickly textured. He displays a firm grasp of primary and secondary resources: His text is researched thoroughly, and his argument is fully documented. He has a sharp intellectual ability to synthesize Christian and non-Christian, sacred and secular, female and male schools of thought, and black and mainstream traditions. Pinn does not take for granted conventional convictions of the dominant black religious advocates and the accepted hegemony of black churches in leading social change. Why Lord? dares to challenge black theology's and progressive churches' normative conclusions essentializing the Christian gospel as liberation. If this is true, paraphrasing Pinn, then why do black people still suffer? Pinn goes for the jugular vein of radical black religion (by dismissing the positive suffering of Jesus on the cross and the existence of God) in order to situate the black liberation struggle on a more sure footing.

For anyone interested in the betterment of black Americans, Why Lord? is important due to its persuasive, though not thoroughly convincing, investigation of a major religious force in African American social justice genealogy. So far the black church and its intellectual leaders have spearheaded or significantly impacted, in a disproportionate fashion, the practical discourse of African American freedom from slavery until today. Since suffering has been consistently at the center of any emancipation effort, Why Lord? gives readers of varied perspectives a novel, non-theistic way to resolve this problematic.
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Author:Hopkins, Dwight N.
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1997
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