Ray Jordan, Adjunct Professor at SMU’s Simmons School of Education, will lead “An Introduction to Black Theology” course as part of the Perkins Summit for Faith and Learning on March 19-20. This course will examine the relationship of African Americans with Christianity and the Church by asking “Why Black Theology?” and “What is Black Theology,” and “Why Black Theology, Now?”
In addition to teaching graduate level courses in the SMU Liberal Studies program, Jordan is a pastor at First Community Church, a UCC congregation in Dallas, and a consultant to churches and corporations in diversity and inclusion. We asked him to share a preview of the course; here are excerpts.
Can you explain what you mean by Black theology?
The Black Church has often been called an ‘invisible institution’ because it was created during the era of slavery, when enslaved Africans had few, if any, rights at all. Particularly any rights that had to be acknowledged by the greater society.
Faith was one of the very few areas in which enslaved Black people had some autonomy or agency. Interestingly enough, while they were given the faith of their slave masters, they didn’t accept it wholeheartedly. They saw it, interpreted it, and expressed it through a unique lens. Other than the indigenous faith of Native Americans, Black Theology was one of the first, if not the very first, faith systems on American soil. The faith of white colonial folks and later white Americans was really the faith of European traditions brought with them. The faith of enslaved Africans was unique, and continues to be unique, in the ways African Americans interpret the text and express their faith through lived experience and social consciousness.
In the course, we will take a look at what is unique about Black Theology – how it can serve not only persons of African descent but the greater society as well.
Can you give an example of how Black theology is unique?
The term “Black Theology” was crafted in the late 1960s and early 1970s, primarily by the father of Black Liberation Theology, Dr. James Cone, a storied and beloved academic, theologian and Methodist minister. He began to formulate the idea of Black Theology around the idea of human dignity and as a response to the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements. That was really the calling card. He was one of the first to document Black Theology in an academic sense. He interpreted it for the masses, created hermeneutics and an exegesis, and made it into an academic discipline.
The core of Black Theology and the ways it is unique go all the way back to the era of slavery. It was centered around an idea we would think of as human rights today. But really, at the core, it’s better thought of as human dignity, as captured by a centuries-old saying in African American religious circles: “The god in the belly of the slave ship was not the same god on the decks of the slave ship.”
African slaves, from the beginning, would’ve come from myriad religious expressions, such as Islam and ancestral worship. What they garnered from their introduction to Christianity was the idea of human dignity. The idea that every human being is made in the image of their creator and therefore every human being is deserving and worthy of dignity, respect, love and compassion. But that is not what they were experiencing. From the very beginning, Black folks were beginning to look at their white counterparts, scratching their heads, and saying, “Hmm. You are using a text that says, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’ but you’re not practicing it.”
The Bible spoke of the great exodus of the Hebrew people, which left Black people asking, “Where’s our Exodus?”
So, at the center of Black Theology, really, is an elevation of human dignity of all people, but also a critique of the white theology they were experiencing with slave owners and people that were complicit in slave owning and later white populations they would’ve encountered during Jim Crow. So human dignity is the core, the kernel, the heartbeat of Black Theology as well as a critique of their white counterparts.
As you tell this story, it’s surprising that slave owners shared their faith, given how empowering that faith ultimately became.
It was not a foregone conclusion. There was lots of discussion with church leaders and theologians of the 17th, 18th, 19th centuries, beginning with the questions, “Should we introduce faith? Should we baptize our slaves?”
There were some differences. Many leaders of the Church at the time supported the slave trade. The justification was, well, these people are in darkness. They worship other gods, so we can justify their enslavement by introducing Christianity to them. That’s the way we can make ourselves feel better about it.
There were some people who were not resigned to being intellectually disingenuous, who were saying, “Wait a minute, folks, if we are baptizing slaves, doesn’t the Bible tell us to treat our fellow Christians as brothers and sisters? How we can justify slavery?”
So, it was not a foregone conclusion that Christianity would be offered to enslaved persons. There were actually excerpts of Biblical texts that were excised from what was given to enslaved people, so they wouldn’t feel empowered to stand in their own human dignity. So they would somehow be pacified to remain in their so-called inferior state.
So, faith was really a tool weaponized against enslaved Africans. But those enslaved Africans took that tool, and inverted it, and from it, received great inspiration and encouragement and power to transform their condition. It really is quite a remarkable story.
Is there any prerequisite or assumed knowledge base for those taking the course?
No. All knowledge levels are welcome. You don’t have to be proficient in anything in order to join the course.
This course sounds like it’ll be of broad interest. Who might find it of particular interest?
There are three primary audiences as I see it. First, those who care about human rights and how the faith of Christians has always been interrelated with some struggle for human rights in the world. Though there have been great failings, there have always been those interested in that intersection.
Secondly, Christians who want to understand the experience of being Black in America. Anyone who wants to understand what it has been like. I often hear from my white counterparts: Help me to understand this experience. This course will do that.
Finally, the third group would be persons who want to deepen their own faith. Elie Wiesel once said, “Once you hear a witness, you become a witness.” I encourage people to study atrocious human rights violations, from all eras and from all around the world, because it strengthens and deepens your own humanity. You can’t hear a harrowing, transformative story of faith doing the impossible, without being affected by it and deepened by it yourself.
To learn more about Jordan’s course and the March 19-20 Perkins Summit for Faith and Learning, click here.