A Short Review of Bradley’s Liberating Black Theology

Dr. Anthony Bradley’s Liberating Black Theology is a summary and critique of Black Liberation Theology (BLT) in general and the theology of Dr. James Cone in particular. LiberatingBlackTheologyBradley argues that by enshrining victimhood at the heart of black identity, Cone and others promulgate a warped view of humanity, sin, God, and Scripture, and promote an inaccurate understanding of the black experience in contemporary, 21st-century America.

Dr. Bradley’s view is decidedly conservative, both politically and theologically. He lays out his book’s central thesis in the first chapter: “the major flaw of black liberation theology is that it views people perpetually as victims” (p. 14) This victim mindset leads to a number of basic errors, including a “fundamentally flawed theological anthropology [i.e. understanding of man]” (p. 14), and an “adoption of Marxism as an ethical framework” (p. 15). Bradley writes: “In the end, victimology perpetuates a separatist and elitist platform that provides no opportunity for racial reconciliation. Victimology is the adoption of victimhood as the core of one’s identity. It is a subconscious, culturally inherited affirmation that life for blacks in America has been in the past and will be in the future a life of being victimized by the oppression of whites. In today’s terms, it is the conviction that, forty years after the Civil Rights Act, conditions for blacks have not substantially changed” (p. 19) and “Many blacks, infused with victimology, wield self-righteous indignation in the service of exposing the inadequacies of the ‘other’ (e.g. white person) rather than finding a way forward.” (p. 20)

Chapters 2 and 3 provide an overview of the theology of James Cone, the father of BLT. The heart of Cone’s theology was a strict division of society into oppressed blacks and white oppressors: “for [James] Cone, only two populations exist in the world – namely, the oppressed and the oppressors” (p. 59)

Following Marx, Cone saw “white theology” as an attempt to justify black enslavement and subjugation: “For Cone, ‘American theology’ only confirms Marx’s contention that their ideas are simply by-products of a commitments to maintaining a bourgeois existence.” (p. 64)

Cone insisted that blacks must reject ‘white theology’ and fundamentally reinterpret Christianity through the black experience: “[According to Cone] White theology is not Christian theology at all. There is but one guiding principle of black theology: an unqualified commitment to the black community as that community seeks to define its existence in light of God’s liberating work in the world” (p. 39-40)

Cone also reinterpreted ‘sin’ in a way that’s consistent with his project of black liberation: “To be in sin, says Cone, has nothing to do with disobeying objective laws that are alien to the community’s existence but is living according to selfish interests rather than according to what is best for the community.” (p. 70) “After reading Cone’s definition, one is left to wonder if it is possible for blacks to sin at all.” (p. 71)

Bradley correctly recognizes that a central failure of BLT is its axiomatic insistence that Scripture should be read through the lens of the ‘black experience.’ Bradley asserts that “if the biblical text has no integrity of its own outside of the black experience, then readers are free to do whatever they want with it…We see this in the progression from nineteenth-century theological liberalism to black liberation theology to womanist theology to black gay/lesbian liberation theology.” (p. 143-144).

For readers interested in Cone’s books, see my reviews here, here, here, and here. Suffice it to say that I think Dr. Bradley’s analysis of Cone’s theology is accurate and insightful. In the closing paragraph of chapter 3, Bradley restates his thesis succinctly: “When the black person as victim remains the starting point, black theology, predictably, continues to veer further away from historic orthodox Christian theology.” (p. 83)

Aside from his theological critiques of Cone, Bradley’s critiques of Marxism and its relationship to BLT are also interesting. He writes: “Many black theologians… have enlisted Marxism as a helpful system for quickly improving the socioeconomic condition of blacks, as Marxist thought is predicated on a system of oppressor class versus victim class.” (p. 86)

Cone and other black liberation theologians applied such a Marxist analysis to white oppression of blacks: “Marx’s theory of history, adopted by Cone in his theological analysis, maintains that ‘men are products of their environments in general, and of their economic environment in particular.’ Cone uses this approach to explain how white theology is a product not of biblical exegesis but of white economic and political power structures that continue to oppress and [sic] historically victimized people of color.” (p. 104)

Bradley finds this collectivist understanding to be faulty, for several reasons.

First, he questions whether blacks or whites are sufficiently homogeneous to be treated under a Marxist framework: “Blacks are not a homogeneous group, nor do they have the unifying ideology that Marx described as necessary for group definition. In fact, black Americans are not always products of the same oppression that Cone projects for the whole race. There is, additionally, no common ideology that makes a white church white or a particular theological position white and not black.” (p. 106)

Second, he seems to question whether BLT overemphasizes the importance of groups and structures, to the exclusion of a traditional understanding of sin: “[In BLT] Poverty is viewed primarily as the direct result of oppression… The social pathologies found in many black communities are viewed by black theologians as a result of past forms of oppression. Consistent with the victimologist vision, black theologians seek immediate solutions and remedies using language and themes related to social structural justice.” (p. 41)

According to Bradley, it’s not that Christianity denies the existence of systemic sin, but that Christianity always roots systemic sin in personal sin: “structural sin is… a consequence of the Fall, as sinners assume positions of influence and power… Structural sin must be evaluated on the same philosophical ground as personal sin because structures have actors (i.e., men and women) who have a shared solidarity in sin.” (p. 27) And “Social injustice, biblically understood, originates from personal patterns of injustice manifest at a corporate level. Corrupt and evil social structures cannot be maintained without corrupt and evil individuals managing those structures.” (p. 165)

In Bradley’s view, a deterministic view of systemic injustice grounded in Marxist categories leads to erroneous conclusions about how it should be remedied: “For many black scholars, true liberation comes when blacks are in control of decision-making processes… [this] narrow, unjustified approach… [makes it] easy to label as racist or oppressive any structure… in which blacks are not participating in the decision making…In a world of true racial equality, then, members of every ethnic group would need to sit on the boards of every organization in order for those groups to be considered free. Such arbitrary requirements lead to ridiculous and impossible conclusions.” (p. 113)

Third, Bradley repeatedly chides black liberation scholars for having a superficial understanding of Marx: “Marx’s confession that slavery is at times justified raises questions about how much of Marx’s writings Cone actually surveyed before deciding to laud him as a model thinker for the black church.” (p. 103) “A novice’s understanding of Marx and his view of capitalism has led black theologians to use Marxist thought to criticize capitalism in ways that Marx himself would not have done” (p. 108) “Marx is used by black theologians, but their lack of understanding of some of the main points of Marxist thought damages their credibility.” (p. 119)

Finally, Bradley laments that Cone’s heavy reliance on Marxist categories undermines the sufficiency of Scripture: “What is most disconcerting about Cone’s reflection is his lack of confidence in the Scriptures and the tradition of the church to provide sufficient tools for analyzing culture. According to Cone… Marxism is a better and more accurate method of discerning the gap between appearance and reality than Christianity could possibly provide.” (p. 119) BLT’s embrace of the “pressuppositions and anthropology of victimology” ultimately leads to a “social ethic separate from a Christian, biblical vision of human community” (p. 119).

Overall, I enjoyed this book and, based on my own reading, thought that it presented a fundamentally accurate outline of Cone’s theology. A few minor points:

First, because so much of the book is devoted to summarizing the views of Cone, J. Deotis Roberts, Cornel West, Alastair Kee, and others, it is occasionally difficult to distinguish the author’s voice from that of his subjects. In other words, in a particular passage, it can sometimes be difficult to determine whether Bradley is summarizing someone else’s view or offering his own.

Second, while Bradley admonishes black liberation theologians for not reading Marx carefully, his citations in Chapter 4 include only one direct citation of Marx but thirty citations of a single book by Thomas Sowell. Now, it could be that Sowell provides a definitive analysis of Marx and that his views (and Bradley’s) are entirely correct. It’s also possible that Bradley has read Marx extensively and simply made the choice to cite Sowell instead. But such heavy reliance on a secondary source while chiding others for not carefully reading primary sources at least has the appearance of unfairness.

Third, while I agree that, theologically, a Christian shouldn’t see victimhood as a core element of his identity, I’d imagine that Dr. Bradley’s critics would insist that this identity is sociologically appropriate given the historic abuse and victimization of blacks in this country. Here, I think Dr. Bradley needs to provide more analysis supporting his contention that a victim identity is not only practically harmful (because it encourages apathy and helplessness) but sociologically unwarranted due to the significant social progress that has been made over the last five decades.

Finally, I can’t help commenting on the difference between the cultural climate in 2019 and in 2010, when this book was written. Consider two statements in which Bradley summarizes Alastair Key’s criticism of BLT: “[According to Kee, locating blackness in ontology] encourages a paranoid state where blacks are conditioned to always expect the worst from whites. The reduction of the black experience as victim, in the end, requires perpetual ‘whiteness’ as a norm for understanding what it means to be black.” (p. 176) And: “Racial discrimination and racial oppression are not the conditions that poor blacks find themselves in today. As long as black liberation theologians base their theology on the racial oppression of blacks, it will become more and more useless” (p. 176). One has to wonder whether one could utter such ideas in polite company today without being branded as insensitive -at best- or as a white supremacist -at worst.

Despite these minor quibbles, Bradley’s book is a valuable assessment of black liberation theology, its central problems, and the way forward for those seeking to contextualize biblical theology to black experience in the U.S. today.

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