Tuesday, December 04, 2007

The Reconciliation of Liberation

By: Rev. Angela Lee Price

An esteemed theologian and preeminent scholar, Rev. Dr. J. Deotis Roberts is best known as a founder of Black Theology or the Black Liberation Movement. Black Theology and Black Liberation reached its peak in America at the height of the Black Power Movement in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. Its proponents sought to present Jesus Christ and Christian theology through the lenses of black culture and the black religious experience as a means to overcome the effects of slavery and institutional racism in order to liberate the minds and change the dire circumstances of oppressed people of color. Roberts, more so than James Cone, who is known as the father of Black Liberation Theology, offered a more biblical approach to black liberation by including reconciliation, a Biblical mandate, as a necessary component of liberation.

I conducted a brief radio interview with Dr. Roberts on 1350 WLOU the morning of May 17, 2007 wherein Roberts elaborated on the impact his travels abroad in the early 1960’s had on shaping his theological perspective on the reconciliation of liberation:

Angela: ...So, as you began to experience the diversities within cultures and the peoples that you came in contact with, that helped to shape and mold how you perceived theology…?

Dr. Roberts: Yes,…in the middle 1960’s I had a world tour of the religions in Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. So, I knew about cultures other than my own long before the black theology movement emerged. For example, I was moved by my time in Japan. I spent two months in India in the middle ‘60’s and I saw the poverty and need there before I began to address the situation in the U.S.

I was drawn back to this country when I was studying abroad because Martin Luther King was beginning to address the civil rights problems we had, and I wanted to come back and join that movement. So, all that happened prior to the emergence of black power. That led into my position. I wanted to bring the King and Civil Rights Movement experience to the Black Power Movement. That was a dimension that I had because of my age and my involvement prior to the Black Power Movement. Both came together in my thoughts and that’s the reason why liberation and reconciliation were addressed. Cone addressed liberation, and I thought that was not sufficient because of my experience and knowledge, so I began to bring the two together. That’s the genesis of that dialogue.
Dr. J. Deotis Roberts set himself apart from black theologians by advocating reconciliation as a component of black liberation. The bible says in 2 Corinthians 5:18, “…God…has given us a ministry of reconciliation.” We are told in 2 Corinthians 5:19, “… in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.”

Roberts penned his best-known book, Liberation and Reconciliation: A Black Theology in 1971 in response to James Cone’s A Black Theology of Liberation, published in 1970. Roberts asserted that reconciliation was the “balancing” component of liberation. On the reconciliation of liberation, Roberts wrote in the preface of second edition of Liberation and Reconciliation: A Black Theology, page xiii:

"...the balance between liberation and reconciliation remains essential in our pluralistic society....Dr. King's warning, that we either learn to live together as friends or die as fools, is obvious for all thoughtful people. When reconciliation is elevated to its proper ethical level and Christian understanding, it requires serious attention to liberation from social injustices. It cannot be conceived as mere sentimentality or ‘cheap grace.’ Reconciliation requires repentance, forgiveness, and cross-bearing. Thus, I would opt for maintaining a balance between liberation and reconciliation."

Although an advocate for reconciliation, Roberts opposed integration as a goal. In chapter eight of Liberation and Reconciliation, he stated, “The slave-master, servant-boss, inferior-superior mentality underlie all integration schemes in which whites write the agenda. This is why I am against integration.” He advocated reconciliation with co-equal collaboration between races as the goal. On page 94, he wrote:

"Positively, it enables blacks to appreciate their own heritage to the extent that they consider it a worthy commodity to be shared with others. In this manner, liberation leads to reconciliation between equals. This position is productive for the psychological and sociological health of blacks. It is needed for a right perspective for better race relations. It is consistent with an understanding of God as lovingly just, the dignity of all persons, the sinfulness of all, and their reconciliation with God and with one another through Jesus Christ."

Cone, although more outspoken than Roberts, with his “by-any-means-necessary “ approach to Black Theology was a major catalyst for Black Theology’s thrust onto the world stage. He wrote on page 98 of A Black Theology of Liberation, “No black person will ever be good enough in the eyes of whites to merit equality. Therefore, if blacks are to have freedom, they must take it, by any means necessary.” However, he was less thorough and biblical in his critique in omitting the key biblical principle of reconciliation from his writings.

In summary, at the height of the Black Power Movement at a time when strong voices where needed to speak truth to power, the Lord put fire in the bones of black theologians J. Deotis Roberts, James Cone, Albert Cleage, Dwight Hopkins, Delores S. Williams, Gayraud Wilmore, Katie Cannon, Jacqueline Grant, Cornel West, and many other men and women of God. J. Deotis Roberts credits James Cone with the rediscovery of the black man’s religious genius in the late 1960’s on page 147 of his book, A Black Political Theology. And had it not been for the bold, in-your-face style of James Cone and his powerful book, A Black Theology of Liberation, I don’t know if I would have been as interested in the subject as I am. I had to admit to Dr. Roberts in my interview with him that I was not as familiar with his works as I was with those of Cone and others. However, after speaking with him and securing and perusing two of his books at length, I must say that I am blessed to have had corrected in my consciousness the oversight of his tremendous contribution to black theology and black liberation. I highly recommend adding to your library books on black liberation this Christmas season.


Remember, it is not Mohammad, Buddha, Confucius, nor New Age that saves. Jesus saves!

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