In the second wave of Black Theology, African-American Christian women emerged as scholars and theologians. Drawing from the work of writer Alice Walker, self-identified “womanist” theologians began to articulate their experience of the Divine as black women of faith living within the United States. While standing in solidarity with their black brothers, womanist theologians critique the longstanding racism of the larger white culture (including the blind spots within white feminist religious and secular discourse) and the persisting sexism, heterosexism, and homophobia of the highly patriarchal institutional Black Church and society. One of the earliest publications within womanist thought dealt with the topic of Christology. Systematic theologian and ordained African Methodist minister Jacquelyn Grant, who is also a former student of James Cone, published “White Women’s Christ and Black Women’s Jesus: Feminist Christology and Womanist Response” (1989), a groundbreaking treatise that critiqued white feminist theologians’ views of Jesus Christ and provides a Christology in light of the experience of African-American Christian women. In an earlier published essay, “Womanist Theology, Black Women’s Experience as a Source for Doing Theology, with Special Reference to Christology,” Grant follows her teacher Cone in affirming the symbol of the black Christ, yet she presses the symbol further to include the lived experiences of black women. In the womanist tradition, Grant observes, black women affirmed Jesus as God incarnate and the divine “co-sufferer.” Black women shared with Jesus an experience of suffering and oppression. “They identified with Jesus because they believed that Jesus identified with them.”[i] Although he was God incarnate, Jesus identified with the sufferings of black women by coming alongside them, being their constant friend, and answering their earnest prayers for deliverance, consolation, and liberation. Moreover, Jesus elevated black women’s humanity, thus undermining the patriarchy within both white Christianity and the Black Church. He affirmed them as God’s beloved, created in the divine image. Jesus’ solidarity with black women also signified the end to their suffering. Jesus was a “whole Saviour” (Jarena Lee) who not only liberated black women but called them to proclaim his good news of liberation to the “least of these.” For Grant, womanists differ from their white feminist counterparts by affirming that significance of Christ is found in his humanity not his gender. Therefore, African-American Christian women are more inclined to accept Jesus as their Savior and Liberator, despite his maleness.
Moreover, Grant contends that Cones’ christological title of the “Black Christ” rightly signifies God’s identification with marginalized peoples, but failed to emphasize the particularity of black women’s experiences of poverty, racism, and sexism as a “tri-dimensional” reality in his earlier work. What makes the black Christ universal is his ability to identify with the lived experiences of all oppressed peoples, specifically black women’s experience. Following the Parable of the Last Judgment (Matt. 25:31-46), Grant argues that if Christ makes solidarity with the most vulnerable then, “Christ among the least must also mean Christ in the community of Black women.”[ii] By this she means that the Christ fully identifies with the tri-dimensionality of black women’s experience. Therefore, the black Christ symbol must faithfully represent the One who suffers with black women in all of their particularity. Also, Grant emphasizes that the resurrection of Christ signifies for black women that their suffering does not have the final word. Therefore, Christ is not only divine co-sufferer but the Liberator of black women from all levels of structural oppression. To make the black Christ more inclusive, Grant suggests that new symbols for Christ (e.g. the stranger, the outcast, and the poor) must replace traditional symbols which privilege whiteness and maleness. In so doing, Grant’s Christological reconfiguration points to the universality of Christ’s significance among all oppressed peoples. In another way, in Grant’s view the presence of the liberating Christ becomes so concrete among oppressed peoples, specifically black women, Grant emphatically declares, “Christ, found in the experience of Black women, is a Black woman.”[iii]
In “The Black Christ” (1993) womanist theologian Kelly Brown Douglas, another former student of Cone, surveys the history of the image of the black Christ in African-American Christian experience.[iv] In the book Douglas argues that the image of the Black Christ does not deal with merely Jesus’ physical appearance but symbolizes his commitment to advancing the freedom for not only black women but for all oppressed peoples. While affirming the symbol of the black Christ as conceived by both black and womanist theologians, Douglas also offers a rigorous critique of their work for their narrow and rigid symbolization of Christ which fails to account for the diversity of lived experiences of all members of the Black community, including black gays and lesbians, poor blacks, and black men who stand in solidarity with black women. To remedy this failure, Douglas contends that both womanist theologians and their black brothers and sisters must engage in both socio-political and religious-cultural analyses of wholeness which critiques the interlocking systems of oppression (i.e. racism, classism, sexism, and heterosexism) within both the church and the larger culture. For Douglas, the black Christ as a theological symbol is only viable when all black Christians use a diversity of symbols which express the mystery of the living Christ active within the midst of a people struggling for freedom. Thus, the black Christ is two-sided—it not only symbolizes Jesus’ actions, but it also symbolizes the prophetic actions of black people in their struggle to liberate themselves and others from the intersecting structures of oppression.
For African-American Christians, to re-image Jesus as “black” means to affirm Jesus Christ in his radical particularity. Not only was Jesus of Nazareth a Jew, he was a Jew who lived in poverty and under the rule of the Roman Empire. To affirm Christ as black also means that Jesus was the One who was and is presently among those who suffer and who fight for their liberation from systemic and structural sin and evil. Thus, African-American Christians take seriously the Matthean witness where it says that Jesus was called Emmanuel—God with us. The black Christ stands in solidarity with black people and delivers them from slavery—spiritual, physical, social, and political. Thus, black Christ disempowers white oppressors and dismantles racism.
The black Christ emerges from the black experience and stands as a universal theological symbol for all oppressed peoples. What remains to be further explored is black Christians’ relationship with classical Christianity’s Christological development during the Patristic Era. There tends to be a lack of critical engagement on the part of black and womanist theologians with the classical Christian tradition. In fact, James Cone famously quipped that Athanasius’ question concerning the Incarnation was not a “black question.” However, such a witty dismissal of the ancient Christian tradition does the black church a disservice. Today, more African-American Christians have access to the history of the Christian church. Unfortunately, few are aware that some of the earliest Christian thinkers were of African origin and contributed to Christological discourse. While first generation black and womanist theologians rightly critique the ancient creeds’ absence of affirming Jesus’ life and ministry among the poor, women, and the outcast, they fail to consider that many black believers desire to understand the metaphysics of Christ’s nature and how it relates to their Christian faith and lived experience. More must be done to connect the chasm between classical Christology (done mostly by white theologians) and black lived experience.[v] Classical Christian sources do not belong exclusively to white Christians alone but are for the benefit of the whole body of Christ.
African-American Christians offer to the whole church and the whole world an image of Jesus Christ that reflects the heart of the gospel attested in their concrete lived experience. For black Christians, Jesus is Savior, Friend, Co-Sufferer, Liberator, and One who empowers us to do the work of liberating ministry. The black Christ symbolizes the reality that God makes God’s presence known among the poorest and most despised of humanity and lifts them up toward full humanization. It is their witness to the Word who became flesh and dwelt among us to break the yokes of oppression and set the captives free. The black Christ is the Christ who says “Yes” to their freedom and “No” to their bondage. The black Christ is simply the Christ who is attested in the Bible and who is present by the Spirit in black peoples’ struggles for a better today and a greater tomorrow.
[i] Jacquelyn Grant, “Womanist Theology: Black Women’s Experience as a Source for doing Theology, with Special Reference to Christology,” in James H. Cone and Gayraud S. Wilmore, eds., Black Theology: A Documentary History, 1980-1992 (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1993), 281; See also Grant’s fuller treatment White Women’s Christ and Black Women’s Jesus: Feminist Christology and Womanist Response. Brown Studies in Religion, Book 84 (Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press, 1989).
[ii] Ibid, 285.
[iii] Ibid, 287.
[iv] Kelly Brown Douglas, The Black Christ (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1993).
[v] Fortunately, some African American theologians like M. Shawn Copeland, Karen-Baker Fletcher, J. Kameron Carter, and Willie James Jennings appropriate the wealth of sources from the classical Christian traditions (and insights from contemporary white European and American Christian theologians, among others) in order to construct liberating theological discourse.
Jason Oliver Evans is a licensed Baptist minister. He graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Speech Communication from Millersville University of Pennsylvania. He also earned a Master of Divinity at Duke University and a Master of Theology from the Candler School of Theology at Emory University. His research interests cross the intersection of theology, ethics, and critical cultural studies. Evans is especially interested in the meaning of the Christian life and its relationship with sexuality, race, and gender in Afro-Christianity. He plans to pursue doctoral studies. Follow Evans’ blog, I Am a Son of God. Follow him also on Twitter at @joliverevans and Facebook.