The Black Power Movement in the late sixties sought to ascribe dignity and self-worth to black people that impacts all areas of life. The revolution liberated black people from the crushing effects of racism socially, economically, and psychologically by using violence if necessary. The religious implications of the Black Power movement allowed J. Deotis Roberts to unpack Black Theology–interpreting the Christian faith from the black perspective while in a white racist society. Being a black Christian in America means one shares a culture that incorporates blackness and Christian faith in the face of an unjust and degrading history. In Liberation and Reconciliation: A Black Theology, Roberts answers the Black Power movement’s call for liberation by considering the Christian faith from a black perspective and demonstrating that Christianity liberates black people and reconciles them not only to Jesus but to their white neighbor as well.
Liberation is an inherently Christian idea as Christ’s work liberates believers from sin. Spiritual liberation makes it possible for believers to be reconciled to God. In the same vein, Roberts presents that the Gospel liberates the black person so that they may experience reconciliation with others. However, for there to be genuine reconciliation between whites and blacks, there must first be an understanding of the inherent dignity and worth of black people because, “liberation leads to reconciliation between equals” (95). Roberts establishes that the Christian faith is foundational to appreciating this dignity. Understanding God as Creator and the person and work of Jesus Christ the black theologian testifies to this parity. When both blacks and whites embrace the theological truth of equality it creates an “authentic existence” between the races as members of the body of Christ (7).
Black theology considers how reconciliation between blacks and whites begins with understanding black people’s unique history as a suffering people. Roberts illuminates how suffering, when viewed correctly, can serve a greater purpose. Black people can be “instruments of God’s salvific purpose for all humans” (27). This is not to say that suffering by way of slavery was necessary or “an act of God” so that black people would be conduits of reconciliation among creation. But, by looking at the past for the sake of creating a better future, Roberts calls the black theologian to “transmute suffering into victory.” In doing so, “we see reconciliation through our role as suffering servants” (27). Thus, Roberts makes a powerful case that the trials black people faced have great implications for people’s souls and the relationships between blacks and whites.
Roberts further addresses black people’s dignity and destiny by examining existentialism and christology through the liberation and reconciliation lens. The doctrines of humanity and sin demonstrate the black person’s dignity and destiny are realized in a reconciled relationship with Christ. “Through the reunion of the separated—God and humanity, and person and person—health and wholeness come to individuals and communities. Hence the liberated person is also the reconciled person” (55). This divine reconciliation encourages a black person to know why they exist and why they should continue to persist against “all threats to their existence.” Roberts’ theological interpretation captures the spirit of resistance in the Black Power movement and reveals the theological foundation for humanity’s shared destiny. Once realized, black dignity is fleshed out in the symbolic black Messiah. The ability to view Christ from the black experience not only creates equals between whites and blacks, it also unites black people with a “particularized” Christ—who participates in their story. At the same time, Christ is “universal” and is able to be particularized for all nations—thus leading black people to be reconciled to others.
Roberts continues to respond to the spirit of the Black Power Movement by considering the need for liberation to speak to societal ills not just the spiritual hope that is to come. He argues that liberation must be a present reality as ethics and eschatology are a “bridge between the now and the not yet, the promised and the fulfilled” (90). Our future hope in the Kingdom is the reason believers can engage in restorative acts in the present. The Kingdom ethic of Black theology supports constructive methods of catalyzing change like voting instead of the more violent “by any means necessary” mantra associated with the Black Power Movement.
Liberation and Reconciliation: A Black Theology benefits both black and white believers. Black Christians gain a nuanced and culturally relevant understanding of Christian theology that both liberates and reconciles believers to God and to others. Roberts restores black personhood utilizing Christian theology, as a result, he satisfies Black Power advocates by demonstrating the relevance of the Christian faith to black life. White believers do well to consider Roberts and Black theology if for nothing more than to consider a different theological perspective. White believers benefit from liberation theology as participants in the diverse Kingdom of God. Learning from a black theologian, who offers a diverse perspective, helps white believers critique their cultural perspective which has been seen as normative. When cultural norms are interchanged with theological norms it diminishes other perspectives. Since white American culture is rooted in racism, liberation theology helps eradicate that which is culturally sinful and creates division in the body of Christ. Being liberated from the racism propagated throughout society and reconciled to their fellow believer only strengthens the body of Christ. Reconciliation and unity authentically bear witness to the unity found in Christ.
A Critical Review by Kingdom Diversity Staffer Phabienne Anderson