The Divided Mind of the Black Church

January 17, 2021

Raphael Warnock’s “Divided Mind of the Black Church” (2013) has a title that may sell the book short. This is a book about the black church, but it is a fine meditation on the meaning of Christianity, the role of the cross in any church, the role of a church in any society. It’s a book about black theology, but its scope is not narrow and it is not just about race. Warnock describes the historical origins of black theology, and this achieves something valuable. He shows us that black churches of the past, certainly in comparison to white churches, were not producing many active theologians; that this made it easier for the black church in America to be shunted aside as unsophisticated and inconsequential; that black theology arose in the wake of the civil rights movement, and the black power movement, to fill this historical void: to give a fuller voice of God-reflection to black Christians. All this, without Warnock having to say so, means that black theology was not, as some might have chosen to characterize it, merely race-talk in a Christian guise; it was nothing more than black Christians doing systematic theology almost for the first time, and simply doing what whites had always done.

I call this invaluable because it sets the stage to ask questions that all Christians must ask. Whites and blacks, rich and poor, men and women, all may have varying answers; but the questions are universal to any Christian, and really to any person. Is faith in God a matter of individual piety, collective social action, or both, and in what ways? What is the relation between piety and protest? Is a church to be otherworldly or counterworldly, or both, and how? Can any Christian be concerned exclusively either with the “slavery of sin” or the “sin of slavery”? What is the meaning of the Exodus story for our time? What does the cross signify, and how are suffering, beaten communities to see it? Are they to see the self-sacrifice of Jesus, unto death, as the thing they must imitate in quiet and suffering obedience; or are they to see the damage done to Christ’s body by the instruments of power and the governments who wield that power? What does God intend for us to see in the cross?

Theology may seem like an abstract field, but it is nothing more than discussing, for example, the meaning of Jesus’ cross; and it’s obvious how that meaning has real-life implications on the ground for all communities.

There is a great deal covered by this book, and to be appreciated in it, even for non-theologians and non-Christians. Race is the central theme but it moves on to womanist theology, and ends with a call for a black theology that is self-critical as well as critical; worshipful and not merely intellectual. The historical perspective, again — describing race, slavery, church history and the civil rights movement — was for me an invaluable feature of the book.

I studied at Union Theological Seminary at the same time that Raphael Warnock was there, though I do not recall if we ever met. Now that he is a recently elected U.S. Senator to Georgia, I can only salute his ongoing ministry, and highly recommend his book, if for nothing else, the questions it stirred in me.

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