What is Black Liberation Theology?

By Samuel Sey/ June 8, 2020

Topic  Culture, Justice

Most evangelicals are unfamiliar with the origins and foundational beliefs of Black Liberation Theology. That is perhaps why many evangelicals today are becoming sympathetic towards its heretical doctrines.

Black Liberation Theology may be largely unknown to many evangelicals today, but it’s a popular theology inside Black churches in America. Black Liberation Theology developed as a mainstream idea within Black American churches several decades ago. However, most Black Canadians and most Black people around the world are not exposed to it. With the notable exception of South Africa – because of Apartheid history – Black Liberation Theology is a distinctly Black American framework.

Black Liberation Theology has infiltrated all types of Black American churches today, and is perceived as orthodox Christianity within all types of Black churches in America. Millions of Black Americans in Baptist, Methodist, Pentecostal, Episcopalian, Presbyterian and other churches today are subjected to sermons from Black Liberation Theology perspectives every Sunday morning. Approximately 40% of Black American churches identify with Black Liberation Theology.[1] This includes thousands of churches from major Black American denominations like the Church of God in Christ and the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

In fact, most of the biggest proponents of Black Liberation Theology and its predecessor theologies were ordained ministers and theologians from the African Methodist Episcopal Church. This includes a founding member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Reverdy C. Ranson, major Reconstruction politician Henry McNeal Turner, and the founder of Black Liberation Theology, James Cone.

Black Liberation Theology exists inside Black churches within multi-ethnic denominations too. For instance, social justice activist Al Sharpton embraced Black Liberation Theology as a young member at a United Church of Christ congregation. And Jeremiah Wright was the pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, Illinois for almost 40 years. The church is the largest congregation within its denomination. It holds over 8,000 members. And for 20 years, one of its members was Barack Obama.

Black Liberation Theology gained significant attention in the 2008 American presidential election after clips of Jeremiah Wright’s sermons were released by media outlets. The clips featured Barack Obama’s pastor making conspiracy theories about the American government’s role in the September 11 attacks, the Pearl Harbour attack, the HIV crisis, and more. The widely circulated sermons made the world privy to what many adherents of Black Liberation Theology believe about the American government. In one of the clips, Jeremiah Wright said:

“When it came to treating her citizens of African descent fairly, America failed. She put them in chains, the government put them on slave quarters, put them on auction blocks, put them in cotton field, put them in inferior schools, put them in substandard housing, put them in scientific experiments, put them in the lowest paying jobs, put them outside the equal protection of the law, kept them out of their racist bastions of higher education and locked them into positions of hopelessness and helplessness. The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law and then wants us to sing “God Bless America”. No, no, no, not God Bless America. God damn America  – that’s in the Bible  – for killing innocent people. God damn America, for treating our citizens as less than human.“[2]

Americans were shocked by Wright’s sermons. They never imagined that many people within Black churches echoed that level of resentment against America. At the time, they didn’t understand that a significant number of Black Americans didn’t want to sing ‘God Bless America’ or honour the American flag. They didn’t think Black Liberation Theology permeated inside Black churches. They didn’t know the next president of the United States at the time was baptized and discipled under that kind of theology.

Barack Obama and his family removed their membership from Trinity United Church of Christ after the clips were released to the media, and Jeremiah Wright retired from pastoring the church soon afterward. The controversy eventually died down. Barack Obama defeated John McCain in the 2008 election and became the 44th person and the 1st Black American to become President of the United States. He maintained his presidency 4 years later when he won the 2012 election over Mitt Romney. And the American public did not experience that kind of hostile rhetoric from Black church leaders again for years – until the Ferguson riots in 2014.

The riots in Ferguson, Missouri were the aftermath of a fatal police shooting of a Black teenager, Michael Brown, by a White police officer, Darren Wilson. A grand jury and the United States Department of Justice ruled in favour of Darren Wilson. They declared that forensic evidence and eyewitness testimonies supported Darren Wilson’s self-defense claim. But the rulings sparked outrage, riots, and demands for social justice. For many Americans, particularly Black Americans, Michael Brown’s fatal shooting was perceived as yet another instance of a racially-motivated murder of a Black teenager. Two years prior to Michael Brown’s shooting, a Black teenager in Florida, Trayvon Martin, was shot and killed after an altercation with a member of a community watch, George Zimmerman. A jury subsequently acquitted Zimmerman of second-degree murder and manslaughter in 2013.

Therefore, tensions from the Trayvon Martin case carried over to the Michael Brown shooting the following year in 2014. Activists, politicians, and media personalities alike suggested that Michael Brown was a victim of America’s systemic racism against Black Americans. Michael Brown’s fatal shooting and the Ferguson riots became arguably the biggest story that year. Time Magazine named the Ferguson protestors runners-up for the magazine’s Person of the Year in 2014.[3] The riots propelled Black Lives Matter into a powerful social justice group. They became the most powerful Black American social justice group since the Black Panthers in the 1960s and 1970s.

The Ferguson riots became the first of many social justice riots across America following fatal shootings of Black Americans by police officers. The riots pushed America’s supposed systemic racism against Black Americans into a major political story. The riots made race relations a major topic in the 2016 American presidential election. And consequently, social justice become the biggest topic in evangelical circles today.

STATEMENT ON SOCIAL JUSTICE AND THE GOSPEL

Last September, John MacArthur, Voddie Baucham, and other evangelical leaders released The Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel. The statement presented biblical objections to social justice positions on culture, sexuality, gender, ethnicity and race. Concerning ethnicity and racism, the document states:

“WE DENY that Christians should segregate themselves into racial groups or regard racial identity above, or even equal to, their identity in Christ. We deny that any divisions between people groups (from an unstated attitude of superiority to an overt spirit of resentment) have any legitimate place in the fellowship of the redeemed. We reject any teaching that encourages racial groups to view themselves as privileged oppressors or entitled victims of oppression. While we are to weep with those who weep, we deny that a person’s feelings of offense or oppression necessarily prove that someone else is guilty of sinful behaviors, oppression, or prejudice. And we emphatically deny that lectures on social issues (or activism aimed at reshaping the wider culture) are as vital to the life and health of the church as the preaching of the gospel and the exposition of Scripture. Historically, such things tend to become distractions that inevitably lead to departures from the gospel.“[4]

The Statement received over 10,000 signatures and became a valuable resource for Christians in the wake of growing support for social justice from prominent evangelicals. In fact, The Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel was an answer to the social justice movement within evangelical organizations like The Gospel Coalition and the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

Months prior to the release of the statement, the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and The Gospel Coalition held a social justice conference named the MLK50 conference – in honour of the fiftieth anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. That event was followed by the Together for the Gospel conference days afterward, and like the MLK50 conference, it featured an emphasis on social justice.

The conferences suggested that America was systemically racist against Black Americans. Many of the evangelical leaders from the conferences claimed that many White Christians were guilty of ignoring justice for Black Americans. They didn’t list evidence to support their claims. They couldn’t prove that the current American government is systemically racist. They didn’t refer to any racist policies to validate their words. Nevertheless, they charged many White American Christians with apathy or support for racism, and they commanded them to repent.

One of the speakers at the Together for the Gospel conference, David Platt, said: “May it be said of us that we eagerly anticipated future salvation while acknowledging present sin. May it not be said of us that we indulged in worship while ignoring justice, and may it not be said of us that we carried on religion while we refused to repent.” [5]

The conferences elicited strong, polarizing reactions from evangelicals. Some Christians were delighted over the conferences’ support for social justice. Other Christians, however, were deeply disappointed over prominent evangelicals adopting social justice as a gospel issue. This culminated into the Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel months later.

But in between these events, James Cone – the founder of Black Liberation Theology – died. Many Christians who support social justice offered eulogies on social media expressing their admiration for James Cone. The most candid admiration for James Cone’s theology, however, came from the president of The Witness: A Black Christian Collective, Jemar Tisby. He dedicated an entire article, without restraint, to commend James Cone’s theology. In the article, he said:

 “A father of black liberation theology, Cone helped pioneer a field that dealt with the racism at the core of much of American Christianity…. He shows that black people could understand Christ’s suffering by recalling their own sorrow related to the lynching tree. At the same time, the cross provided comfort because black people could know for certain that in His life and death, Christ identified with the oppressed.” [6]

Then in his book, The Color of Compromise, from earlier this year, Jemar Tisby wrote:

“James Cone penned The Cross and the Lynching Tree as a theological reflection on racial terrorism. ‘Both Jesus and blacks were strange fruit’, he wrote. ‘Theologically speaking, Jesus was the first lynchee,’ who foreshadowed all the lynched black bodies on American soil.’ Cone goes on to explain, ‘The cross helped me to deal with the brutal legacy of the lynching tree, and the lynching tree helped me understand the tragic meaning of the cross.’”[7]

Jemar Tisby is part of a long line of professing Christians today who have embraced a form of Black Liberation Theology in the wake of Black Lives Matter and the social justice movement. This development actually follows a historical trend. Many social justice leaders within evangelicalism today are much like James Cone and his theological predecessors who abandoned biblical theology to adopt worldly philosophies from liberal theologians and activists from their time as a means to fight injustice.

ABOLITION AND LIBERALISM

The basis for Black Liberation Theology can be traced back to liberal theology within the abolitionist movement. Many abolitionist leaders such as William Lloyd Garrison and Theodore Parker abandoned biblical theology because one of biggest obstacles for abolitionism at the time was that many Christians used the Bible to defend slavery. In his book, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis, historian Mark Noll demonstrates that some of the most influential Christian leaders in the nineteenth century, including Richard Fuller, James Henley Thornwell, J.W. Tucker, and probably a majority of Christians throughout America justified their pro-slavery stance with Scripture. [8]

This prompted many abolitionists like Garrison to become increasingly antagonistic to the inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible. Garrison wrote:

“There are two dogmas which the priesthood have attempted to enforce, respecting the Bible, from which has resulted great mischief. The first isits plenary inspiration…the other dogma isthe Bible is the only rule of faith and practise; so that whatever it teaches or allows must be right, and whatever it forbids must be wrong, independent of all other considerations…. Hence, if slavery is or war is allowed in the book, it cannot be wrong.” [9]

Black abolitionists like Garrison’s close friend, Frederick Douglass, also adopted liberal theology. In his book, By These Hands, Black Liberation theologian Anthony B. Pinn explains that Frederick Douglass’ colleagues like unitarian preacher Theodore Parker, agnostic writer Robert Ingersoll, and his mentor, William Lloyd Garrison, convinced Douglass to reject biblical Christianity.[10]

Consequently, liberal theology became prominent within Black abolitionist circles. For instance, the Civil War-era Black abolitionist and women’s rights activist Sojourner Truth, rejected the deity of Christ. In her speech at the Ohio Women’s Convention in 1851, she said: “How came Jesus into the world? Through God who created Him and woman who bore Him.”[11]  By the beginning of the twentieth century, Black church leaders – particularly leaders within the African Methodist Episcopal Church, such as Henry Mcneal Turner and Reverdy C. Ransom advocated for a social gospel formed by liberal theology and Marxism.[12]

Their theology was much like Walter Rauschenbusch’s social gospel. In fact, Rauschenbusch’s book, Christianity and the Social Crisis, laid the foundation for liberation theology. Decades after the book’s release, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, “Christianity and the Social Crisis…left an indelible imprint on my thinking by giving me a theological basis for the social concern which had already grown up in me.”[13]

Therefore, Martin Luther King Jr. and many of his peers, including Rosa Parks – a life-long member and deacon of the African Methodist Episcopal Church – embraced the social gospel. In a letter to his wife, Coretta Scott King, in 1952, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, “Let us continue to hope, work, and pray that in the future we will live to see a warless world, a better distribution of wealth, and a brotherhood that transcends race or color. This is the gospel that I will preach to the world.”[14]

JAMES CONE

The fruits of Martin Luther King Jr.’s gospel blossomed into Black Liberation Theology almost two decades later. In 1969, James Cone – an ordained minister from the African Methodist Episcopal Church – released a book titled Black Theology and Black Power.

Just as many evangelicals today adopted social justice theology following Black Lives Matter’s emergence during the Ferguson riots, so the Black Power movement in the 1960s, and Martin Luther King Jr.’s social gospel shaped James Cone’ theology. Cone wrote:

“I did not want [Malcolm X] to disturb the theological certainties that I had learned in graduate school. But with the urban unrest in the cities and the rise of Black Power during the James Meredith March in Mississippi (June 1966) …I could no longer ignore Malcolm’s devastating criticisms of Christianity, particularly as they were being expressed in the articulate and passionate voices of Stokely Carmichael, Ron Karenga, the Black Panthers, and other young African-American activists. For me, the burning theological question was, how can I reconcile Christianity and Black Power, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s idea of nonviolence and Malcolm X’s ‘by any means necessary’ philosophy? The writing of Black Theology and Black Power was the beginning of my search for a resolution of that dilemma.”[15]

Thus, like Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and many of his theological predecessors, James Cone rejected biblical theology. Black Liberation Theology is built on the foundation of liberal theology and the social gospel. Naturally, Black Liberation Theology rejects the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture. James Cone wrote, “if the basic truth of the gospel is that the Bible is the infallible word of God, then it is inevitable that more emphasis will be placed upon ‘true’ propositions about God than upon God as active in the liberation of the oppressed of the land.”[16]

Black Liberation Theology was initially a reactionary theology against White, orthodox Christians who were apathetic or sympathetic to anti-Black racism. It’s the ramifications of a long history of many White Christians using the Bible to justify racist, pro-slavery, and segregationist beliefs. Therefore, this reactionary theology is prompted by anger and anti-White racism. Black Liberation Theology leaders admit that their theology is built on hatred for White people, but they do not believe that their hatred for White people is racist. Cone writes:

“It is important to make a further distinction here among black hatred, black racism, and black Power. Black hatred is the black man’s strong aversion to white society. No black man living in white America can escape it…. But the charge of black racism cannot be reconciled with the facts. While it is true that blacks do hate whites, black hatred is not racism.”[17]

James Cone’s selective definition for racism can be explained by Black Liberation Theology’s relativist positions on sin. In fact, Black Liberation Theology’s poor concept of sin is why it cannot offer anything more than a social gospel. Black Liberation Theology leaders major on social issues because they minor on sin. Its entire theological system is made up of man-centered or Black-centered thinking that cannot liberate those whom it purports to liberate. It is conformed to the world. Its proponents are not being transformed by renewing their mind on Scripture. Therefore, they cannot discern the good and perfect will of God. (Rom. 12:2) Cone again:

“But there is no perfect guide for discerning God’s movement in the world, Contrary to what many conservatives say, the Bible is not a blueprint on this matter. It is a valuable symbol for point to God’s revelation in Jesus, but it is not self-interpreting. We are thus place in an existential situation of freedom in which the burden is on us to make decisions without a guaranteed ethical guide.”[18]

For that reason, Black Liberation Theology doesn’t offer a saviour for sin. It doesn’t offer a sole saviour for a multitude of sins. It exchanges the power of God for Black power. It substitutes the supremacy of Christ for Black supremacy. It is a theology designed to repay evil for evil. Black Liberation Theology is simply a kind of liberal, social gospel.

Thus, in the 1997 edition of Black Theology and Black Power, James Cone wrote:

“As in 1969, I still regard Jesus Christ today as the chief focus of my perspective on God but not to the exclusion of other religious perspectives. God’s reality is not bound by one manifestation of the divine in Jesus but can be found wherever people are being empowered to fight for freedom. Life-giving power for the poor and the oppressed is the primary criterion that we must use to judge the adequacy of our theology, not abstract concepts.”[19]

In Black Liberation Theology, Jesus isn’t the God and saviour of sinners, He isn’t the atoning sacrifice who redeems the world. No, according to Black Liberation Theology teachers like James Cone, Jesus is merely the god of the oppressed – who uniquely identifies with Black people to liberate them from oppressive White people or “white devils” and “antichrists.”[20]

And as Cone explains in a 1980 essay, this liberation is a religious revolution with major political implications:

“Why not think of a completely new society and begin to devise ways to realize it on earth? Perhaps what we need today is to return to that “good old-time religion” of our grandparents and combine with it a Marxist critique of society. Together black religion and Marxist philosophy may show us the way to build a completely new society. With that combination, we may be able to realize in the society the freedom of which we sing and pray for in the black church.”[21]

In other words, Black Liberation Theology is Marxist philosophy with heretical theology. It’s a theological framework strictly designed to accomplish a Marxist revolution for Black people, and evangelical leaders like Jemar Tisby have become sympathetic to it.

But Black Liberation Theology is one of the most destructive heresies in Black American churches today. It’s shaped the way many Black people think about God and government. It’s shaped the way many people in Black American churches perceive themselves and others. But we shouldn’t be shaped by a history of racism, we should be shaped and conformed into the image of Christ. The answer to racism isn’t Black Liberation Theology. No, the answer to racism is biblical theology that doesn’t repay evil for evil.

Black Liberation Theology is destroying many Black Americans. Instead of capitulating to its heresies by adopting a form of their social justice theology to win their approval, we need to challenge Black Liberation Theology with the true gospel of Jesus Christ, who lived, died, and was resurrected for White, Black, and all sinners.


[1] Sandra L. Barnes, “An Analysis of Black Church Usage of Black Liberation and Womanist Theologies: Implications for Inclusivity,” Race, Gender & Class 13, no. 3/4, 2006, 339.

[2] Jeremiah Wright, “Confusing God and Government” (Sermon delivered at Trinity United Church of Christ, Chicago, 2003).

[3] Alex Altman, “Ferguson Protesters, the Activists,” TIME, last modified December 10, 2014, http://time.com/time-person-of-the-year-runner-up-ferguson-protesters/.

[4] Josh Buice et al., Article 12 & Article 14, The Statement on Social Justice & the Gospel, last modified 2018, https://statementonsocialjustice.com/.

[5] David Platt, Let Justice Roll Down Like Waters: Racism and our Need for Repentance (Together for the Gospel conference, 2018).

[6] Jemar Tisby, “James Cone, the cross, and the lynching memorial,” Religion News Service, last modified April 30, 2018, https://religionnews.com/2018/04/30/james-cone-the-cross-and-the-lynching-memorial/.

[7] Jemar Tisby, The Color of Compromise (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2019), 131.

[8] Mark Noll, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis (Chapel Hill, The University of North Carolina Press, 2015) 36-38.

[9] William Lloyd Garrison, Selections from the Writings and Speeches of William Lloyd Garrison (London, Forgotten Books, 2012) 225-226.

[10] Anthony B. Pinn, By These Hands: A Documentary History of African American Humanism (New York: New York University Press, 2001) 89-96.

[11] Sojourner Truth, “Ain’t I a Woman?” (originally delivered at the Ohio Women’s Convention, 1851). Reproduced at Sojourner Truth, https://www.sojournertruth.com/p/aint-i-woman.html, accessed 2019.

[12] Stephen Ward Angell, Bishop Henry McNeal Turner and African-American Religion in the South (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2001) 256.

[13] Martin Luther King Jr., “My Pilgrimage to Nonviolence,” Fellowship, September 1958. 

[14] Martin Luther King Jr., To Coretta Scott (1952).

[15] James Cone, Black Theology and Black Power (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1989) 8.

[16] James Cone, A Black Liberation of Theology (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1970) 88.

[17] Cone, Black Theology and Black Power, 14-16.

[18] Cone, A Black Liberation of Theology, 7.

[19] Cone, Black Theology and Black Power, 12.

[20] Cone, A Black Liberation of Theology, 8.

[21] James Cone, The Black Church and Marxism (Institute for Democratic Socialism, 1980).