Greetings and welcome to my website!
As I reflect on the impact my parents and the black church have had on my theological development, I have come to realize that both have been instrumental in guiding my quest for meaning in life.
I was born in Marion, South Carolina as the youngest of six children and raised in Conway, South Carolina, a small town on the coast with approximately, at that time, 23,000 people. My parents both worked in the public school system – my mother as a teacher assistant, and my father as a high school and middle school science teacher. My mother instilled in my siblings and me a profound sense of pride in our public appearance, a well-kept home, and the virtues of treating people the way you want to be treated. My father, a Baptist minister as well, insisted that faith be an integral part of our lives not just as a means of individual comfort but also as a means of social transformation. Faith to him became real when it was expressed in helping others particularly, the, “ least of these.”
Both my mother and father grew up in segregated Edgefield, South Carolina in the 1940’s and 50’s. It was in that context that my father’s understanding of faith emerged. His social activism as an NAACP branch president and national board member spoke directly to his lifelong contention that Christian faith was not just a faith of personal testimonials but of a committed life in the trenches of human oppression. To that end, my father saw discipleship as the ultimate litmus test for every Christian. The exodus of the children of Israel out of Egyptian enslavement, the condemnation of the prophets to the unjust national leaders of their time and Jesus unashamed affiliation with the, “least of these,” were considered by my father as the most prominent themes of the bible. All three narratives served as the cornerstone of his ministry. Whether biblical revelation gave birth to my father’s understanding of race relations in American life or vice versa, it was clear to him that the incomparable suffering of black people in American history more than qualified us to be that contemporary, “least of these,” and that therefore Christian faith demanded adherents that would commit themselves to the transformation of our condition. He was insistent in his ministry that social activism, prophetic critiques of expressions of faith that did not address humanity’s social condition, and holding Christians, both white and black accountable, for the creation and perpetuation of racial prejudice, was the most relevant pastoral position in contemporary America.
Needless to say, my father’s ministry had a profound impact on his youngest son. Growing up in Cherry Hill Baptist Church in Conway, I was nurtured in a warm, affirming religious community, whose affection for its youth was exceeded only by a highly demonstrative expression of faith, testifying to the efficacy of God’s grace in Jesus Christ in their lives. This atmosphere instilled in me a profound belief in the goodness of humanity and the potential for a more equitable and just society.
However, as I grew older and encountered with greater frequency the depravity of human relationships, particularly in regard to race and gender, I came to see the limitations of this expression of faith. Despite its sincerity, the concern primarily, if not exclusively, for spiritual communion with God and its preoccupation with individual religious concerns failed to take seriously theologian Paul Tillich’s claim that although the truth of the gospel message is universal, that truth must be interpreted anew in each generation for purposes of ultimate relevance. That relevance, for me, must depart from theologian Fredrick Denison Maurice’s contention that humans are fundamentally social beings and that any relevant expression of faith must be oriented toward seeing an inextricable link between humanity’s spiritual and social condition.
As I began to think about faith more reflectively, however, I came to see very little struggle with either Tillich or Maurice’s challenges. I came to see as one of the more unfortunate dimensions of faith expression in Christian life in America a divorcing of faith from social reality that has become normative in most Christian communities. The result was the creation of a Christian conscience that came to have an acute aversion to those faith expressions rooted in social transformation. That Christian conscience came to celebrate emotional exuberance and frown on black clergy’s exhortations to stand up for racial justice. It also frowned on black clergy’s reminders to black Christians in particular to avoid social complacency and that Christian faith demands a committed discipleship that entails more than formal worship. Christian faith, in its true essence, for prophetic black clergy, demands a radical discipleship that constantly challenges the racial status quo in American life. What I experienced instead was an expression of faith in which the more other-worldly and spiritual (i.e. divorced from social reality) its emphasis, the more religiously authentic it was considered. This I found particularly suspect given an African American history of earthly suffering. Thus my theological development began struggling with the question, how can a religious expression be so meaningful to an oppressed people and yet be so silent in the transformation of its social reality?
This struggle continued as I matriculated to the University of South Carolina. It was there that African American Studies Professor Willie Harriford introduced me to the speeches of Malcolm X. In particular, it was Malcolm’s critique of white Christianity that marked my initial exposure to the notion of, “ideological suspicion” or the notion that as black people we should be suspicious about the construction of theories in Christian faith and beyond that “confirm” white racial superiority and black inferiority. In addition, we should also be suspicious of faith expressions that seek to make black people think that faith has no connection to their earthly suffering. Malcolm’s condemnation of white Christian leaders for their use of the Bible to justify black enslavement and segregation as God-ordained served as an invaluable source for demystifying my struggle.
Malcolm’s critique of white Christianity and its impact on black people’s self-image helped me to see that this virulent interrelationship between an oppressive social reality and a socially detached expression of faith was not unique to my context but symptomatic of most oppressor-oppressed contexts throughout the world. I came to realize that these contexts did not exist by accident but were systemically created by dominant classes, and by white society in America (and supported by white theologians and the white church) to maintain their privileged position in society. Whether it was the misuse of Hinduism by its clergy to religiously justify the caste system or white Afrikaners misuse of Christian faith to religiously justify apartheid, the intent was the same – to make the creation of oppressor-oppressed relationships appear as though they are creations of the mind of God!
Buoyed by Malcolm’s critique I continued to search for an expression of Christian faith rooted in the black liberation struggle. After returning home from college, my father gave me a book in which he thought I would be interested. It was James Cone’s Black Theology & Black Power. The book fascinated me like no other book had at that point in my life. The power and conviction with which Cone made his case that in contemporary times the gospel of Jesus Christ is most visibly seen in the liberation struggle of black people from white racism in America redefined for me how Christian language was expressed. I was so moved by its content that I read it in one sitting and finished it at 3AM. I followed up with A Black Theology of Liberation by Cone a few days later. These two works had an impact of “conversionist” proportion and confirmed for me that Christian faith can be relevant to the “least of these,” not just as a tool of survival but as a tool of liberation.
It was then that the “hand of God” consciously permeated my being compelling me in the footsteps of Cone to make the pursuit of theology as an academic discipline my primary ministerial vocation. Becoming a theologian would allow me to synthesize my personal and ministerial desires. Personally, it would allow me to be a professor where I was initially influence by Professor Harriford in college. Ministerially, it would allow me to prepare future clergy as well as form dialogical relationships with religious leaders of all faiths.
Strongly encouraged by my father to pursue formal theological training, I entered the Interdenominational Theological Center (ITC) in Atlanta, Georgia. It was in matriculation at the ITC that I had the pleasure of being taught and mentored by a former student of James Cone – Womanist theologian Jacquelyn Grant. A native of Georgetown, South Carolina, forty minutes south of Conway, Professor Grant’s constructive critiques of my work sharpened my intellectual acuity in unparalleled ways and prepared me for the rigors of theological discourse. Most importantly, it was Grant’s encouragement along with Ethics Professor Riggins Earl and Old Testament Professor Temba Mafico that was indispensable in my preparation for doctoral studies. ITC provided me with a theological balance of both the African American religious experience and the classical texts of Christian history. The ITC curriculum compelled me to see the ultimate significance of the liberation theme in Christian faith without diminishing the significance of Christian history itself.
After graduating from ITC with honor, I entered the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California for doctoral studies in theology. I had the good fortune once again to get as my principal advisor another former student of James Cone – George Cummings. It was Dr. Cummings constant driving of me to be a quality theologian without making me his clone that I admired most about his guidance of my program. As a liberation theologian, Dr. Cummings possessed the kind of specific expertise needed to ensure that I was faithfully representing the liberation tradition. In addition to Dr. Cummings, the support of my initial doctoral seminar instructors Kenan Osborne and Tim Lull, as well as the candid feedback of my writing from another instructor, Claude Welch, enabled me to move through the program at an accelerated pace.
Already firmly rooted in liberation theologies, Malcolm’s critique and Cone’s theology continued to be the conduits through which I filtered theological assertions. But I was still searching for a formal theological method that was primarily concerned with what I had come to understand were the implications of Malcolm’s critique – the exposing of theological perspectives that sought to equate human oppression with divine will. While reading Arthur McGovern’s Liberation Theology and Its Critics: Towards an Assessment for a doctoral seminar, I was introduced to the theological method of Juan Luis Segundo. In particular, it was Segundo’s challenge to not simply begin with the liberation imperative in the doing of theology but to begin with the theological history of Christian sponsored racism and classism as the starting point for doing theology that most closely exemplified Malcolm’s critique of white Christianity in America. Because the liberation imperative had been buried for centuries, for Segundo, under the rubbish of multiple generations of theological perspectives that justified human oppression as the will of God, Christian theology itself has to be liberated before it can serve as an effective medium for human liberation. This theological method is reflected in the title of Segundo’s most famous work, The Liberation of Theology. Segundo referred to theological perspectives used to justify human oppression as, ‘religio-political ideologies,” and maintained that the first task of the theologian was to deconstruct these ideologies or to deideologize them. It is only after this had been effectively done that Christian theology (or the theology of any faith for that matter!) could truly be liberating. It was Segundo’s method of deideologization that brought me full circle with Malcolm’s critique of white Christianity. But more important, it was Segundo’s charge to liberation theologians outside Latin America to apply his principles to their context that brought me full circle with Cone’s theology.
In this respect, I sought to craft a dissertation project that would integrate these principles. Working under the topic, “Dimensions of Deideologization in the Works of James H. Cone,” I attempted to show that Segundo’s method of deideologization, i.e. the exposing of religio-political ideologies that have equated God’s will with human oppression and the construction of new theological principles rooted in socio-political liberation, has the greatest ability to bring liberating potential to Christian faith. I further attempted to demonstrate that Cone’s theology is the best example of a theology that is in a process of deideologization in my American context. That dissertation has since been published in 2002 as my first book and is titled Black Theology and Ideology: Deideological Dimensions in the Theology of James H. Cone.
In synthesizing the methods of Segundo and Cone, I was equipped with both universal and particular dimensions of the deideological theological project. Segundo’s universal principles placed ultimate emphasis on starting with the exposing of oppressive treatments of Christianity in history while Cone’s theological emphasis on the black condition in America and white Christian leaders misuse of Christian faith to justify that condition provided me with a formal expression as to how that ideological critique is expressed in my context. My second book, White Religion and Black Humanity, published in 2012, is my first signature theological statement reflecting my own commitments to the deideological project.
Thus my intellectual career has been and will be devoted to a methodological synthesis of Segundo’s deideological method and Cone’s contextual relevance. This is a theological foundation that I hope will allow me to make a lasting contribution to the academy, church, and society – a theological foundation that has guided my quest for meaning in life.