The Black Christ

25th Anniversary Edition

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Kelly Brown Douglas
  • Maryknoll, NY: 
    Orbis Books
    , April
     2019.
     160 pages.
     $22.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781626983168.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

As the one hundredth anniversary of the Red Summer of 1919 has recently passed, it seems appropriate that explorations of race and violence are becoming more prominent in religious scholarship. The updated twenty-fifth anniversary edition of The Black Christ confronts racist violence through the lens of crucifixion symbolism. Author Kelly Brown Douglas analyzes the vulnerability of the publicly executed Christ as a defining and empowering aspect of African American Christians’ beliefs.

In the process, Douglas draws closer to the inclusive womanist theology that features in the concluding chapter of both the original and updated editions. The idea behind the book started with the author’s intent to describe the incarnate Christ in a way that addressed the practicalities of African American urban life. The 2019 edition continues to analyze the spiritual elements that define a Christ image associated with blackness, yet it does so by considering the cycle of both life and death under the burden of white supremacy.

The contemporary Black Lives Matter movement set part of the historical context for the new introduction by Douglas. In particular, she mentions the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Jordan Edwards, Renisha McBride, and Jonathan Sanders as evidence that “our children’s lives were at stake” (xvi). In this text, identification with the savior of the world proves the significance of African Americans’ lifestyles and their grief over lives lost. Her exploration of black theological arguments resonates with the symbolic role ascribed to racial identity in Paul Harvey’s Christianity and Race in the American South (University of Chicago Press, 2016). According to Harvey, pro-slavery theology encompassed an ironic tension between denying any meaningful historical record to people of African descent while making their labor status a moral and religious concern (Harvey, 73-81).

The various theologies analyzed in The Black Christ include a consistent theme that the spiritual and physical wellness of African Americans was also significant for societal development.

This edition follows the chapter format from the original book with an additional introduction. The analysis of recent events in the 2019 introduction, particularly of #BlackLivesMatter and the slogan “Make America Great Again,” enhances her previous exploration of urban racial inequality. The following chapters explain how Americans linked Christian beliefs with the development of this inequality from the 17th century through the civil rights era and the late 20th century. The contrast between “slaveholding Christianity” and “slave Christianity” in chapter 1 argues that unwillingness to acknowledge injustice against people of African descent sparked the need to associate a racial identity with the personhood of Jesus.

The context of the later Jim Crow-era heightened implications that a Christ “who stands against an unjust status quo” was racialized because of the cultural signs “that in the United States blackness is synonymous with inferiority, and hence unwarranted suffering” (27). The ensuing debate among black nationalists and black theologians regarding the significance of the skin color of Jesus revolved around strategies for removing racial connotations from the dichotomy between power and suffering. The womanist theologies analyzed in the final chapter broaden the types of injustice addressed by images of Christ while bringing the topic full circle to the need for a religious solution to life-threatening problems that are often overlooked and unspoken.

The new edition of The Black Christ would be an excellent addition to course reading lists in the fields of religious history, African American Studies, missiology, and theology. Like Walter Earl Fluker’s The Ground Has Shifted: The Future of the Black Church in Post-Racial America (NYU Press, 2016), this book by Douglas helps readers apply scholarly debates to widely known, recent controversies. That example is useful especially for graduate students and advanced undergraduates who, like Douglas, may be looking for ways to merge their social observations with their professional calling.

This book will show students that the process of placing one’s personal context into an older religious narrative played a formative role in African American cultural history. Douglas’s explanation of the Christ image in the theologies of Albert Cleage, James Cone, and J. Deotis Roberts makes a significant contribution to “long civil rights movement” scholarship in particular. Chapters 3 and 4 extend her previous discussion of how famous civil rights activists depicted Christ into the early 1990s.

In a class setting, the two introductions to The Black Christ will reinforce synthesis skills by encouraging students to examine the theological findings as they are filtered through the author’s historical perspective. One could use the final chapter toward a similar goal to teach about diversity among and within African American communities. This chapter on the womanist approach can complement lessons on the AIDS epidemic and other public health crises, and it can help guide discussion relevant to the recent #MeToo and #ChurchToo movements. At just 144 pages, its size and organizational structure make it adaptable to a semester or quarterly course.

The 2019 edition of The Black Christ remains a significant contribution to theology and American religious history while giving another generation opportunities to envision themselves within the process of confronting racialized religion.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Kimberly Hill is Assistant Professor of History at The University of Texas at Dallas.

Date of Review: 
April 22, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Kelly Brown Douglas is Dean of Episcopal Divinity School at Union Theological Seminary, and Canon Theologian of the National Cathedral in Washington, DC.

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