An individual theologian's reflection about the nature of God is not strictly about God alone. Rather, it is intimately bound-up with the theologian's own way of viewing the world. One fairly recent example of this comes from Elie Weisel, a Nobel-prize winning writer. Weisel is a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust who has written about how his experiences in the concentration camps have caused him to think differently about God. His experience of seeing people killed and tortured has caused him seriously to question his previous ways of thinking about God. It was his experience that caused him to think of God as unable or unwilling to intervene in human suffering. He recalls watching a young boy hanging dead in the main square of a concentration camp, and he recalls the theological reflection that accompanied the moment. He heard a man from among the crowd ask, "Where is God now?" Weisel writes that, in response to this question, "I heard a voice within me answer him: 'Where is He? Here He is-He is hanging here on this gallows.' "
The reason for including this passage from Weisel is simply to illustrate that theological reflection is always influenced by personal experience. After living through the concentration camps, Weisel found it difficult to describe God as a powerful, compassionate, loving God. Instead, he found it more appropriate to describe God as he saw the young boy who had been killed, and whose body now hung limp and powerless in front of him. Once alive, but now dead. Weisel's suffering brought with it a different sort of theological reflection that is wholly inaccessible to someone who has not also lived through such terror. The nature of his theological reflection is unique on a personal level, but from a wider frame of reference, his theology may also be said to be representative of the collective experience of Jews in 20th century Europe. On the whole, then, it may be said that this contingent of Jews differs theologically from the Jews of, say, 6th century Europe. Understanding the historical context of theology is of utmost importance. Without this frame of reference, the meaning of the particular theology is often lost.
This essay will consider the larger issues of historical context and theology. It will examine the relationship between personal experience and individual theological reflection, as well as the relationship between collective experience and group theological reflection. It will deal with the individual and collective experience of suffering, and the relationship of these sufferings to Christian theological reflection on Christology. The paper begins by looking rather broadly at the issue of suffering as expressed by African-American Christians, and how this suffering influences theology. In ways similar to the Holocaust, the American slave inflicted intense suffering upon not only one generation of people, but upon generations to come. The consequences of the terrifying experiences suffered by African people brought to the Americas will not, in our lifetime, come completely to an end.
One way to enter into this experience of suffering is by closely examining history. Another way is to look at some of the theological reflection that has occurred in the wake of the slave trade. Long after the days of black slavery "officially" ended, racism continues to exist in America in many forms, which results in a continuation of suffering. Racism and discrimination based on color (even when it does not involve racism) expands the experience of suffering beyond African and African-American people; the impact of racism influences all people of color in America. In addition to America's history of racism, is America's history of sexism and gender discrimination. The combination of these two evils, racism and sexism, results in a devastatingly harsh set of conditions in which black women must exist. The theological reflection that results from living in these conditions is important, and must be heard.
The African-American Experience and the Production of Theology
Today, as never before in history, people are able to look, listen, and travel around the world. We can no longer assume that peoples' lives will begin and end without contact from people outside their own community. This global contact has brought not only the excitement of learning that people are united in certain ways, but it has brought the sometimes threatening truth that people are very different. Even if people claim the same core belief system, this core may be adorned in so many different ways that it is barely recognizable. Even though both white and black Americans regard themselves as Christian, it is important to recognize differences do indeed exist. Simply sharing the descriptive title "Christian" does not mean that all people who share the title believe the same things or think about their spirituality in the same way. Personal and collective experience has a large influence on this.
African-American people have a vastly different historical and therefore social context than any other American people. In their book, The Black Church in the African-American Experience, Eric Lincoln and Lawrence Mamiya discuss three theoretical assumptions about the black Church: the black sacred cosmos, the central institutional sector and partial differentiation, and a dialectical model.
The idea of a black sacred cosmos is most relevant to the present study. The black sacred cosmos is the religious worldview of African-Americans. It is "related both to their African heritage... And to their conversion to Christianity during slavery and its aftermath." This worldview, this sacred cosmos, is large enough to allow for the core of Christianity to be present while simultaneously acknowledging and providing for distinctive differences singular to the black community that have been shaped by their history. The authors state that, "While the structure of beliefs for black Christians were the same orthodox beliefs as that of white Christians, there were also different degrees of emphasis and valences given to certain particular theological views."
These emphases exist not for the purpose of stealthily winning people over to Christianity by taking advantage of their weaknesses and twisting the message to influence them, but for the purpose of identifying and defining one's relationship with God. For the black Church, the relationship between slavery and the theme of divine rescue that permeates the Bible results in a style of preaching that is rooted in this theme. Also, black churchgoers may be more likely to relate to "the incarnational view of suffering, humiliation, death, and eventual triumph of Jesus" than white churchgoers because of their history of oppression. Finally, the Biblical concept of people being children of God gives freedom to black people who were at one time, and unfortunately sometimes even now, considered to be not fully human. Knowing that God historically rescues and delivers people from slavery, has lived through the oppression of the incarnation, and sees all humans as equally made in the divine image brings comfort and inspiration to the black Church in ways that it could not for most white churches.
History of Slavery in America
The task of sketching a brief history of the experiences of Africans in the slave trade, or African-Americans in the generations that followed is difficult for a number of reasons. First of all, we have relatively few first-hand accounts of Africans who were brought to America during the beginning of America's slave trade. Records do exist, but as compared to the number of records of the accounts of white European or European-Americans, they are rare indeed. The records that do exist are also not as ideal as could be hoped for. English was not the primary language of these slaves, and writing was rarely taught them, the accounts we have from black slaves leave a different impression that those that we have from white slave-owners. The "primary source" material is usually the transcription of an oral history told by someone who has little or poor familiarity with the English that was commonly spoken among the slave-owners. Although these difficulties exist, they are not an excuse for not trying to tell the story of slavery.
The following excerpt is recounted by an African man whose testimony was recorded in 1798. His description is of his abduction from his home at the age of six:
They then came to us in the reeds, and the very first salute I had from them was a violent blow on the back part of the head with the fore part of a gun, and at the same time a grasp round the neck. I then had a rope put about my neck, as had all the women in the thicket with me, and were immediately led to my father... my father was closely interrogated respecting his money which they knew he must have. But as he gave them no account of it, he was instantly cut and pounded on his body with great inhumanity... he despised all the tortures which they inflicted, until the continued exercise and increase of torment, obliged him to sink and expire... I saw him while he was thus tortured to death.…