Wanted Dead Or Alive

Wanted Dead Or Alive

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PNEUMA 36 (2014) 407–416

Wanted Dead or Alive

A Black Theology of Renewal

Cheryl Sanders Howard University, Washington, dc



This essay explores the relationship between black theology and renewal theology and assesses the ongoing relevance of black theology to the mission and future of the black churches. Recent writings by Eddie Glaude, Raphael Warnock, James Cone, and Peter Paris are considered in conversation with the works of Brian Bantam, J. Kameron Carter, and Willie Jennings, whose imaginative attention to Christology, pneumatol- ogy, and ecclesiology provokes thoughtful engagement of issues of race, gender, power, and privilege in the context of renewal and the global impact of Pentecos- talism more than a century after the Azusa Street Revival led by William J. Sey- mour.


black church – black theology – renewal theology – Azusa Street Revival – Pentecostal- ism


I must begin by explaining the title of my paper. I do not intend any violence or ridicule by my choice of words, which I have borrowed from the wanted signs posted by the sheriff in pursuit of murderers, stagecoach robbers, and other fugitives in the westerns of a bygone era of television and cinema, and also by thefbi and cia seeking certain categoriesof criminals in reallife in recentyears. While my assumption is that the work of black theologians is always “wanted” by our black churches, I will tip my hand, so to speak, by saying that what I mean by “dead or alive” is indicated by the absence or presence of a response

© koninklijke brill nv, leiden, 2014 | doi: 10.1163/15700747-03603044




among contemporary black theologians to ideas and practices associated with renewal movements.

To label a tradition, movement, or institution as “dead” is a serious and often unwarranted indictment. When Eddie Glaude declared that “The Black Church Is Dead” in his 2010Huffington Postblog, his insinuating, signifying pronounce- ment got the attention of pastors, pundits, and scholars, luring us into anxious conversations about the present and future significance of the black churches.1 Glaude struggled to discern signs of vitality in the black churches’ prophetic ministries on behalf of the poor, but behold, the best example he could find was Bishop Charles Blake, a pentecostal preacher in Los Angeles, of all places. So if the only sign of life in the black church, as Glaude observes it, is a pente- costal congregation, then does that suggest that renewal theology may possibly be breathing new life into black churches? If the black church is dead, is there anykind oftheology that canreviveit?Or,if wedeterminethatthe black church is alive, what kind of theology is required to sustain its eschatological imagina- tion? Perhaps I have raised more questions than can be answered in this essay, but I am prompted by Glaude’s controversial post to seek and discern signs of vitality in black theology that bear the influence of renewal, the peculiar wit- ness of pentecostal and charismatic thought.

My approach to this brief exploration of the relationship between black theology, renewal theology, and the future of the black churches is to sample some recent works by black theologians, including critical queries regarding the relationship between black and renewal theologies and assessments of the importance or irrelevance of theology to the mission of the black churches. At the center of my inquiry is the work of Brian Bantam, J. Kameron Carter, and Willie Jennings, whose respective contributions to Christology, pneumatology, and ecclesiology promise to broaden the terms of the conversation by their thoughtful engagement of issues of race, gender, power, and privilege in the context of renewal.

Contemporary Currents in Black Theology

One need look no further than the titles of two recently published books on black theology to test the current “pulse” of black theology. First is The

1 Eddie Glaude, Jr., “The Black Church Is Dead,”Huffington Post, February 24, 2010. http://www


(accessed December 20, 2013).

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wanted dead or alive


DividedMindoftheBlackChurch:Theology,PietyandPublicWitness2 byRaphael Warnock, senior pastor of the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia who earned his PhD in systematic theology at Union Theological Sem- inary in New York under the tutelage of James Cone. I have read and heartily endorsed this volume as the latest addition to the “Religion, Race and Ethnic- ity Series” edited by Peter Paris for New York University Press. The wording of the title signifies that the black church has a divided mind with respect to its mission as manifested in terms of its theology, spirituality, and public advocacy. Johnny Hill’s Prophetic Rage: A Postcolonial Theology of Liberation presents itself as a manifesto of rage grounded in Hill’s personal experiences of poverty and discrimination growing up in the South.3 The broader con- text of his “prophetic rage” is the imperialism and nihilism of the present culture. While it may be unwise to judge any book by its cover, these titles introducetheological discoursesmarkedbyexpressionsofdeep frustrationand anger.

Warnock offers a historical overview of black religious resistance to racism with attention to the mission of the black church and the emergence of black theology. Against this background of black ecclesiology and social action, War- nock diagnoses the divided mind of the contemporary black church by posit- ing its strong evangelical piety over against a relatively weak political witness. His key concern in The Divided Mind is the conflict between black theology and the black church as fed by the dichotomy between the black theologian’s public witness for liberation from oppression on the one hand, and the black church’s fixation on personal piety on the other. He categorizes black pente- costal practices as “piety” in a suspicious binary construction of spirituality vs. public witness, without taking any further steps to illustrate or prescribe a remedial pneumatology that would suit his political criteria. To make mat- ters worse, he lifts up Martin Luther King, Jr. as exemplar of the resolution of this piety and politics dilemma based upon his reading of King’s “kitchen conversion” experience. Warnock cites King’s recollection that in the solitude of his kitchen one night during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, after having received a barrage of hateful and threatening phone calls, King heard the voice of God saying, “Martin Luther, stand up for justice. Stand up for truth.

2 Raphael G. Warnock,The Divided Mind of the Black Church: Theology, Piety and Public Witness

(New York: New York University Press, 2013).

3 Johnny Bernard Hill, Prophetic Rage: A Postcolonial Theology of Liberation, Prophetic Chris-

tianity (Grand Rapids, mi: Eerdmans, 2013).

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And lo, I will be with you, even until the end of the world.”4 Clearly this call to courage and conviction is a signal moment in King’s spiritual and voca- tional formation as an agent of social change, and fifty years after his public articulation of his dream of social equality at the historic March on Wash- ington we still stand in awe of his gifts and reap the harvest of his labors. This is more of a call to ministry than a testimony of conversion or sancti- fication, however. King is neither confessing a conversion to Christian faith here nor to a holy baptism of the Spirit. My point is neither to deconstruct King’s kitchen testimony nor to deny his Christian identity. What he did say was that the voice of God spoke courage and hope to him in a moment when he was greatly troubled and ready to give up, inspiring him to continue his public witness against racism without fear. So the problem with using King as a paradigm for the resolution of the divided mind of the black church is that he excelled at social justice practice without emulating the personal piety characteristic of evangelical and/or pentecostal churches that Warnock is try- ing to draw into the theological fold. Further, I fear that in his zeal to pro- mote and revitalize the black theology project from his own strong posture of prophetic advocacy as a Baptist pastor, Warnock has missed a golden opportu- nity to address the pneumatological shortcomings of black theology to date. This is all the more puzzling considering Warnock’s own intimate acquain- tance with the black pentecostal tradition as the son of two pentecostal pas- tors.

I will mention one additional publication in the field of black theology to set the stage for further assessment of the present vitality of the tradition in light of the spirituality and politics debate. The April 2013 issue of Theology Todayfeatures the presidential address Peter Paris presented at the 2012 meet- ing of the American Theological Society, entitled “The Theologies of Black Folk in North America.” He presents five types of theology in the black church as follows: (1) the invisible theology of enslaved Africans; (2) the public theol- ogy of free Negroes in their independent churches; (3) the public theology of Martin Luther King, Jr.; (4) black theology in the theological academy; and (5) womanist theology in the theological academy. Paris devotes the lion’s share of his paper to a review of the past history of the black church beginning with slavery and continuing through the civil rights movement and to the evolu- tion of black and womanist theologies. His very brief conclusion laments the shortage of black PhDs in theological institutions and also suggests that the theologies of black folk and the religion of the black churches need to “expand

4 Warnock, Divided Mind of the Black Church, 39.

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their prophetic purview in order to address the broad range of moral concerns and social justice advocacy that are related to but not consumed by the tra- ditional focus on race and racism alone.”5 Paris does take note of the debate that emerged between Cone and J. Deotis Roberts in the early 1970s. Roberts’s positive regard of the desirability of racial reconciliation as a goal of Christian ecumenics and activism still beckons modern black and womanist theologians to reconsider and remedy the pneumatological and ecclesiological lacunae of the Cone school.6

Signs of Death and Life in Contemporary Black Theologies

My small sample of the latest works in black theology demonstrates the con- tinued tendency of black theologians to look back, and not forward, in order to retrieve inspirational examples of black resistance to black suffering from the narratives of slavery, the rise of Jim Crow in the South, and the civil rights movement. While it is certain that the testimony of the suffering ancestors must never be forgotten, and the songs, sermons, and stories that document the black sojourn from slavery to freedom should be preserved, it seems rea- sonable to question why these black theologians remain more heavily invested in the black past than in the black future. James Cone’s highly acclaimed and widely reviewed text The Cross and the Lynching Tree7 narrates the most hor- rific representations of black suffering and explores the theological significance of their relevance to the cross. The resultant discourse is a Christian apolo- getics rooted and grounded in racial identity politics—this is not an indict- ment, just an effort to explain how readily death overshadows life in theological approaches that lament the past without discerning a hopeful future. When Warnock and Hill don the mantle of prophetic rage and protest, cataloging the theological, ethical, and political shortcomings of North American evangeli- cal Christians as they should, at the same time they should at least attempt to set forth an alternative soteriology to satisfy the spiritual and intellectual longings of the present generation. This black theology, then, can be referred to as “dead” in three senses of the word. First, it remains oriented toward the

5 Peter J. Paris, “The Theologies of Black Folk in North America: Presidential Address to the

American Theological Society, March, 2012,”Theology Today69, no. 4 (2013): 402. 6 See J. Deotis Roberts,Liberation and Reconciliation: A Black Theology(Philadelphia: Westmin-

ster Press, 1971).

7 James H. Cone,The Cross and the Lynching Tree(Maryknoll, ny: Orbis Press, 2011).

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historical narrative of black struggle without devoting much attention to efforts undertakenbycontemporaryblack congregationstooffer faith-based remedies to human suffering. Second, it remains entrapped in the apologetics of black outrage and identity politics, without fostering practices—spiritual, political, or otherwise—that actually liberate anybody. Third, it remains frustrated in its own inability to summon to salvation the churched and unchurched masses on whose behalf the black theologian claims to speak, while deploring the evangelical leanings and pentecostal predilections of popular black church cul- ture. Our theologians are transfixed upon the pains and glories of the past, on how things used to be, instead of focusing on where we are now and, more importantly, where we are headed. We gaze at our own images in dis- torted mirrors designed by others to depict our otherness as deficiency. We gauge our own destinies following maps and directions that divert and detour us from known paths of righteousness and fulfillment. We lament the eth- ical silence and theological illiteracy of our churches without realizing that this alleged silence is mutual—they don’t hear our voices, either, nor do they recognize our faces, or read our books and blogs. To come alive, then, this black theology needs to liberate itself from self-imposed bondage to fixed dis- courses of oppression and resistance, identity politics, and ambivalent spiritu- ality.

On this view, Bantum, Carter, and Jennings come to the rescue, so to speak, by gesturing toward impactful reconfigurations of Christology, pneumatology, and eschatology as disciples of renewal who take black existence seriously. Generally speaking, they look to the past, but they sift through stories and sce- narios that predate the narrative of slavery and oppression in the New World to account for the untidy and unseemly emergence of racism and colonial- ism as fixed corollaries of Christian thought. There is much to celebrate in their respective texts, but I would like to lift up one or two ideas from each of the three theologians to demonstrate their potential for breathing new life into contemporary black theological discourse as I have framed it, with atten- tion to the deficiencies and missed opportunities I have identified as signs of death.

Brian Bantum’s “mulattic” Christ is an appealing alternative to the black Christ fashioned by Cone, Kelly Brown Douglas, and others precisely because the militant black Christ does not solve the problematic imposition of the mil- quetoast white Christ as a quietistic icon of triumphant cultural dominance. Bantum’s hybrid Christology presents a more attractive imagining of disciple- ship for those who would follow Christ by emulating his politics and prayers. In his chapter on “The Politics of Presence: Prayer and Discipleship” Bantum uses King’s “kitchen conversion” to illustrate the formation of politics and spirit,

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in which the racial and social disruptions King performed were bound to his prayer to God in that moment of distress and uncertainty.8

In Race: A Theological Account J. Kameron Carter includes theological read- ings of the autobiographical writings of three black Christians from the slave era: Briton Hammon, Frederick Douglass, and Jarena Lee. In particular, Carter’s attentive analysis of Lee’s experience of sanctification in terms of a “Pentecostal reshaping of black existence” urges serious reflection upon the pneumatology that tends to be ignored, devalued, or dismissed by most black theologians.9

Willie James Jennings’s The Christian Imagination sheds new light on the meaning of Pentecost, which he explains in terms of language imposition, identity, and intimacy:

The presence of the Holy Spirit presents a profoundly counterhegemonic reality in which the sign of the Spirit’s coming is language imposition. … The disciples performed a gesture of communion, a calling to all peoples that the Spirit of God would have them join together, and together they would worship the God Jesus reveals.10

Both Jennings and Carter have undertaken a massive review of the history and literature of Christianity from the vantage point of race, and both have offered interpretations of Christian thought that attend to the interests of renewal theology. What Jennings offers here is a radical ecclesiology that imagines the institution of a profound but elusive kinship of all peoples that was initiated in Acts and re-enacted at Azusa. The black church, the black Christ, and black identity itself give way to new notions of Christian formation. In an earlier essay Jennings offered a forthright portrayal of this line of vision as a virtual ecclesiological mandate:

We need a church made up of people who refuse to live out racial pol- itics, who refuse to participate in the racial realities of this nation, who refuse the power and privileges of whiteness, who reject the stereotypes of blackness, who claim a new way of life born at the cross and the res- urrection, who will not be known even by family, tribe, friends or nation

8 Brian Bantum, Redeeming Mulatto: A Theology of Race and Christian Hybridity (Waco, tx:

Baylor University Press, 2010), 168.

9 J. Kameron Carter, Race: A Theological Account(New York: Oxford University Press, 2008). 10 Willie James Jennings, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race (New

Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), 266–267.

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after the flesh, but who would know themselves only through the power of resurrection and the call of the cross of Christ.11

Conclusion: The Word on the Street Called Azusa

The Afro-Pentecostalism anthology edited by Estrelda Alexander and Amos Yong in 2011 gathers from a variety of scholarly disciplines essays that bring attention to the role of African Americans in fostering the growth and global impact of Pentecostalism beginning with the Azusa experience.12 Among them are pentecostal historians, theologians, and ethicists who inhabit the intersec- tion of black and renewal theological discourses, as well as white scholars who are attuned to the significance of race in the global renewal movement. These essays establish the fact that the Azusa revival emerged out of a church building in south central Los Angeles that had been abandoned by a black ame congre- gation, then was transformed by a black Holiness congregation into a center for global renewal. It is significant that the trajectory of global renewal launched at Azusa in 1906 emerged out of the black church and the Holiness church, because the black church origins underscore a critical response to racism and racial discrimination in the church and society, and the Holiness origins add awareness of the role of the Spirit in affirming the equality of women as preach- ers and leaders.

William J. Seymour, the apostle of Azusa Street, would be amazed to know that more than a century after the revival Pentecostalism has grown exponen- tially as a global movement of 500 million or more persons. He would be even more astounded to watch the pentecostal pastors featured on the popular real- ity tv seriesPreachers of l.a., whose affluent lifestyles, lavish pulpits, and moral values are depicted to the delight of a broad viewing audience.

We have a funded research project underway at Howard University to dis- cover and analyze promising practices of black congregations in Atlanta, De- troit, Washington, dc, and rural Alabama. It is a challenge to imagine how these black and renewal theologies could contribute to the vitality of the black urban congregations we are studying in gentrified environments in the u.s. Some

11 Willie James Jennings, “Wandering in the Wilderness: Christian Identity and Theology

between Context and Race,” in Dennis Okholm, ed., The Gospel in Black and White: The-

ological Resources for Racial Reconciliation (Downers Grove, il: InterVarsity Press, 1997),


12 Estrelda Y. Alexander and Amos Yong, eds., Afro-Pentecostalism: Black Pentecostal and

CharismaticChristianityinHistoryandCulture(New York: New York University Press, 2011).

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of them have abandoned, sold, or rented their buildings. Many are struggling financially and in membership participation while ministering to the poor in obscurity. These black urban congregations may go the way of the mainline Protestant denominations in decline and employ desperate measures to adjust to the demands of a changing urban economy and shifting populations. Is there a theologian anywhere, black or pentecostal, with a word to sustain us as we wait in our urban storefronts and cathedrals for a transformative wave of renewal? What role does the Spirit play in the phenomenon of personal and social transformation? Where is the convincing evidence that the Spirit has vis- ited, and moved, and manifested in our worship or our work?

Marlon Millner, a theologically trained pastor, politician, and journalist, is one of several persons who contributed to a Book Roundtable in Pneuma in 2008 reviewing Alistair Kee’s devastating critique,The Rise and Demise of Black Theology.13 In the provocative title of his review essay, Millner raises the ques- tion, “Can a dead black theology be resurrected as a Pentecostal theology?”14 He sees the Azusa revival as “the birth of a radical critique of canon, creed, class, race, and gender.” Responding to Kee’s claim that a radical race and gender cri- tique is missing from black theology, Millner calls for an emergent pentecostal theology to fulfill a task I attempted in my bookSaints in Exile:15

Pentecostal theology, which is still emerging, is needed perhaps because the radical race and gender critique Kee is looking for is lacking due to pneumatological impoverishment. In Saints in Exile Sanders manages to muster a critique of race (overturning of DuBoisian “double conscious- ness,” or the blackness that whiteness creates), class (critiques of James Cone and James Baldwin’s reductionist or marginalist interpretations of black religion), gender (examination of women in ministry), and sexual- ity (focusing on the work of homosexual and Pentecostal scholar James Tinney).16

13 Alistair Kee,The Rise and Demise of Black Theology(Burlington, vt: Ashgate, 2006). 14 Marlon Millner, “Can a Dead Black Theology Be Resurrected as a Pentecostal Theology?

A Review Essay of The Rise and Demise of Black Theology,”Pneuma 30, no. 2 (2008): 297.

See also Elonda Clay, “A Black Theology of Liberation or Legitimation? A Postcolonial

Response to Cone’sBlack Theology and Black Power at Forty,”Black Theology8, no. 3 (2010):


15 Cheryl J. Sanders, Saints in Exile: The Holiness-Pentecostal Experience in African American

Religion and Culture(New York: Oxford University Press, 1996).

16 Millner, “Can a Dead Black Theology Be Resurrected as a Pentecostal Theology?” 296.

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Millner concludes his review by speaking of the “death” of black theology as an opportunity for its resurrection as pentecostal theology.17

I agree wholeheartedly with Dale Irvin that black theology and pentecostal theology need each other, the one needing an infusion of vitality character- ized by the Spirit, and the other needing “the critical reminder that material signifiers do not constitute liberation, that prosperity demands a clearer and more explicit social and political critique, and that numerical growth does not on its own constitute sufficient evidence of faithfulness to the gospel of Jesus Christ.”18 While I believe that black theology is wanted and needed by black churches that are seeking solutions to their own spiritual and political dilemmas, their welcome will be more forthcoming if this discourse can be revitalized by engagement of the broader vision and renewed imaginations exemplified by Bantum, Carter, and Jennings.

17 Ibid., 298.

18 Dale T. Irvin, “Meeting Beyond These Shores: Black Pentecostalism, Black Theology, and

the Global Context,” in Alexander and Yong, eds., Afro-Pentecostalism, 242.

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