By the Mere O Editors
The ongoing evils of police brutality have revealed to a wider (and whiter) audience the structural and systematic prejudices under which blacks live in the USA, and in many other places around the world. White Christians who observe these experiences and then draw upon their theological and ethical reading to make sense of them, commonly find that their theological education is barren of black voices. The following reading list is an attempt to begin remedying that barrenness.
The typical set of caveats apply to this bibliography, like many others in its category (like the lists that have recently been circulated here, here, and here). Black thought is not a monolith; like any tradition, it is less a sustained echoing chorus, and more a long argument over time. Its diversity, breadth, and sophistication cannot be captured in a brief introductory bibliography like this one.
The authors on this list have sustained disagreements with each other, and therefore it stands to reason that no reader will agree with the entirety of these texts. Yet we consider this list to be something of a bare minimum for serious discourse about the question of taking black experiences and contributions seriously in Christian theology and ethics.
While it is unlikely that any treatment of the experiences of blacks in America will engage all of these sources, it is virtually unimaginable that any responsible treatment of those questions can proceed with reference to none of them. The education of several lifetimes can be accessed simply by consulting the bibliographies of the sources contained herein.
The criteria for inclusion on this list are unsystematic and inexact, but we solicited suggestions from friends of Mere Orthodoxy for sources that are written by Christians, substantively address Christian involvement in black racial issues, or are of pressing significance that white Christians can overlook them only at great harm to the power of their own analysis and ignorance of the real issues. The commentary that follows each of these selections below is from these friends. We are grateful for and indebted to them for their suggestions. Omission of any important source from this list ought not necessarily be construed as a sleight against that source. We would be grateful for readers to suggest additional sources in the comments below.
The Cambridge Companion to Black Theology
An introductory handbook like this one is often an excellent place to start to understand the broad contours of a body of thought, and to find an accessible point for immersing oneself more fully in that tradition. The essays in this volume understand black theology as a global movement, not at all confined to the question of addressing racism in all of its varieties.
J Kameron Carter, Race: A Theological Account
Carter’s book is arguably the most significant theological account of race in existence. He embarks to treat race as its own properly theological concept and to show how the modern question of race “has its genesis in the theological problem of Christianity’s quest to sever itself from its Jewish roots.” The logic of supersessionism gives way to the logic of white supremacy.
Christopher Cameron, To Plead Our Own Cause: African Americans in Massachusetts and the Making of the Antislavery Movement
Cameron narrates a history of the contributions of blacks in Massachusetts to the antislavery cause before 1831. He shows how many of the strategies and tactics the later, better-known abolitionists (William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass) took up were indebted to the work of these earlier folks. He is likewise sensitive to the theological questions at play, especially for Phillis Wheatley and Lemuel Haynes.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, “Between the World and Me”
This book won the National Book Award, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Written in the form of a sustained letter to Coates’s son, the book is part coming-of-age story, part autobiography, part dystopia that is nevertheless reality. Coates has also written some of the most incisive commentary on racial affairs in America for The Atlantic. Three of those include The First White President, The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration, and The Case for Reparations. Last year he gave testimony at the House Hearing on Reparations (June 19, 2019).
James Cone, Black Theology and Black Power and A Black Theology of Liberation
If slavery, racism, segregation, and lynching are sins, then Christianity needs to have a way of overcoming them. This overcoming needs to both secure liberation for the oppressed and justification for the oppressors. In these two books, Cone gives a theological account of how this might be possible. Most controversially, and generatively: it requires a God who is with us and for us, specifically, for the oppressed. Thus: a God who is black.
James Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree
Lynching is the most violent and public instantiation of white supremacy and it is unfortunately still with us. The struggle with how to address it remains with us. Cone gives an excellent starting point.
Charlie Dates, “The Most Segregated Hour in America“
This message was given by Charlie Dates at the MLK50 conference, a Christian conference held in 2018 on the occasion of the 50th annivserary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. It echoes MLK’s message to the “White moderate” with powerful and resounding relevance for today. He employs powerful theological concepts and the prophetic preaching tradition to call white Christians to repentance: to attend to systemic racism, to take steps to learn Black history and from Black leaders, to partner with Black churches to address racial inequality and undo centuries of oppression and discrimination. It is steeped in gospel richness and in loving rebukes, and it is a call the church must heed.
Keri Day, Religious Resistance to Neoliberalism: Womanist and Black Feminist Perspectives
Day has a sophisticated analysis of (1) the structure of neoliberal economics, (2) its underlying logic, and (3) the way this logic threatens to extend to all areas of our lives. Though she doesn’t reduce racial questions to economic ones, she has a compelling account of how they are connected. She then offers a bricolage of responses that involves weaving together resources in theology and political theology, white and black, male and female, but with a special focus on womanist authors.
Katherine Gerbner, Christian Slavery: Conversion and Race in the Protestant Atlantic World
Gerbner centers religion in her discussion of how racialized slavery developed in the Atlantic world. Christian slaveholders initially believed that slaves could not convert. Protestant missionaries insisted on the necessity of evangelizing slaves, which brought them into conflict with slaveholders. Race came to function as a very useful marker for the boundaries of slavery, religion a useful tool for managing slaves: blacks were marked as ideal candidates for slavery and conversion came to be seen as a way to make them loyal slaves.
Eddie Glaude, Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul
The central idea in Democracy in Black is that of the ‘value gap.’ Glaude identifies a disconnect between our expressed values of racial equality and the way in which our social practices and institutions reflect a commitment to inequality. Thus, despite civil rights efforts, race “still enslaves the American soul.” Glaude thinks that the right response to the value gap is a revolution that goes deeper than most have gone; right to the heart of American ideology: “American democracy has to be remade.”
C.L.R. James, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution
The Haitian revolution was one of the most successful slave revolts in history. The Black Jacobins is a history of that revolution, told with a central focus on its leader, Toussaint L’Ouverture. James’s interest is very clearly in narrating a history that highlights the agency of the slave revolters. This is also a classic text in, and exemplar o,f Black Marxist historical analysis, weaving racial and economic analysis together without being reductionist about either. Worth reading alongside Oliver Cromwell Cox’s Caste, Class, and Race (which was written by a Christian and focuses on America, though it is perhaps one more reductionist about race) and/or Cornel West’s Prophesy Deliverance (also written by a Christian with a focus on America, and is not reductionist about race).
Willie James Jennings, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race
Jennings argues here that “Chrisitanity in the Western world lives and moves within a diseased social imagination.” Racism is not, then, merely personal biases or even an errant political and social structure, but a sustained metaphysical distortion of the created world.
Emmanuel Katangole, Born from Lament: The Theology and Politics of Hope in Africa, and The Sacrifice of Africa: A Political Theology for Africa
Katangole is Professor of Theology and Peace Studies at Notre Dame, and also holds a joint affiliation with the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. His scholarship focuses on African theology, its religious leaders, and its movements, with particular attention to the interaction of lament and hope.
Ibram X. Kendi, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America
Kendi’s definition of terms, advocacy for anti-racism, and comprehensive look at American history, the development of racist ideas, and the roots of racist policies is required reading for anyone who seeks to see how deep the rabbit hole goes. It is also important to note that as yet, no Christian has yet rivaled the clarity and comprehensiveness of this text.
Martin Luther King, Jr., Why We Can’t Wait.
This collection includes his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” among a collection of essays and sermons from King. This text has stood the test of time as one of the most powerful articulations of the Christian gospel and the urgency to pursue justice in our time. It is as relevant now as it was then.
Vincent Lloyd, Black Natural Law
African American political thought is not typically understood as part of the natural tradition. But Lloyd argues we can see Natural Law reasoning as central to some of its key figures — Frederick Douglass, Anna Julia Cooper, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Martin Luther King. Not only are these figures exemplars of natural law discourse, they also correct many of the errors in traditional natural law reasoning (e.g., its obsession with rationality to the exclusion of emotion, and its hyper-masculinity). Black natural law is thus an important resource for all natural law.
Mary Beth Mathews, Doctrine and Race: African American Evangelicals and Fundamentalism between the Wars
Dr. Mathews’ book remains my favorite account of the fundamentalist modernist controversy, placing at the forefront the fact that it is a racialized movement. The historical reminder that much of American history is racialized and that the cries for justice from Black Christian communities has been loud and constant yet unheard must drill its way into the hearts of every American Christian.
John Perkins, One Blood: Parting Words to the Church on Race
John Perkins may be most famous to evangelicals of a certain age on account of being quoted in a Switchfoot song. But that is the least of his accomplishments. He protested during the Civil Rights movement, and continues his work as the founder of several non-profits and the author of multiple books. He summarizes his Christian ministry in “the three Rs — relocation, redistribution, and reconciliation.” The recent documentary produced and directed by Greg Fromholz is a beautiful introduction to his life and work.
Al Raboteau, Slave Religion: The Invisible Institution in the Antebellum South
Raboteau combines slave and ex-slave narratives and autobiographies, missionary reports, and contemporaneous journals of whites to tell a story of how African religions were transformed into evangelical Christianity. Slave religion also provides stirring and moving accounts of daily religious life of slaves. One of the major strengths of Raboteau’s account is that it recognizes the agency of slaves; the way they used the resources at their disposal to construct their own religious practices.
Lamin Sanneh, Abolitionists Abroad: American Blacks and the Making of Modern West Africa, and Summoned From the Margin: Homecoming of an African
When Lamin Sanneh died in 2019, his memorial service at Yale Divinity School was attended by statesmen, ambassadors, members of congress, and prominent Islamic and Christian theologians. He is one of the rare theologians to receive an obituary in New York Times. A convert from Islam to Christianity, his scholarship focused on the history and interaction of Christians and Muslims in Africa
Christian Smith and Michael Emerson, Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America.
This book demonstrates enduring features that have remained true since it was published in 2001: white evangelicals oppose individual racism but do not see systemic racial injustice or persisting inequalities. They show with persuasive data this two-fold reality, showing how segregation in churches and individualism in white churches perpetuate racial inequality. For white Christians, this is an important read to better know the truth and better be equipped to repent.
Thomas Sowell, Intellectuals and Race
Sowell is perhaps the most prominent representative of a small segment of American society: a black libertarian conservatives. He is known for his contrarian opinions on a wide number of race-related issues. Foremost among them is his claim that government assistance offered to minorities communities typically produces the opposite of its intended effects.
Jemar Tisby, The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism
Jemar’s book ought to be required reading for the Christian. His relatively short, readable account of American Christianity and race plunges you into the deep end and leaves you with some practical suggestions. Jemar’s work is always worthy of engagement!
Eboni Marshall Turman, Toward a Womanist Ethic of Incarnation: Black Bodies, the Black Church, and the Council of Chalcedon
Turman works in the Womanist tradition with, among others, Katie Geneva Canon, Kelly Brown Douglas, and Delores S. Williams, which attempts to integrate the wisdom and experiences of black women as a source for theological reflection. In this work she argues that bodies have always been of concern to Christians on account of the doctrine of the incarnation, whose various articulations and puzzles she examines to shed light on the position of black church women.
* Gerald McDermott (editor), Race and Covenant: Retrieving the Religious Roots for American Reconciliation
* Esau McCaulley, Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope
* Cornel West, Race Matters
* Shelby Steele, The Content of our Character: A New Vision of Race in America
* Shelby Steele, White Guilt: How Blacks and Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Era
Returning to this list after the last few months of discourse is a reminder of the opportunistic nature of critiques of doctrinal orthodoxy. The same authors who strain at the gnats of ostensibly semi-Arian Trinitarianism are the ones who have no qualms about recommending authors with vastly more heterodox accounts of theism and human nature. This is not just true with respect to sexual ethics (where intersectional logic demands that virtually any younger writer on this sort of reading list will be deeply hostile to Biblical traditionalism), but on the core distinctives of evangelicalism. Kendi isn’t just pro-gay and pro-trans, he’s fundamentally hostile to the very idea of a gospel that revolves around personal sin and redemption. He sees any amount of emphasis on that message as a detraction from his political imperatives (cf his talk last year at Judson Memorial Church). That’s a defect that deserves stronger attention than figuring out whether EFS is sufficiently semi-Arian to be worthy of a formal anathema to purge its advocates from the evangelical world.
I take rather seriously the critique that Christians on the political right are being insufficiently discerning with respect to regarding (say) James Lindsay as some kind of moral authority despite his secularism, and I wouldn’t recommend Lindsay today in the same way I might have two years ago on more purely academic grounds. But if that critique works on one direction, it works in the other one as well — I’m much less interested in hearing that critique from someone who regards a hard-bitten atheist like Coates as essential reading for evangelicals. At some point, you need to just give up the pretense of caring about orthodoxy in terms of abstract purism and admit that you’ve “evolved” to tolerating deviations from it when they support your politics, while continuing to deplore them when they support the politics of your opponents on the political right.