March 16, 2000
Vol. 19 No. 12

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    Black theology of liberation: Hopkins educates church leaders, expands scope of scholarship

    By Arthur Fournier
    News Office

    For Dwight Hopkins[dwight hopkins], a scholar of black theology of liberation, teaching a group of students at Trinity United Church of Christ on Chicago’s far South Side is an opportunity to exercise his belief that the discipline is uniquely obligated to engage a public that reaches beyond the academy.

    “My area of scholarship, black theology of liberation, is most alive as a form of questioning posed to those who practice in the tradition today,” explained Hopkins, Associate Professor in the Divinity School.

    “It’s meant to get people to reflect on whether or not they’re being faithful to the objectives of the tradition with which they’re engaged. That’s the role of theology; it’s an accountability discipline.”

    To illustrate the personal connections he sees his Trinity students drawing from their coursework, Hopkins related a story about one woman, who recently came to class and announced that the experience of reading his most recent book had encouraged her to act out in ways that might get her fired from her job. “She said, ‘I’ve started to speak up now. I have my human dignity at stake here––this is a faith issue,’” he recounted.

    “As an academic, my response was to reach out and try to help her process this sense of revelation that she’s going through. I certainly don’t want anyone to lose their job because they’ve read one of my books,” he continued. “It’s not exactly the kind of response I would have expected it to generate, but personally and intellectually, it’s an intensely powerful experience to see one of your students recognize their own role in the story. It’s very humbling for me.”

    The book that elicited the woman’s reaction was Introducing Black Theology of Liberation (Orbis Books, 1999), one of three new titles on the subject of black theology that Hopkins, the author, editor or co-editor of 10 books, has published this past fall. In 1998, his publisher asked him to write the book as an introduction to the study of black theology––a subject Hopkins believes comprises the only authentic theological movement in the United States to have its origins outside the academy.

    Black theology identifies the struggle for liberation of poor and oppressed peoples as the core of the black religious experience in America. If the students in Hopkins’ class react with strong emotions, he said it is because the material he teaches directly addresses the experience of their everyday lives and their collective history as a religious community.

    His diverse interests have led Hopkins to take up issues that reach beyond the black experience in this country to include accounts of black theological movements taking root in Latin America, Cuba and South Africa.

    The University of Cape Town, South Africa, recently awarded him his second Ph.D. for a dissertation thesis that forms the basis of another book he published last fall, Down, Up and Over: Slave Religion and Black Theology (Fortress Press, 1999).

    Down, Up and Over looks at the slavery period as the source of contemporary black traditions. It forms the first part of a series I’ve been mapping out that will examine various aspects of black religion,” said Hopkins.

    “That’s my larger thingælooking to see what kinds of meanings we can discern, if you will, from the African-American religious experience.”

    Although he believes black theology is the contemporary articulation of practices that have percolated through the African-American religious experience since the slavery era, he points out that the first fully mature salvos of the movement can be traced to civil rights-era writings by James Cone. In 1966, a group of ministers from black churches published a full-page ad in The New York Times, calling for a theological interpretation of black power.

    Cone’s first book, Black Theology and Black Power, published in 1969, is widely considered to be the movement’s signal text. “As a product of the African-American struggle, Cone’s book gave liberation theology to the world,” Hopkins argued. “Liberation theology is not just ‘black;’ it’s also part of the larger American tradition.”

    In 1998, Hopkins mounted a conference at the University to re-examine the ideas Cone had articulated nearly three decades earlier. The meeting resulted in a collection of essays titled Black Faith and Public Talk: Critical Essays on James H. Cone’s Black Theology & Black Power, which Hopkins edited. The collection was published during the fall of 1999.

    At that same time, the Center for African Biblical Studies at Trinity United Church of Christ, which has been teaching black theology at the church since 1972, invited Hopkins to teach a class on the subject. Hopkins said he was prepared to design a course based on weekly group discussions, but instead, to his surprise, his Trinity students insisted he treat them as he treats his University students. “Now they have a syllabus with requirements, texts and weekly readings. We’re right about at the sixth week of our quarter. Based on what they’ve demonstrated, I’ve found that I can expect a high level of commitment from my students there.”

    The Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr., a Divinity School alumnus (A.M., ’75) and senior pastor at Trinity, said it is only natural that Hopkins, an academic and a member of the church, should be teaching a course at Trinity. He sees the scholar’s work on black religion as an important bridge for the next generation of theologians. “His work covers what has transpired over the past 30 years in the area of black theology. The developments he covers are a ‘must’ for Generation X-ers.”

    In addition to providing a service for the community of believers to which he belongs, the course provides Hopkins with the perfect complement to his Divinity School research and teaching, which focus on such subjects as historical, cultural, political, economic and interpretive approaches to the study of black religion in the United States and abroad. “As you might be able to imagine, I get a qualitatively different reaction in my classes at the Divinity School, which is equally important to me. Otherwise, I’d be working as a minister, not as a scholar,” he explained. “But at Trinity, where people take it all in as a part of their daily lives, the depth and the texture of the discourse is just so rich.”

    Clark Gilpin, Dean and Professor of the History of Christianity in the Divinity School, said that––particularly when considered within the context of the larger field of contemporary theology––black theology in general, and Hopkins’ work in particular, provide useful tools for scholars to account critically for their own social and historical frames of reference. “Hopkins has not only creatively reflected on the shaping influences of black theology but added to them an important international dimension through his work with the black theologians of South Africa,” he said.