Diaspora Model and Black Theology

In 1973, Charles Shelby Rooks floated the “untested suggestion about a possible new image” for Black Theology:

that of an African Diaspora based on the Biblical story of the Babylonian Exile and the final Jewish Diaspora. It is to the end of the Biblical history of Israel that black America must look rather than to the beginning.

From Charles Shelby Rooks, “Toward the Promised Land: An Analysis of the Religious Experience of Black Americans” IN The Black Church (journal of the Black Ecumenical Commission of Massachuesetts) 2 (1972): 1-48. This quote appears, amid discussion of “Diaspora” at the close of the 20th Century, in the conclusion to Conjuring Culture: Biblical Formations of Black America, Theophus H. Smith. NY: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Rooks’ idea also appears in this 1979 essay from Rev. William H. Bentley:

Cone, Mitchell, Roberts, and some others see parallels between the experience of Israel of the Old Testament, and that of Black Americans within America. But the Exodus Model is not the only one made use of by other Black theologians. For instance, Shelby Rooks (of the University of Chicago Divinity School) critiques the Exodus Model and sees it as inadequate for explaining major aspects of Black Experience. Instead, he opts for what, to him, more satisfactorily accounts for our experience. To him, Blacks should be viewed as in exile (another biblical idea) and he proposes to call his model, the “Diaspora Model.”
— Bentley, in Black Theology A Documentary History, p. 238

Full article/book citation below, along with a few details on Cone, Mitchell, and Robert. End note here references Charles Shelby Rooks. “Toward the Promised Land: An Analysis of the Religious Experience of Black Americans.” The Black Church (journal of the Black Ecumenical Commission of Massachuesetts) 2 (1972): 1-48.

Passage, same paragraph, in fact, continues:

And there is the view of William Jones. To him, neither the Exodus Model nor the Diaspora Model have substance. If there is divine intervention at all, it is so ambiguous as to be irrelevant. To base the case on the Exodus Model gains nothing, for even in the case of Israel, it has historically proven nothing. Israel has suffered at least as much at the hands of the nations as she has experienced deliverance at God’s hand. Thus Jones injects the problems of theodicy into the discussion and tentatively resolves the issue by coming up with, if not a limited God, one who is not sure on which side to intervene. In true William Jones fashion, he comes up with the idea that if Black people or any other people depend solely upon the supposed will of a God, limited or otherwise, for their deliverance, they will exhibit the same ambiguous collective experience as did the Jews, Afro-Americans, and any other oppressed and powerless group. The best, and safest, thing to do is to get on the battlefield and assist God in gaining the victory! Thus Jones’ model is called the “Humanocentric” in distinction to the others, which are theocentric.”

End note here references William Ronald Jones, Is God a White Racist? A Preamble to Black Theology, Boston: Beacon Press, 1973. Here is more on Jones (1933-2102), a Unitarian Universalist minister, college professor, and, some say, existential philosopher.


CITATION:
William H. Bentley. “Factors in the Origin and Focus of the National Black Evangelical Association” IN Black Theology: A Documentary History Volume one: 1966-1979. James H. Cone and Gayraud S. Wilmore, eds. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1993. The essay was originally published by the author in 1979.

William H. Bentley (1924-1993) was a minister, college and seminary professor, and a public worker in Illinois. He helped found the National Black Evangelical Association in 1963 and was its president in the 1970s.

James H. Cone (1938-2018), co-editor of the volume in which this quotation appears, is considered the founder of Black Theology. Here’s a bio from Union Theological Seminary.

Henry H. Mitchell (b. 1919), long-time professor and writer on preaching and Black Theology, argued in 1968 (see page 445 in Cone/Wilmore), that “the distinctiveness of Black religious culture is not only a rich source for the development of a new Black theological tradition, but also contains insights for the White Church as well.” Learn more about Mitchell from this foundation.

Rev. J. Deotis Roberts (b. 1927), has written and taught about Black Theology, stressing opportunities for dialogue and reconciliation, for decades. He also established the Foundation for Religious Exchange (FREE), which operated between 1974 and 1994.

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