Black theology means understanding the blues, says theologian

by Gene Stowe

NOTRE DAME, Ind. (CNS) — Singing the blues is a good way to understand theology from an African-American perspective, said a leading black Catholic theologian at a University of Notre Dame conference.p. Black theologians should put the black vernacular culture at the heart of the Christian message of salvation, said M. Shawn Copeland, associate professor of systematic theology at Boston College.p. “The blues narrate and authenticate human feelings, human desire, human hope,” she said.p. “The blues contain every element of life … brought together and paid for at a tremendous price,” blending such elements as sex, religion, folk philosophy, elegy and lament — and allowing the singer to “come back strutting from adversity,” she said.p. Copeland, convener of the Black Catholic Theological Symposium and president of the Catholic Theological Society of America, gave the keynote address March 11 at a conference called “Uncommon Faithfulness: The Witness of African-American Catholics.”p. The conference March 11-14 attracted more than 300 scholars, clergy, diocesan directors of black Catholic ministries and parishioners.p. Speakers and moderators included Bishop Wilton D. Gregory of Belleville, Ill., president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.p. In her address, “Theology at the Crossroads: Ebony Word, Dark Hope,” Copeland linked the traditional African image of the crossroad and blues music which she described as best learned from a dark stranger at a crossroad at midnight.p. Africans understand the crossroad as a place where earthly and spirit world intersect, she said. “Everything that is important happens at that spot where they meet.”p. To help provide answers, black theology “must be critically political and deeply mystical,” she said.p. “Blues narrate the black struggle,” she said. “The woman or man who stands at the crossroads must expect risk.”p. The blues form the content for theology, Copeland said, and theologians are the musicians.p. She told the story of a famous musician who said the best way to learn the blues is to go to the crossroads at midnight and meet a black man who tunes your guitar and shows you how to play.p. “This is not the first time African-American Catholics have been at the crossroads,” Copeland said.p. “We black Catholics have resources, spiritual resources,” she said. “Black Catholics have always kept the faith and always changed the church. We change the church by being our blues black selves.”p. Copeland said black theologians bring a fresh approach to the solving of U.S. and world problems.p. In the United States millions of people live without adequate housing, health care or jobs and black men are a disproportionate number of the more than 2 million people jailed, she said.p. In the world AIDS has left millions dead and millions more orphaned, and rich nations block poor nations and threaten culture through international economic agreements, Copeland said.p. Black theology should overcome 18th-century Enlightenment approaches that formed the basis for colonization, racist theory and oppressive establishments, and it should seek social transformation, she said.p. Sister LaReine-Marie Mosely, a Sister of Notre Dame de Namur who is studying for her doctorate in theology at Notre Dame, said black Catholics suffered “segregation at the hands of clergy, prelates and the laity,” market-based closing of black Catholic schools and parishes, and systemic racism in the church.p. “We failed to find ourselves treated like the children of God we are,” she said. "A graced sense of self characterized African-American Catholics in the face of invisibility and struggle.p. “Our Mother of Africa knows our history and our stories and loves us as only a mother can,” she added. “She has been our intercessor.”

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