“The Problem of Evil and its Relation to the Ministry to an Underprivileged Minority”

Fall 2020 I took a class on “the problem of evil,” and decided to write a paper exploring Richard Ishmael McKinney’s work on the problem of evil from a Black perspective.

McKinney earned his Bachelor of Divinity at Newton Theological Institution in 1934 and wrote a thesis paper on “The Problem of Evil and its Relation to the Ministry to an Underprivileged Minority.” McKinney would go on to a PhD at Yale, and then a lifelong academic career in philosophy in Historically Black Colleges and Universities. McKinney’s life spans nearly the entire range of the 20th Century as a Black academic serving in Black schools, though unfortunately his academic career would essentially remain behind the shadow of ‘The Color Line’ of segregation and Jim Crow.

Here’s the introduction to the paper:

All of the work on the problem of evil that I have been exposed to has been written by white theologians and philosophers, either Christian or otherwise. Often their examples and reflections betray their status from the highest of upper classes, those afforded the opportunity to pursue PhD level education at elite universities, and then to go on to academic and publishing careers. Yet an important voice seems missing, the voice of the marginalized. Interestingly, there are identifiable traditions of Black Theology and Black Philosophy that have wrestled with the problem of evil from within the context of the Black experience in the United States. This paper will explore one vein within these traditions, that provided by Richard I. McKinney (1906–2005), and the thinkers he engaged with, including W.E.B. Du Bois and Howard Thurman, seeking to discover what unique contribution this tradition has to offer to our thinking on this topic.  We find that Black theologians have a unique perspective on the Problem of Evil from their perspective within a marginalized community, a perspective that is vital to hear when engaging this subject.

The bibliography includes as nearly a complete c.v. for McKinney as I could construct.

You can read the whole thing here:

Here are a few quotes:

These peoples voice their experience thus: “Why must I or my people suffer? Is my kind cursed of God? Why, if God is good, does he let injustice go on? Is not God himself partial to certain races? What about these inequalities in human life?” In the face of these questions, McKinney asks: “What in view of these facts, are the resources of religion for such suffering?”

McKinney would later suggest that “Doubtless Jesus himself would be outraged if he were to witness in the flesh some of the un-Christian and undemocratic practices of the institution and people which bear his name.”

McKinney claims that “In general, the Negro spirituals represent one of the most significant aspects of Negro life in America.” Here it is worth pausing to make an observation regarding theological method. Normally, students of theology focus our attention on written texts, great works of systematic theology or philosophical theology. One thinks of the “Great Books,” including works by Jonathan Edwards or (for some traditions) the great Reformed Theologian Robert Lewis Dabney. Why is it that we don’t have works of theology from the same time period written by Black Christians and thinkers? Individual theologians like Jonathan Edwards or Robert Lewis Dabney were afforded the luxury of time and energy to think and to write, in part, because they owned African slaves. Theological institutions like the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary were sustained, in part, by the labor of slaves and the financial support of slave-owners. What could the enslaved produce? Songs. And a case could be made that the source material for a more genuine form of Christianity will be found in these spirituals, than in the books that were written on the backs of those who sang them.

Howard Thurman captures the deep paradox and opportunity seen in Black Christianity: “the slave took over the religion of the master and became a traditional Christian. In many ways this fact is amazing as well as ironical. It was a fateful moment in the life of the new world when the African slave was brought face to face with the Christian religion. It may be that then, as now, this black minority was called upon to redeem a religion that the master and his posterity disgraced in their midst.”

In facing the problem, McKinney does not want us to pull any punches: “he would be Christian in this world must not close his eyes to any of its facts. The problem of evil and suffering is a fact, and a very immediate one for many people; and as such it cannot be lightly explained away. We must not be afraid to look at life with open eyes.”

McKinney regularly referred to a quote from Arnold Toynbee’s A Study of History: “the noted historian Arnold Toynbee asserted that it is likely that a revitalization of Christianity, if it comes at all, will come as a result of the religion of the Black people.”

Christians seeking to find a more authentic expression of Christianity, the family of those who follow the crucified and risen Lord, would do well to look to the Black church tradition, and will find there abundant resources for engaging the problem of evil, and numerous other situations as well.

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