In times of racism and injustice, is God angry or complacent? What is the role of a religion that promotes love and unity in situations of rage over inequality? These are questions that Professor Marjorie Corbman tackles in her dissertation titled: “Divine Discontent: The Influence of Messianic-Nationalist Movements on Early Black Theology’s Portrayal of God’s Judgement.”
Professor Corbman’s path towards her current research was a winding one. Upon completing her undergraduate studies, Corbman thought she was done with school and joined a Catholic Worker Community in Chicago. There, she lived in a hospitality home, which provided needs for the homeless community, and played a major role in activism. This experience shaped Corbman and raised questions in her mind about suffering and oppression. She decided to study these questions professionally, and obtained her Master’s degree in London, where she researched the history of Islam and Christianity during the colonial period in India and how the religions related to ideals of justice in their societies. While in London, Corban realized she missed the active justice work she used to partake in, so she moved to Boston, where she worked with community organizations on anti-racism and workers’ rights. There, she was a teacher at a supplemental high school program, which made her realize her passion for teaching. This brought her to Fordham, where she is in the process of completing her Ph.D. in Theology.
Upon starting her studies at Fordham, Corbman knew she wanted to study the relationship between religion and anger. She says she “noticed that a lot of twentieth century Christian theologians were very uncomfortable with anger, specifically with God’s anger.” While both the Old and the New Testament include expressions of God’s rage, specifically in instances of injustice and oppressions, many theologians turn this anger into an emotion people are more comfortable with. A statement like “God is angry at oppressors” turns into “God loves the oppressed.” While both are theologically accurate and important, only the latter is expressed. Intrigued by this phenomenon, Corbman started researching the challenge that Malcolm X made to Christian theology on this point of divine anger.
Malcolm X was a Muslim thinker. He converted to Islam in his twenties while in prison and joined the Nation of Islam—an African American Muslim identified group that differed slightly from how Islam was practiced in other parts of the world. Throughout his life, he preached the ideas that God was angry on behalf of the oppressed black people in the United States and that God was at work through their anger in their struggle to liberation. Corbman says that human beings experience both love and anger in their day-to-day lives, and that “any part of our human experience has to be in our theology, we can’t just put that aside.” Instead of leaving religion out of the struggle for equality or preaching a passive and complacent stance, Malcolm X consistently asserts that God is there with the oppressed and filled with vengeance over the massive injustices.
Many black, Christian theologians heard Malcolm X’s speeches and writings and began questioning whether this rhetoric had a place in their own belief systems. Corbman has particularly studied the works of James Cone and Albert Cleage in response to this new language of a discontent, vengeful divinity. Most of Corbman’s methodology for her dissertation has been historical. She has done a lot of archival work at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, which houses a large collection of Malcolm X’s personal letters. She has also utilized the Bentley Historical Library at the University of Michigan, which has an extensive Albert Cleage collection. Some examples of sources Corbman has sifted through include community newsletters, newspapers, education manuals, letters, and sermons. Many of these Christian sources point to a direct and deliberate incorporation of Malcolm X’s theology, which includes fiery—as opposed to passive—religious language. One such example Corbman gave is religious education workbooks for children, which retold the story of Moses and the Israelites leaving Egypt and going out of slavery. Corbman says “They’re asking these questions that are connecting it to the struggle for black liberation today in a way that’s very cool” by framing these religious texts in a way that makes them relevant to people and their struggles.
The most surprising facet of Corbman’s research is the interplay of different religious traditions during this time. Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam studied and reflected on the Bible while critiquing Christianity’s stance towards the Civil Rights Movement. With their radical ideology, the Nation of Islam had a huge influence on black America. In Corbman’s words, this ideology “expanded into people trying to re-appropriate African indigenous traditions, people trying to experiment with Buddhism, people bringing in Judaism and trying to understand how to use that tradition as well.” In this midst of this comprehensive exchange of ideologies and theologies, black Christian theology was being drastically altered.
In the modern world, Corbman’s findings bear a striking similarity to the response of many Christian groups to the Black Lives Matter movement, and particularly to the protests and demonstrations following the death of Michael Brown. There are many Christians who think that God is fine with the way things are working, and that God wants the oppressed to forgive and remain calm. Most are still hesitant to use Malcolm X’s language of anger or to support protestors. Other groups are not satisfied with this viewpoint. “God is angry and this is an outrage,” says Corbman, “people are being killed in broad daylight and their bodies are being left in the street.” According to Corbman, this split in Christian response is due to a theology that “can’t deal with anger and can’t call something an outrage when it’s an outrage.” As mentioned previously, love and forgiveness are central messages of Christianity, but there is a danger in rejecting rage as a legitimate, rightful feeling to be had. With the ideas of Malcolm X, James Cone and Albert Cleage, one can see that there is some divine aspect to a movement that stands up for people’s rights. In knowing about the formation of theologies that incorporate protest and anger, we realize that modern demonstrations, even if filled with rage, are not un-Christian or less religious, but rather could be seen as divine.
By Monika Komza, FCRH ’21