However, as we've noticed, there are some troubling aspects of it. First, as we've already seen, Cone offers up a theological defense of violence in the name of resisting oppression. While I have some sympathy for his position, in that I agree with the need to make a sharp moral distinction between the violence of oppressors and the violence of the oppressed as they fight against their violent oppression, I am, to say the least, highly suspicious of any attempt to see Christ working through means that the historical Jesus would have certainly condemned.
More troubling, perhaps, is the exclusivism of Cone's position. He, as best as I can tell, sees God exclusively at work within the black community. Within his framework there is little hope for the salvation and reformation of whites, and perhaps even less hope for reconciliation. Yes, Cone does offer some halting suggestions for reconciliation, and at least a tiny morsel of hope for whites, but his primary concern, it seems to me, is to condemn white oppression of blacks, and to call blacks to power. While both of those tasks are noble, in and of themselves they hardly comprise the entirety of Christianity.
I plan to go on and read much more Cone, hoping to see how he develops a more comprehensive theology that will go beyond his equating of Christianity and Black Power. However, for the moment I am sidestepping his work and moving on to Liberation and Reconciliation: A Black Theology by J. Deotis Roberts.
Like Cone, in the preface to the latest edition of his work, Roberts repents of his former sexism. Unlike Cone, however, Roberts has chosen to wash the sexist language from his work, revisiting the ways in which he speaks of both God and humanity to incorporate womanist and feminist critiques of language. This makes the book much easier to read from my perspective, but I am glad that Roberts calls attention to his former exclusively male language, so that he sidesteps the attack that Cone, too, tried to avoid: that of trying to forget past sins, and as such leave them entirely unaddressed, in the past.
Unlike Cone, Roberts is interested not only in providing a theological framework for the liberation of blacks, but also in reconciliation between the races. He sees the two as intimately connected to each other, and as together comprising the heart of Christianity:
My understanding of the Christian faith leads me to speak of both liberation and reconciliation as proper goals for the Christian church in general and of the black church in particular. I understand the church to have a center, but not a circumference - and exclusiveness to be a means to universalism and not an end. Therefore the black church, in setting black people free, may make freedom possible for white people as well. Whites are victimized as the sponsors of hate and prejudice which keeps racism alive. Therefore, they cannot know for themselves the freedom of Christians, for they are shackled by a self-imposed bondage. The cry for deliverance, for authentic freedom for existence, on the part of black people, may be salvific for all regardless of the nature or cause of oppression.
In the section surrounding this quote Roberts is principally concerned with two things:
1. Understanding a concept of "chosenness" as relates to the black people in general and the black church in particular, and
2. Offering up the family as a proper model for the nature, structure, and role of the black church.
To this end, Roberts devotes a great deal of time to understanding the history of "chosenness" as it applies to other groups who have claimed titles such as "the people of God" for themselves. He also devotes a great deal of time to understanding the history of the black family, both in Africa and especially in diaspora. He is particularly concerned with the impact of slavery and its aftermath on the nature and strength of the black family.
But within that project, he is also building to his understanding of the need for a black theology to be a Christian theology that is concerned with more than just black people. And, as a Christian theology, he stresses the need for black theology to be concerned with both liberation and reconciliation at the same time. In the above quote he is, within that context of both liberation and reconciliation, offering up a brief glimpse at the connection between black deliverance from white oppression and white deliverance from white oppression. He sees both the oppressed and the oppressors as the victims of oppression, with each being held in a kind of bondage to the evil power of oppression. This concept of the joint victimhood of oppression - even if only one party is morally culpable for the oppression - sets the stage for a joint deliverance from oppression, with blacks acting as a kind of "chosen people" whose deliverance makes possible the deliverance of whites, as well.
While Roberts is building here a black theology, it is not a theology that is solely concerned with black persons. Insofar as it is a Christian theology, it is primarily concerned with Christ, even if it is principally concerned with how God through Christ speaks to the black experience. Within this concern for Christ, the notion that ultimately "all are one in Christ Jesus is very important for Roberts. And this notion helps inform Roberts' view on black-white relationships, and ultimately paves the way for reconciliation between the races:
The assertion that all are "one in Christ Jesus" must henceforth mean that all slave-master, servant-boss, inferior-superior frames of reference between blacks and whites have been abolished. This principle must operate not merely on a spiritual level, but on the plane of human social relations as well. The slave must be set free, but the slave system must likewise be destroyed so that the suture will be free of human bondage. The black church, as a family, as a corporate expression of the Christian faith of black people, is called forth into empowerment actions. It must become a gestalt, a structure of mass power of black people operating against oppression under Christian sponsorship. The black church must use all its resources to launch a massive assault against white power in church, community, or state that is responsible for the oppression of black people. But even in our revolutionary action for the liberation of black people, we must hold up at all times the possibility for black-white interracial fellowship and cooperation. Reconciliation between equals, no less than liberation, is the mission of the black church.
Like Cone, Roberts calls the black church to the cause of liberation - the liberation of black people. Like Cone, Roberts sees black pride, black power, as an integral part of this work of liberation. The black church is called to help lift up the black people, and in doing so to help build them up. As such, the black church is called to fight against white power everywhere that white power oppresses blacks, even within the black mind.
But while Roberts shares the urgency of the "by any means necessary" crowd, he does not share their ethics. The black church is called to be a Christian church, not just a black church. As such, while the liberation of the black people is imperative - and is, in fact, a Christian duty - that liberation cannot be used to justify the full exclusion of all white persons from the process of making blacks equal to whites, both in reality and in the minds of both blacks and whites. Where Cone is willing to at least in part justify the use of violence to force whites to consider the basic humanity of blacks, Roberts reminds the black church that the church must always hold liberation and reconciliation together. And racial violence from either side makes the task of reconciliation that much harder. In other words, the violence of white oppression of blacks does not justify revolutionary violence.
Yes, the church is to "assault" white power, but that assault is not an assault against white people. Rather it is an assault against the structures of power ingrained in our culture. And, as we have seen from other sources, the best assault against what Walter Wink calls "the Powers" is a nonviolent assault.
At first glance Roberts' views may be much more comforting to white Christians than Cone's theology of Black Power. But, while Roberts calls the black church to act like Christians as they fight for liberation, he no less than Cone issues as strong rebuke to the white church, an anti-Christian church that serves as a vehicle for the oppression of blacks rather than the propagation of the liberating Gospel. Just as Roberts calls black Christians to act like Christians, he also calls white Christians to act like Christians. And he is pretty clear that, as far as he is concerned, most are not.
What separates Roberts from Cone, however, is that Roberts holds out more hope that whites will eventually see their own participation in the oppression of blacks as a denial of Christ and the Gospel, and will thus eventually repent and convert. Then, finally seeing blacks through the eyes of Christ, and as such as their fundamental equals, they will finally be ready for reconciliation between equals.