Saturday, March 17, 2007

Liberation and Reconciliation Held Together by Roberts

We've already looked (perhaps far too) extensively at James Cone's Black Theology and Black Power, which seeks to Christianize Black Power (or, perhaps, Black Powerize Christianity) within a theological framework of liberation. Cone sees Christ as black, and sees the work of Christ in the work of Black Power. He hears Christ calling blacks to assert themselves and shake off the shackles of their oppression. To that end, his work is helpful.

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.


PamBG said...

I don't know Roberts, but I'm a LOT more comfortable with "him" as you are presenting his ideas. His message is very close to that of the church of African immigrants in which I worshipped in London.

Any group that is oppressed for being who they are might, I think, arguably be "chosen". The chosen have important Truths to speak as long as their "chosenness" is defined by being on the outside of the circle rather than on the inside of the circle.

Sandalstraps said...

I am also much more comfortable with Roberts than Cone, though some black theologians may take my relative comfort with Roberts' position as a liability for that position.

I think that there is much to be commended in Cone, and much of his militarism (at least in 1969) is a product of his age and his environment. Roberts was a part of the first wave of the Civil Rights movement, and had at the time of both his and Cone's writing a long history of working with whites on Civil Rights issues. Cone is a generation younger than Roberts, and really came of age after cooperation between whites and blacks on Civil Rights issues had broken down, in part because of the paternalistic attitude of many liberal whites.

Cone came up with Black Power, and the idea that blacks would never be equal to whites if they waited for whites to hand them their equality. That criticism of the first wave of the Civil Rights movement was, by the late 1960s and early 1970s, something that Roberts took very, very seriously. Roberts tried to present himself as a bridge between the Civil Rights movement and Black power, affirming Black Power's demand that black assert themselves instead of wating for a pale skinned Savior, while also affirming the nonviolence and cooperation of the Civil Rights movement. In short, he wanted Black Power without the call to violence. Black self-affirmation without militant hostility.

He interacted often with Cone, and sees his theology as both informed by and an improvement on Cone's theology of Black Power. His main criticism of Cone - and he makes clear in his intorduction that, given how much he agrees with Cone on, too much has been made of his criticism of Cone - is that Cone's theology is not sufficiently Christian. That is, it is primarily a couching of Black Power in Christian language rather than an honest exploration of where Black Power intersects with Christianity, and especially where it does not.

PamBG said...

Sandalstraps, I was a pre-teen in the late 1960s, but I remember the appalling way that black people were treated. I remember race riots. I know people of my parents' generation who are deeply racist and who were brought up to think - and who still think - that black people are genetically inferior to white people.

I do understand how a black person could get so angry as to riot in the streets. I understand how a Palestinian could get so angry as to want to kill an Israeli. I understand how a Muslim could be so angry as to want to blow up the people who worked in the World Trade Centre. But none of that makes it right.

Strictly speaking, justice demands retribution. If each of us engaged in retribution every time something unjust happened to us, the world would be destroyed.

As I said, I don't know Cone's work thoroughly. He is still teaching and writing as far as I know and I searched for some evidence that he's softened his views in the last forty years. As far as I could tell, there as been only the most minor softening. (If I'm factually wrong, then I am more than happy to be corrected.)

As far as I can tell, this is just another version of "Some people are more equal than others". It's about drawing circles and saying "these people are inside God's grace and those people are outside". All he's done is redefine who is in and who is out. My personal view is that, when it comes to people, there is no-one who is "out". It's the whole defining of "ins" and "outs" that is sinful. Not the identity of who we view as being outside God's grace.

Michael Westmoreland-White said...

I do know Roberts, although we aren't close friends. I have not only read his work, but met him on several occasions. He helped me design a course, modeled on one he already taught, comparing and contrasting the work and thought of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King, Jr. Fun course!

Roberts confronted the Black Power movement full-blown when he taught at Howard University Divinity School and his students challenged his theology as completely out of touch--understandable given that he had done his Ph.D. at Edinburgh on Cambridge Platonists!

He also has written and grown much since this first groundbreaking work--but I remain more impressed with him than Cone. But there is a danger here for us who are white: that we breathe a sigh of relief over Roberts' work before hearing the challenge of Cone as thoroughly as we need to hear it.

I was a teen during the Black Power days--and I was a one of 5 white students at a mostly black high school in Orlando. My African-American friends knew I meant well--son of liberal white bit players in the Civil Rights movement that I was. So, they took pity on me: And had me read all the harshest challengers of that movement: Hughy P. Newton, Eldridge Cleaver, Malcolm X, James Baldwin, Richard Wright, etc., etc. ONLY when I was about despair that I was part of a cursed race of oppressors, did they hand me King's Strength to Love. It was an incredible gift they gave me. Had I read King first, I might have closed my mind to how thoroughly I participated in a system of white supremacy.

King, and Roberts, can be just as challenging. It wasn't for nothing that J. Edgar Hoover called MLK,Jr. the "most dangerous Negro in America." But after his death, whites were quick to read King selectively. My friends prevented me from doing that--by giving me the full-throated harshest critics of whites first.

Let's be sure to wrestle hard with the James Cones of the world for a long time, before we too quickly move to the salving words of the Deotis Roberts of the world.

PamBG said...

Michael - I don't claim to be an expert on Cone or the like. I freely admit that. As much as any white person can do - or at least as much as *I* can do - I do think I understand that heart-scream of injustice.

But if you can show me how it ends beyond "black people are in and white people are out", please do show me?

Sandalstraps said...


I don't take Michael's comment to be a defense of Cone, in that I don't think that he's saying either that Cone is ultimately "right" or that his theology leads us anywhere other than to a place where God favors blacks over whites. Instead, I take his point to be more subtle. I htink that he is saying that, in order to fully understand our own participation in institutional racism, we need to read theologians like Cone, who accurately diagnose a problem for which they do not really have a solution.

My experience reading Cone's Black Theology and Black Power was very much like my experience reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X. It sent me to an emotional place I would not have gone to willingly. I stood under conviction for sins I had never noticed - one of those sins being simply not noticing.

It would be easy for us to dismiss Cone out of hand, accusing him of the kind of racism that he condemns, only in reverse. But to dismiss him so quickly would be to miss the points on which he very accurately and astutely criticizes us. Ultimately J. Deotis Roberts gives us the kind of path forward that Cone can't give us, but to skip Cone altogether and go straight to Roberts may have the effect of pushing for reconciliation before the problem - and as such the primary obstacle to reconciliation - as been most thoroughly explored.


Please do correct me if I'm wrong about the point you're making, as it is quite possiblle that I missed it. Just because I hear you saying something does mean that you actually said it.

PamBG said...

I think that he is saying that, in order to fully understand our own participation in institutional racism, we need to read theologians like Cone, who accurately diagnose a problem for which they do not really have a solution.

Ah. OK. I don't think that I understood Cone as thinking that he didn't have an answer. I have understood what I've read of him as "white people out".

Sandalstraps said...


I agree that Cone thinks that he has an answer, but so far from what I've read of him he doesn't really have one. That said, as I noted earlier, he's worth reading for his accurate diagnosis of the problem, a diagnosis that won't let us good natured white people get away thinking that our best intentions are enough to excuse our participation in a power structure that dehumanizes blacks and other minorities.

PamBG said...

I promise you that I really did engage with what I've read of Cone and that I really did try to understand him. I was given a placement with a black minister and theology professor and assigned to work with him for 9 months (everyone had such a placement, it was only happenstance that my placement was with an African minister).

A good deal of the evaluation was supposed to be based on discussions we had together and work that he guided me in. He told me at our first meeting that I was on my own and that he would not work with me and he kept that promise. How do you work with someone who refuses to make appointments to see you? (I did try repeatedly to ask for appointments.)

I have no idea whether his refusal was due to "race" or gender or because he simply didn't want a student but felt for some reason that he couldn't say "no".

One of my best friends (M) - a white male minister my age who has been a minister since he was 23 - was of the view that there is no way that this man could morally or ethically wrong me because he is black and I am white. M said that I had to accept this behaviour as a legacy of white racism. I suspect that Cone would probably agree, from what I've read of him.

I say all this to say that I really did genuinely struggle with Cone.

I recognise Cone's work as being is a very loud cry from heart of the gross injustice that white people have perpetrated on black people. I recognise it as a eloquent articulation of how perspective as a person of the white majority can blind me to thinking that my own perspective is The Normative Perspective.

However, at the end of the day, I don't think that Cone offers a way for black and white Christians to come together in reconciliation. He makes (or almost makes, I'll recognise a small chink of concession) the black experience The Normative Perspective. In my view.

Sandalstraps said...


I see and hear your frustration and your struggle.

I don't think that Cone would necessarily agree that no single black person has any moral obligations to any single white person. Rather, I hope anyway, his main point is that whites both as individuals and especially as a group should no longer be allowed by blacks to establish the nature of race relations.

In any event, if Cone were to side with the minister who refused to meet obligations that he (apparently) voluntarily took on himself, then that would be all the worse, I think, for Cone. While you are white and the minister/theologian under whom you were placed was black, in that relationship he (the black man) held all of the power, and you (the white woman) were under his authority. As you describe the situation, he abused his authority, though his motives are unclear. But, as he had power, and as he misused power (for whatever reason - and I suppose we need not say that his reasons were conscious ones, or that they were consciously mallicious) in this scenario he, too, participates in the power of oppression.

I have no doubt that you have struggled with Cone, though I suggest that we could all stand to struggle with Cone for as long as we can possibly stand it - and then just a little while longer. I took Michael's comments to be directed at me, and to be more pastoral than accusatory in tone. It sounds like your situation has placed you on the defensive here, and to the extent that any of my comments have accidentally helped place you on the defensive, I apologize for my unskillful words.

PamBG said...

Chris, thanks for your kind words, My intention was to set out the context in which I was struggling with the issue.

If I recall correctly, "the Cone" that I read was fairly early in his career and it was a time when the idea of perspective was not at all respected in mainstream theology and would not be for many years. (This is part of the reason I tried to do a cursory search to see if he had softened his position as time went on.)

I could be doing the work that I read an injustice, but I think he would have said "now you know what we feel like" to my experience (and I repeat that I have absolutely no idea what the motivations were wrt my situation).

Yes, I agree absolutely that his work is worth reading and worth struggling with. (With the caveat that I'm slightly worried about you doing extra theological reading whilst doing an MA!)

For me, however, my strong belief is that Christian theology really needs to offer some reasonable workable way for victims and wrongdoers to reconcile. With "early Cone", at least, it seems extremely difficult for white people even to ask for forgiveness, as far as I can tell.