Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Please Help Me Chew This

I've been reading Black Theology and Black Power by James H. Cone. Published in 1969, it is an admittedly limited book, with two critical failings:

1. Despite its attempt to build up a "black theology," it interacts almost exclusively with white, European theologians.

2. Despite its language of empowering the powerless, it uses exclusively masculine language, not just for God but also for humans.

Looking back at the book twenty years after its initial publication, Cone decided, despite having those failings brought painfully to his attention, to leave them in, unedited. This is, he claims, to remind him of his own participation in a kind of dehumanizing prejudice. One does not heal the wounds of the past by covering them up, but by letting them breathe, open for all to see.

I mention these critical failings because I am about to post two paragraphs from this book that really challenge me, and I don't want especially the second failing (the use of exclusively masculine language) to interfere with your reading.

At some point in the future, as I digest these and other words by Cone, I'll post some reflections of my own. In the meantime I am reeling. So, here are two paragraphs that have metaphorically knocked me down and disoriented me. I'd like for you, dear reader, to help me digest them:

The black man's response to God's act in Christ must be different from the white's because his life experiences are different. Christian love is never fully embodied in an act. Love is the motive or the rationale for action. The attempt of some to measure love exclusively through specific actions, such as nonviolence, is theologically incorrect. Christian love comprises the being of a man whereby he behaves as if God is the essence of his existence. It means that God has hold of him and his movement in the world. But this does not take away the finiteness of man, the existential doubt in making decisions in the world. To accept Christ means both self-acceptance and neighbor-acceptance with the existential threat of nonbeing. What existentialists call non-being is never removed from man's existence. Thus the love of self and the love of neighbor, which constitute the heart of one's being in God, never escape the possibility of self-annihilation and destruction of the neighbor. The violence in the cities, which appears to contradict Christian love, is nothing but the black man's attempt to say Yes to his being as defined by God in a world that would make his being into nonbeing. If the riots are the black man's courage to say Yes to himself as a creature of God, and if in affirming self he affirms Yes to the neighbor, then violence may be the black man's expression, sometimes the only possible expression, of Christian love to the white oppressor. From the perspective of a Christian theologian seeking to take seriously the black man's condition in America, what other view is possible?

It seems that the mistake of most whites, religionists included, is their insistence on telling blacks how to respond "as Christians" to racism, insisting that nonviolence is the only appropriate response. But there is an ugly contrast between the sweet, nonviolent language of white Christians and their participation in a violently unjust system. Maybe the oppressor's being is so warped by his own view of himself that every analysis made by him merely reveals his own inflated self-evaluation. Certainly as long as he can count on blacks remaining nonviolent by turning the other cheek and accepting the conditions of slavery, there will be no real pressure to confront the black man as a person. If he can be sure that blacks will not threaten his wealth, his superiority, his power in the world, there will be no need to give up his control of the black man's destiny.

Like I said, right now I'm reeling from the potency of Cone's words, words that I, despite my commitment to non-violence, must take seriously, because I stand condemned by them. I'm hoping to discuss this passage here, if anyone feels so inclined, and to eventually write an essay that attempts to address these concerns from the framework of non-violent resistance, rather than mere non-violence.


Michael Westmoreland-White said...

Glad to see you are wrestling with Cone. I was afraid that seminaries had stopped requiring this.

Michael Westmoreland-White said...

I should say that it took Cone YEARS before he would admit that Martin Luther King, Jr.'s nonviolence was neither cowardly nor a sucking up to white theology. But despite his growth over time, I have to say that Cone has never really understood nonviolence. There is much to learn from him--even from this book written in the wake of King's assassination--but Cone's rejection of nonviolence was ultimately a failure to understand the gospel.
This charge was made early on by other pioneers in Black Theology, especially J. Deotis Roberts in Liberation and Reconciliation: A Black Theology.

Sandalstraps said...


I'm reading Cone on my own. Though he is taught in the Black Theology course, I'm not in that course. It didn't fit into my schedule. So I'm doing some of the reading for it on my own.

Interestingly - and probably not coincidentally - the book you mention by Roberts is up next on my reading list. Actually, I was going to go with one more by Cone, his famous A Black Theology of Liberation, first, and then move on to Roberts. But that book by Roberts is sitting on my shelf taunting me.

I'm planning to do my MA thesis on, broadly, theological approaches to suffering and evil. While my narrow topic has been the ethics of theodicy, as you might guess I've been expanding beyond the bounds of traditional theodicy to include any theological response to suffering and evil. Cone's work fits well with that broader project, especially since I'm trying not to limit myself to theologians who look like me!

I suspect that you're right about Cone failure to understand how non-violence could be resistance. I can certainly empathize with his position. He sees the white theological and religious community preaching non-violence, but he doesn't see them preaching resistance. He must hear that non-violence is the primary ethic, and any ethic of resistance must be made secondary to that.

In the face of this, I imagine a conversation between him and Wink, in which Wink tells him that, from his perspective it is resistance that is the primary ethic, and that non-violence is best understood as the most potent tool for resisting oppression. I wonder what he would think of that.

PamBG said...

I think that Cone has a lot to say to white Christians that is prophetic and true and I appreciate what he's saying above whilst disagreeing on the matter of non-violence.

Question that is not entirely a tangent but where I don't really want to add too much detail in public on the web: If a black man is placed in teaching authority over a white woman and he refuses to interact with her in any way during their alleged teacher/student partnership (thereby making it impossible for the woman to meet the course's goals), what is going on and how is the white woman to respond?

I struggled with the question above and I read Cone and some others doing "black theology" and "black philosophy". It was in this thinking that I came to the conclusion that Christian theology says that all people are forgiven sinners and that there is a certain amount of "living with our sense of sin" that we each must do.

I do think that I can appreciate the level of frustration that causes those who are genuinely oppressed to engage in violent acts. I do think that "white society" has been terribly guilty of saying that our behaviour is not violent because the oppression we engage in is caused by collective behaviour and apathy rather than individual aggressive actions (something all the prophets ranted against).

However, I am not a moral relativist. I cannot say that violence is OK for an oppressed group but not OK for the majority group. This does NOT fit in with "love your neighbour as yourself".

Tangential comment. I've never been able to figure out whethere Cone actually holds out hope for white people in terms of his framework. He says we are necessarily heretics for being oppressors but then occassionally he seems to hold out the possibility that there may be hope for us to be "real Christians" (my paraphrase)

Sandalstraps said...


I've wrestled with how to respond to your comment. Not knowing the specifics of the situation that you allude to, I can't comment directly on it. However, I do think that I can answer your broader concern about what, if any, hope Cone has for white people.

I don't know where Cone is in his thinking today, but I think that it is pretty safe to assume that, since it can't get much more militant than it was in 1969, it is probably less militant.

Reading Black Theology and Back Power I get the distinct impression that at times he is interacting directly with the white community rather than building up a distinctly black theology. It is almost as if he is using white language and white theology to represent Black Power to white Christians in a way that they can understand it as it relates to the Gospel, and as such repent of their innate racism. To that end I do think that he holds out some hope for whites, or he wouldn't bother trying to communicate to us.

But, rather than psychanalyze him from afar, I'll let some of his words speak for themselves, as a passage that I read yesterday seems to speak directly to your broader concern:

Is there any hope for the white church? Hope is dependant upon whether it will ask from the depths of its being with God: "What must I do to be saved?" Ther person who seriously asks that question is a person capable of recieving God's forgiveness. It is time for the white church to ask that question with a willingness to do all for Christ. Like the Phillipian jailers who put te question to St. Paul, the answer is the same for the white church as it was for them: Repent, and believe on the Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ! There is no other way. It must own that it has been and is a racist institution whose primary purpose is the perpetuation of white supremecy. But it is not enough to be sorry or to admit wrong. To repent involves change in one's whole being. In the Christian perspective, it means conversion.

And, a little bit later:

For the white churchs this means a radical reorientation of their style in the world toward blacks. It means that they must change sides, giving up all claims to a lofty neutrality. It means that they will identify utterly with the oppressed, thus inevitably tasting the sting of oppression themselves. It means that they will no longer "stand silently or march weakly protesting" but will join the advocates of Black Power in their unambiguous identification "with the oppressed and with the revolutions made by the oppressed." A racist pattern has been set, and the church has been a contributor to that pattern. Now it must break that pattern by placing its life at stake.

While I don't necessarily agree that the primary purpose of the white church has been the perpetuation of white supremacy, there is much in those two paragraphs that I can wholeheartedly agree with. And, in those paragraphs I do see the start of a way forward.