Cone’s Perspectives on Black Theology

To complete our examination of James Cone’s book Black Theology and Black Power and the affect that these theological suppositions may have had on Jeremiah Wright we will look into some perspectives that he offers in support of the way he recommends that blacks in America (in 1969) interact with the White church, the Black church, and ultimately, with the culture as a whole. What one finds most difficult to understand about the way Pastor Wright continues to apply this theology is that he sees no change has occurred over the ensuing four decades that have passed since the publication and codification of these ideas. White America and relationships between whites and blacks have been perpetually locked in the turbulence of the sixties, there must still be endemic racism (institutional racism per Carmichael), blacks are still attempting to throw off the heel of the oppressor, etc. Your own perspective on these matters will greatly affect then the way that you reacted to hearing the sermonic sound bites that hit the news several weeks ago.

Cone begins this way, ” Just as black revolution means the death of America as it has been, so it requires the death of the Church in its familiar patterns…We need a theology for the oppressed black people of America aimed at the destruction of racism in the society. Black theologians can no longer be tied to the irrelevancies of white American “Christianity.”” This theology lays its roots in black suffering; Cone insists that Black theology must see the reality of black suffering in the form of suffering and humiliation. The task of Black Theology is “to analyze the black man’s condition in the light of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ with the purpose of creating a new understanding of black dignity among black people, and providing the necessary soul in that people, to destroy white racism.” It is, at heart, a way of restoring the humanity destroyed by oppression.

Following the path alighted by reformers before him, Cone presses on to the issue of religious authority answering the question of whether or not there is a ‘black’ theology. He is quick to point out that all theological authority is rooted in Scripture as Luther had before him so ultimately, the validity of his theology must be measure against the Word of God rather than the structures of man. Black theology, fomented in and by oppression, is formed only of doctrines of God, man, Christ, and Scripture that do not contradict demands for freedom now. It would be difficult to contradict this demand in light of God’s consistent demand for justice throughout the Scriptures. The crucible of oppression plays such a key role because it was through this hell that blacks came to know the Savior and through it, know that He identifies with them in their condition.

Black freedom that breaks the bonds of oppression necessarily requires the creation of new values likely to be alien and threatening to white society. This evaluation is stated by Cone to be based on the fact that “white American “Christian” values are based on racism.” This new value system is to be oriented singularly toward bringing alive the spirit of self-determination in the consciousness of black people. The newly enlightened will no longer be dependent on the white oppressor for their notions of truth, reality, or the proper approach to the relief of their oppression. This harkens back to the pre-Civil War black church which, in its independence from the white Church, was creative in its approach to spawning the idea of freedom among its members.

In conclusion, Cone closes with this:

Black Theology believes that we are on the threshold of a new order–the order of a new black community. The Black Power movement is a transition in the black community from nonbeing to being. In the old order, black people were not allowed to be human; we were what white America permitted us to be–no-things. We took on false identities which destroyed our real selves, our beautiful black selves. The new order (partially realized now, but not fully consummated) is an order which affirms black self-identity.

The Black Church and Black Power Part III

I continue with an examination of James Cone’s seminal book Black Theology and Black Power, oft cited as a formative factor in the vitriolic preaching of Jeremiah Wright. [ Part 1 here and Part 2 here] Liberation theology takes many forms, many dependent on the particular geography and culture in which it foments. Particular to Reverend Wright’s brand of theological discourse is the Black experience in America and its effect on the psyche of both black and white Americans.

The Black church found its roots in the same oppression that gave rise to the ideals of Black power, enslavement. Initiated by the white oppressive slave owner as one more way to deny the African heritage of the men and women dehumanized by him, the black church nonetheless found that it must develop from within its own theological perspective. The black church was unwilling to accept the notion that Christianity was concerned only with the freedom of a man’s soul but not his body. Furthermore, Cone reminds us, the black churchman did not readily accept the prevailing myth that God had ordained slavery for them.

The Black church was born carrying these twin concerns in its DNA and an attitude of accepting Christian tenets while rejecting the place that the white church offered. The independent Black church became the first institution free from White power and at liberty to focus on the concerns of freedom and equality for Black humanity. Cone quotes Mays and Nicholson; ” Relatively early the church, and particularly the independent Negro church, furnished the one and only organized field in which the slaves suppressed emotions could be released, and the opportunities for him to develop his own leadership.” As with all institutions organized by fallen humans, the rhetoric heated to the point that outright rebellion against the oppressive forces could be heard from the pulpit. Early responses to this cry included Nat Turner’s revolt which returned a measure of violence against the slave owners.

Early theological reflection in the Black church surprisingly did not lead most black preachers to decide that God was against slavery. The oppression and violence were counter to the character of God to be sure but they struggled to understand (in a Job-like manner) why He allowed such misery to be visited upon people He loved. While some church leaders were able to sustain a patience for God’s passivity towards their misery and the evil practiced by their white brothers, others could not. Many black churchmen came to the theological conclusion that God’s character demanded a more active response linked to His absolute abhorrence of slavery. Taking this expectation contrasted to His supposed silence, some in the Black church began to speculate on the very existence of God, wondering as Daniel Payne of the A.M.E. church did, “Is there no God?”

The post-emancipation Black church displayed gradual changes in its theological underpinnings. While rejoicing in the freedom granted from slavery, black men and women faced new challenges in segregation and a more subtle dehumanization in Jim Crow. Blacks were certainly free from the bondage they had suffered but their freedom continued to be tempered by the fact that the White population at large failed to see them as fully human, denying the image of God within them. The former slaves lost their chains but had new bonds tied to them in the form of continued racist attitudes that led the black theologian to turn his focus from explorations of freedom to return to the White church’s theology of a better life ahead in the next world. No longer in rebellion, the Black church succumbed to the question, ‘what must be change about ourselves in order to be liked by our oppressors, thus making the evil stop?’ Cone points to this era saying “The black minister thus became a most devoted “Uncle Tom,” the transmitter of white wishes, the admonisher of obedience to the caste system.”

He makes this as the point at which a decline in the Black church began as the forces of capitulation to white demands for continued obedience softened the pulpit message. This weakness in the Black preacher is partly justified by Cone as he points out that to continue to challenge the White power was to put his church and his people at risk; an explanation perhaps, but the lack of obedience to Christ that it involved was a sin. The Black church convinced itself that they were doing the right thing in advocating obedience to white oppression in order to experience heaven in a future age. Albeit for different reasons, the apostasy of the Black church mirrored that of the slavery supporting White church.

Cone moves quickly forward to the turning point brought to life with the ascension of Martin Luther King and the return to confrontation between Blacks and Whites in America. He saw in MLK a rapid refocus in the Black church on the social justice Gospel that threatened Whites in their evil and also lead to the leader’s death. The author’s thesis comes full circle at this point in the book as he demands that Black power (the demand that Whites recognize the full humanity of Blacks and treat them with full equality as men (and women))  be at the center of the Black church and it’s theology. The first order of the Black church must be to re-instill in Blacks the gospel message that they are made beautiful and strong in the image of their Creator and that anyone who attempts to destroy this message (i.e. the White church and White culture) runs counter to the will of God. Cone reiterates, “The existence of the Church is grounded exclusively in Christ. An in twentieth-century America, Christ means Black Power!” Responding to the call of the gospel requires, in his mind, a return to the rebellion of the pre-Civil War black church and complete identification with the rejected and downtrodden, as Christ the Lord did.

Black Power & Black Theology Part II

[Part I here]

Black power takes a myriad of forms throughout society in politics, culture, and education. As a theologian, James Cone goes on to explain the nature of Black power in the Church. As we learn to expect, in his mind there is a Black church and a White church. As we saw earlier, the process of the slave liberating himself from the devastating dehumanization and forcing the oppressor to recognize his God given image is the heart of Black power. Mr Cone states bluntly, “I contend that such a spirit is not merely compatible with Christianity; in America in the latter twentieth century it is Christianity.” He extends the liberation vocabulary to the Church as a whole, saying that the Church is composed of those called by God to share in his liberating activity. There are three activities that mark the modern (NT) Church: preaching (kerygma), service (diakonia), and fellowship (koinonia). Each is a weapon against white racism from both the Black and White perspective. From the viewpoint of the formerly oppressed, the preaching of the gospel is a message of freedom. Freedom from racism – Christ has conquered it; Freedom from oppression – Christ has freed you; Freedom from dwelling in one’s current circumstances – the Christ has set you free. It is, Cone says, the message of Black Power.

The White church fails in its Gospel mission in the latter two aspects of being the Church, service and fellowship. It fails to render services of liberation to the previously enslaved or to be the manifestation of the new society. Cone points to the failure of the White church to reach out in reconciliation (contra his earlier proclamation that Black power meant having nothing to do with Whites and their church) or to engage in true, equality-based fellowship. He sees the failure of the White church to radically follow Christ in obedience as unique to them (again, contra to his exclamation that many blacks have failed to grasp their freedom from enslavement.) In fact, to finally warn blacks away from engagement with the White church, the Antichrist is identified as the white Christian body.

The in one most evil.

Is there hope then for a change in the White church that might lead to reconciliation between the races? Cone responds in the affirmative and with cautious theological support. In order for this chasm to be bridged, the White church must be willing to turn to a radical obedience of Christ and die. Whites must be willing to die to self and old ideas of the superiority and righteousness. They must be willing to die to their own status and follow Christ into radical identification with the poor and the oppressed, so much so that they themselves feel crack of the oppressor’s whip on their own backs. The whites who want reconciliation must be willing to join the others proclaiming Black Power. He must be both the agent of and the object of liberation.

Black theology is actively integrated with life as opposed to the overly scholastic theology of the greater White church. It is an encompassing worldview that instructs the follower in how to interact with a fallen world that appears to actively work against the black man’s liberation. Cone sees (in 1969) that the White church refuses to participate in this reconciling era and in that refusal, little hope for the future of black-white relations.

From Whence the Roosting Chickens Came Pt. 1

By now, Pastor Jeremiah Wright and his thoughts about America and her people and culture are well known. Excerpts from sermons have been repeated over and over, both in context and by themselves. He has been interviewed and given an opportunity to explain how the more pejorative statements have been misinterpreted only to stand by them and claim any criticism of his words as “an attack on the Black church.” His most recent speech, opening a multi-day seminar, expanded his victimhood and in the the question and answer session that followed, he was given an opportunity to step back from ideas such as the government created AIDS epidemic but refused to do so. Such is the mind of Jeremiah Wright.

Pastor Wright’s words sound out of place here in the year 2008 since we are to exercise a fair amount of historical reflection and see exactly how much things have changed. The Black Power sentiments echo the demands of a pre Civil rights legislation era and the visions he projects of a corrupt nation run solely by the White Man harken back even further to a time in which those in power might have been rightfully called oppressors. The anger and hatred of America that colors the Reverend’s sermons demands that we stop for a moment to analyze the woes and struggles that have befallen him so that, even if we do not sympathize with him, we are able to have empathy. The trouble is, the more we look at his life, we find that he has led a rather idyllic life growing up unmolested and unable to recount a struggle in the inner city or the hatred of whites.

The media have correctly attributed Pastor Wright’s roots in Black Liberation Theology but have provided little context as to what this might mean. We could turn to Wikipedia as most Googlers will do but to gain a more in-depth foundation we can turn to one of the seminal works on the topic, Black Theology and Black Power by James M. Cone. Published in 1969, this book practically screams with the anger of the times as it looks at an America on the verge of monumental changes in race relations but with many of her citizens still clinging to old hierarchical notions and a history of attributing second class status to its people of color. It is a difficult book to read, not only because of the humility that non-black readers must bring to the words, but because buried in the paragraphs in the message that in order to restore the image of God within them, Blacks must fundamentally separate themselves from White Americans. Rather than integrate with the ‘oppressor’, they must segregate and do for each other.

It is not easy to come to this message as Cone never writes in one paragraph what he can take ten to do (similar to reading more modern works by Cornel West). He comes immediately to terms with a definition of Black Power which will lay the cornerstone of his theology to follow. He says that Black Power means “black people taking the dominant role in determining the black-white relationship in American society.” Cone warns against seeing black theology as antithetical to the Gospel insisting that it is, in fact, “Christ’s central message to twentieth-century America.” This, he asserts, comes from Jesus’ total identification with the poor and oppressed peoples against the ruling authorities.

Coined by Stokely Carmichael, Black Power is in essence a direct response to White racism which negatively created in the Black population an inconsistency in their image of themselves as men and women and the society’s insistence that they were nothing but ‘things’. This disconnection as it was culturally embedded and passed forward through succeeding generations of black citizens, regardless of their free status, creates the chasm that runs through Cone’s vision of Black-White relations (and possibility). Black Power holds to a position that sees the White vision of the Black man as never changing; he (the black man) will forever be but a thing in the eyes of the White (oppressor). The Black man must fight back against this with all of will and power and insist that the White man see him as he is, as a  man. It is this key tenet that often draws the mistaken label of black racism. Advocates are careful to distinguish between racism ( the assumption of differences between racial groups and the inherent superiority of one over the other), the hatred of whites by blacks fueled by the previous years of oppression, slavery, and domination, and Black Power, which is the insistence that Blacks be restored in their fundamental humanity in the eyes of whites.

What makes Black Power and the theology that supports it so difficult for whites to accept is that it is anathematic to the pursuit of integration. Black power insists that there be no integration if the terms of such are defined by the dominant white culture and values. It insists instead on a restoration of the relationship defined by the Kingdom of God where all men of all races approach one another cognizant of the divine image within each and on equal footing. Though there is verbal assent to this concept, the challenge to see the inherent beauty and strength in Blackness is a challenge that Cone says whites are unwilling to meet. Only when whites are willing to see and treat the Black man for who and what he is as a man can there be a further discussion. The response to accusations that this is simply black racism and is therefore an inappropriate response to the endemic white racism that Cone sees is rebuffed by the statement “It is time for whites to realize that the oppressor is in no position whatever to define the proper response to enslavement.” This reasoned supposition is rooted in the fact that Whites in America cannot know the extent of black suffering, they can only speak from their perspective.

Finally, Black power draws no differentiation between the white liberal do-gooder who seeks to assuage his guilt by trying to integrate the black and white experience and George Wallaces of this older era. Cone states bluntly that all whites are responsible for white oppression. He makes this statement based on his furtherance of Carmichael’s notion of institutional racism wherein every aspect of society with which black men, women, and children must interact is wholly infected with white racism. Until the society changes, Cone states that Black Power is the only way in which a positive image can be restored in a people unfairly oppressed for a good part of their history.

(Next: Black Theology)