A clear judgment and denunciation

Reading “Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody: The Making of a Black Theologian” by James H. Cone (2020) and RCL Pr20A

Rev. Dr. James H. Cone in 2009 – Wikipedia.org

In August 2017, white supremacists marched in Charlottesville, VA. to protest the removal of a statue honoring Confederate General Robert E. Lee. The protest turned violent. A counter-protester was killed and many others were injured. A day or two later, then-President Trump was asked if he would denounce white supremacists.  He waffled and said there were “very fine people on both sides.”

There was outrage about that. People wanted a clear judgment and denunciation. And yet, I’d bet that Trump’s answer is what a lot of people would expect to hear from God. Not judgment or denunciation. A kinder, gentler approach. A finding that there are “very fine people on both sides.”

This week I am reading James Cone’s  memoir: Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody. I had read his second book, A Black Theology of Liberation, forty years ago in 1983 when I was a newly minted lawyer. I had found the book in the town’s used book store.  I didn’t know who James Cone was. I knew a little bit about “liberation theology” (it was Latin American thing), and I knew nothing about the European theologians Cone mentioned. Fortunately for me, sometimes Cone wrote simple, declarative statements. When he did, I understood what he was saying. No one else I knew was saying it, and I agreed with him.  

For example, he wrote this:

In the New Testament, Jesus is not for all, but for the oppressed, the poor and unwanted of society, and against oppressors… The meaning of this for our contemporary situation is clear: the God of the oppressed takes sides with the black community… Either God is for blacks in their fight for liberation from white oppressors, or God is not. God cannot be both for us and for white oppressors at the same time.” [1]

A clear judgment and denunciation.

I am enjoying Cone’s memoir. He explains what motivated him to write his books, his writing process and how his thinking developed over the years. He doesn’t talk much about the European theologians. He talks about making the decision to leave them behind, to listen to his experience, his history and often the students he taught at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. Over the years, he broadened his perspective.

I am glad to see that as strident as his early books were – and they were strident – he never backed off his fundamental thesis: That the gospel is about liberation. If we want to be where God is at work in the world, we must be with the oppressed.  In America, people are oppressed simply because they are black, so in America, Christian theology can only be Black Theology.

He is not saying that we should mention Black Theology, include Black Theology, privilege it or even make it a  preferential option. No. In America, Christian theology must be Black Theology.

Where does that leave white people?[2] For the most part it leaves us with white theology, which Cone sees as a racist, theological justification of the status quo. Very good people on both sides. The  antithesis of what Jesus says in this Sunday’s gospel: “The last will be first, and the first will be last.”

The question I am left with is, if Christian theology is Black Theology, where do I fit as a white-skinned person? I want to keep thinking about that as I finish reading Dr. Cones’ memoir this week.

[1] A Black Theology of Liberation, 40th Anniversary Edition, (Orbis Books 2010.) Kindle edition at 21-22. There is now a Fiftieth Anniversary edition.

[2]  For Cone “whiteness” is not just about skin color. It is about our fundamental outlook on the world.  Cone found that white-skinned people usually prefer their status-quo loving and oppressive outlook. Remember the spiritual, “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen?” Cone says he grew up assuming that “the trouble” in that verse referred to white folk. With good reason.

Change the meaning of whiteness

Reading “My Grandmother’s Hands” by Resmaa Menakem and Pr18A

Most of the anti-racism group work I have done has been in nearly all-white New Hampshire or (via zoom) the tri-state area (NH, Vermont, Maine.)  I have often heard white people say they can’t do anti-racism work because they don’t know any black people.

It’s difficult to convince people that racism is a problem for white people to work on with other white people. Menakem is insistent on that point and good at explaining what the work is.

He says, “Your white body was not something you chose, but the imaginary construct of whiteness is something you can change.” How?

1.       Understand that your privilege is not benign: it comes at a cost to someone else. Become aware of your privilege and how it functions.

2.       Name it when you see it or hear it. Do not cooperate with it. Whether it is a behavior, a dog-whistle or euphemism  or a racial myth, challenge it. Confront it.

3.       When you confront the privilege, notice what happens in your body. Notice your physical discomfort. Learn to calm or settle yourself so that what you do next can come from your best self and not from (what Menakem likes to call) your “lizard brain.”

4.       Take responsibility for short circuiting white privilege and look for ways to share your privilege with others.

Change the meaning of whiteness from “oblivious and fragile” to “responsible and resilient.”

Can we do this work in mixed black and white groups?  Menakem says, “No, not yet.” To try is to set everyone up for failure because until we have done the work we need to do in our own groups — white and black — we will just keep triggering the trauma in each other’s bodies.  Ultimately, Menakem hopes that white and black people, working in their own groups, will give rise to new cultures which systematically teach and celebrate the rejection of white supremacy. “Change culture” Menakem says “and you change lives.”  

I am grateful for this book. After three rounds of “Me and White Supremacy” and one of “Sacred Ground,” I was feeling at a bit of a dead end. This book helps me see a way forward. Perhaps another “Me and White Supremacy” group with an equal emphasis on “My Grandmother’s Hands” for its open-ended positive approach and do-able body-work exercises. We’ll see.

Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them. Mtt.18:20

Sometimes people share our values. Other times, as Jesus says, we just need to let them and ourselves move on. As Jesus says elsewhere, “shake the dust.” (Mtt.10:14.) Not to be mean or judgmental, but because we are looking for people who see what we see.

For the casual stuff, casual friends are enough. But for the challenging work, we need the support of people who share our vision and hope. Find two or three people like that and we’re good to go!

Photo by Charlein Gracia on Unsplash

I’m stepping aside from the camino for a week. See you on September 22!