White theology: helping white people stop running

Reading “Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody: The Making of a Black Theologian” by James H. Cone

In his memoir, James Cone remembers reading a James Baldwin passage to his graduate students. It was a text which, as Cone said, made us (Black Americans), “mad at what white people did to our grandparents and continue to do to us today. When I read that passage… the black students, staring at the white students in their midst, found it difficult to restrain their anger and seemed ready to fight, while the white students, heads down, grew silent and ready to bolt the room.”[2]

I know those feelings: head down, silent, ready to bolt. They are feelings white people often have. And we flee from cities to suburbs and then to gated communities. We get guns. We ban books and shut down history classes. We want to avoid being called to account for the crimes committed by our forebearers – the crimes that established the power, wealth and privilege that eases our lives.

Last week I was wondering what the task of white theology might be. Now, I think the task may be to help white people stop running from the guilt we fear. As Resmaa Menakem (My Grandmother’s Hands) would say, we need to “metabolize” our guilt, to transform it. First, honestly see our complicity in the sin of racism – personal and systemic, but then undertake a repentance that will lead to “newness of life.” (BCP 393) For that, you might think that Christianity would have something we could just pull off the shelf. Evidently, not yet.

Cone quotes James Baldwin in The Fire Next Time:

“People who cannot suffer can never grow up… ”

It is a difficult thing, even a suffering thing to be seen or heard in our sinfulness, diminishment, fear or weakness. If we cannot bear it, we cannot grow up. And we probably cannot bear it alone. Probably the only way to bear it is to share it, and let the suffering become a bridge and connection to other people. That connectedness – Baldwin again – opens up a world in which suffering is borne, and there is survival, joy and hope. Newness of life. A worthy task for white people and white theology.

[1] In Memoriam: Dr. James Hal Cone, Union Theological Seminary, NYC. 2018.

[2] Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody:The Making of a Black Theologian, James H. Cone, Orbis Books, Kindle edition at 162.

Photo by Lucas Favre on Unsplash