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

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.