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

Lent 4C: Nearly unimaginable

Joshua 5:9-12, 2 Corinthians 5:16-21, Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

All of us have had the experience of thinking twice about what we’re going to say to someone we don’t know really — not well enough to know their politics.  If we say the wrong thing we could suddenly become “one of them,” or they could become “one of them” to us, and we don’t want that to happen. We don’t want the factionalism, the anger, the mistrust of the political scene today to ruin this moment, this friendship.

short stories by jesus

The parable in Luke is about two brothers who have grown to dislike and distrust one another. Amy-Jill Levine writes about this parable in Short Stories by Jesus,  She says that this parable is not about the Prodigal Son’s “repentance” or the father’s extravagant forgiveness. It is about two brothers who dislike and distrust one another.  (It’s a great book. She talks about this parable in Chapter 1: “Lost Sheep, Lost Coin, Lost Son.”)

Most of us suspect that the father’s explanation (“all that is mine is yours”) is hopelessly naïve.  The Prodigal has returned to beg, not to repent, and we know that until the Prodigal is stopped, he will drain the father’s estate until there is nothing left for anyone.  As for the Elder brother, we can’t see what he has done wrong, so nobody is repenting. It’s a standoff.

Arguably, the parable asks us this question: Do we really need to be reconciled to someone whose values are diametrically opposed to our own, and whose actions and behavior threatens our well-being?  Do those of us who live in the hen house have to be reconciled to the fox?

One answer is, “no” —  we should not be reconciled.  Foxes and prodigals are dangerous and we should protect ourselves. But another answer is, maybe we should try.  Maybe human society is capable of more than “survival of the fittest.”  Maybe we are called to find a way to make peace with our enemies.

Jesus goes past “maybe” to say we absolutely should find a way to make peace with our enemies. Neither this parable nor his life story minimizes how difficult that might be. Like the brothers, our enemies may not be repentant. Like the brothers, our enemies may cling to values which are anathema to us. Like the brothers, we may have to see our carelessness or our privilege through others’ eyes.

Paul’s letter to the Corinthians agrees: such standoff reconciliations are so difficult that we cannot do it in our present state. We will need to be a “new creation.”  Think Easter and new life. That’s big: nearly unimaginable. Forty days is not enough time for anyone get there; only enough time to gather the willingness to try.