Blackness is Life: A Guest Post on James Cone
Today, in continuing the series on liberation theology, I’m excited to host my friend Rod Thomas. Rod is here to share a more in-depth look at James Cone’s work and the paradigms within which it works. Rod Thomas (MDiv, ThM), is a Clementine scholar who writes at the intersections of Black Liberation theology, early church history, and critical race theory. In 2010, he completed his Masters thesis, “Beyond Liberated: Divine Transcendence and Cultural Hybridity in the theologies of Clement of Alexandria and James Hal Cone.” Rod blogs at PoliticalJesus.com and you can find him on twitter @h00die_R .
When I was in junior high as an 8th grader, I sometimes wore a black long-sleeved shirt decorated with a large red and green logo that said, “No Justice, No Peace” in white letters. At that time, I was ashamed of having to wear a message I did not fully understand. Was I advocating a message of no peace and justice, at all, only violence and chaos like the Black Panthers did? Like the L.A. race riots of the 1990’s? What did it all mean? It wasn’t until wearing this apparel a few times that I finally got it, without justice, there could be no peace.
I grew up in a fairly conservative Black Southern Baptist church setting. At home, my mother taught us about the importance of the Bible and the centrality of the teachings of Christ Jesus when it came to a life of discipleship. From a very early age, I developed a deep concern for the homeless and the oppressed out of my love for the Prince of Peace. My undergrad experience was one where I kept small circles of friends. Wanting to earn acceptance with one specific circle of white conservative Reformed guys, I became a Calvinist my senior year.
It was in this context that I encountered the work of James Cone. For some strange reason in our Senior Seminar class, the two professors assigned us to read Cone’s My Soul Looks Back. Maybe it was just the two professors’ sociology of religion approach to Cone’s work, or my own lack of self-awareness, or some combination of both, but I just could not agree with Cone’s approach.
The next year was my first year in seminary, and our introduction to theology class featured better conversations on Cone’s work while working with just a snippet (maybe one chapter from A Black Theology of Liberation). I still refused to give Cone’s work a second chance. Instead, I opted for the more respectable Neo-Orthodoxy of Karl Barth.
Everything changed the day I met James Cone in person. Cone was invited as a guest speaker for an event co-sponsored by the United Methodist Church and Brite Divinity School’s Black Church Studies program. The topic he was assigned to speak on was church outreach and evangelism. What he chose to speak on, however, was the legacy of White Supremacy, the history of lynching in the United States, as well as the problem of whites still remaining control of Christianity. As he was speaking, I looked around and observed the number of white UMC bishops and pastors who were hot under the collar from being called out. That moment was a conversion experience for me. By witnessing James Cone as an example, I no longer had to be ashamed of being Black while Christian. I embody a BOTH/AND: Christian AND Black.
Today, I wanted to briefly explore two paradigms in James Cone’s Black Liberation Theology, as well as engaged criticisms of the work. The first thing we must understand is that Cone’s project is an undertaking of dismantling White Supremacy through the academic discipline of systematic theology. From a church history perspective, Cone is not the first Christian thinker to write a theological critique of White Supremacy and colonialism. The slave narratives of people like Frederick Douglass and the journals of 19th century evangelists like Julia J.A. Foote give testimony to this fact. Cone’s project is part of a long time tradition of African American intellectuals reclaiming and proclaiming the “Good News to the poor, to set free the prisons, to bind the brokenhearted” (Luke 4:19).
First Paradigm: Blackness and Whiteness
James Cone’s subversive repositioning of Blackness and Whiteness has been a source for confusion for a number of well meaning Christians. The accusations of Cone being a “reverse racist” or bigot are just some of the arguments I regularly come across. White Christians usually make racism about individual vices and errors, what some would call the spectacle of race. This approach to engaging White Supremacy is inadequate and dishonest, and leaves the status quo of injustices unchecked. In Western culture, the color black has nothing but negative connotations (sans Black Friday in November). Anti-Black stereotypes are ancient relics leftover from the Greco-Roman world; Anti-Blackness precedes White Supremacy and colonialism (starting with Christopher Columbus).
In seminary, the Black Church Studies program advertised on a bulletin board for t-shirts that read on the back, Brite Black and Beautiful in bold red letters. A conservative, presumably white student vandalized the sign with a pencil, “whites are beautiful too.” It’s not that descendents of Europeans aren’t beautiful. The fact is that Western notions of beauty lift up people with pale skin, blue eyes, and blonde hair, while vilifying the darker peoples of the world. The statement black is beautiful is a real subversion in that it recognizes that the oppressed are made in God’s image too. Our notions of beauty are not objective by any means, and anyone who claims as such is a liar. Blackness has and still is a symbol of what is despised and ugly.
Black Liberation Theology is a struggle to redeem Blackness as a symbol. Throughout church history, sinfulness, sexual immorality, and heathenism were attributed to persons with dark brown skin for political and religious reasons. For Cone, “To be black means that your heart, your soul, your mind, and your body are where the dispossessed are. We all know that a racist structure will reject a black man in white skin as quickly as a black man in black skin.” (Cone, Black Theology And Black Power).
Whiteness wants us to focus on “Platonic ideals” and abstract notions of humanity while Cone and Black Liberation Theologians want to center theology on the experiences of concrete, oppressed human communities. It’s not that Black and White theologies are two equally valid projects for Christians to consider. Whiteness and its White Supremacy, through slavery, genocide, through the assimilation of Italian and Irish immigrants, reproduced itself in various forms and controls every aspect of human life in postmodern Western culture. Cone writes:
In order to be Christian theology, white theology must cease to being white theology and become black theology by denying whiteness as an acceptable form of human existence and affirming blackness as God’s intention for humanity.
Second Paradigm: Liberation Before Reconciliation
The other paradigm I wish to discuss in Cone’s work is the notion of “reconciliation.” Conservative and post-evangelical Christians are very good at avoiding truthful race discussions, particularly when it comes to racial justice. They are quick to invoke “reconciliation” and praise racial reconcilers but what these believers fail to realize is the racial reconciliation itself is a return to the idol of whiteness.
Blackness is the Divine NO! to whiteness’ desire for all people to be assimilated to it. Reconciliation for Cone and many Black Liberation Theologians do not presume that equality is already a reality. Institutions founded by and maintaining systematic injustices must first start with justice, and then mutuality and dialogue. If efforts towards reconciliation are to be faithful to the Good News, there must be an adherence to an honest account of the historical situation. In this case, we must all recognize the violent legacy of White Supremacy and work to dismantle it.
Reconciliation must start with Black values to the exclusion of White Supremacy and imperialism.
In a racist society, Black Theology believes that the biblical doctrine of reconciliation can be made a reality only when white people are prepared to address black men as black men and not some grease-painted form of white humanity. […] The task of Black Theology is to make the biblical message of reconciliation contemporaneous with the black situation in America. According to the New Testament, reconciliation is the exclusive work of God in which he become a man in Jesus Christ in order that depraved humanity might become whole” (Chapter 6, Black Theology and Black Power).
Dishonest calls for unity, color-blindness, and racial reconciliation are forms of violence used to cover up the violent history of White Supremacy. Liberation, if it is the prioritizing of the oppressed means that white notions of reconciliation take a back seat first, and then when the oppressed decide on the moment of reconciling with their former oppressors, Reconciliation is a dialogue and process that is both started and completed on the terms of the marginalized.
Briefly, Addressing Progressive Criticisms
No theology is without its weaknesses, and Black Liberation Theology is no different. The most glaring omission from Black Liberation Theology is that of the neglect of women’s experience. In James Cone’s work, on the surface, there seems to be a lack of discussion of gender. Your typical mainline relational theologian will be more than willing to point this out, dismiss Cone’s case against white supremacy as hopelessly patriarchal, and then continue on his merry way to re-affirming the academic and literary canon that white supremacy begot.
In “Reconsidering Cone: Gendering Blackness," Amaryah Shaye investigates how blackness was ungendered since the time of slavery. Part of Cone’s project early on was to re-gender black familial life. It’s usually the norm for white liberals and moderates to talk about absolute inclusion and the horrors of exclusion. What they tend to avoid though is the gender violence done to Black men and woman as racialized & hypersexualized Others. As I argued in my own post on gender and Cone’s Black Theology And Black Power, “The Power Of Love part 2: Gendering Black Theology and Black Power," because Cone has taken blackness out of the realm of the biological and into the area of symbolism, the oppressed are now better empowered to have decolonizing and intersectional discussions on class, White Supremacy, and rape culture.
The recognition of the two paradigms Blackness & Whiteness/ Liberation before Reconciliation do not capture the whole breadth of James Cone’s theology nor the work of other Black Liberation Theologians but they remain part of the basic foundation. The task of Black Liberation Theology is not simply to “de-center” whiteness or de-throne white theology, but to witness the death of whiteness, with its violence, its abstract, hegemonic universals, its White Supremacy in totality. Know Jesus the Liberator, Know Justice, and then Know Peace.