On Whiteness as Christlikeness: James H. Cone

Through the month of June, we are exploring the project of the church within the context of liberation theology. This is part one of a mutli-part series.

The 2008 election was a challenging time for America, which I realize is the understatement of the year. One of the many controversies that arose throughout that long and contentious election cycle was the Christian faith of our now President, Barack Obama. Videos of fiery sermons by pastor Jeremiah Wright surfaced, and white America had a conniption. It was like every white privileged person’s nightmare. “God damn America!” the black preacher yelled at the top of his lungs, a convenient sound bite that news stations seemed to take delight in playing over and over and over.

In a subsequent interview with Sean Hannity, Wright recommended that white Americans pick up James H. Cone’s Black Theology and Black Power to gain some understanding of the theological context in which he was preaching.

This controversy brought black liberation theology to the forefront once again and revived, at least for white Americans, a discussion about the position of black people in light of a mostly white institutional church in America. Glenn Beck, a white Mormon, denounced liberation theology and social justice oriented faith movements as communist and fascist on his (now defunct) Fox News show.

In the course of studying black liberation theology, white people have to work to set aside a lot of privilege and a lot of their own initial reactions (the desire to say “not all white people,” for example). Reading James Cone, as a white person, is an exercise in understanding systemic and institutional oppression, and respecting the anger of the oppressed. It is only by granting that Cone has a right and a reason to be angry and to speak angrily that white people can make any headway in understanding and joining in the project of liberation theology. As a white person, I must be willing to be quiet.

Cone’s Black Theology and Black Power is, indeed, a book full of anger, full of righteous indignation for the historical and current treatment of the black man by white people. In the chapter, “The White Church and Black Power,” Cone pulls no punches in making it clear that the oppression of black people in America is the result not of passivity or obscure forces. Cone lays the blame for the poverty, lynching, and second-class treatment of black people right at the feet of the white institutional church. He writes:

The white church has not merely failed to render services to the poor, but has failed miserably in being a visible manifestation to the world of God’s intention for humanity and proclaiming the gospel to the world. It seems that the white church is not God’s redemptive agent but, rather, an agent of the old society. It fails to create an atmosphere of radical obedience to Christ. Most church fellowships are more concerned about drinking or new buildings or Sunday closing than about children who die of rat bites or men who are killed because they want to be treated like men.

The main thrust of liberation theology is that God is on the side of the oppressed. God seeks liberation of the downtrodden, the poor, the suffering. This means that God’s Kingdom functions as an upending of the status quo, not so that the oppressed may rule, but so that the humanity of the individual person as a God created being may be embraced. Cone’s proposal, centered in Black Power, is that black men may be empowered to stand up as humans, not as objects in subjugation to white oppression.

For Cone, this means identifying Christ as a black man, aligning with the oppressed in their suffering. Cone’s context was mere years after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., and in the midst of the upheaval that was the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. The Civil Rights Act was signed just a year before Black Theology and Black Power came out, and Cone’s goal was to challenge the white Christian church in America to take up the project of fighting racism by challenging their institutional maintenance of the status quo.

The project of black liberation theology requires a robust and complex understanding of the institutional structure of racism, something that was more obvious to the average person in Cone’s time than it is in my generation. This is not to say that the current generation is somehow “post-racism” or exists in some kind of world where racism is only extant in large, obvious acts. Indeed, in many ways, the hidden nature of the racist institution has made this project harder.

As a white person, I exist in this institution in the position of oppressor. As a white South Dakotan, I exist on land stolen from Native Americans, fed by the blood of the genocide. As a white woman who lived in Texas, I have lived on land previously farmed and toiled over by black slaves. As a white person who lived in the far south side of Chicago, I lived in a distinctly different world from the black families who were my neighbors. I benefit from invisible racist structures every day I wake up in my own bed, under my parents’ roof, in the city of Sioux Falls.

Cone speaks of the need to develop a black theology of liberation that speaks to the position of black people in America in the time of a revolution. White theology that demands tolerance of current suffering in the hopes of some heavenly afterlife – theology that told slaves their current suffering was merely a passing through – is no longer adequate for the black project.

As a white person reading this theology, I must place myself in the shoes and the context of existing as an oppressor and acknowledge that my theology is, in its very basis, soaked in white, Western concepts of atonement and suffering. It is heartless and unloving of me to preach the Good Word as something that ignores the current suffering of the oppressed in favor of a heavenly worship at the feet of a God who looks like me. My whiteness is as intrinsic to that particular theology as blackness is intrinsic to Cone’s – but being the dominant form, I am not trained by life to see that whiteness.

One of the elements I discuss in my book is how the white church has offered the black church white-oriented solutions for problems created by anti-black racism. In response to the rise in teen pregnancy and its relationship to poverty in black communities, the white church recommends a puritanical ideology. We suggest that the problem is not the years of institutional oppression that have decimated the educational system, but rather lack of self-control and restraint around sex, and a lack of understanding of what “family” looks like – never mind that it is the white institution of slavery and sharecropping and Jim Crow laws that resulted in the destruction of the black family structure. The white church has offered white solutions to the problem of white racism, and many of these solutions have been unquestioningly embraced.

In his chapter on the Black Church, Cone discusses this particular embrace of white theology by the black church. He writes:

But in a society which pronounces a man free but makes him behave as a slave, all of the strength and will power is sapped from the would-be rebel. The structures of evil are camouflaged, the enemy is elusive, and the victim is trained to accept the values of the oppressor. … The black church thus lost its zeal for freedom in the midst of the new structures of white power. … The passion for freedom was replaced with innocuous homilies against drinking, dancing, and smoking; and injustices in the present were minimized in favor of a Kingdom beyond this world.

In the post-Civil War era, as now free black man was newly subject to racist rules and regulations that “made him behave like a slave,” the black church, Cone says, shifted and began to embrace white theology as a solution for its ills. The church thus corrupted its original rebellion and became part of that which it was once fighting. Such the power of the institution.

Reading all this work as a white American Christian posits new challenges for me - as it should. White people existing in the white church are accustomed to pat explanations for the larger suffering in the world – theodicies that do not implicate those in dominance but rather propose individual solutions to systemic problems. Poor people suffer because of sin. Churchly behavior is the solution to problems endemic to poverty.

We see this sort of white-centered solution throughout the white American church – this is a problem of white Christianity, not just conservative evangelicalism. Dannah Gresh’s Secret Keeper Girls goes into the Bronx to preach the Gospel of Modesty. My alma-mater sending white Christian kids to inner city Chicago on "missions trips." White liberal Christians code deference to whiteness as Christlike-ness, in requesting that the marginalized be “nice” when they complain of racism.

The centering of whiteness has one major effect on the ecclesiastical theology of the church: no one listens to the marginalized. In seeking to be “colorblind,” the white American church furthers the divide between races. In order for liberation to take place, we must be willing to examine our own orthodoxy, our own Gospel. Without it, we are lost.