Black Theology & Faith: James Cone, Critics and a Contrarian

I wrote the following as a final paper for one of the most powerful classes I ever had the pleasure to take in 2004. I was proud of it then and I’m still proud of it now. I had pulled an all nighter so my proofreading was limited. Still, I hope you enjoy. Much of my theology is unchanged, though now I do believe in a personal God that is compatible with the theology articulated here.

Black Theology & Faith:

James Cone, Critics, and a Contrarian

Robert Barrimond

AFAM519 Final Paper

Prof. Michael Eric Dyson

May 4, 2004

 

In this paper, I will accomplish three things centered around a discussion of James Cone’s black theology: 1) I expound upon the faithful source of James Cone’s black theology, (2) summarize some of the critiques and demonstrate their inadequacy, (3) in the best tradition of paid pests and colorful contrarians, provide a critique of some of the basic elements of black theology as well, and (4) the new possibilities and the value black theology has for us.  Because Cone is the field’s exemplar, I think it fitting that his theology be representative.  Let me begin by first examining the faith of black slaves.  I believe their faith to be the ground from which Cone’s theology springs.

Slave Belief: Prolegomenon to Black Theology

Although Dwight Hopkins calls the belief system of the slaves a theology, I don’t agree with the term.  It’s clear that they had a consistent, shared system of faith, but as any student of history can tell, they simply had no time to sit on the porch in the late afternoon in religious contemplation pondering the minutiae of theological enquiry..  Their faith was as real world[i] and it was communal[ii].  It was “for” and “of” the slaves and it formed the basis of their worldview.  They needed a faith that would sustain them in their time of trouble and, of course, it did.

The slave faith supported these bondservants in the face of absurdity and was based on a “simple” belief in hope against the odds.  “There was no philosophical resolution of the problem of evil”[iii] as Cone says.  This is clear in the slaves’ “theodicy” on suffering.  Cone continues, “Suffering was a reality of life, and the believer must be able to take it upon himself without losing faith.”  Upon reading this my immediate reaction was to ask, “Why is this so?”  I was suspicious of an escapist thinking to avoid a more realistic nihilism.  Were they avoiding the more nihilistic understanding of the spiritual, “My Lord delivered Daniel/Why can’t He deliver me?”[iv]  Thank goodness this was not the case.  To this day, it is a feature of black faith that has always mystified me.  I heard, “You gotta have faith!”  The answer is how the faithful view suffering.  Suffering is the cross the slaves must bear.[v]  Just as surely as bullet tears through flesh causing injury, suffering is the pain incurred when struggling with evil.  It is an effect, but not the result.  If it were, then there would be no cause for hope.  The slaves believed that their faith would see them through to the result: Jubilee, Liberation, freedom, Home, rest.  This faith is critical so that the community can stick together and weather the storm.  As Hopkins writes, “Slaves could only comprehend total deliverance as including the individual and the community.”[vi]  Thus, “the slave has another concern, centered on the faithfulness of the community of believers…He is concerned about the togetherness of the community of sufferers.”[vii]  The logic, as it were, is simple: If we [the slaves] believe and hold fast to our faith in the midst of this undeserved suffering at the hands of evildoers, then we will be set free.  Faithfulness today help to set unborn generations ahead free.  There faith was for us as much as it was for themselves.

It is this faith that sustained black people through centuries of pain and injustice, a faith that is the ground of Cone’s theology[viii].  It had to be strong, no…mighty, to do what it did.  Their faith was the size of a mustard seed.  It is little wonder that Cone’s early works “are sustained diatribes against Euro-American racism.”[ix]  It takes a lot to bear the terrible burden the slaves bore.  It’s why Ralph Wiley titled one of his books, Why Black People Tend to Shout.  Diatribes are shouts in ink.  The “presuppositions” of these diatribes that Cone’s critics attack are the basic tenets of the slaves’ faith.  If you are playing logic games, like some of Cone’s critics were doing, faith registers as a set of assumptions without validation or proof, a set of presuppositions in other words.  This is clear in Cone’s writing.

Black Theology as Development of Slave Faith

Cone asserts strongly that God is so “identified with the oppressed to the point that their experience becomes his.”[x]  It’s either that “or he is a god of racism.”[xi]  I cannot overstate the strength of this assertion.  Cone also says, “Black theology refuses to accept a God who’s is not identified totally with the goals of the black community.”[xii]  I assume that these goals are derivative from liberation and not vengeance, etc.  But they easily could, more on that later.  Given their identification with Israel in the land of Egypt during the Exodus event, the slaves would certainly agree with Cone in spirit if not to the same degree.  The black evangelical church also is a descendent of slave faith and it doesn’t bear the same marks and features as black theology.  Nevertheless, Cone’s theology is amenable to slave faith and the spirituals are testaments to this.[xiii]  Because William R. Jones states that these are Cone’s unsubstantiated presuppositions and stated arguments, I would risk asserting that Cone accepts this on faith.  This is the connection between slave and Cone, between faith and theology.  Faith is the ground of theology, perhaps in an analogous way that God is the Ground of Being.

Black suffering and the resulting struggle for liberation are central to black theology.[xiv]  Obviously, this is a central issue within life of slaves and as a result their faith.  For if they never suffered, there would be no need for a struggle for liberation.  Their faith would be a non sequitir.  For the slaves, this struggle meant faithfulness to God, whose righteousness and vindication of the poor and weak they took for granted on faith[xv].  Faith was necessary because God’s ways are mysterious.  Mystery demands faith to be accepted.  As the saying goes, “God may not come when you call him, but he’s right on time!”  This is parallel with Cone’s concept of the relationship between black theology’s enquiry and the ways of the Almighty.  “Black theology merely tries to discern the activity of the Holy One as he effects his purpose in the liberation of man from the forces of oppression.”  Once black theology has done its work, the duty of the faithful is clear.  “We must make decisions about where God is at work so we can join him in his fight against evil.”[xvi]  This is a theological expression of a tenet of slave faith.  It is taking the concept taken on faith and developed into a theological precept.

Arbor theology, the unfettered and unadulterated slave religious experience, was a direct, immediate, unmediated hermeneutic for their faith.  Here slaves could find some peace for their souls and take a sip from the cup of liberation.  The could sing, speak, and hear the truth of God’s precious gospel.  Hopkins asserted that these slaves “combined remains from African traditional religions with the liberation message in the Bible and simply refused to accept white theology.”[xvii]  Their faith was deeply grounded in their experience and had to be expressed “on the sly.  That [they] done lots.”[xviii]  Once again, Cone displays the roots of black theology by repeating this motif.  He makes this clear, “A theological concept is functional if and only if it advances black liberation or liberation-reconciliation.  As Cone concludes, ‘The legitimacy of any language, religious or otherwise, is determined by its usability in the struggle for liberation.’”[xix]  The project of slave faith is to secure through God, liberation.  Cone makes it so for his theology.

Cone’s theology is a theoretical, albeit highly particular, development of slave faith (theology).   Cone articulates his theology based on a faith that is congruent if not identical with that of the slaves.  This faith is the wellspring, the ground, the First Cause, as it were, that gives life to his theology.  West, perhaps unfairly, says, “Cone’s claims reek of a hermetic fideism.”[xx]  This is crucial when examining Cone’s critics and the avenues they chose to critique his theology.

Critique

William Jones makes the charge the Cone never acquits God of the His indictment for the crime of Divine Racism.  I believe his critique to be quite insightful especially within the framework of theological discourse.  Indeed, it’s very persuasive.  Yet, his work misses some important points, to be discussed later.  I will not exhaustively examine his critique, but will attempt to explain some of the major themes.  Jones imposes certain requirements on Cone’s theology that bear scrutiny.

First, a black theologian “is required to show—if he is to avoid the indictment of begging the question—that the general class of divine disfavor, of which divine racism is a subclass, does not accurately describe the black situation.”[xxi]  This is because the black situation is multievidential, i.e. “God might not like you,” a wise sage once said.  So, Jones is quite correct that the theologian must demonstrate, presumably with evidence, that the black situation only supports the black theological view and that God does, in fact, like you [black people].  Of course, Cone does no such thing.  His fideism simply asserts that God is for the oppressed just as the slaves knew on faith that God was with despite the terror and tyranny they faced.

Second, the black theologian “must…explain how [black people’s] plight came about in the first place in the face of God’s alleged activity in [sic] their behalf.”[xxii]  After all, black folk didn’t start out as slaves.  As Rakim Allah rapped on “Follow the Leader”: “But remember…you’re not a slave/‘Cause we were put here to be much more than that.”  So if God is a liberator, how could He allow His people to be enslaved in the first place?  It appears that the slaves never asked this question.  Cone explains that they “deal with the world as it is, not as it might have been if God had acted ‘justly.’”[xxiii]  If Cone’s priorities are that of the slaves, and I believe they are, then this question is irrelevant.  The slaves knew “nothing will be solved through a debate of that problem”[xxiv] and so, apparently, does Cone.  Jones sees this as avoiding an issue that demands resolution.

Lastly, Jones doesn’t tolerate presuppositions and definitions as a foundation for building a theology.  Ironically, Cone’s perspective is labeled “abstract or theoretical.”  Cone hasn’t provided evidence and to support a more persuasive “existential” solution to the problem of black suffering.  He has simply made his faith plain and developed it into a Barthian Christocentric theology[xxv].

Jones also critiques Cone on methodological grounds in “James Cone: God, Champion of the Oppressed” Again, Jones’ critique is theoretically/analytically sound and within this frame of understanding, persuasive.  When Cone asserts without proof that God is for the oppressed, Jones takes issue.  Cone’s norm for a proper theodicy rings similar to his norm for languages.  “Any theodicy ‘that reconciles the oppressed to unjust treatment committed against them’ must be rejected…Thus, the pro-liberation quotient of the theodicy in question appears to be his functional norm.”[xxvi]  This is reasonable in light of Cone’s faith.  God being for the oppressed is axiomatic.

Jones imposes several methodological requirements that would redeem Cone’s theology.  I will quote him as he does so quite succinctly.

Cone’s concern to establish the nature of God as the primary category for theodicy and his conclusion that revelation of God’s nature is mediated only through events of liberation oblige him to adopt a particular theological method [emphasis mine]—if circularity is to be avoided.  I would identify the following methodological requirements:

  1. The description of God’s nature as favoring the oppressed cannot legitimately be part of the presuppositional baggage the theologian brings to his analysis.  Rather, God’s nature as favoring the oppressed must be validated.  It also means that the theologian cannot use this description at the outset to dismiss the counterevidence; rather, this description can stand only after the counterevidence has been refuted or shown not to be decisive…
  2. [The] theologian must identify actual events of liberation, concrete instances where the oppression in fact ceases…
  3. The event of liberation must involve the liberation of the particular group in question [i.e. black people]…
  4. The final consequence to be identified is…that God is the sum of His acts…[Any] character we assign to God must be substantiated by reference to His past and/or present acts…

All these requirements sum up to the fact that Jones feels Cone must prove or validate the demonstration in history his assertions in a logical, almost Positivist, manner.  Jones is in effect asking Cone, “Where’s ya proof, bruh?”

Victor Anderson critiques Cone’s concept of ontological blackness and the problems it creates for black theology.  White racism subsumes the major theological issues for black theology and this is generative of ontological blackness.  Victor states that for Cone this ontological blackness could be understood in “terms of an emergent collective black revolutionary consciousness.  The critical task of black theologians is to ‘disclose the essential religious and theological meaning’ of this new…consciousness.”[xxvii]  Cone’s discourse framed by this consciousness is problematic for Anderson and creates problems for black theology in his view.  There are three main reasons he put forward.

First, black theology doesn’t have an easy relationship with the established black church.  The problems had to do with the hostility black theology has with “whiteness.”  “Early critics…asked how black theology could be a theology of black churches if it fundamentally disentangles itself from the creeds and confessions, as well as the liturgical practices that structure the black churches.”[xxviii]  In other words, because of the white origins of the ecclesiastical structure and practices of the black church, they instantly become problematic to black theology as they are “white” constructions, of the enemy and therefore evil.  Black theology is forced into a hostile position against black churches.  Another issue was the apparent racism shot through black theology as “appeared to posit within itself a revolutionary consciousness that looked more like the mirror of white racism and less like an expression of the evangelical gospel that characterized most black churches.”[xxix]  In other words, black theology becomes a gospel of hate, anathema for a Christian, rather than a universal love, especially love for one’s (white) enemy.  Lastly, black theology could hardly attack whiteness since it is formed out of that whiteness.  Theologians asked, “in what sense could black theology be black since its theological method was derived from white European theologians, notably Karl Barth and Paul Tillich, and European philosophers such as Albert Camus and Jean Paul Sartre?”[xxx]  Cone in answer to these issues chose to alienate himself from “the theology of the churches and their evangelical roots…He attempted to overcome [this] by emphasizing the necessity of black sources for the construction of black theology.”[xxxi]  This permanently separates Cone from the black church, a difficult situation for these siblings in faith.

Second, ontological blackness is not without its problems beyond the black ecclesia.  There are structural problems as well.   Black theology has so fetishized whiteness that it is in danger of working to define itself out of existence.  “The difficulty arises here: (a) blackness is a signification of ontology and corresponds to black experience. (b) Black experience is defined as the experience of suffering and rebellion against whiteness.  Yet (c) both blackness suffering and rebellion are ontologically created and provoked by whiteness as a necessary condition of blackness.  (d) Whiteness appears to be the ground of black experience, and hence of black theology and its new black being.” Thus, as black theology tries to overcome whiteness, its necessary condition, it puts a gun to its own head as it works to defeat the Ground of [its] Being, to use Tillich’s phrase. [xxxii]

Third and last, black theology is in danger of black-iolatry, that is, the valorization of blackness rather than the ontological reality that black people instantiate and blackness signifies.  “In black theology, blackness has become a totality of meaning…[Black] existence is without the possibility for transcendence from the blackness that whiteness created…Existentially, the new black being remains bound by whiteness.  Politically, it remains unfulfilled because blackness is ontologically defined as the experience of suffering and survival.”  In short, if black theology were to succeed in its project of black liberation, (a) black theology would have nothing to say about anything except perhaps the Bad Old Days and (b) blackness (and thus black people) would cease to exist.[xxxiii]  Liberation as Nothingness is not what the oppressed tend to yearn for.  This is the necessary result if the symbol (blackness) is conflated with the reality (black people in and of themselves).

Jacqueline Grant makes only a general critique on black theology’s inadequate response to the oppression of women.  However, because Cone is widely recognized as the father of the field, I will include her comments in this essay.  For Grant, black theology isn’t inherently myopic to women.  The problem lies in execution, that is, the praxis of theological production.  “Black women have had no place in the development of Black Theology.  By self-appointment, or by the sinecure of a male-dominated society, Black men have deemed it proper to speak for the entire Black community, male and female…Black women have been invisible in theology because theological scholarship has not been part of the woman’s sphere.”[xxxiv]  This means that the pronouncements of black theology are tainted by a male bias at best or a male supremacist bias at worst.  This is a problem of language.  “Black Theology…must speak to the bishops who hide behind the statement, ‘Women don’t want women pastors.’  It must speak to the pastors who say, ‘My church isn’t ready for women preachers yet.’  It must address the women in the church and community who are content and complacent with their oppression.  It must challenge the educators who would reeducate the people on every issue except the issue of the dignity and equality of women.”[xxxv]

The Contrarian Take

The critics I have mentioned, Jones, Anderson, and Grant, all make tough, incisive critiques on Cone’s work.  Yet, each has a certain myopia that when criticized puts their analysis on equal footing with Cone’s.  Let me begin with the Positivism I see in Jones’ essay.

Jones in “Divine Racism” wants support and proof of the assertions Cone has made.  I believe this is misguided for 2 reasons: (1) faith has value and in fact, does “count” (2) the validation of these so-called presuppositions nonetheless requires a leap of faith and it seems arbitrary to demand where that leap should be taken.  As I stated earlier, slave faith is the ground of Cone’s theology and his faith is essentially one and same with his slave forebears.  As an aspiring pragmatist and a faithful Christian, I resonate with both his views on the subject of God’s nature and Jones critique.  Cone is making a faith assertion when he states that God is a liberator and he shall not have any other gods besides Him.  Jones expects this to be validated in order for him to respect it.  From the standpoint of theoretical enquiry I understand this.  “Where’s ya proof, bruh?” is always a good question to ask, but I think that Jones should know better.  Faith is not a respecter of hermeneutics, dialectics, Socratic dialogues, or thought experiments.  Faith, like God, simply is.  I have absolutely no way to validate my faith in Jesus Christ.  I can point to persuasive evidence for why it is warranted in a Deweyian sense for me to believe but I can produce nothing that would “objectively” privilege Jesus over the Buddha, Kung Fu Tzu, or Mohammed.  Why should I expect this from Cone?  And this is why Jones should know better.  He should understand the nature of faith and incorporate this into his critique.  His essay leaves me with the impression that he has shown that Cone’s assertions are unwarranted and need not be believed.  Inherent in that assessment is then a loss of respect for a faith that enabled slaves to endure for 246 years under the yoke of slavery.  That is a profoundly powerful testament to the value of this faith.  This is as existential as it gets, and this is what Jones demanded of Cone.  He actually accuses him of being analytical/theoretical!  I found that quite ironic.  It seems as if Cone was speaking in a language that Jones couldn’t grasp.  Jones failed to get a Rortyan (?) Level II[xxxvi] understanding of the Cone text.

Another issue is the understanding of God and how we can “prove” things about His nature: an endeavor I find entirely problematic and even a bit arbitrary.  The problem here is the highly personal God of the slaves and the arguments that arise when trying to precisely enumerate and describe “His” attributes.  The problems of a personal God are manifest in history and are legion.  God can become Man writ large.  “He can be a mere idol carved in our own image, a projection of our limited needs, fears, and desires…Instead of pulling us beyond our limitations, ‘he’ can encourage us to remain complacently within them.”[xxxvii]  Beyond the personal God is the need to validate assertions about His nature.  This is where Jones brings to the table unvalidated presuppositions when he makes that accusation against Cone.  He presupposes that God acts in history and this can be validated against some “objective” or at least agreed upon standard, most likely the Bible.  All that Cone could do in an attempt to placate Jones is generate an aesthetically attractive “proof” or a “good” analysis that avoids “begging the question” when reporting faith assertions to Jones.  He cannot, however, provide a Level II understanding of God, i.e. objectively prove this or that about God or know God’s nature with God’s understanding.  In the end, Cone can prove nothing and Jones is just as helpless.

There are also issues with Jones’ required methodological steps prescribed for Cone.  I have already discussed the issues that surround God’s nature.  What Jones prescribes is a historical cataloging of events and asserting that God is the author of these events.  I see no substantive difference between that exercise and the one undertaken by Cone.  The former would probably sound better and perhaps seem more reassuring to those who thirst for objectively right answers in the quest to know God.  The latter is more unsightly, but more honest.  An assertion or presupposition looks like what it is, an unproved assumption.  This is in stark contrast to a presupposition masquerading as some logically “arrived” at theorem.  These modes of understanding God “no longer work.”[xxxviii]

Anderson falls into a similar trap.  I believe that Anderson needs black theology to be like the Theory of Everything in science.  A theology can be contigent and still be just as efficacious as the faith of the slaves.  Cone puts forth the notion that black theology is about the liberation of black people from the oppression of white people.  Anderson, for his part, begins to speak about idolatrous symbolism and performative contradictions.  I find the arguments well constructed within their limited scope but ultimately unpersuasive.  Let me begin with ontological blackness.

Ontological blackness is a Tillichian construction conceived by Cone that connotes the ontological reality of black people in relation to whiteness.  By whiteness, I mean those Dysonian (Ha! Finally had a chance to drop that word.) economies of whiteness that pervade American civilization:[xxxix] the oppression resulting from unprincipled hegemony and power in these economies define blackness.  Anderson calls this a weakness because if the oppression should stop the Tillichian symbol would vanish and with it “black” people.  I say to this, “So what?”  Even if the symbol is completely idolatrous and living in sin, as it were, that doesn’t mean that once oppression ends, black people will disappear as if the Rapture were upon us.  That symbol blackness deserves to die, venerably of course, but still be dead and gone nonetheless.  We would need a new way of understanding ourselves because we would be those “new beings” Cone wants us all to become. I can kill the Gods of Theism and Deism as well as the no-God of atheism and still have a living God that centers my existence.[xl]  Why?  I have the Tillichian “Ground of Being” (“ultimate concern” is too meaningless for me) to signify my God.[xli]  Why wouldn’t the same be true for black people?  Our selves would be in a new context and thus should be given new names and languages with which to speak about us.  So Cone’s idolatrous “violation” where the symbol overtakes the reality is neither tragic nor “bracketed.”  I’m skeptical of anyone creating a theology that would remain forever as if it is unchanging and God-like enough to be eternal.  We all surely know what freedom is not, but I do not know what true freedom is and I’m skeptical of anyone who claims to know it when they haven’t experienced it.

I find Anderson’s negative assessment of the lack of transcendental possibility in Cone’s theology eschatologically naïve.  Christianity is a faith whose eschatology varies widely depending on the “sophistication” of the believer and her accepted theology.  I, for one, do not believe that Dragons and Horsemen will come at the end of the world.  I don’t believe in a Heaven “up” in the sky and a Hell “down” in the bowels of the earth.  Yet this has been wrapped up in the eschatology of my faith for millennia.  Somehow I have managed to find transcendence based on a reinterpretation of the coming of the Kingdom.  Changing times require a changing faith but it still can produce transendence.  I know we will be free for one thing.  The rest is unknown, and frankly, unnecessary to know.  We will cross that bridge when we get there.  Right now, getting there is the issue.  This is the reality of Cone’s theology: Get black folk to liberation and then let Liberation take care of itself.  Surprisingly, Anderson misses this point.

Jacquelyn Grant has a problem as well, but her problem is actually shared by all black theologians including Cone.  It is the “scandal of particularity.”  I am instantly dubious of any ideology, theology, or philosophy that speaks of the necessity of God being on anyone’s side as if they are tuned into the God Channel complete with unmediated revelation.  The particularity carries great risks.  We are driven to the dangers and horrors of a personal God who does the bidding of His believers.  I view the need for people writing themselves into existence because of their unacknowledged oppression in the same way.  I agree the Grant should write women into existence and visibility in black theology, but she hasn’t really dealt with the particularity.  She merely reduced it somewhat.  This narrow, self-centered understanding of The Good is why white feminists do damage to women of color all the while working against male sumpremacist oppression.  More generally, the Dysonion economies of whiteness can be transformed into the economies of maleness or American-ness or capitalist.  All we need is the right context with the right players.  However, it’s difficult to get around the category of human being.  Human rights and human dignity, if protected, should be the locus of our concern.  Jesus taught us to love each other without regard for anything.  Bishop Spong called it, “loving wastefully.”  Why should we limit this?  Anything less can be twisted to allow oppression to be perpetrated by the oppressed, e.g. black men against women.

Cone’s Theology and the Possibilities

There are many perspectives with which to look at black theology.  One choice affects whether the view is pleasant or not.  I have come to respect Cone’s thinking and the faith that he holds, which shouts the phrase “Black is beautiful!”  I wish to critique his theology from a position of understanding and respect for its value.  Hopefully I will be true to his faith not my standards or understanding or rules.

My first criticism is the clear emphasis of a personal God.  For reasons already stated, this is a grave error in a world where black people march inexorable toward freedom.  A God for blacks and against whites is the fraternal twin of the God of the Curse of Ham and of slaveocracy.  It allows us to objectify and dehumanize and therefore hate.  This is precisely what whites do to us when they oppress us.  When we have such a God, we can allow ourselves to forget compassion, which is crucial to humane relations between people.  A God that allows black people to be, but leaves out compassion even for whites is destined to makes the ending of oppression more about vengeance than restitution, retribution than reconciliation.  Theoretically, the personal God is problematic as one must demonstrate the lack of arbitrariness in describing God.  With black theology, the God is collapsed onto issues of racism.  The other sensibilities of sexism and heterosexism are only relevant within the context of race, i.e. black women, black gays, and black lesbians.  Black theology is blind to any innovation or improvements that might come from a white source.  After all, revelation can only come from the liberation situation[xlii] and whites need no liberation.  God favors and can only be known through black people.  This theology flies in the face of some of the basic lessons of Jesus taught us and is a distortion of the faith of the slaves.  It’s interesting to note that the black church and black theology are both rooted in the faith of the slaves.  The open, evangelical message of the black church is more in tune with Jesus’ open message, (although calling Gentiles dogs does make for a particularity argument).  Black theology is an amplification and appropriation of the God of the Hebrew Scriptures.  As Christians, this is also problematic because Jesus message is paramount.  “But what I say to you is this…”

Black theology also has a deficit of relevance for many classes of blacks today, particularly those in higher economic ones.  What does this theology have to say about relations between say, the CEO of American Express, and the white mailroom worker?  Here we have a black person in a position of enormous relative power what does black theology have to say about this?  It turns out to be very little, although Cone is saying more.[xliii]  The classical formulation is woefully inadequate to the situation.  West has alluded to using Gramsci to fill in the gaps.  Instead of seeking inclusion in the American capitalist system, black theology with a sensitivity to the problems of class, could seek true liberation and offer a more cogent and effective critique of our civilization.

New Possibilities

Charles Long tells us, “Theologies are about power, the power of God, but equally about the power of specific forms of discourse about power.”[xliv]  The creation of these opaque theologies are an existential battle in a struggle with the economics of invention, representation, and articulation: Who gets to say what about whom, and where and when they wish to do so.  What is uplifting about black theology is that it is able to slowly wrench this power of privileged knowledge, etc. from the hegemonic parties.  This makes the opaque theologies so valuable.  In this way, it is a very authentic articulation of the slaves’ faith.  It is true to its roots.  Stuart Hall said, “An articulation is…the form of the connection that can make a unity of two different elements, under certain conditions.  It is a linkage which is not necessary, determined, absolute, and essential for all time…The ‘unity’ which matters is a linkage between the articulated discourse and the social forces with which it can, under certain historical conditions, but need not necessarily, be connected.”[xlv] By this definition, black theology is thus the articulation between the primordial slave faith and the black revolutionary consciousness born out of the civil rights movement. Long continues about power, “These discourses are about the hegemony of power—the distribution and economy [emphasis mine] of this power in heaven and on earth—whether in the ecclesiastical locus of a pope or, more generally since the modern period, the center of this power in the modern Western world…It is clear that the opaque theologians do not wish to extend either this meaning or this structure.  It is the intent and structure of theology as a mode of discourse that is at stake at this point (emphasis mine).”[xlvi]  This is where black theology meets its limits.  Because of the problems in the structure and intent of black theology, black women were overlooked, rendered invisible, and their oppression ignored.  In order for black theology to flourish it must also be watchful that it doesn’t perpetuate that which it intends to overcome and destroy, evil in the form of oppression.

Black theology holds great promise if it can let go of these structures that can perpetuate hegemonic evil in reconstituted forms.  Long states, “The opacity of God forms a discontinuity with the bad faith of the other theological modes.  There is a theology of accusation and opposition which is the fore in the theologies of the opaque.  But it is precisely at this point that these theologies should not move forward to possess the theological battlefield wrested form their foes (emphasis mine). It is at this point that these theologies opaque should become deconstructive theologies—that is to say, theologies that undertake deconstruction of theology as a powerful mode of discourse.”[xlvii]  What Long is saying is that now that these theologies have reached a certain level of development, these opaque theologians must move to deconstructing the power of theological discourse in general, for them and the hegemonic camp.  These theologians have wrested power from the hegemonic camp and have the force to articulate themselves and their theologies.  By switching to a deconstructive modality in theological discourse, they prevent the perpetuation of oppression and evil by not taking over where the hegemonic camp left off.   After all theologies are about power and their discourse is intimately connected to the economies of invention, representation, and articulation.

“The resources for this kind of deconstructive theology are present in the histories and traditions of those who have undergone the oppressive cultures of the modern period.  It means that attention must be given in a precise manner to the modes of experience and expression that formed these communities in their inner and intimate lives.”  This is as I understand it, the meaning of the course “Race, Religion, and Critical Theory.”  To find the resources (understanding of oppression) and traditions (chanted sermon spirituality) that are grounded in black religion and culture that in turn have something to offer the world (insight into God from the perspective of the lowly and downtrodden).  I will now try and elucidate how black theology can (and probably will) accomplish this.

First, black theology must reject a particular personal God.  Not only will this allow black theology to reconcile itself with the black evangelical church, it can speak to believers in exile.  These are believers who cannot believe in a cosmic Mr. Fix-It or an Old Man Upstairs, but can understand a God beyond Theism.  This will be a non-personal, non-anthropomorphic God who can be thought of clumsily as the Ground of Being.  This Ground of Being is moving in the midst of a community of believers, us.  This God can’t be contained in phrases like “for black people” or “against white people.”  It’s impossible to prostitute that which cannot be handled and therefore defiled.

Second, black theology must continue to emphasize the importance of communal faithfulness.  The slave were faithful and endured tremendous suffering because they found hope for themselves and for the unborn generations to come.  To work for the welfare of people you will never see in this earthly life is one of the most selfless acts a human being can make.  But this value that has been within our community must be worn as an adornment for the world to see.  We must open up the possibility for white, red, yellow, brown brothers and sisters for inclusion in that communal sharing.  We must begin to extend blackness to all if they are willing to accept the responsibility that comes with it:  brotherhood, sharing, faith, community.  It need not be “official.” As if someone could say, “OK.  Now you have permission to say the n-word, dance on beat, and title yourself Brother or Sister.”  It means that blackness is a beautiful expression of humanity in our world.  If people are open to it, perhaps they can learn something from it and let it plant something good in their soul.

Third, black theology should take West’s advice and get real about oppression in America.  Racism is only part of the picture.  Our theologians need to speak to people to enable them respond intelligently when evil rears its ugly head.  If there is one thing I learned from our session with Bobby Seale, it was knowledgeable, disciplined action is so very powerful!  Our theologians need to prepare us to be a light unto the world in this fashion.  We have to battle an unchecked liberal capitalism, a self-centered individualism, a repugnant heterosexism, a (dare I say it?) a pie-in-the-sky socialism (Prof. West forgive me!), and every other “ism” that threatens or diminishes Life.  Life is precious, we should treat it that way.  There are lessons to be learned and theologians are in a position to teach them.

Conclusion

James Cone, the Father of Black Theology, has given the world a tremendous gift with great potential.  It is up to us to take it and put it to good use.  We must do the maintenance work, take if for a tune up now and then, and make repairs when those inevitable accidents happen.  It’s a sturdy vehicle, if we treat it right and use it wisely.  It will give use years of use, until we finally get to the end of the road.  We can get out and start signing “Free at last/Free at last/Thank God Almighty!/I’m free at last.”

Epilogue

I apologize that I couldn’t write more, but I’m not sure of what else I could say that was of value.  I reread this paper and I’m proud of it.  I’ll take the letter grade hit (the usual penalty).  I’m proud of this paper!  I never would have been able to write even 50% of this at the beginning of the class.

Thanks Professor for a great class and an experience I will not soon forget.  I got more out of this class than you will ever know sir.  Believe it.   I thoroughly enjoyed it and hope that you will stay in touch.  Perhaps, we can really start implementing some of those recommendations I proposed!

 

Notes



[i] James Cone, African American Religious Thought (Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), “Black Spirituals: A Theological Interpretation,” p. 783.

[ii] Dwight N. Hopkins, African American Religious Thought, “Slave Theology in the ‘Invisible Institution’,” p. 826.

[iii] Cone, p. 784.

[iv] Ibid., p. 780.

[v] Hopkins, p. 826.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Cone, p. 784.

[viii] Victor Anderson, African American Religious Thought, “Ontological Blackness in Theology,” p. 895.

[ix] Cornel West, The Cornel West Reader (Basic Civitas Books, 1999), “The Historicist Turn in Philosophy of Religion,” p. 367.

[x] Cone, quoted in William R. Jones, African American Religious Thought, “Divine Racism,” p. 850.

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] Cone, quoted in William R. Jones, p. 850.

[xiii] Cone, p. 779.

[xiv] Jones, p. 850.

[xv] Cone, p. 784.

[xvi] Cone, quoted in William R. Jones, p. 852.

[xvii] Hopkins, p. 801.

[xviii] Cone, p. 781.

[xix] Jones, p. 853.

[xx] West, p. 367.

[xxi] Jones, p. 851.

[xxii] Ibid., p. 852.

[xxiii] Cone, p. 785.

[xxiv] Ibid.

[xxv] West, p. 367.

[xxvi] William R. Jones, “James Cone: God, Champion of the Oppressed” p. 855.

[xxvii] Victor Anderson, p. 894.

[xxviii] Ibid., p. 896.

[xxix] Ibid.

[xxx] Ibid.

[xxxi] Ibid. pp. 896-7.

[xxxii] Ibid., p. 897.

[xxxiii] Ibid.

[xxxiv] Jacquelyn Grant, African American Religious Thought, “Black Theology and the Black Woman,” p. 834.

[xxxv] Ibid., p. 844.

[xxxvi] Richard Rorty, Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth, p. 85.

[xxxvii] Karen Armstrong, A History of God (Ballantine Books, 1994), pp. 209-10.

[xxxviii] Ibid., p. 379.

[xxxix] Michael Eric Dyson, The Michael Eric Dyson Reader (Basic Civitas Books, 2004), “Giving Whiteness a Black Eye,” pp. 118-20.

[xl] John Shelby Spong, A New Christianity for a New World: Why Traditional Faith is Dying and How a New Faith is Being Born (Harper San Francisco, 2001), p. 64.

[xli] John Shelby Spong, Why Christianity Must Change or Die: A Bishop Speaks to Believers in Exile (Harper San Francisco, 1998), pp. 64-5.

[xlii] Jones, p. 867.

[xliii] Cornet West, African American Religious Thought, “Black Theology and Marxist Thought,” p. 882-3.

[xliv] Charles H. Long, Significations: Signs, Symbols, and Images in the Interpretation of Religion (The Davies Group, 1999), p. 209.

[xlv] Stuart Hall, “On postmodernism and articulation,” p. 141.

[xlvi] Long, p. 209.

[xlvii] Ibid., pp. 209-10.