black theology, James Cone

Understanding Wright by Understanding Cone (2): Cone Explained — How the Media, Politicos, and Others Like Them are Stupid as a Brick and Got it All Wrong

Yes, dear readers, I’m still pissed over this media hyped bullshit surrounding Wright and Liberation theology. There really is no other word for it. Oh, and maybe “stupid as a brick” works also. The thing is, as much as Sean Hannity, the rest of Fox News and other conservatives are to blame, so are the other media outlets. There seems to be an entire breakdown in journalistic ethics, among other things. When a loud voice is lazy, no one can afford it.

I feel some what compelled to explain Cone, so that out of context quotes like such are put back into their context:

Black theology refuses to accept a God who is not identified totally with the goals of the black community. If God is not for us and against white people, then he is a murderer, and we had better kill him. The task of black theology is to kill Gods who do not belong to the black community … Black theology will accept only the love of God which participates in the destruction of the white enemy. What we need is the divine love as expressed in Black Power, which is the power of black people to destroy their oppressors here and now by any means at their disposal. Unless God is participating in this holy activity, we must reject his love.

Remember everyone, nothing is intelligible without context. There must be a frame work to interpret through, literary or historical, otherwise these are meaningless symbols on the page.

The first thing that the media, and others on blogs who simply copy and paste from the pitiful Spengler article, do not seem to grasp the idea of understanding their subject. Ask a theologian who is aware of Cone on a competent level and immediately ontology and Tillichian symbolism will surface. By the way, Cone footnotes Tillich a lot in A Black Theology of Liberation. (You can read up on ‘ole grab-ass here if you need to.)

In A Black Theology of Liberation, Cone makes the claim that Jesus was black. However, this rightly understood means that Jesus is ontologically black today. See the quote below:

If Jesus is the Suffering Servant of God, he is an oppressed being who has taken on that very form of human existence that is responsible for human misery. What we need to ask is this: ‘What is the form of humanity that accounts for human suffering in our society? What is it, except blackness?’ If Christ is truly the Suffering Servant of God who takes upon himself the suffering of his people, thereby reestablishing the covenant of God, the he must be black.

…But some whites will ask, ‘Does black theology believe that Jesus was really black?’ It seems to me that the literal color of Jesu is irrelevant as are the different shades of blackness in America. Generally speaking, blacks are not oppressed on the basis of the depths of their blackness. ‘Light’ blacks are oppressed just as much as “dark” blacks. But as it happens, Jesus was not white in any sense of the word, literally or theologically. Therefore, Alber Cleage is not too far wrong when he describes Jesus as a black Jew; and he is certainly on solid theological grounds when he describes Christ as the Black Messiah.

James Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation, 20th Anniversary Edition, 122-123.

Here is where Tillich comes into play: “Jesus is black” is a symbol – a concrete reality that points or mediates something transcendent. Jesus was a Jew severely oppressed by the Romans. However, if Jesus were in 1970 USA when Cone wrote A Black Theology of Liberation, Cone is saying that Jesus would be black, not white. It was blacks who underwent (and arguably still do) the oppression, sexual humiliation and lynching that are all too similar to Roman occupation and crucifixion.

See? Not that hard. People quoting just need to care to read.

So the implications that follow from such a statement are, that the white church is not following Jesus and in fact, the white person needs to become ontologically black – not in skin per se, remember this is symbolism, but in action (praxis). I’ve heard Cone mention that Dietrich Bonhoeffer would fit the description of an ontologically black while a literal white man. Blackness is not relegated to skin pigmentation, its deeper than that (although those with dark pigmentation find they are oppressed because of their skin in America).

Now, one might say, this merely looks like moving one’s social location, and indeed it is that, but more. Cone has made the argument in class that liberation theology is not responding to the question of believer/unbeliever, but instead oppressed/oppressor. Therefore, the “white church” or “white god” takes on a whole new meaning. And quite honestly, it should. When the white authorities look the other way, or involved themselves, in lynching on Saturday and then on Sunday went to church all dressed up, one would think that would cause quite a stir – to be the oppressor and yet identify as if one is Jesus, the one who was oppressed? That is the wrong kind of scandalous. To such a life style that lives so blindly, liberation theology and the suffering of Jesus is rightly a scandal, a scandal as the cross should be. The status quo is the white god that kills to keep populations down. What kind of Christianity is that? Is that actually Christianity at all?

Now, as I’ve mentioned before, I’m a fan of J. Kameron Carter’s critique of Cone and I think the move that Carter makes puts out a more fruitful ecclesiology. He has a book coming out soon, but for any of you anxious to see some other work, check out Carter’s article “Christology, or Redeeming Whiteness: A Response to Jame’s Perkinson’s Appropriation of Black Theology”:

This brings us to an alternative scriptural interpretation of the meaning of baptism and, thus, an alternative for understanding Perkinson’s claim that the problem of racism “is as deep as the body one inhabits.” That alternative is this: Baptism is induction into a different mode of being in the world, one that surpasses the mode of being whose nodal points are the hegemonic and the counterhegemonic. Christ, under this alternative, does not symbolize the existential possibility of receiving the other into oneself so that one no longer lives hegemonically. He does not symbolize how whites can be “redeemed” by expanding their existential horizons so that “black pain and power [might be] at work” in them. For, in actuality, this is not immersion into the other at all. It is the other being subsumed into the constituting “I,” an “I” that has chosen, in an egalitarian gesture, to expand its borders from being a “mom and pop” store to being a shopping mall. Inhabiting or being received into Christ’s actual body in such a way that one lays no claim to naming oneself and, therefore, in which one holds nothing of oneself back in self-possession-this is what baptism represents in this second alternative. Baptism in this second alternative involves handing oneself over to God in Christ so as to receive oneself back as gift. This is the deeper meaning of Christ’s baptism, which cannot be severed from the event of the Cross.


7 thoughts on “Understanding Wright by Understanding Cone (2): Cone Explained — How the Media, Politicos, and Others Like Them are Stupid as a Brick and Got it All Wrong

  1. DWH,

    I appreciate the collection of information here.

    I would like to ask though, at the risk of being labeled a brick-stupid racist, if perhaps Cone’s and Wright’s lend themselves to misinterpretation?

    I understand the idea of ontological blackness, but what context could make Christian the idea that God should (MUST?) participate in the “destruction of the white enemy”? Or any enemy? Dare we hope that all men be saved, even the ontologically white? There are, of course, the martyrs beneath the altar crying out with their blood for justice but there is also the first-century Zealots who awaited a conquering messiah–wrongly. Even reading charitably much of liberation theology sounds like Zealotry.

    I am fairly comfortable with language that is symbolic, or even language that is passionate about injustice, but is it possible that at least some of the people who have concerns about the Wright situation are not simply racists, but are understandably confused by the way Wright presents his arguments?

  2. Ben,

    I can see you understand some of the tension involved when engaging Cone, especially as one is a white male like me. This is good. I agree with Cone on a great deal, at least insomuch as he displays his concern, frustration, and calls for change. However I have mentioned that I wonder if Cone’s understanding of being is the best way to frame it (hence the mention of Carter who has an ecclesial ontology that I think works better).

    But becoming ontologically black? In some senses, yes. Jesus was a Jew and for the oppressed, not a Roman for the empire. Jesus was for marginalized peoples. Therefore the cares of the church ought to be for those who are on the hurting end. However, there is also in liberation theology, the identification that it is the unbalanced relationship that is the problem. The oppressor should be pitied because they hurt themselves when they oppress and indeed, the oppressor needs to be saved from themselves. But for Cone in the 1970s the concern was about liberating the people, his own people, from circumstances we so easily forget. A radical response was necessary, but zealotry? I’m not sure it was that (although I have mentioned elsewhere I’m not a huge fan of R. Niebuhr where Cone draws from).

    As far as destruction, it is quite prevalent throughout the Old Testament – while some countries are used to punish Israel, those countries will likewise be punished for their oppression of Israel as well. It also is quite prevalent that God stands for the people who are hurting; in the prophets God cares for the widows and orphans, as does the church. So what is really happening in a call for justice? God rights the relationships. God saves oppressor and oppressed alike.

    As far as Wright though? He was preaching to what seemed like an entirely black church – not that changing an audience to include white people would drastically change the content (he I think would still be in the right to mention God’s judgment on America for its evil deeds), however, I think Wright would explain himself more if his audience then was different. Cone has also gone to lengths to explain himself, but you have to read more of him to find it.

    On the other hand, when the people who are complicit in the oppression of another people group engage with the oppressed, in my mind as I myself have tried to do, we who have lived on the side of the oppressor have a long way to travel and much to listen to. Part of oppression is taking someone’s voice away from them; we collectively have silenced many a black generation. We must listen to the anger born out of hurt. Sure each community needs to be intelligible, but I would argue that much of what seems confusing to the white community is not all the black community’s fault. The oppressors fear keeps the oppressed at a distance and maintains contact at a minimum, contact necessary for oppression. We are not always good listeners, especially as we try to live separate lives. Living with other people and getting to understand their context – seeing life from the oppressed view – is necessary for understanding the black community, hence Obama’s retelling of black history in his speech.

    So simply, yes sometimes Cone and Wright can seem confusing because they speak a different language, as it may seem to some. And I can say that clarity has become an important aspect to Cone (he has admitted in class that he has worked very hard on his writing to get to where he is), see the Cone interview on Moyer’s Journal for an example. However, I fault those living in the suburbs when they say they don’t understand or care the inner city. It is the suburbs who have fled and surrounded themselves with wealth. “White flight” is hiding and results in poor communication. I also fault us for thinking that a few sound bites honestly depict what someone says, especially when it comes to theological language.

    We should also not forget that everyone is also at least a little bit racist. Everyone. “Stupid as brick” is for those people who refuse to engage, but whine about racism. Accusing someone else as racist, while you yourself refuses to hear the other person out? Trying to claim the moral high ground over something you have no idea about? Thats pretty stupid and hypocritical. Refusing to hear the black voice and yet condemn them as racist? How is that not itself acts of racism? Cone and Hopkins haven’t been on primetime TV, but 5 seconds of Dr. Wright from years ago constantly is. Making straw person arguments when talking about race, can very easily itself become racist acts – especially when virtually everyone on the news is white. In this case, “stupid as a brick” is me on the internet being perhaps too charitable with my language. Everyone is racist to some degree (but should still always be engaged), nevertheless the level we’ve just now seen in the media and politics is f@#$ed up. When loud people are lazy or racist, no one can afford it because it’ll just maintain the status quo, keeping the oppressor and oppressed in the same spot.

  3. Pingback: Understanding Wright by Understanding Cone: Black Liberation Theology from Cone « flying.farther

  4. Pingback: Exceptionally Unexceptional: The False Notion of American Exception and America’s Special Grace « flying.farther

  5. It seems to me, according to your evaluation of Black Liberation Theology and its ontological nature, what so-called “evangelicals” (both black and white) have traditionally been misreading Cone at large. Interestingly, as you also suggested, people have not been taken the time it requires to interact with Cone’s work. That is, understanding the “social locations” (i.e. philosophical, theological, anthropological, socio-economic,political, etc)which have shaped his thoughts. For example, I was so dissappointed with Thabiti’s evaluation of Cone’s Theology in his recent work “The Decline of African American Theology: From Biblical Faith to Cultural Captivity.”

    Good post David!

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