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Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Black Theology and the Centering Quality of Whiteness

My good friend, Austin McCoy, wrote my blog post for this week despite an extremely busy, grad-school schedule. He’s one of the smartest guys I know and, in this post, delivers some powerful, prophetic words for all of us to hear:

“We see the broad and deep acres of history through a mental grid…
through a system of values which is established in our minds before we look out on to it—
and it is this grid which decides… what will fall into our perception”
– Werner Stark

In the preface to what many consider James Cone’s magnum opus, God of the Oppressed, Cone writes:
More often than not, it is the theologian’s personal history, in a particular sociopolitical setting, that serves as the most important factor in shaping the methodology and content of his or her theological perspective.
Cone’s history began in the late 1930s in Bearden, Arkansas. Born a black man into a legally segregated American South, Cone knew from the beginning what it meant to be black. Cone admits at the start of his theological project that he, along with every member of the A.M.E. congregation he attended as a child, “read the Bible through the lens of a black tradition of struggle.” Cone’s blackness is the situation he finds himself in when he does theology. It is Cone’s blackness that informs his theology. He writes: “What people think about God cannot be divorced from their place and time in a definite history and culture.” 

This concept of the social determination of knowledge and theology is the foundation that Cone builds his work upon. The social basis for Cone’s theology as a black man is rooted in the history of white European Colonialism and the oppression of blacks through slavery. The enslavement of blacks meant that being forced to work in the fields stripped them of the time, energy, and resources to theorize God into abstraction.  It meant that their theological education didn’t include Augustine, Calvin, or Luther. Black slaves were not informed in their theological worldview by western currents of philosophy and reason. The black religious tradition was based in the black experience—defined by the struggle for liberation and maintaining their identity as human beings in the most inhumane of circumstances. In Cone’s words: 
Blacks did not ask whether God existed or whether divine existence could be rationally demonstrated…. The divine question which they addressed was whether or not God was with them in their struggle for liberation…. Jesus was not an abstract Word of God, but God’s Word made flesh who came to set the prisoner free.
Thus Cone lists the sources of Black Theology: scripture, tradition, and the black experience. These three constitute what Cone calls the “social a priori” or “social matrix” of Black Theology. Each of these three are inseparably connected and each inform the other. Within this social matrix, Cone read Scripture and saw within it the arc of God’s justice and will to liberate the oppressed. Cone read of God’s liberation of the Israelites from the Egyptians and saw his own black experience within it. Cone read of the prophets who radically opposed the oppression of the poor and weak and saw his own black experience within it. Black men and women have read these stories in this way for centuries. It has been the center of their preaching, their prayers, their stories, and their songs. In the same way that God worked in the concrete sociopolitical setting of the Israelites to liberate them from their oppressors, so too would God liberate them from their bondage. Likewise, in the story of Jesus, black people saw their own experience. Says Cone: “Jesus Christ is not a proposition, not a theological concept which exists merely in our heads. He is an event of liberation, a happening in the lives of oppressed people struggling for political freedom.”


The development of Black Theology is directly related to its relationship with the more dominant currents of theology in the western world. Converse to the sociopolitical setting for Black Theology (social and political oppression), is the world that elicited what Cone calls “White Theology.” Considering that throughout the history of the west the dominant sociopolitical groups were the ones who had the time, energy, and resources for philosophical inquiry—because of their sociopolitical standing, the few established what ought to be considered the primary concern of the many. Because white theologians developed their theological and ethical systems from positions of power, they were deaf to the religious perspectives of the oppressed and created systems separate from those perspectives and experiences. The white experience didn’t include suffering on the social and political levels, so the dynamic of social and political liberation are remarkably absent from the systems developed by the most prominent theologians in the history of the west. 

Cone exposes the particularity of the white theological project, saying, “I knew in the depths of my being that European and American approaches to theology did not deal with the questions arising out of my experience.” Thus arises one of the most significant differences between Black and White Theology. The theologians that Cone read in graduate school were Paul Tillich, Karl Barth, Richard & Reinhold Niebuhr, etc.—all white men. The problem that Cone has with these thinkers was not necessarily the questions they asked or the answers they proposed, but that they did theology as if they were asking the questions that everybody ought to ask. They denied the particularity of their theological concerns and worked for what they considered to be universal.  But Cone asks poignantly:
What could Karl Barth possibly mean for black students who had come from the cotton fields of Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi, seeking to change the structure of their lives in a society that had defined black as nonbeing? What is the significance of Nicea and Chalcedon for those who knew Jesus not as a thought in their heads to be analyzed in relation to a similar thought called God? They knew Jesus as a Savior and a friend…
Perhaps Cone would have had nothing to say about Barth and Tillich if they had prefaced their theological project with an acknowledgement of their social a priori, their social matrix—if they were capable of recognizing that the questions they asked were important almost exclusively to white people in the matrix of political and social domination. But Cone protests: “They do not recognize the narrowness of their experience and the particularity of their theological expressions.” 

Cone expresses in detail that his theological concerns are driven by his particular experience as a black man in a culture of oppression. White theology universalizes. It centers its own perspectives and questions. There is theology (what we do) and then there is liberation theology (what those at the margins do—the ones outside of our theological influences). 

Cone illuminates for us the centering and universalizing quality of whiteness. In American history, the world of white supremacy and privilege didn’t arise out of white theology, white theology arose from the world of white supremacy. The fact that whites have been the socio-politically dominant group from the inception of this country blinded them to the centering quality of whiteness and thus considered their perspectives to be universal. The quality that, blind to other voices, centers its own perspective as the universal voice. (If you don’t think that this is true, ask yourself about the percentage of black teachers in your school, the percentage of black authors you read, the percentage of black elders/members in your church, the percentage of your black friends, percentage of black people you follow on twitter.) It is the centering quality of whiteness that has rationalized and justified the oppression of blacks for hundreds of years. The quality that centers reconciliation (the white imperative) over liberation (the black imperative). The quality that assumes it knows more about what it’s like to be black than black people do  (#AllLivesMatter). The quality that can build a presidential campaign on the notion of returning to a time when America was great (great for who again?). The quality that can dismiss “statistical disparities” in law enforcement, prison population, and poverty as “just the way things are” instead of symptomatic of the still very deep structures of oppression in America. The quality that can call black people’s cries for liberation “divisive.” The quality that assumes that your success as a person is based solely on your individual merit. The quality that assumes it has any right to inform black people how they ought to go about achieving their liberation from the very structures it participates in and benefits from. The quality that reads Jesus’ words in Luke 4:18-21 saying that he has come to give freedom to the oppressed as a spiritual metaphor rather than a political reality. This is the centering quality of whiteness. 

White theologians are doing a better job now than they did when Cone was a student. But it is precisely because of people like Cone that white theologians are beginning to incorporate “marginal” perspectives into their theological plane. 

In the closing chapter of God of the Oppressed, Cone writes, “Whether for us or against us, white people seem to think that they know what is best for our struggle.” This is exactly the centering quality of whiteness that has kept voices like Cone’s at the margins. But as white people, we can use our privileged platforms to elevate and bolster the voices of those who are actually working out what is best for their struggle. We can surround ourselves with voices like James Cone, Christina Cleveland, Broderick Greer, Will Gaffney, and countless other black voices who are leading the public conversation about race in America. Open up your story to their stories and watch as your theological and cultural blinders begin to fall. This is something I am only just beginning to learn how to do.


“The question that theologians must ask is not whether their theology is determined by social interest, but rather whose social interest. The oppressed or the oppressors?” – James Cone

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