David Fitch, James Cone: Liberation Theology 1

By David Fitch, Professor at Northern Seminary.

James Cone’s The Cross and The Lynching Tree, although six years old, still has much to teach about living into Christ’s Kingdom in regard to the systemic injustice of racism around us. Cone recently passed away and is recognized as the founder and leader of the black theology movement. Cone’s book is a study in the paradigm of liberation theology and its method.

In what follows I review it as a foundation for why’s and how’s of doing cultural hermeneutics (a course I teach at Northern Seminary). In this two part review, I also point out what I see as lacking in liberation theology (as displayed in Cone) for it to be a truly engaged theology of gospel engagement.

Starting With Black Experience

Cone begins his work of theology with experience: specifically, black experience, specifically black experience in the segregated Jim Crow south, even more specifically the horrific history of lynchings in post Civil War America.

He walks us through the sermons of black preachers, the work of various black artists, singers, poets and writers, unfolding how they understood, felt, and reflected on the terror experienced when a black person was lynched by white mobs. These mobs executed a vengeance on any black person who might be perceived as not obeying the rules of white supremacy over black people and their lives in America.

He uncovers the brutality, suffering, and the doubts—where is God? He uncovers the deep core hatred of white America when its supremacy is challenged.

It is a brilliant excursus in “black subjectivity” (Cone’s words from p.15) and is a necessary read for anyone wishing to understand the history of racism in the United States. Any of us who are white cannot possibly understand our black brothers and sisters apart from reading this horrific history of black lives in America post-emancipation from slavery after the Civil War to post-WWII America.

Cone’s book is a clinic in the first rule of contextual theological method: Go and listen to the voices, uncover the experiences, live into the stories, be with the pain and struggle of your context. Only then, speak the gospel.

Anyone who wants to understand how to engage a context should read Cone’s litany of recited poetry, songs, pictures, photos, and stories by which he paints the black experience of lynching in post Civil War (all the way up to) post WWII white America.

Cone’s goal is “a liberation theology that was both black and Christian at the same time.” But:

…that was not easy because even in black community, the public meaning of Christianity was white (xviii).

In order to free the gospel from its white captivity, Cone must start with black experience—and then go from there.

This is the challenge of contextual theology in general. In N. America, Christians often carry forward a theology forged in the Eurocentric history of Western Christendom. And yet, all of us find ourselves immersed in a host of cultures which are detached from or even ostracized from that history. We must free our theology from its own culture boundaries long enough to speak the gospel afresh to the new cultural experiences in which we are swimming in the west.

The question is always: How do we do this—while being faithful to the gospel that has been handed on?

Reinhold Niebuhr

A major part of the book is Cone’s engagement with the 20th century Christian ethicist Reinhold Niebuhr. Niebuhr was the professor of Christian ethics at Union Seminary in New York whom Cone followed at Union.

Make no mistake, Niebuhr serves as a kind of anti-hero for Cone in articulating the weaknesses of traditional white academic theology.

For those unfamiliar with Niebuhr, he is known for his “Christian realism.” His two main theses are, in Cone’s words:

  1. When people gather in groups, they “are notoriously selfish and have limited capacity to step outside of their interests and see the world from another group’s standpoint. The will to survive is so strong that it transmutes easily into the will-to-power” (40).
  2. Secondly, Niebuhr asserts that the love of Jesus as manifested in the cross is an unrealizable goal in historya state of perfection which no individual or grouping society could ever fully hope to achieve.” Individuals may aspire to love in this way, but this love can have no application to political realities and the policy that must guide them. Instead, we should aspire to a proximate justice” which is basically a balance of power between powerful collectives (71).

The title of one of Niebuhr’s most famous works speaks to these issues: Moral Man and Immoral Society.

In many ways, Cone approves of Niebuhr’s realism. Niebuhr, he says, “helped him understand that moral suasion alone would never convince whites to relinquish their supremacy over blacks. Only Black Power could do that, because power … concedes nothing without struggle (59).” Niebuhr taught Cone that “the white race in America will not admit the Negro [sic] to equal rights if it is not forced to do so…Upon this point one may speak with a dogmatism which all history justifies” (58).

And yet, at the same time, Cone is scathing in his rebuke of Niebuhr’s own distance from the actual suffering of the African American in American life.

Over and over, Cone tells us how Niebuhr could talk about the plight of the black person in America—including giving a brutal assessment of white privilege in America—and then, on the other hand, disappointingly speak with a dispassionate calculating approach to patiently accommodating the evil and solving the problem over time.

Cone asks over and over again: Why the contradiction between Niebuhr’s intellectual positions and the way he actually lived them out?

Cone believed Niebuhr failed “to step into black people’s shoes and “walk around in them…It was easy for Niebuhr to walk around in his own shoes, as a white man, and view the world from that vantage point, but it takes a whole lot of empathic effort to step into those (shoes) of black people and see the world through the eyes of African Americans” (40).

Cone contrasts Niebuhr’s behavior to German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer when he came to Union Seminary (where he overlapped with Niebuhr and they spent time together). Union is just blocks from the historic black community of Harlem. While Niebuhr (like most Union professors at the time) never touched foot in Harlem, Bonhoeffer actually attended Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist church, befriended African Americans, taught Sunday school there, spent time with the children, and immersed himself in the black writers and preachers of the day. And so whereas Bonhoeffer was transformed in his perspective and understanding, then carried this transformation back with him to Germany to fight the Nazi accommodationism of the Deutschem church, Niebuhr could only engage racism from afar—missing all the ways white privilege was shaping his imagination. (For more on Bonhoeffer, click HERE for my take on Reggie Williams’ book on the subject).

Niebuhr could not see what the Jesus of Calvary had to do with the suffering of the black peoples in America. He could never link the cross of Calvary to the lynching tree.

Cone is doing much more than saying we must go be among the suffering to do good theology. No, we must go and be AMONG the suffering to do good theology.

We must experience the questions and the narratives that drive the existence of a people in a place before we go about the task of articulating the gospel and what this gospel has to say in this context. This is one of the profound lessons of Cone’s book. It is an apologetic for the theology I have called elsewhere “organic theology.”

But a brief perusal of Niebuhr points us to another problem in Niebuhr’s theology.

For Niebuhr, power only works one way. Niebuhr has a flat understanding of power. Power is always coercion in one way or another: as seen via government law, police enforcement, competing interest groups pushing, shoving, competing for a win at the table of policy development. The world under the fall is always a contest of power. It is power of one over another.

For Niebuhr, there is no entering the world apart from engaging and participating in this kind of power struggle on the terms of its power. So we have to do things like balancing interests, engaging in power versus power engagements, entering coercive struggles with pragmatic calculations to achieve “proximate justice.” There is no avoiding it. This is the world as it is. We must not be idealistic about the way the world works. This, for Niebuhr (and Cone), is the reality of the fallen world. For Niebuhr and Cone, this is realism.

Of course, Niebuhr’s realism, in this regard, is a not so subtle critique of the Anabaptist position on violence and its commitment to not participate in the world’s violence (more on this later).

Niebuhr’s realism is also, for me, a caricature of how evangelicals engage the world, especially progressive evangelicals. Evangelicals are in essence all Niebuhrians. We see power in only one way. Government, church, special interests, local and national politics, structural relations within a local politics as well as broader national politics, is all the same. The struggle against racism must be one where power is put against power. This is the arena we are given. And this is the world we must deal with. And if we are to engage in justice it must be on these terms. We must enter these power struggles, on these terms, and push for righteousness as ones privileged by a unique relationship (through Christ) with God to see it.

When it comes to working in the world, this not only ends up putting the onus on our activism to make things work—it postures us as coercive in the world. This Niebuhrianism, in my opinion, produces both the evangelical Right and the progressive evangelical left posture in the world.

The problem with this? Entering the world on the world’s terms, using the world’s power to defeat that same power, replicates the structures of that power. It perpetuates oppression in unpredictable directions.

It is true that Niebuhr believes that democracy chastens power, reduces violence, places power towards mutual ends. Admittedly, this is the hope of democracy.

But apart from the Lordship of Christ, can there be a mutuality that does not turn into a me versus you? Will not democracy itself become a contest to win at all cost? Is this not what democracy has proven to be in the age of Trump?

Speaking as a white man, I am often tempted to bring my privilege and power to the struggle for righteousness. Given the history of white supremacy in the West however, it is questionable whether this is helpful. In the words of Black Panther Fred Hampton “some people say you fight fire best with fire, but we say you put fire out best with water.” The white person then best uses his/her privilege to stand alongside the oppressed, lend this privilege to amplify and visible the plight of those under injustice.(I’ve learned this lesson from some of my students at Northern Seminary)

Using the coercive power of the world that is already being used by the oppressor, we, in essence, do to the oppressors what the oppressor has done to the oppressed. It becomes violence against violence—which, in essence, accelerates the violence, which, in essence, destroys the possibility for reconciliation and the creation (by God) of something new.

Niebuhr’s realism never comes to grips with this dynamic (power is flat for him). Like many progressive evangelicals I know, Niebuhr lives under the illusion that “we” are the ones who can use “power” for good. The problem isn’t the power in itself, it is the ends towards which it is being used.

But this is the foundation of every war perpetrated by privileged power.

Niebuhr did recognize that white privilege won’t give it up without a struggle. What he did not realize is: This is a losing game. (Cone also realized that Niebuhr’s “balance of power” doesn’t work when marginalized groups have no power p.71).

The Promise of Cone

The Lynching Tree teaches us how the “preferential option for the poor” is the beginning of all theology that leads us to the gospel. It illustrates how going and being “among” reshapes our imagination, and finds God at work among the marginalized and oppressed. It is the first step towards a truly contextual theology, no matter what place or context the church finds itself. The question is—what happens from here?

To answer these questions, we have to ask questions like:

  • what is the gospel for this place, this situation?
  • How do we recognize God at work?
  • How does the church inhabit these places for the gospel?
  • How do we bring/cooperate with God’s justice into the world?

This is also the work of Contextual Theology. This is the work we learn and DO in our Doctoral program at Northern Seminary. These are a few of the questions I’ll address in the second leg of this blog post (coming tomorrow) on Cone’s great book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree.

In the meantime, what have you learned about entering your context from reading Cone’s works? How does Cone challenge you in the way you do theology?

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