James Cone, The Persistent Widow, and Theological Responses to Riots

James Cone, The Persistent Widow, and Theological Responses to Riots August 21, 2014

I was profoundly disturbed when I saw the chilling images initially coming out of Ferguson, Missouri last week. Mike Brown, another unarmed black teenager, laid dead in the streets. His mother: crying, pleading. Brown’s father: holding up a sign reading “Ferguson Police Just Executed My Unarmed Son!!!”. Then came the images of Ferguson police’s militarization and brutality in response to protests and unrest. What pained me, in the midst of this, was knowing the inevitability of many—but certainly not all—Christians failing to understand the gravity and lopsidedness of this situation. Yes, the robbing and destruction of stuff is bad but that is not the same as the occupation and destruction of people. I stopped and prayed: “Dear Jesus, please help the church avoid abstract talks of reconciliation & peace that avoid addressing police brutality/militarization.”

The situation in Ferguson made me recall something that James Cone had written in 1975. In the book “God of the Oppressed,” Cone recounts his disappointment with Christian responses to the Detroit riot during the summer of 1967, responses which simply deplored “unrest” and failed to see the fundamental issues at stake. He writes:

I knew that that response was not only humiliating and insulting but wrong. It revealed not only an insensitivity to black pain and suffering but also, and more importantly for my vocation as a theologian, a theological bankruptcy. The education of white theologians did not prepare them to deal with Watts, Detroit, and Newark.

I wonder how much has changed. What in our theological formation has prepared us for Ferguson?

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