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Saturday, February 14, 2015

Black Theology, Black Power, and My Complicity

I have just begun reading James H. Cone’s book Black Theology and Black Power written in 1969, or 1989, or last week, I can’t tell.[i] When he writes about the “rebellion in the cities” (7), I know that he’s writing about the race riots in New York City, or Philadelphia, or Watts, or Detroit, Chicago during the 1960s, but I read it in terms of Fergusson, Missouri. When Cone writes that “blacks are beaten at will by policemen as a means of protecting the latter’s ego superiority as well as that of the larger white middle class” (25) I know he’s referring to what happened to Michael Brown, and Eric Garner and etc…

To read Cone in 2015 is to know that we are not yet living in a post-racial society. The evil of racism is still a part of us. We may have made some progress towards an equal and egalitarian society (though that may be debated), America is still racist.

It does no good to say that we’re not as racist as we used to be – we fought the Civil War to end slavery[ii], we’ve had Martin Luther King Jr and the Civil Rights Movement, we even have a black president. It does no good because “Racism … biologically is analogous to pregnancy, either she is or she is not, or like the Christian doctrine of sin, one is or is not in sin. There are no meaningful ‘in betweens’ to the fact itself.  And it should be said that racism is so embedded in the heart of American society that few, if any, whites can free themselves from it” (Cone, 23). 

That was a provocative – aggressively so – statement in 1969 and it so it remains in 2015. But Cone doesn’t stop there.  He pushes harder:  “all white men are responsible for white oppression” (24).  All. 

In most branches of the Christian faith there is a doctrine of human depravity – sinfulness; while it takes many forms and expressions, the general sense of the thing is that humans, as a whole, are twisted, bent toward sinful behavior. In my denomination we express it this way: “We believe that our first parents were created in a state of innocence, but by their disobedience, they lost their purity and happiness and that, in consequence of their fall, all men have become sinners, totally depraved, and as such are justly exposed to the wrath of God.”[iii] 

And we tend to believe that (or some variation thereof) until we’re pressed on those words “all” and “totally” – especially when it comes to the matter of race. Then we back pedal furiously. 

“While it true that some Americans” we say, “perhaps even some of my ancestors,” (see how honest and forthcoming we’re being?) “were slaveholders or members of the KKK, but that was the past and, besides, neither I nor anyone I know, participated in those kinds of things.  I’m only responsible for my own actions.”

But Cone counters that objection saying, “racism is possible because whites are indifferent to suffering and patient with cruelty” (24). 

And I think that for the most part white Christians in America have become less indifferent to people who are suffering – if we have made any progress since 1969 it may be here, but we are still very patient with their suffering. We are, by and large, willing to be patient in the face of the continued presence of racism. We’re willing to excuse and justify white on black violence; we throw up black on black violence as a smokescreen, a dodge so that we can continue being patient with the presence of cruelty and violence. “Look at how far we’ve come,” we might say. “Be patient. Be calm,” we might say. But while we are keeping calm and exercising this patience, institutionalized racism continues to oppress many millions in our country.  We can be patient because we’re not the ones who are hurting.

Cone quotes the German psychiatrist / philosopher, Karl Jaspers:

There exists among men, because they are men, a solidarity through which each shares responsibility for every injustice and every wrong committed in the world, and especially for crimes that are committed in his presence or of which he cannot be ignorant. If I do not do whatever I can to prevent them, I am an accomplice in them. If I have not risked my life in order to prevent the murder of other men, if I have stood silent, I feel guilty in a sense that cannot in any adequate fashion be understood juridically, or politically, or morally … That I am still alive after such things have been done weighs on me as a guilt that cannot be expiated.[iv]

I am reminded of a song by the band Dime Store Prophets  which included the lines:

I’m not myself
till you are you
if I close my eyes
I’m killing you.[v]

[i] Cone, James H.  Black Theology and Black Power New York: Seabury Press. 1969. 
The paperback version of the book that I have is the 20th anniversary edition published in 1989 with a new preface. 
[ii] That’s not really true.  Slavery ended as a consequence of the American Civil War, but the war was not fought with that goal in mind…
[iv] Karl Jaspers La Culpabilité Allemande (German Guilt) 1948.
[v] The song was inspired by words from Martin Luther King Jr's speech "The American Dream" - June 6, 1961:

"All I’m saying is simply this, that all life is interrelated. And we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny -- whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality."

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