My good friend Thom Stark recently started a blog thread called "On White Man's Religion." In the post Thom brings together an excerpt from the black theologian James Cone and another blog from a white woman (Julie Clawson) responding to some comments made at a conference about apologizing for the corporate sins of the past. I would like to represent Cone and
It is unthinkable that the oppressors could identify with oppressed existence and thus say something relevant about God's liberation of the oppressed. In order to be Christian theology, white theology must cease being white theology and become black theology by denying whiteness as an acceptable form of human existence and affirming blackness as God's intention for humanity. (James H. Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation. Twentieth Anniversary Edition. Orbis: 2006, p. 9.)
My initial reading of Cone's excerpt was indignation. I felt like accusing him of reverse racism. I would have liked to check it out from the library, but our library (of mostly white students) doesn't have it. I do, however, think that his opening line is key to what he is saying. If by this he means that is unthinkable for an oppressor to continue as an oppressor while "identifying" with the oppressed then I think he is profoundly correct and that I am in trouble. For all my talk about peace and justice I live a pretty oppressing existence, though I am trying to change. So, my existence as an oppressor precludes me from really preaching the gospel. If this is what he means than here we have a profound truth. I know that some seminaries offer degrees in contextualized hermeneutics. Basically students live in 3rd world countries (for extended periods of time) while doing their Bible classes. The idea is that the experience forces them into a world more like Jesus'. Living in a situation of oppression provides a context to understand the gospel otherwise unattainable. I also think of Paul’s words in Philippians 3.7–11,
7 Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. 8 More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through the faithfulness of Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. 10 I want to know him and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, 11 if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
Paul seems to be suggesting that in order to really know Christ he must move beyond identifying with the suffering servant. He must share in his suffering. Paul is doing more than identifying with the oppressed. Like Jesus (Phil 2.1-11) Paul is emptying himself taking on the very nature of a servant. This nature certainly includes oppression because it is culminated in crucifixion. If Jesus is black according to Cone then so is Paul.
It would be interesting to hear from an oppressed person on how to hear this passage, someone who had actually suffered the loss of all things. The sad thing is that since most of us are oppressed we are guilty of Cone's objection. It might be similar to saying that someone who has never been persecuted has never really witnessed.
Despite Cone’s helpful observation, however, it doesn’t seem like his language is actually helpful to bring about a Christian response. On the one hand, reconciliation between oppressor and the oppressed cannot take place, as Cone might say, by allowing the two to get along under the same conditions. The oppressor must change. On the other hand, reconciliation certainly will not take place by elevating the oppressed to the level of oppressor. Indeed, liberation of the oppressed is not true liberation if the freed captives take others as captives. Cone’s suggestion that theology cannot be white but must be black is itself oppressing and not helpful to actually bring about reconciliation or liberation.
Julie Clawson wrote:
I find it hard to believe that any individual Christian can ever truthfully claim to not have partaken in wrongdoing or toxic Christianity. (just like no white person can ever truthfully claim to not have participated in racial injustice in some form or another). Beyond the fact that just the act of denying responsibility for Christianity’s evils appears as self-centered toxic Christianity to many, most Christians today are living the benefits of Christendom - benefits that came at the expense of others. American Christians are living with the wealth and resources of “Christian” operations like Manifest Destiny and attempts to “Christianize and civilize” other nations (mostly as an excuse to rape their land of it’s resources). The denominations and doctrines we bicker about exist because they were the ones willing to slaughter and torture dissenting viewpoints. Ministries and churches are built (and get rich) on messages of hatred - give money to help Israel kill those Palestinians, or to make sure our students don’t know gay people exist, or to support the IRA, or even fund corrupt dictators and conflict diamond schemes in Africa. It’s hard to be an American Christian and not be connected to some group involved in such things. So even if you have never Bible-bashed, manipulated someone to say a prayer, or burned someone at the stake most Christians are receiving the benefits of toxic Christianity. There is no out of sight out of mind excuse than can work. The connection to wrongdoing is there and if we have compassion at all for those we have hurt, we will take responsibility to apologize if not make amends.
I have a little less respect for
There are two questions I would like to ask out of reading Thom and Julie's blogs:
(1) How does liberation and reconciliation occur simultaneously? Jesus did come to set the captives free (Lk 4.18-20), but he also came to bring bring down the dividing wall of hostility between races and nations and God and men. He came to bring reconciliation (2 Cor 5.16-21; Gal 3.28; Eph 2.11-20). It seems therefore, that a Christian response to oppression must have both liberation and reconciliation in mind.
(2) For whose sins are we supposed to repent? I think “repent” is a more biblical way of talking about apologizing. Apologizing can easily become an exercise in assuaging the guilty conscience of the apologizer. Repentance is an active change of mind and action. Julie, correct me if I’m misrepresenting what you’re saying. Christians are supposed to “repent” of our past sins. My question is how do we define the “our”? In an