Tuesday, May 13, 2008

liberation and reconcilation: white man's religion and black oppression

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 Clawson as best I can. Unfortunately, I haven't read Cone's book so I'm at a bit of a loss. I have read all of Julie's post and have invited her to further dialog here about the issues.

Cone's Words:
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 Clawson's excerpt. I would like to know what role she plays in "Christianity" today. I read her entire post and I entirely agree with her overall sentiment. Christians should be the first to apologize for the sins of our past before God and the world. With that said, I think she completely oversteps her bounds by portraying Christianity as wholesale “toxic.” If she is actually involved and serving at a church I will try to hear her, but if she stands on the outside throwing stones condemning the ignorant little Christians then I have little respect for her comments.

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 America where a black man is likely the democratic nominee for president it is clear that people have come a long way. A large part of this change has been a result of faithful Christians. Does that mean I’m not still in need of repentance? No. My question is how do we define for what we are supposed to repent? Also, who is the “we”? Christians have been guilty of an awful lot in history. Do we repent of the sins that only our tradition has played a part? Do we as Christians repent of the sins of America even if we vehemently disagree with its actions? If so what does this look like?


Benjamin Ady said...

not to speak for Julie or anything, but I think if you hang around her a while, you'll find that you and she probably agree on more than you disagree on, and beyond that I think you'd like her if you met her in person =)

And she's part of doing a church plant right now, so she's definitely on the inside, rather than the outside =)

wonky73 said...

For what I consider an excellent passionate biblical take on Cone's theology I'd recommend the mp3 here http://www.aomin.org/aoblog/index.php?itemid=2658
from a friend of mine.

Unknown said...

I think we do agree on quite a bit. I probably should have been more clear about that. I totally agree with the point she makes in her post. I disagreed with some of her criticisms of the church. Really, its not that we "disagree" so much as I would probably say things in a different way. I'm glad to hear that she is part of a church plant and looking forward to hearing more about what that looks like. I'm sure I would like her. I liked her blog thats why I'm encouraging dialog.

Julie said...

hi - Thanks for inviting me to comment. You ask some great questions here and deal with the difficult nuances of the issue. As Benjamin mentioned (thanks), I am very much "within" Christianity as I have been my whole life. I've worked in the church and currently am helping lead a church plant in the Chicago area.

I'm not quite for sure where you think I am calling all of Christianity toxic. I don't at all see the whole enterprise as evil or harmful. But I do see elements and pockets of it as such. Sometimes those toxic pockets are existing right alongside amazing works of good, but that doesn't negate the fact they caused others harm and misrepresented Jesus.

It is hard to know what things as a Christian I should repent of. While I am reaping the benefits of certain parts of toxic Christianity which I should do my best to repent of and help rectify, there are other issues that are less clear. If some freak beats, molests, and warps children in the name of Christianity - what has that to do with me? But I have discovered that to outsiders looking in i am associated with such acts by my claim to the same faith. If I feel like I am above apology or trying to combat such bad biblical interpretation, I continue to be seen as complicit in those acts. My duty to love others and to serve Christ demands that I humble myself to rectify wrongs I had nothing to do with and apologize for a brother I want nothing to do with. My pride can't stand in the way on love.

Unknown said...

I think we mostly agree on this issue. We ought to repent of the sins of our fathers and mothers in the faith. I also agree that there are "toxic" pockets right alongside the good works that define what it means to follow Jesus. I guess what I would question is the tone of some of your post. It sounded more condemning than repentant.

I'm glad to hear your critique is from "within." One challenge I might offer as someone who doesn't really know you or what your doing. Find older people in the faith who and are less progressive and live life with them.

I tend to find that it is easy for me to be theologically comfortable with people just like me, but when I spend time with older Christians I get frustrated and challenged. I remember that knowing the right thing isn't doing the right thing and visa-versa. Just a thought.

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