Tag Archives: James Cone

Self-Determination.

Today marks the second day of Kwanzaa. Kwanzaa is a seven day holiday celebrated around the world by people from the African diaspora. Ever since I was a fifth grader, I have been aware of this holiday. At that time, my family and I were attending a predominantly Black Baptist megachurch which celebrated both Christmas and Kwanzaa. As a family, we didn’t really celebrate the holiday but I grew to respect people who chose to. One of the laziest criticisms of Kwanzaa is that it is a “made-up” “fake” holiday. If we are gonna be honest, all of our holy days are socially constructed, or “made up” as they say. I would argue what matters not is the origin stories of holidays, but ultimately the values that they teach.

In his significant work, Black Theology & Black Power, James Cone quotes Kwanzaa founder Maulana Ron Karenga and his criticism of Christianity, and the need to “concern ourselves more with this life which has its own problems. For the next life across Jordan is much further away from the growl of dogs and policemen and the pains of hunger and disease” (page 33). In the era of Black Lives Matter, I find Karenga’s words timely. U.S. Christianity, specifically White evangelicalism, has sneered at visions of black liberation for decades. Rather than join the struggle versus mass incarceration and the pre-school to prison pipeline that subjugates an overwhelming number of young black boys, White Christians would prefer to continue to perpetuate antiBlack narratives and politics for the sake of maintaining their power.

White Supremacist myths that continue to oppress Black people include the slaveability and dependent nature of Black souls. In this mythology, Blacks do not like freedom, Black people are servile, they play the entertainer, the really good athlete, the nice Black soldier, the “welfare queen,” or the uncritical “uninformed” Democratic party voter all at the same time. We see these images in the white supremacist media from good liberals at ESPN to the nice establishment conservatives at the Wall Street Journal. Black intellectuals are never seen as unique thinkers, only the black versions of European greats, like Frantz Fanon as the Black Jean-Paul Satre, for example.

These racist myths exist only to justify the current status quo, and to justify the four hundred year legacy of Black enslavement without any means of reparations, justice, or reconciliation. And yet, today is what celebrants of Kwanzaa call Kujichagulia Day, a day to reflect on SELF-INITIATIVE, SELF-RESPECT, AND SELF-DETERMINATION. If our notions of the human involve racist ideas, then I suggest that unfreedom, oppression would be part of our understanding of personhood. This would explain the preferred viciously antiBlack racist anthropological gaze of the majority population here in the United States. However, if one’s understanding of our humanity is that freedom is an inextricable part of our being, then the desire for self-determination shouldn’t be considered anything to be but natural. Over the years in my experience as an educator in a special education program, I have had to re-learn and learn with teenagers with disabilities about the value of self-determination. When working with various students with disabilities, I have learned that autonomy is going to look a whole lot different from one student to the next. For example, for one student who may be higher functioning with a slight learning disability, independence could look like moving away from study helps like dictionaries to newer reading strategies. Or, for another student who may have a significant intellectual disability and motor impairment, self-initiative could look like learning how to crawl and then walk for the very first time with the help of leg braces and a gait trainer. Self-determination isn’t going to look the same for everyone.

This essay is not only a push for the Black community to being more inclusive of people with disabilities in the practice and idea of Kujichagulia, but also to make it (self-determination), the strive towards freedom more contextual and less hegemonic. Such a move would allow us to also make a break away from essentialism that we sometimes see from defenders of Black culture. What if all Black college football players decided to boycott the NCAA until they, and all other student-athletes were paid? Or imagine a world where Black writers didn’t have to be the only ones left to navel-gaze of the history of white supremacy? Hear me out, but maybe what if Black scholars started doing work independent of White theorists and started appreciating the intellectual history and labor of Black people? What if Black self-initiative looks like not needing the approval of Whites, whether they be conservative or liberal or Marxist? We cannot have any form of racial reconciliation or racial justice without first developing a self-respect for our own work in a world where there exists a preferred hierarchy of values.

 

Photo Description:  Photo is a drawing of the 7 Kwanzaa candles, from left to right, 3 green candles, 1 yellow candle, then 3 burgundy candles.  Photo was taken by Katallna-Marie Kruszewskl. found on flickr.  

infant lowly, infant holy

originally posted at Toy Adams’ Imagining Jesus blog

These days, there are a lot of Christians that like to talk about being “Incarnation,” and even to some extent “The Incarnation” itself. There are even some Christians who prefer to talk about multiple incarnations. When it comes to discussions of the Incarnation, we love the neat,cleaner, more respectable adult version, where we talk about Jesus as a Grown-Up, as he is able to walk  with us, talk with us personally. This perspective is a highly individualistic, it is self-centered, and exclusive of children’s subjectivity in the life of The Church.  As a Liberationist and an Open Theist, I am all for defending many (not all) relational approaches to understanding God. During Advent, this is the time where we must affirm God’s openness and freedom in choosing to reveal Godself in Christ Jesus, and at the same time we must affirm God’s particularity, the specific choice that God makes, God’s chosen location and positionality.

Let us not fool ourselves. Almost everyone remembers that famous scene from Talledega Nights, where Ricky Bobby proclaims that he loves to pray to Baby Jesus,. “Dear Lord Baby Jesus, we’d also like to thank you for my wife’s father Chip. We hope that you can use your baby Jesus powers to heal him and his horrible leg. It smells terrible and the dogs are always bothering with it” or “Dear Lord Baby Jesus, lying there in your…your little ghost manger, lookin’ at your Baby Einstein developmental…videos, learnin’ ’bout shapes and colors.” The hypermasculine shaming by our general culture was not the beginning of neglecting Baby Jesus as LORD. That all began when Christians throughout history appropriating philosophies that were inconsistent with the idea that YHWH himself became a child. In his book, In the End—The Beginning: the life of hope, Juergen Moltmann notes that the greek words for slave and child have the same root, that even the inspired New Testament authors use the term “childlike/childish” disparagingly (Luke 7:32/1st Corinthians 14:20, for ex.).

Unfortunately, Moltmann does not extend this logic to the Advent image of the Trinity, Mary our Theoktos, her husband Joseph, and Baby Jesus in the manger. In this lowly infant, God has once and for all united divinity with the class of human beings on the lowest rung of the social hierarchy. Children cannot speak. Babies cannot change themselves, feed themselves, OR WALK! Christians desire to solely talk about Jesus as an autonomous, able-bodied male-privileged Jewish subject. The idea that God was dependent upon a woman to nourish Him (in the womb) for His well-being is offensive to us. There are some Christians caught up in debating how the Son of God really could not become a human zygote because that means he was unconscious, and therefore could not reciprocate the love of the Father. This abstract and meaningless debate is one in which God’s sovereign choice at choosing risk and vulnerability is ill-recognized.  If the Church Fathers and Mothers agreed in line with the Gospel narratives that the Second Person of the Trinity did indeed become FULLY human, then the Son experienced fully and completely all things involved in human development and growth. As the Gospel according to Luke informs us, Jesus grew in both WISDOM and STATURE (Luke 2:52).

In agreement with James Cone, we as The Church must recognize continuity between the historical Jesus and the Christ of the creeds. God in the hypostatic union has reconciled marginalized humanity and emancipatory divinity. “For [the early church], Jesus is certainly a unique person, but the uniqueness of his appearance reveals the Holy One’s concern for the lonely and the downtrodden,” argues James Cone in A Black Theology of Liberation. By starting from the bottom-up, God’s salvation works for the benefit of all: God’s Triune love travels from least of these all the way to the top in order to raise up all of humanity at the New Creation (some people will choose judgement, others, reconciliation).This is the logic of the Resurrection, a theo-logic that finds itself as the result of the Incarnation of YHWH as Holy, Lowly Infant.

Following the arguments of the late Clark Pinnock, I can co-sign on the idea that Scripture presents us with a paradox of strength and vulnerability. “Though ontologically strong, God can be vulnerable because of the decision to make a world like this. The Lord of the universe has chosen to limit his power by delegating some to the creature. God gives room to creatures and invites them to be covenant partners, opening up the possibility of loving fellowship but also some of the initiative being taken away from God and creatures coming into conflict with his plans”- The Openness Of God: A Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God. Clark Pinnock gets the general description of God’s nature basically right but what his analysis ignores is the particular circumstances that YHWH reveals Godself. God invited the Hebrew children that YHWH delivered from Pharaoh to be covenant partners first. God chose to covenant with King David, Israel’s greatest king, to be God’s specific vehicle for the Logos’ embodiment. The loving fellowship that YHWH invites humanity to partake in is the story of the Law, the Prophets, and the Wisdom writings: the very narratives that reveal YHWH’s justice & preferential option for the widow, the stranger, and the poor. 

This Advent season I have also been working my way through Richard Wright’s Black Boy. Black Boy is Richard Wright’s autobiography about his childhood, or his lack thereof. It is a miserable tale in many instances, with stories about the brutality of an impoverished life, White supremacy, and religious fundamentalism. Wright shares a story of one Christmas day where he received nothing but an orange, and he describes the pain he felt while all the other kids in his neighborhood were playing outside, having fun. It was experiences such as these that taught Wright how to live in solidarity with those who are afflicted. “The spirit I caught had gave me insight into the sufferings of others, made me gravitate toward those whose feelings were like my own, made me sit for hours while others told me of their lives, made me strangely feel tender and cruel, violent and peaceful” (chapter 3).

The title Black Boy itself is filled with irony IMO.  When Black men are referred to as “boys,” it is an insult going back to African enslavement. Black people were/are considered to be at the bottom of White Supremacist hierarchy. On one hand, “boy” is pointing towards Wright’s experience of oppression under Jim/Jane Crow imperial domination.  On the other hand, “boy” is also being reclaimed with Wright taking back his ownership of his own childhood and his own story in spite of being robbed of it by organized religion and structural injustice. I am now contending that we Christians do a reclamation projection of our own, that of revisiting this notion of the Divine Baby more than once a year, to allow God’s choice for risk and vulnerability to define God, and not our own speculations. Once the Church returns to the childhood of the Triune God, we will be better able to join in the bottom-up Resurrection movement of the Logos. 

To “Safeguard the Nation”: Redemption, Torture, and #BlackLivesMatter: Advent Reflections

Timothy McGee is a doctoral student in systematic theology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, TX.

The Midtown South branch of the NYPD recently tweeted (and promptly took down) an image of Jack Nicholson playing Col. Jessup in A Few Good Men, along with the full quotation that begins with the famous line, “you can’t handle the truth,” and includes the troubling statement, “You have the luxury of not knowing what I know, that Santiago’s death, while tragic, probably saved lives. And my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives!”

Posted two days after more than twenty-thousand people marched in New York to protest the killings of unarmed black men and women, this quote reveals the deep cultural as well as material connection between the military and police, such that the defense of one institution serves as the identical defense of the other. It thereby also reminds us that the domestic killing of unarmed black men and women should be connected to the international killing of unarmed civilians via drone warfare, and the torture of “enemy combatants” held in secret CIA detention centers overseas.

The reasoning provided by Jessup and quoted by the NYPD was recently repeated, even more callously, by Dick Cheney. Cheney argued that he was fine with the brutal treatment of innocent detainees as long as the objective of “saving lives” was fulfilled. No tragedy even, as long as “we” triumph.

The redemptive logic displayed in the tweet and defended by Cheney collapses the notion of “saving lives” into a larger project to “safeguard the nation.” It is not simply empirical individuals whose existence has been threatened but a whole idealized mode of life that has come under threat. What ultimately connects the militarization of the police to the imperialist policing of the world by the military is the sense that “America” is under attack and its salvation requires an increasingly violent response.

Talal Asad, an anthropologist and post-colonial theorist, has pointed out that Western Christian and secularized understandings of redemption have always been accompanied by a kind of cruelty or disregard for human life. The goal of redemption is to bring out the potential humanity of those not fully human others—whether poor black urban youth or Arab Muslims—and to contain and extirpate (culturally or biologically) those internal and external inhuman others who refuse and resist being “humanized” or redeemed by the West.

The current population self-identified with this redemptive project of humanizing potential human others, that is, the middle-class white U.S. citizen, is facing a crisis of legitimacy that it perceives as a threat. No longer able to sustain the fiction that its own interests are the nation’s best self-interests let alone the self-interests of the human species as a whole, it interprets this loss as attack or threat, doubling down on the myth of “American awesomeness” in the face of torture reports, police brutality, economic downturn and instability, racialized and gendered violence, and the increasingly strained position of the U.S. as the political and economic leader of the globe.

In face of the realization that its power and prestige cannot be assumed, the salvific defense of this class and its self-interests turns violent. If torture or the shooting of unarmed black civilians happens, these are simply, at worst, tragic necessities so that this threatened way of life—America—can continue. And it must continue, it must be saved, for it, in fact, is what redemption means. As the Jamaican essayist Sylvia Wynter has argued, human redemption has become materialized and now simply is entrance into the cultural mode of life defined by and structured for the sake of white, middle class America.

These tremblings of an Empire and its way of life are happening during Advent, a time in which we Christians remember that the prophesied birth of the Jewish Messiah sent the ruling elite of another Empire into a murderous, genocidal tirade. The “tragic sacrifice” of innocent life was deemed necessary to preserve the structures that would ensure global peace, the Pax Romana. But beneath and against these tremblings of Empire, other forms of life were emerging. In the language of the Gospels, the Kin(g)dom of God was breaking in, not in the pompous glory of power, but in the birth of a child in a stable, welcomed by poor shepherds and foreign wise men.

In the opening of Luke’s Gospel, Mary praises God for granting her the honor of mothering this Messiah. She sings,

 

He has shown strength with his arm;

    he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.

 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,

    and lifted up the lowly;

 he has filled the hungry with good things,

    and sent the rich away empty.

 He has helped his servant Israel,

    in remembrance of his mercy…

If we white U.S. Christians cannot echo Mary in this song of praise, it might be that we are more interested in preserving our self-proclaimed role as universal saviors than in embracing the form and mode of life in which Jesus of Nazareth actually came, and into which he continually calls us. On the other side, I can think of no better summary of Mary’s song happening today than the refrain Black Lives Matter. Not all lives matter, but black lives matter, for in a very biblical way, we do not seek to include the part into the whole—the covenant with Israel into creation, the Jew into the Gentile, black lives into all (human) lives—but constantly challenge the proposed whole for the sake of the part: creation for the sake of covenant, Gentiles grafted into Israel, and all lives matter only because black lives matter.

Perhaps then, as one marcher in New York wrote on a sign, the black liberation theologian James Cone was (and is) right, and the Gospel can and still should be summarized for us today as “Jesus Christ is Black.” A Black Christ is not antithetical to us white people. Christ is, however, quite clearly opposed to the redemptive violence unleashed against non-white bodies at home and abroad for the sake of saving what our bodies represent: the form of life that falsely claims to enact, bring, and secure the peace that will redeem or humanize all peoples. Against this redemptive life we too must learn to shout and hope and pray and live and act and work so that God’s kin(g)dom will come and Shut It Down.