CHRISTIAN NATIONS AND SLAVE NARRATIONS
To keep up with this series, please read the first post: James Cone’s Relational Theology
In my first post of this series, I took on the burden of showing how U.S. Black liberation theology, and therefore possible all liberation theologies, should be rightfully called part of the emerging schools of relational theologies. Using James Cone as my example for this thought experiment, I looked at how much his earliest writing, the underrated text, Black Theology and Black Power, hid beneath its confrontational and angry tone, a loving God who shared God’s power with humanity. James Hal Cone’s particularly Wesleyan/Holiness Neo-Orthodox [Barthian] understanding of the Creator’s movement in Genesis 1 & 2 allows him and subsequent liberation theologians to do critical power analysis by starting with God in se. By [correctly] locating God’s presence among the crucified persons of history, Cone systematized a theology of God’s love with God’s special election of the oppressed as a fixture. I want to make my purpose for this series clear; this is not an attempt to make liberation theology “palatable” as some Public Relations stunt done in hindsight or reveal anything on my part for Liberation Theology to become “MainStream”; what I intend to do is to look at liberation theologians’ understanding of love and how we continue a refusal to severe our understanding of what it means to be loving from what it means to be just. I am doing this as part of a pushback of what I see frequently being done today in the academy, in churches, and online, with pastors and bloggers wishing to silence voices for justice in the name of being relational [nice & civil], love.
The question I wish to address in this particular post is: What went wrong with James Cone’s revolution? Excuse me if I dismiss the right wing U.S. American politics of the 1980’s with ‘Merica’s several
invasions and overthrows interventions in Latin America and in places like Haiti where a liberation theologian was popularly elected as head of state. Staying in the academic context, James Cone’s awe-inspiring efforts to oust white supremacy were ultimately undone by his own doing. The popular narrative that we hear in seminary is Tillich and Barth neglected Men of Color, James Cone neglected women, and Womanism supersedes both of them. This divide and conquer approach to theology is quite unhelpful for those of us who seek to work for liberation. This approach to theology is part of a White progressive metanarrative that conveniently works to dismiss criticisms of racism and is more than eager to return to the status quo (Tillich and Barth, with a little bit of white Lean-In feminism mixed in). As a Trinitarian, I envision theology and tradition as being done in a circle, with Jesus the Word at the center, and writers, theologians, pastors, bloggers, and laypersons dancing and dialoguing, partaking in Christ’s life, mutually exchanging ideas and our encounters with the Risen King.
Let’s not pretend like our run-of-the-mill mainline Protestant theologian is doing theology by studying the intersections of race and gender too. He’s not using or writing theological works by Womanists or other Women of Color. Studies have shown the POC most cited by white theologians is the late Reverend Dr. MLK Jr. The White Progressive Relational narrative of supersessionism keeps the status quo virtually in tact with a few qualifications. The prophetic challenge made by Cone well over three decades ago goes silently into the night, so one would seem to think. I have been considering Cone as a relational theologian for quite some time, and even presented a paper on it at a regional American Academy of Religion meeting, in dialogue with Womanist and Patristic theologies.
It was not until recently had I took the opportunity to consider James Cone as a theologian of gender as well. I had bought hook, line and sinker to the [false] narrative of how Womanist God-talk overcame Black liberation theology [and therefore shutdown anti-racism critiques via academic derailing]. That was until I read, and re-read over and again Amaryah Shaye’s awesome post Reconsidering Cone: Gendering Blackness. Before you read the rest of this post, please read Amaryah’s post, because this essay is in dialogue with some of her insights. My plan is to move from Amaryah’s points about blackness being gendered into a different direction (or maybe it is the same direction?).
THIS IS A [ANGRY BLACK] MAN’S WORLD
First things first, I am not going to dismiss the criticisms that James Cone’s theology in his early work was patriarchal. In fact, I plan on embracing this weakness as part of this discussion on gender and blackness. With Shaye, I recognize the limitations of Cone’s work, and how Womanist Theology has been offered in the academy as a trump card; Amaryah puts it this way,
“Black women as situated at the intersection of multiple oppressions (race, gender, and class) become the starting point for doing this theology. This move seems to suggest that blackness, which Cone defines as “ontological symbol” and “visible reality”, is limited as a starting place to liberative theology because it is not particularly gendered. It is interesting, then, that womanist theology is often cited as a way of both intervening in and disabling discussions of race, gender, power, and theology which seems to have the unintended effects of recentering white women as proper subjects of gender analysis and black men as the proper objects of racial analysis.”
If you recall, I noted in my previous post for this series that Cone does not believe blackness to be a category that is natural, biologically determined set of traits and personalities. Blackness as a symbol is an orientation towards being in solidarity with the oppressed. If Blackness is indeed a symbol born out of racial and gender violence, then blackness as a way of being, doing and thinking has implications for not only racial performance, but also gender performativity as well.
Let us first start with how James Cone identifies himself before he moves forward with his Christological arguments against White Supremacist Religiousity. In Black Theology and Black Power, Cone says,
“This work, then, is written with a definite attitude, the attitude of an angry black man, disgusted at the oppression of black people in America, and with the scholarly demand to be “objective” about it.”
James Cone’s task for his post-Civil Rights movement theology of love is to form a people. It is in this desire for people-formation, that of a Black Church that practices anti-Racist Christianity that James Cone injects gender into the equation of Black liberation. In another place in BT&BP, Cone claims, “If in this process of speaking for myself, I should happen to touch the souls of black brothers (including black men in white skins) so much better.” (ibid) Another point to be taken away is that Cone locates himself in the United States, and makes sure we know where his anger and love is directed to: “I am critical of white America, because this is my country; and what is mine must not be spared my emotional and intellectual scrutiny.” (page 4)
Black Theology & Black Power is one of a few theological responses written by black male systematic theologians to Black nationalist movements and factions such as the original Black Panther Party for Self-Defense; Two other examples include Liberation And Reconciliation: A Black Theology by J. Deotis Roberts and The Black Messiah by Albert Cleage. As a post-colonial writer, I know that there are a few schools of thought pertaining to nationalisms and how they function in domination systems when it comes to anti-imperial resistance. Ranging from seeing nationalism as cautiously good , to something we should hold with ambivalence, as well as seeing nationalism and the nation-state as concepts that remain necessarily hegemonic and violent. In his essay, “DissemiNation: time, narrative, and the margins of the modern nation,” Homi K. Bhabha writes that the notion of “peopledom” or “the nation” are not historical events or” patriotic body politics,” but remain part of a “complex rhetorical strategy of social reference where the claim to be representative provokes a crisis within the process of signification and discursive address.”
Cone wrote in Black Theology and Black Power to create a national culture that would be be centered in the Black Church. By claiming to speak only for himself, Cone conversely re-positions himself as a representative of the U.S. Black radical tradition. It is difficult for us to conceive of a discourse on national culture where love and hate do not occupy the same psychic space, as Homi Bhabha argues because nation-states need an Other in which to assert their aggression. However, because James Cone adopts Anders Nygrens’ theology of love, whereby God imputes agage-love into creation through the election of Israel and the Incarnation of Christ, there is no need for any hate or bigotry in Cone’s relational theology. Instead, what we have is a revolutionary struggle for the sake of saving the souls of both White Supremacists as well as victims of racism. Cone’s community does not exist for some imaginary, law and order nation-state; it lives and breathes for the Kingdom of God, which is always on the move with the liberating presence of Jesus.
If It Wasn’t For The Womanists
You would think that this Jesus Juke you just witnessed above gets James Cone off the hook for his patriarchal presentation of blackness. NOPE! It is precisely because Cone relies on the rhetorical strategies of Black nationalist movements that Black theology’s sexism must now undergo scrutiny. What I am saying is that it is just not enough [and feel free to vehemently disagree with me in the comments] to say that Cone is in the wrong simply because he excludes black women’s experience from his work. The valuing of inclusion is something that neoliberal institutions such as universities and corporations love to talk about, but they only seem able to talk about inclusion as the end all be all, and not the violent natures and histories of their exclusions.
I have lost count about how many times I have written about negative stereotypes of Black people but Cone defines Black Power as the capacity for black men to not be “poisoned” by the negative tropes White Supremacist narratives have placed on him (page 8). White Supremacist systems demonically sexualizes black bodies while erasing their genders. The purpose that dark bodies serve is to be at the pleasure of their Masters all the while remaining threats to their Masters. I side with Amaryah Shaye’s take on Cone,
“It is precisely because blackness is gendered as ungendered that the violence of violation and exploitation that constitutes black bodies is worked. Instead, of saying Cone’s theology doesn’t have anything to say about gender, we might say that Cone highlights the ungendered nature of blackness primarily through his engagement with blackness as a struggle against the gratuitous violence that visits black bodies on the regular.”
While Shaye is reflecting on A Black Theology of Liberation, I return once more to Black Theology and Black Power with a few examples. Pointing to the economic violence of white racism,
“A black theologian wants to know what the gospel has to say to a man who is jobless and cannot get work to support his family because the society is unjust. He wants to know what is God’s Word to the countless boys and girls who are fatherless and motherless because white society decreed that blacks have no rights”
Enter James Cone’s anachronistic, a-historical reading of black experiences during Jim and Jane Crow law. Cone portrays the black familial experience of one ideal, nuclear family beaten at the hands of White Supremacy, where the black man is unable to be the breadwinner. Reality is from the time of African enslavement on these shores to legal segregation and up until today, black women have always shared the title of “breadwinner.”
Waiting To Exile
Cone also argues that America’s racism is “biologically analogous” to women’s pregnancies, either a country is not racist or it is [he’s arguing along the same lines as Frantz Fanon in Towards The African Revolution]. Fanon’s line of argumentation was that all imperialist nations are racist because the creation of colonies requires racist logic. Fanon successfully makes his case without the need for a gendered understanding of nations. Unfortunately, James Cone epically fails in this regard.
With nationalist rhetoric, the bodies of women are quite frequently used to represent nation-states; this further perpetuates rape culture, and male ownership over the female body. Issues of territorialism, war, and economics come to mind, particularly when we are dealing with issues such as the raping of wives, mothers, and daughters as a tactic for war. Indeed James Cone is at war with White Supremacy, and depends on militaristic language to resist the white supremacist conservative and liberal churches. Denouncing white intellectual arrogance, Cone questions whether white men’s ability to have the answer to the problem of race:
“Why must the white man assume that he has the intellectual ability or the moral sensitivity to know what blacks feel or to ease the pain, to smooth the hurt, to eradicate the resentment? Since he knows he raped our women, dehumanized our men, and made it inevitable that black children should hate their blackness, he ought to understand why blacks must cease from listening to him in order to be free.”
Cone goes on to depict White Supremacy as a system that gave “whites’ freedom to beat, rape, and kill blacks” (41). Cone’s concern for gendered experiences are limited to the extent sexual violence is occurred upon black bodies. While Cone remains problematically silent on violence as particularly gendered, what he does do is names rape culture as part of the experience of black oppression. Part of the problem with the so-called victory of relational theologies is that many white Christians, specifically emergents, feel like they need to relate their experiences to everyone else’s when this should not be the case. For clarity, what I am trying to say is that relational theology is both about God’s interrelation with the world as well as God being All-present mystery. Because human beings are made in the Imago Dei, we cannot fully know how each other feel. To know is not only to be responsible as I wrote in the previous post, but to know that we just will never know the other, and respect others’ boundaries and differences because that is what divine love looks like.
James Cone’s use of Blackness as a religious symbol does come with its problems. If Jesus is essentially black, what does that mean for persons in the Black atheist tradition? Are all blacks essentially theists and religious? I find Delores S. Williams’ Wilderness Experience as a nice corrective to such an Exodus/Nationalist approach. The Wilderness Experience is easily reconcilable with Liberation theology, and may look something like what many theologians call an Exile approach to religion, with Christianity’s natural place as one of radical marginality, and always on the move. This is a Christianity without borders, without an attachment to a nation-state, like the story of Hagar and Ishmael, is a story that is as Williams hopes for “male/female/family inclusive.” Finally because Cone works with Blackness as a symbol, he frees up theology from relying on anatomical and biological understandings of humanity’s original sinfulness, and opens up the possibilities for immense human change through repentance. As a relational theologian, Cone’s theology of gender affirms all human bodies as essentially good.
Next week, in part three, I shall look at James Cone’s theology of the cross and the Culture of Death, and what constitutes Modern-Day lynching in 2014.
If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:
Reconsidering Cone: Gendering Blackness by Amaryah Shaye
Sisters In The Wilderness: the Challenge of Womanist God-Talk by Delores Williams
Deeper Shades of Purple: Womanism in Religion and Society editted by Stacey M. Floyd-Thomas