James Cone Takes a White Boy to School: Black Theology and the New Creation

I was a Religious Studies major at a small liberal arts college near Portland, Oregon in the year 2001. One requirement for that major was a course in modern theology, specifically the modern liberation movements. We read impassioned writings about justice from feminist theologians, Latin American theologians, and Black theologians.

Author James Cone and wrestling with Black Theology

James Cone

I must admit that, for an all-white cohort of late teens and early twenty somethings, our college introduction to Black Theology was a painful wake up call. We responded defensively to our professor and especially to our text, James Cone’s book God of the Oppressed. One of the many passages that hit us hard was this:

There is no truth in Jesus Christ independent of the oppressed of the land—their history and culture. And in America, the oppressed are the people of color—black, yellow, red, and brown. Indeed it can be said that to know Jesus is to know him as revealed in the struggle of the oppressed for freedom. (31)

That was hard for us to hear. I remember arguing with the professor with statements like, “The United States has come a long way in race matters since this book was originally published in 1975.” Of course, the sad irony of making that statement in a room full of white students didn’t dawn on me until my professor graciously pointed it out.

Fortunately, my professor’s point was made in a way I could hear. The message sank in, and ever since that class I’ve been struggling to come to grips with white privilege. But I need to be honest. White privilege is really hard to break away from. Segregation is not the law of the land, but make no mistake, the land is segregated. I have chosen to live in a northwest suburb of Chicago, a neighborhood with little racial diversity. My neighborhood is mostly white; we do have some families from India and China. There are no families of African descent.

The United States is still not united. It would be more honest to call ourselves the Segregated States.

We live in a de facto segregated country, which is due to racism. In many ways racism has gone underground, which is evident especially in Chicago. Chicago’s racism is implicit, which makes it easier for white people to deny. Whites want desperately to maintain that we aren’t racist; that we’ve moved beyond racism and that the major problems facing us now are economics. Indeed, there are economic issues in play, but when blacks predominantly live in poor areas over there and whites predominantly live in affluent areas over here, and when we can live day-to-day without interacting with one another, well, we live in a racist country.

“At the heart of the Christian faith,” says Cone in this video interview with Trinity Wall Street Church in DC, “is God taking upon God’s self the suffering of the victim.” It’s a radical message and it’s the same message that I’ve learned from mimetic theory. In Jesus, God becomes the Victim of human violence not just to offer peace and forgiveness in return, but to change the way we relate to one another. Forgiveness and nonviolent justice blend together on the cross. As the theologian Anthony Bartlett says in his fascinating book Virtually Christian, the transformation Jesus offers “arises at the deepest level of the imitative human self, changing the almost-inevitable foundation of human culture in violence to the humanly new creation of self-giving love” (144).

The new creation is about forming new relationships that break down the violent barriers that segregate us from them so that together we do the liberating work that God’s love and justice require.

As a white man living in 21st century America, that justice work is the work of a lifetime, and it’s work that cannot be done alone. We need a community dedicated to racial justice. If you are looking for that kind of community, I would recommend joining me and Anthony Bartlett at this year’s Theology and Peace Conference titled Lynching, Scapegoating and Actual Innocence, June 4-6 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. There are three keynote speakers. Dr. Julia Robinson will be discussing her upcoming book “Race, Religion, and the Pulpit: The Making of Urban Detroit.” (You can listen to my interview with Dr. Robinson on the Voices of Peace radio show here). Reverend Paul Nuechterlein who is a board member of Theology and Peace and is “passionate about dismantling racism, especially through the work of Crossroads Antiracism Organizing and Training.” And Dr. Kelly Douglass will speak about her latest publication, “What’s Faith Got To Do With It: Black Bodies/Christian Souls” which “explores the black body as the key reality where struggle for black identity, faith, and freedom takes place.”

The conference will be a significant event for understanding race relations in the United States and moving our country forward. I hope you can join us by registering here.

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