What I Learned from Black Liberation Theology

I was introduced to Dr. James Cone through a friend from back home.  I am certain that I will never be the same.  James Cone is considered the foremost theologian in a Christian stream of thought called “Black Liberation Theology”.  Dr. Cone is, more often than not, misunderstood.  Actually its much worse than a misunderstanding, its a refusal to listen (which is, ironically, unChristian).  But I just finished reading Dr. Cone’s two most prominent books:  “The God of the Oppressed” and “The Cross and the Lynching Tree.”

Apparently, Glenn Beck had a long ongoing attack aimed at Dr. Cone.  After reading Dr. Cone and then going back to hear some of Glenn’s remarks about Black Liberation Theology, I am quite certain that Glenn did not read Dr. Cone’s books, which is not surprising given the spin-cycle profession of Mr. Beck (that is aimed at right and left, by the way).  But what Beck and so many others, in my opinion, fail to understand is the foundation of Black Liberation Theology is a confession.  It is not some attempt to grab power or seek retribution.  It is a confession.  Furthermore, it is a confession that we could all stand to make.  It goes something like this.

Our social context, our upbringing, our experiences, our regional location, our time and place in history, our race, our gender – all these things (and more) shade the way we read scripture.  Dr. Cone was raised in Bearden, AR in the Jim Crow South.  Railroad tracks literally divided his town between white and black, rich and poor, the haves and have-nots.  He experienced cross-burnings from white ‘Christians”.  This is merely the tip of the ice-berg of Dr. Cone’s social experience.  And he confesses:

“There is no truth for and about black people that does not emerge out of the context of their experience.  Truth in this sense is black truth, a truth disclosed in the history and culture of black people.  This means that there can be no Black Theology which does not take the black experience as a source for its starting point.   Black Theology is a theology of and for black people, an examination of their stories, tales and sayings.  it is an investigation of the mind into the raw materials of our pilgrimage, telling the story of ‘how we got over.’  For theology to be black, it must reflect upon what it means to be black.  Black Theology must uncover the structures and forms of the black experience, because the categories of interpretation must arise out of the thought forms of the black experience itself.  

What are we to make of the moan and shout and the call to get on board the gospel train?  What must we say about the song, the sermon, the prayer, and the feeling of the Spirit when the people gather for worship and praise to the One they say is ‘a rock in the weary land, a shelter in a mighty storm, and a stronghold in a day of trouble?’… If Richard Wright is correct in his contention that ‘expression springs out of an environment,’ then I must conclude that my theological reflections are inseperable form the Bearden exprience.’ 

Lee C. Camp, a Lipscomb Theologian and Professor of Ethics, and friend, opens his now famous book “Mere Discipleship” with a similar confession.  He calls it “Rose Colored Cataracts”.  He says:

“Imagine a remote hamlet, removed from the rest of the world, in which all the inhabitants were afflicted with a strange eye disease.  Suppose that this genetically inherited disease manifested itself with only one symptom – a strange cataract, which did not blur the victim’s vision.  Instead, the cataract simply cast a rose-colored tint to the afflicted’s vision.  In such a scenario, it’s quite likely that all the inhabitants of that small, provincial village would simply assume that the world is rose-tinted.  So strong, in fact, would be this presupposition – that they world is rose-colored – that the inhabitants of that little hamlet would likely never even discuss it, and certainly never question it!  And anyone who might question such an empirical assumption would certainly be considered a bit strange – if not simply irrational.  What more do you need – you can see it with your own eyes!

But just what if – what if the Christian church looks at the world with some long inherited presuppositions, assumptions so long held that for anyone to question them leaves us looking for a way to get out of the conversation?   What if what has so long been presumed to be ‘common sense’ and ‘reality’ and ‘truth’ is neither true nor real?  Logically, of course, one cannot deny that this may be a possibility.  Thus, each generation of followers of Jesus must reassess our faithfulness to our calling; we must grapple with how our viewpoint and understanding has been shaped by tradition and history.”

The point here is a rather simple one: that your approach to God and life depends on your context. ‘Tradition and History’ shade the way we think about God and approach Scripture.  It is an unavoidable reality.  And, if Lee C. Camp is correct, we have a duty to grapple with that social context.

So I ask you – whoever “you” might be – what traditions, histories, stories, cultures, social contexts shade the way you read Scripture?  Surely you do not claim to have pure interpretation without any ‘shadings’ !?!?

The next thing that I learned from Dr. Cone, came from the life-changing experience of reading “The Cross and the Lynching Tree.”  That is, how closely God identifies with, clings to, and abides with the suffering ones.  Let me say it more clearly:  oppression is always the result of refusing to see the image of God in the ones they are oppressing or killing.  Poor theology is always the source of oppression.  God has revealed himself in a innocent man dying on a tree.  Further he said he is with all those dying such deaths. This is a scandal to the conventional mind.  And it should be.

Langston Hughes, black author and poet, once brought the scandal of this reality to bare in a speech and the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, where he read this poem:

Christ is a nigger, 

Beaten and black –

Oh, bare your back.

Mary is His mother,

Mammy of the South,

Silence your mouth.

God is His father –

White Master above

Grant Him your love.

Most holy Bastard

Of the bleeding mouth,

Nigger Christ

On the cross of the South

Here is what Dr. Cone says about the poem:

The poem angered many whites at the university and in the community. ‘Nothing but a corrupt, distorted brain could produce such sordid literature,’ said one white man.  A politician angrily said: ‘It’s bad enough to call Christ a bastard but to call him a nigger – that’s too much.’  The uproar pleased Hughes because it drew attention to lynching and its religious contradictions…  Hughes wrote many poems and stories about many lynchings, at the same time exposing the contradictions of white churches and American democracy. ‘I believe that anything which makes people think of existing evil conditions in worthwhile,’ he said in response to the controversy about his ‘Nigger Christ’ poem.  ‘Sometimes in order to attract attention somebody must embody the ideas in sensational forms.  I meant my poem to be a protest against the domination of all stronger peoples (peoples with access to more power) over weaker ones.’  That is what Jesus’ life, teachings, and death were all about – God’s protest against the exploitation of the weak by the strong.”

God, in the person of Jesus, clearly identifies in an intimate way with the weak.  To deny this is a clear attempt to reverse the meaning of scripture in general and Christ’s teachings in particular.  (See Matthew 25, or try reading a single prophet without mention of oppression of the weak).  Langston Hughes captures, with scandal as an empirical tool to jar our religious sensibilities, a core theological claim – Christ is with the suffering ones.

Dr. Richard Beck reminded us on his world-famous blog “Experimental Theology” that, as he put it in the title of his post, ‘Your God is Too Big.”  There is a common theological reflection among evangelicals that marvels at the ‘Bigness of God’.  That is, when we worry about trivial things, and we doubt whether or not God can be present to heal us, we are comforted by the saying ‘Your God is Too Small!’  Such theological reflection makes us feel cozy and warm.  ‘God is bigger than that!’  And in some cosmic language in the New Testament, this is truth.

But Richard Beck has reminded us that God can also be very small.  Beck wonders, how does reflecting on God’s bigness or awesomeness help you learn that God is love?  In other words, doesn’t the ‘Big God’ image perpetuate the view that God is ‘out there’ and ‘beyond us?’  Beck offers a reversal in our thinking saying to us “Your God is Too Big!”  To help us capture the idea that ‘God is Small’, he uses a story from Elie Wiesel’s ‘Night’ – Wiesel’s memior of the Holocaust.  Wiesel writes this:

I witnessed other hangings. I never saw a single one of the victims weep. For a long time those dried-up bodies had forgotten the bitter taste of tears.

Except once. The Oberkapo of the fifty-second cable unit was a Dutchman, a giant, well over six feet. Seven hundred prisoners worked under his orders, and they all loved him like a brother. No one had ever received a blow at his hands, nor an insult from his lips.

He had a young boy under him, a pipel, as they were called–a child with a refined and beautiful face, unheard of in this camp…the face of a sad angel…

One day, the electric power station at Buna was blown up. The Gestapo, summoned to the spot, suspected sabotage. They found a trail. It eventually led to the Dutch Oberkapo. And there, after a search, they found an important stock of arms.

The Oberkapo was arrested immediately. He was tortured for a period of weeks, but in vain. He would not give up a single name. He was transferred to Auschwitz. We never heard of him again.

But his little servant had been left behind in the camp in prison. Also put to torture, he too would not speak. Then the SS sentenced him to death, with two other prisoners who had been discovered with arms.

One day when we came back from work, we saw three gallows rearing up in the assembly place, three black crows. Roll call. SS all around, machine guns trained: the traditional ceremony. Three victims in chains–and one of them, the little servant, the sad-eyed angel.

The SS seemed more preoccupied, more disturbed than usual. To hang a young boy in front of thousands of spectators was no light matter. The head of the camp read the verdict. All eyes were on the child. He was lividly pale, almost calm, biting his lips. The gallows threw its shadow over him.

This time the Lagerkapo refused to act as executioner. Three SS replaced him.

The three victims mounted together onto the stairs.

The three necks were placed at the same moment within the nooses.

“Long live liberty!” cried the two adults.

But the child was silent.

“Where is God? Where is He?” someone behind me asked.

At a sign from the head of the camp, the three chairs tipped over.

Total silence throughout the camp. On the horizon, the sun was setting.

“Bare your heads!” yelled the head of the camp. His voice was raucous. We were weeping.

“Cover your heads!”

The march past began. The two adults were no longer alive. Their tongues hung swollen, blue-tinged. But the third rope was still moving; being so light, the child was still alive…

For more than half an hour he stayed there, struggling between life and death, dying in slow agony under our eyes. And we had to look him full in the face. He was still alive when I passed in front of him. His tongue was still red, his eyes were not yet glazed.

Behind me, I heard the same man asking:

“Where is God now?”

And I heard a voice within me answer him:

“Where is He? He is–He is hanging here on this gallows…”

I want to end with this question:  If your social situation in life has always been from the upper-class, or even middle class – socially, racially, sexually, economically, politically, etc. – is it surprising that you struggle to see God as the God of the weak and oppressed?  If so, isn’t that an acknowledgment that our life-experience shapes our view of God.  That is the gift of Dr. Cone and Black Liberation Theology. He reminds with striking and scandalous honesty, both who we are, and who God is.

* I want to foot-note a thought on Langston Hughes’ poem ‘The Nigger Christ”.  Should the scandal of that poem be too much for your religious sensibilities, I would ask you, ‘what do you do with the fact that Jesus so closely identifies with guilty prisoners, that he claims we meet Christ face to face when we visit them?  (Matt. 25:31-40)  In my opinion, this text in Matthew 25 is far more scandalous than Hughes’ poem.  There is no ‘guilt’ in being black.  So, in the words of one of my good friends and mentors, if that offends you, ‘What’s that about?!’

Comments

  1. Amen, brother!

    This post is a reminder of many different conversations we have had over the years, and when I think of them all together I realize again you have been a mentor as well as friend. I appreciate the ways you help me to think more deeply. You have affected not just me but the kind of teacher I am, and that is very important to me. Thanks!

    Reply

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