Coming Soon: Cornel West!

Right now I'm reading Cornel West's Prophetic Fragments.

Posts and reflections coming soon...

This guy is cool.

"A Message to the Feds, Sincerely, We the People" - Nas

Lyrics come to mind that seem fitting with some of my current reading:

A message to those who trapped us up, 
from federal guys who backed them up
We never will die, we black and tough, 
lead in your eye, we strapped to bust
Half of us been locked up inside the beast, 
look at the time we see
Brooklyn to Compton streets, 
even the Congolese dreams.
Our bullets and triggers our enemies pullin' on innocent women and children.
It wasn't no ghetto killers who mixed up the coke and put guns in our buildings.
But I'm not gon' cry, 
and I'm not gon' stand, just watch you die,
I'ma pass you a .9, 
I'ma grab your hand -- come on let's ride.

A message to those who killed the king,  who murdered the Christ--the same regime, 
what God has built you never can break,
What God has loved you never can hate. 
Man makes 
rules and laws,
You just a ruthless dog, 
your kennel is waiting,
You devils will run back into the caves you came from.
Whenever that day comes, forty-acres, plantations, 
see every race won.
Sincerely yours, 
Street's Disciple, 

A Black Theology of Liberation (3: Final Post)

I finished up James Cone’s A Black Theology of Liberation last week, and I’ve been reflecting for several days.  As I said in my last post, I continue to struggle with exhilaration and worry (see previous post).  But these conflicting feelings have evolved predominately into conviction and humility.  

Conviction, because I can catch a glimpse of the 1969 vision – and the staggering importance – of black liberation…  And liberation more broadly (for all oppressed and marginalized people).  That conviction turns to an ache when reading Gayraud Wilmore’s afterward reflections at the end of Cone’s book.  Wilmore reflects, 20 years after the initial publication, on all the ways the “earthquake” of black liberation in the ‘60s became minor ripples: a “revolution unfulfilled, but not invalidated.”  Wilmore lists the effectiveness of the white Religious Right in co-opting black church culture, thus blunting the prophetic edge of black liberation in the church.  He also (intriguingly) laments the loss of Nation of Islam giants Malcom X and the Honorable Elijah Muhammad.  The ferocity with which they captivated and ignited black resistance was a sharp prod to the black Christian church, keeping its leaders sharp and deliberate in message, as a sort of religious “foil” within a broader liberation movement.

The humility I feel comes from every page Cone writes.  Rather than try to defend myself and my whiteness, I mourn.  I weep for what white America has perpetrated.  I weep for what we still do, both active and complicit.  I am ashamed at the double standard by which young black men and young white men are evaluated.  I am ashamed by the ways I have benefited by my privilege without even fathoming what that fully means.  And most of all, I am ashamed of how scared I feel at the prospect of losing that privilege.  

Cone writes:  “The sole purpose of God in black theology is to illuminate the black condition so that blacks can see that their liberation is the manifestation of God’s activity.” (85)  God's mission is liberation.

So with such a damning case (and damning history) against whites, and in particular, white Christians and theologians, what’s left for me?  What is the role of the privileged within the walls of Christianity?  Is there a role at all?

Again, Cone:

To be (fully) human means to be identified with those who are enslaved as they fight against human evil.  Being human means being against evil by joining sides with those who are victims of evil.  Quite literally, it means becoming oppressed with the oppressed, making their cause one’s own cause by involving oneself in the liberation struggle.  No one is free until all are free. (88)

Within the matrix of liberation theology, which Cone would clarify is nothing less than Christian theology, the role of anyone who is not a victim is to advocate, stand alongside, and become the victim.  Just as God became incarnate as “the least of these,” anyone with power and privileged is called, as Bonhoeffer wrote, to “come and die.”

A Black Theology of Liberation (Post 2)

It’s hard to let go of the conqueror mentality.  Onward Christian soldiers.  It’s also very typical in pastoral circles to talk about what “works.” What’s “effective.”  To be sure, we’ve adopted the worldview of perpetual political campaigners for a cause that, by Jesus’ own model, proved suicidal:

As pointed out in an earlier chapter, the gospel offers no assurance of winning.  Again, what could “winning” possibly mean?  If it means what white racists mean by it – enslavement of human beings based on the alleged basis of white supremacy – then, “God deliver us!”  The idea of winning is a hang-up of liberal whites who want to be white and Christian at the same time; but they fail to realize that this approach is a contradiction in terms – Christianity and whiteness are opposites.  Therefore, when whites say “That approach will not win out,” our reply must be: “What do you mean?  Who’s trying to win?” (41)

As Cone asserts, it is impossible for whites to view Christianity from outside an oppressor-mentality.  That stings.

As I read this book my mind repeatedly, instinctively and habitually countered Cone’s passages with questions of scope, context and parallel examples.  “What about whites who have been oppressed?”  “What about other issues of injustice and disparity?” and “What does the Gospel mean, then, for privileged whites?”  I also found myself thinking of a list of oppressed people groups in the world whose collective trauma might correlate with black America’s. Inevitably, these questions and responses are a reflection of my own privilege.  As Robert M. Brown wrote: "Neutrality plays into the hands of those in power because it enables them to continue, and to discredit the Christians who oppose them."  Cone’s Gospel feigns no neutrality.

The blogosphere is loaded with arguments and diatribes against “the myth of white privilege.”  White pundits build strong cases to demonstrate why they never benefited from their racial affiliation, and a few black critics enjoy the praise and relief of white America by agreeing (see Don Lemon’s affirmation of Bill O’Reilly’s critique of black culture here

Of course there are poor whites.  Of course whites suffer.  But that is not a counterargument to the matrix of white privilege.  Poor, suffering whites are not poor and suffering because of their racial identity.  Poor, suffering whites do not carry the collective trauma of three hundred years of enslavement, torture, rape and dehumanizing commodification.  According to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database ( in the entire history of the slave trade to the New World, 12.5 million Africans were sent to the New World. 10.7 million survived the shipping.

In the person of Christ, God identifies with all who suffer and are oppressed, but it is important for white Christians to understand and accept that there is a real and ontological uniqueness to the systemic suffering and oppression of a group of marginalized people.  This is at the heart of the Exodus narrative.

Cone writes: “If I read the New Testament correctly, the resurrection of Jesus means that he is present today in the midst of all societies effecting his liberation of the oppressed.” (31)

So I think that if I want to be changed by a Gospel like Cone's, it doesn't end in winning, but in dying.  How does one go about dying?  Honestly, I'm not certain, but I'm pretty sure it doesn't involve trying to justify or defend myself.

Thanks be to God.

More to come…

A Black Theology of Liberation - James Cone (Post 1)

Immediately reading even the introduction of Cone’s A Black Theology of Liberation, I found myself feeling simultaneous exhilaration and concern. 

When I think about it, it’s strange for a suburban white guy to feel excited about such damning language against my privileged personal identifiers:

“Whites may read it and to some degree render an intellectual analysis of it, but an authentic understanding is dependent on the blackness of their existence in the world.  There will be no peace in America until whites begin to hate their whiteness, asking from the depths of their being: ‘How can we become black?’” (v)

Maybe that’s partly because I don’t recognize my whiteness, or my citizenship, for that matter, as core pieces of my identity.  I also recognize there is inherent privilege in my very ability to say that.  Not everyone can differentiate themselves from color or nationality.

But partly, I think it’s because a theology of liberation – a theology of the underdog – a conception of what Gustavo Gutierrez called God’s “preferential option for the poor” – is the heart of who I want to believe God is.  Am I an underdog?  No.  But every one of us has experienced some kind of underdog experience.  Some kind of wounding or oppression.  And in those moments, what we need most is to know that the God of the universe cares about us, sides with us, loves us and accepts us. 

The problem is when – as privileged people – we adopt a personal narrative that is not based in reality.  My identity is not based in oppression, despite wounds and moments of hurt.  The conservative Evangelical church in America has cultivated an underdog self-concept.  A charging rhinoceros, it tends to see itself as a quivering mouse.

“Christianity is essentially a religion of liberation… Any message that is not related to the liberation of the poor in a society is not Christ’s message.  Any theology that is indifferent to the theme of liberation is not Christian theology.” (v)

What’s clear is that Cone’s assertions about the centrality of blackness and the black experience in the midst of systemic white oppression are applicable and transferable to most if not all of the experiences of marginalized and oppressed people groups.  And Cone is certainly aware of this.  “In the New Testament, Jesus is not for all, but for the oppressed, the poor and unwanted of society, and against oppressors.” (6)  Simultaneously, he is unapologetic in fixating his critique on the black-white paradigm: “Theology is always identified with a particular community.” (6)  Cone is not interested in a generalized theological critique of oppression.  He is committed here to identifying the living, outworking of the Gospel of Jesus Christ in the black American experience.  “The focus on blackness does not mean that only blacks suffer as victims in a racist society, but that blackness is an ontological symbol and a visible reality which best describes what oppression means in America.” (7)
More to come…

Class Reading List...

So here's what I'm reading right now.  Feedback?

  • Unfinished Business - Keri Day
  • Indebted Love - Monya Stubbs
  • A Black Theology of Liberation - James Cone
  • Prophetic Fragments: Illuminations of the Crisis in American Religion and Culture - Cornel West
  • Making a Way out of No Way - Monica Coleman
  • Reflecting Black: African-American Cultural Criticism - Michael Eric Dyson
  • Snobbery and Solidarity at... Walmart?

    I have to tell you a couple of things.  First: I shop at Walmart.  

    *horror * 

    I know, I'm a terrible liberal.  And I don't actually shop there often, but the reality is, it's convenient and sometimes very fiscally-justifiable.

    So does laziness and/or cheapness justify supporting a giant, multinational corporation that does all it can to avoid paying health benefits and living wages?  No, probably not.  But that's a harder question to  answer if you belong to the dwindling lower-middle class, and it's important that we (the often-too-self-assured but also dwindling middle/upper-middle-class) don't lose sight of the pressures and anxieties placed on folks barely living paycheck to paycheck.

    Second: I've noticed something when I walk through the Walmart aisles.  You can spot folks who think they're "above" shopping at Walmart.  They make more money than the average Walmart shopper.  They wear clothes and hairstyles and - most importantly - facial expressions that tell the world: "I don't actually belong here."  It's semi-apologetic, actually.  "I don't belong in this place, but the day got out-of-hand, and I just had to stop by to pick something up... you understand?"  And more important for me (or damning), is that these folks predictably and consistently make eye contact with me.  Sometimes a head nod.  Sometimes a pleading sympathetic look.  "We're the same: we don't belong here - you understand?"  So that's how I appear?  Am I visibly recognizable as a snob?  Well, it's usually after work the I stop by at Walmart, so I'm wearing a tie and slacks... sometimes a jacket.  I might as well scream the things I observe on the faces of a few others: "I'M BETTER THAN THIS!  I SHOULDN'T BE HERE!"
    THIS what I'm talking about:

    But what could feel like a relief while shopping at Walmart - the validation of seeing someone else from one's own "safe" socio-economic level - has come to feel like conviction.  

    It's not hard to observe the stratification of shopping options and experiences within the American consumer's periphery.  You can shop at Walmart or Save-A-Lot of Grocery Outlet, or you can shop at Whole Foods or Market of Choice.  That's not a differentiation between good and evil.  Lots of local farms and organic, ethical producers are supported by the upper echelons of the shopping experience by Whole Foods and others like them.  Thank God there are places where humanely-raised beef and vegan baking options are both available.  But there is something experiential in those stores that is set apart from discount grocers.  The "poor" won't ever find a fireplace and bonded leather seating in their grocer's espresso bar/waiting area.  The "lower middle class" won't get to taste wine and cheese as they explore locally-grown fresh produce.  

    So what's the answer?

    I don't have one.

    But I am convinced we have to do some heart-work.  We have to stop trying to differentiate ourselves from expansive, affordable big box stores.  Walmart isn't "evil" because it's "low class" and "cheap."  But Walmart does need to adjust its labor practices.  Aesthetics be damned.  The next time you have the opportunity, I'd encourage you to take a walk through your local Walmart and think very carefully about the emotions you're feeling.  Are you more worried about the medical benefits of the greeter at the door, or about getting seen by your neighbor, who might tell someone you've been shopping at Walmart?

    Matthew 9:11 
    When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat SHOP with tax collectors and sinners?”

    Black Theology: Coming Soon...

    This semester I'm doing a self-directed study of black theology, and part of my "homework" will be blog posts on my reading.  Look forward to reflections on James Cone, Keri Day, and Monya Stubbs.  If I can get away with it: Cornel West and Michael Eric Dyson, too...

    Should be fun.

    By the way, I jumped into Google to grab an image of one of these books and it was terrifying what my search brought up.  Images of Muslims, "supposed" terrorists, and lots of pictures of Barack Obama looking angry, with quotations from James Cone and Reverend Jeremiah Wright.  To be sure, white Christian America appears terrified of an articulated black theology because it undermines the outrageous narrative that white, first world Christians are an oppressed people.

    Cornell West Describes The True Nelson Mandela

    I was in Walmart looking at books the other day (yes, yes I was) and saw a "Christian" book about Nelson Mandela, right next to a Duck Dynasy Christian Devotional.  Sort of put things into perspective (or lack thereof)...  What's real?  What's true?  And of course: what sells?

    From the Archives: Roosevelt on the Plutocracy

    May 28, 2011

    “The fortunes amassed through corporate organization are now so large, and vest such power in those that wield them, as to make it a matter of necessity to give to the sovereign — that is, to the Government, which represents the people as a whole — some effective power of supervision over their corporate use.  In order to insure a healthy social and industrial life, every big corporation should be held responsible by, and accountable to, some sovereign strong enough to control its conduct.”
     ~ President Theodore Roosevelt
    And how about this?
    “As we view the achievements of aggregated capital, we discover the existence of trusts, combinations, and monopolies, while the citizen is struggling far in the rear or is trampled to death beneath an iron heal.  Corporations, which should be carefully restrained creatures of the law and the servants of the people, are fast becoming the people’s masters.”
    ~ President Grover Cleveland
    I’ve grabbed these quotations from a fabulous book by Thom Hartmann: What Would Jefferson Do?

    From the Archives: Can We Be Evangelical w/out the B.S.?

    I recently visited a private Christian school.  I couldn’t get the imagery of the movie Saved!out of my head.  I kept waiting for the principal to do backflips across the gymnasium floor.
    I was awed by the good behavior of these teenage kids.  They sat respectfully, no objects flying through the air… they were even better behaved than at the large Pentecostal youth group I used to volunteer at.
    As the ceremony began, the principal asked everyone to bow their heads for a prayer.  Somehow, it didn’t cheese me out.  My b.s. tolerance is pretty low these days, so I was shocked.  I thought to myself, “This isn’t so bad.  Why can’t we have THIS… faith, respect, reverence, high standards… without culture wars, xenophobia, intolerance and – well – fundamentalism?”  But I’m not sure we can.  At least, I certainly haven’t seen it.  Not in evangelical culture.  Faith and fear go hand-in-hand.  Afterall, these kids go k-through-12 hearing that the earth is 6,000 years old, and that evolution is a godless lie.
    When I got out to the parking lot again, the first vehicle I saw had two bumper stickers on it:
    So there it is.  Maybe we just can’t have it both ways…

    By the way, here's what happened...

    I realized I didn't share what actually happened to, and why I'm running off of Blogger again.

    My Wordpress site had been hosted at and as my blog-posting had dried up in the last year to a post every few months, I neglected looking at it very often.  My site was hacked by some group or bot or lonely highschool nerd, and a large Star and Crescent symbol welcomed me when I finally tried logging in.  "You've been hacked!"  Boom.  Lame.

    I contacted MonsterMegs, but they told me that since it had been more than 4 weeks since the hack happened (yeah, I was clearly late to the party) there was nothing they could do for me.

    Let that be a reminder not to let you site go too dormant.

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