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?
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.”