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…