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Lingering: A test of theological discourse

In most theological interchanges the thing that seems most clear to me is the haste in which theological discourse, rejoinder, and response takes place.  This is perhaps magnified in theological discussions through mediums like blogs, but it also appears throughout the history of theological discourse.  In most theological discussions, when someone objects to a statement put forth by another, I often find myself looking first, not so much at the content of their of objection(s) but rather at the speed as which such statements are made.  It seems to me that most theological debates have little or no space or time for lingering to consider the force of alternative claims and construals that may confront us in the the theology of others.

A great example of this is the way in which white affluent Christians in America tend to engage liberation theology.  Lately this rather stark and shocking quote from James Cone has been trotted out in the media:

Black theology refuses to accept a God who is not identified totally with the goals of the black community. If God is not for us and against white people, then he is a murderer, and we had better kill him. The task of black theology is to kill Gods who do not belong to the black community … Black theology will accept only the love of God which participates in the destruction of the white enemy. What we need is the divine love as expressed in Black Power, which is the power of black people to destroy their oppressors here and now by any means at their disposal. Unless God is participating in this holy activity, we must reject his love.

The responses to this statement are always immediate and rapid.  This is racist!  This is ideological!  Where is forgiveness?  The objections to a theological statement that is so clearly other to the experience of white Christians are instantaneous and without hesitation.  However, this is precisely where actual theological discourse is shut down.  Because there is not space to linger and allow the intrusiveness of Cone’s statement to potentially impact us or call us into question, there is no actual dialogue.  In fact, I would go even further and state that the very haste in which we rush to shut down statement such as this actually diminish our ability to proffer truly constructive objections, questions, and critiques.  By not allowing these statements to linger in our consciousness, to upset us, to call us into question we lose the ability to meaningfully critique, argue, and discuss them helpfully.

So, if this is the case then it would seem that an essential mark of fruitful and indeed, truly Christian theological discourse would be that such discourse allows the statements and protests of the other to linger, the persist and to to take root in us.  Only by entering into the the thought of the other may we then have the kind of meaningful disagreements that make up fruitful theological disputations.  In evaluating theological discussions, then, we should perhaps look, not so much to what objections are lodged, but rather at the haste and the ease by which such objections are put forth.  The test of authentic theological discourse may well be our willingness – or not – to practice the patience of making it difficult to objecting to one another in our pursuit of right doctrine.


  1. Hill wrote:

    There still has to be some sort of standard by which we deem arguments as beyond the pale of a given theological discourse. I don’t think it requires that one be either white or affluent to deem the above quote beyond the pale of orthodox Christian theology. I generally acknowledge the force of your point, but ultimately one does in fact draw a line somewhere. Theology needs charity, but sometimes charity requires that we call a spade a spade (but we should never call people making theological arguments spades).

    Wednesday, March 26, 2008 at 1:22 pm | Permalink
  2. Jason Oliver wrote:

    As a Christian African American I experience an angst when dealing with the issue of black theology. One may rightly so critique much of black theology and deem it unorthodox. Then I call into question much of the so-called orthodox theology’s silence dare I say complicity of the oppression of an entire group of people. Black theology is purposely unorthodox because its distrust for anything (white) orthodox theology has to say if it continues to be silent and ignore the plight of a oppressed group. That’ may be a reason why I am personally angry with much of evangelical theology these days. It seems orthodoxy doesn’t give a damn about the present reality of a people. Theology with the prophetic element of speaking truth to power structures, seen and unseen, is suspect.

    Wednesday, March 26, 2008 at 1:32 pm | Permalink
  3. Hill wrote:

    I’m very sympathetic to the kinds of concerns Jason is putting forward. I just think there is a tendency to paint with an extremely broad brush when characterizing orthodoxy Christianity as “white” and hence proposing a necessary heterodox character in “black” theology. The bottom line is that these categories are thoroughly American and thoroughly Protestant. I’m hopeful that this new book you have mentioned will address this. American Protestantism certainly does have a complex relationship to the question of black/white racism (that’s not an indictment of anyone or anything in particular). However, to suggest that global Christian orthodoxy is a “white” phenomenon (or that the “whiteness” of say… Russian Orthodoxy is convertible with the “whiteness” of American Protestantism) isn’t true or helpful. As I have encountered it, Black Theology and the establishment response to Black Theology take place within a particular (and in the context of Christianity as a whole, rather limited) theological context.

    Wednesday, March 26, 2008 at 1:48 pm | Permalink
  4. Jason is very much not alone. Prof. Cone has said the exact same thing – much of what we call “orthodoxy” in America is Western, European Christianity, not a global christianity. In fact, one could easily argue that Black theology is a more global theology as it has much in common with “third world” or “post-colonial” theologies (i.e. EATWOT to whom Cone goes to quite frequently). Quite a few argue, with merit I think, that black theology is the voice of the third world by Americans.

    There is argument that black theology is emphatically not heterodox. It simply refuses for now much of the categories that theologians of the past have worked with, because those categories are driven by privileged white males.

    Wednesday, March 26, 2008 at 2:11 pm | Permalink
  5. Hill wrote:

    In order to understand this better, I would be interested to know which theological categories are driven by privileged white males? I really think there is something to be said along these lines, but so much of what one encounters is simply too broad to take seriously. The act of “refusing the categories that theologians of the past have worked with” seems to question the very ground of both Christianity and/or theology.

    Wednesday, March 26, 2008 at 2:34 pm | Permalink
  6. Jason Oliver wrote:

    Hill, I understand we you are coming from. My problem is particularly with white evangelical orthodoxy, not classical Christian orthodoxy founded in the ecumenical creeds. I am not also a fan of the trajectory of much of black theology. I anxiously anticipate Carter’s critique of the liberal tendency of mainstream black theology.

    Wednesday, March 26, 2008 at 3:02 pm | Permalink
  7. Jason Oliver wrote:

    Hill, I meant to say where. Please excuse the typo.

    Wednesday, March 26, 2008 at 3:02 pm | Permalink
  8. Saint Egregious wrote:

    Methinks that Cone, when he wrote this, was hardly inviting me or my ilk to ‘linger’ with him and dialogue. Rather, fed up with the lamentable failures of 1960′s liberal dialogic strategies to fight social and racial oppression, he was, along with Malcolm X, asserting a new rhetorical and social strategy: black empowerment and black purity. If I in turn beat a hasty retreat from such talk, by means rhetorical or otherwise, I am not sure I have failed utterly in understanding what Cone is up to or in listening patiently. Perhaps my hasty retreat is what is desired in such a gesture as the one you have quoted. White liberal Christians have notoriously considered themselves immune from the trenchant critiques of Cone, MLK and others, and have as a result done much damage in their paternalistic, even parasitic relationship with black struggles for liberation. I see Cone gesturing, perhaps even to his closest white allies, of whom he has had many, not to mistake his friendship or theological sympathies with them (he loves Barth, after all, no matter how critical) for a willingness to acquiesce to white liberal models of theological engagement.

    None of this is to say that this is Cone’s last word, as I am quite sure it is not.

    Wednesday, March 26, 2008 at 3:33 pm | Permalink
  9. Hill, Cone is more sympathetic to older Christianity, after all, early Christianity was even rooted in Africa and the tradition still continues (however we don’t realize this because scholarship by Europeans of Africa is impoverished, says Prof. John McGuckin). Cone even understands theology as Anselm put it: “faith seeking understanding.” However, he sees much of Anselm’s work as philosophical theology that which rarely touches the ground. One thing about Cone is that he is immediately practical, so much so, he is sometimes called not a theologian, but a sociologist (although I believe such an labeling to be wrong).

    For a very long time, in fact much of Christianity historically speaking, rejected the notion that Jesus suffered. Suffering was understood as wrong because suffering would limit God. But this only hits at the tip of the iceberg.

    As I’ve said in my blog ( Cone has made the argument in class that liberation theology is not responding to the question of believer/unbeliever, but instead oppressed/oppressor. This is a fundamental category shift. He defines salvation somewhat differently than most previous European/American theologians. Salvation of God extends to a salvation from oppression, in his specific case, the continued racism in America that dehumanizes people – not a “pie in the sky” theology of spiritual evangelicalism that speaks only in terms of faith, not justice.

    Of course I have my own critique (I prefer a merger between the two, one that evangelicals still have a hard time grasping in my opinion), but I do agree that salvation is a complex act and extends to one’s entire being.

    Saint Egregious, while you are right that Cone has an affinity with Malcom X, Cone also has a liking for MLK Jr. In fact, Cone’s book, Martin & Malcolm & America: A Dream or a Nightmare, lays out the two poles that guides Cone’s theology. It is between the dream and the nightmare. If Cone is experiencing a nightmare, who are we to reject him when he voices it? A hasty retreat is not what Cone calls for. Cone is being prophetic in such a statement. He is attempting to speak the truth of the African American experience – one that had over 250 years of slavery, rape, and kidnapping, but the horrors did not end there.

    Also, Cone has said that he gave up Barth after Black Theology and Black Power. Even though Cone did his dissertation on Barth, Cone gave up Barth and started reading R. Niebuhr (still does) because Barth had nothing, in Cone’s mind, to say about empowering those who were hurt. But you are right on one thing, Cone still holds to Barth’s notion of the Word of God when it comes to the Biblical text.

    Wednesday, March 26, 2008 at 4:48 pm | Permalink
  10. Hill wrote:

    I really appreciate the clarification. I just have a very difficult time locating this within a coherent ecclesial tradition, which effectively renders it impossible for me to understand in a compelling way. I have the (perhaps unfounded) suspicion that it is fundamentally reactionary against a very specific kind of Christianity. That Christianity in general would come to be identified with whiteness in first place constitutes a sad development, but “reclaiming” it for blackness would seem to be equally misguided. Pardon me for speaking rather clumsily about this. It also seems like there is a certain scriptural positivism at work as well. What is to be said for the claim that the majority of black Christians in the United States are in most cases beholden to thoroughly low-church evangelical Protestant theological categories (inherited from their WASP oppressors), which are already profoundly compromised. Are there specific Christian doctrines that have been formulated in racially unbalanced ways? I have a hard time wrapping my head around most of this because the actual theological content seems so sparse, so I am working largely by feel.

    Wednesday, March 26, 2008 at 5:04 pm | Permalink
  11. Whiteness for Cone is patriarchal. Its the upper tier that has profited from abuse, while at the same time using the bible to tell the Black community to simply “take it.” Because Jesus wasn’t very political and he sacrificed, so to should the black community (and women to) stay in their low position. What is reversed by white theology is that the oppressor identifies as if they are Jesus but acts as the Romans. Lynchings become justified and the lynched cease to be human. Cone has said that the cross was a lynching – biblical scholars today describe it as such. So a christology of the oppressor, an honest christology, would actually view Jesus from the foot of the cross like the Roman centurion, not from the Jewish perspective. When this happens, patriarchal whiteness is called into question – the entire status quo gets questioned and loses its foundation as the justification for violence is subverted. Hence part of the reason for the term, “Jesus was Black.”

    Cone is very much rooted in the Black church and the Black community, and with “Sunday being the most segregated day of the week,” there are reasons why it is hard for whites to imagine what Cone means. In this case, I think the burden is on us whites to chase after, in the most respectful and caring way possible, those whom we kicked from our churches (i.e. AME Zion came into being for a reason). After awhile, answers on blogs start to become repetitious, because to truly start to understand such a theology, one has to go and experience it, to live with those people, I think. Thats part of the reason I’m here at Union.

    As for more theological content, I’d start with an introduction to Black Liberation theology and then onto A Black Theology of Liberation. Black Theology and Black power would be good to read and it would explain why Cone is writing A Black Theology of Liberation, but it is in BTL that Cone really gets after a Christology of Blackness.

    Wednesday, March 26, 2008 at 5:30 pm | Permalink
  12. Hill wrote:

    That all makes sense. I just think it has to be clearly said that in general, it is a specific kind of Christianity and a specific kind of theology that is guilty of the crimes you describe (and in some ways continues to perpetuate them). I just doesn’t sit well with me to rail against some kind of monolithic white Christianity which, even if it exists, is a peculiarly American phenomenon. What exactly is the content of white theology, and who is guilty of practicing it? Is Thomas Aquinas white theology? Is Augustine black theology? How could a Christology of Blackness possibly be more relevant than a Christology of Whiteness or a Native American Christology? It just seems to me like much of this discourse isn’t taking place in a way that is accessible to standard modes of theological inquiry and rational discourse.

    Wednesday, March 26, 2008 at 6:03 pm | Permalink
  13. This is why we linger, because there is no standard mode. Theological discourse is a discussion. Crossing barriers into something unknown demands patience and listening. Definitions can be different. Any of your questions are generally best addressed inside the African American context or at the confluence of racial discussion. Just because it may not seem immediately rational to you, doesn’t mean it isn’t rational to others in their context. The best way to address this is to spend time reading Cone with the most open mind one can muster, while at the same time, finding fruitful discussion partners who are not just like you.

    Wednesday, March 26, 2008 at 6:32 pm | Permalink
  14. Hill wrote:

    Could someone not like me explain whether or not the Summa is white theology? My point is that for many of us who find ourselves in ecclesial traditions outside of mainstream protestantism, some of this rhetoric is at best nonsensical (in so far as it claims to be addressing us) or at worst offensive and ignorant. I’m just as likely to find myself sitting next to a phillipino- or mexican- or african-american as I am someone who is “just like me.” In fact, I don’t know anyone who is just like me. The bottom line is that liberty has been granted on this subject to paint with far broader a brush than would be tolerated in virtually any other context. I take offense at my race being associated with a particular theology to which I clearly do not subscribe, and were I black and Catholic, I’d feel the exact same way.

    Wednesday, March 26, 2008 at 6:50 pm | Permalink
  15. Saint Egregious wrote:

    D.W.: Your lecturing is a bit much. I’ve read most of Cone, studied with one of his most prominent students, and know full well that Cone ‘likes Martin’. In your rush to judgment, it seems to me you’ve become exhibit A in the problem of being overly quick in reacting to another’s thoughts. I’d be more than happy to have you ‘linger’ just a bit longer with my words if you care to–but no need to race by them, giving them your ‘take’ on the fly. You’ve not read me well at all. I think Cone’s words speak for themselves, and do not need yet another white liberal defense.
    By the way, his dismissal of Barth is beyond ludicrous, which is why I don’t take it seriously. The influence remains strong, anxiously held or not by Cone.
    Back to the woodshed for exhibit B… :-)

    Wednesday, March 26, 2008 at 7:25 pm | Permalink
  16. Complicity is the key. Whether whites want to recognize it or not, our complicity as white is a problem. We are part of this. Just as being an American makes us complicit in the death of Iraqi civilians – we pay for the errant bombs. We profit in this society by virtue of our whiteness. This allows brush strokes, as it does in feminism as well. This is partially why Cone calls us to blackness, because no matter individual sympathies, by our whiteness we become complicit, just as African Americans experience the business end of a loan rejection based on their skin, or a hard time hailing a cab (this can be quite common in New York City).

    Racism is an unbalanced and abusive relationship of wide brush strokes, painted by the culture at large. What Cone is doing is deconstructing the racism by calling out where people profit from racism, the other end of racism’s broad strokes. Racism is a structural problem as much as it is individual acts.

    Wednesday, March 26, 2008 at 7:27 pm | Permalink
  17. Jason Oliver wrote:

    I tend to agree with the analysis of Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and others that at the root of racism is economics. Truly the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil i.e. chattel slavery, Jim Crow, racial and sexual discrimination, and so forth.

    Wednesday, March 26, 2008 at 7:44 pm | Permalink
  18. Matt Marston wrote:

    Here’s a brief argument for why the Summa can be seen as “white” theology. Through the analogy of being, Thomas and medieval theology naturalized Christianity and Christ. Christ gets directly linked to Christians as their possession, which gets employed as an idealogical weapon. This gets played out in the colonial moment as European Christians rank native peoples according to their “rational capacities.” European Christians viewed themselves as the bearers of perfection over-against “primitive” peoples. This eventually gets encoded in the discourse of race. And this is not just a Protestant phenomena but occurs in the Catholic conquests of South America. As J. Carter is fond of pointing out, Christopher Columbus was a faithful Catholic and a deeply trinitarian thinker. Luis Rivera’s A Violent Evangelism outlines the theological and political motivations for colonialism within the Catholic Church.

    One need not suppose that racist theology is a North American phenomenon alone. European colonialism and the slave trade recieved support from both Catholic and Protestant communities, from both Catholic and Protestant theology. In someone like Cone, one hears a particular protest against a particular oppressive context. But what Cone is addressing is part of the larger phenomenon of colonialism and of the creation of race as the way to police the modern world that touches all of our Christian communities. None of us, I submit, can claim to step outside the problematics of race or pretend the Christianity has not underwritten and still underwrite horrors.

    Wednesday, March 26, 2008 at 7:49 pm | Permalink
  19. But, Saint Egregious, I am no liberal. There was no indication that your ire was directed at me. Life would be easier if I was a self appointed crusader. Perhaps we have both failed to linger?

    By no means am I trying to piggy back on an experience that I have not had. I approach this as a white male. I am trying to explore what solidarity means and that talk about racism in America requires everyone. I am also trying to help voice a fair reading of Cone that does not seem to be happening all that often.

    On the Barth note, I am concerned that if you don’t take Cone’s embracing of R. Niebuhr seriously, who does not well mesh with Barth and adds weight to what Cone has said about his own theological moves, perhaps you are taking Cone less seriously than you should in many more places.

    Wednesday, March 26, 2008 at 7:58 pm | Permalink
  20. Saint Egregious wrote:

    D.W., if you are not a white liberal, than I am not egregious, and liberally so at that! As for R. Niebuhr, he doesn’t mesh well with Barth because he never READ Barth. My point is rather that the dismissal of Barth by Cone for having nothing to “say about empowering those who were hurt” (as you put it) is simply a ridiculous thing to say about Barth, and can’t be taken seriously (what of Barmen, Bonhoeffer, Hunsinger, South African theology, etc, etc?), anymore than can Reinhold Neibuhr’s charge that Barth was a fundamentalist.

    Wednesday, March 26, 2008 at 8:14 pm | Permalink

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  1. THE WRIGHT FRAME « DUCKPOND on Tuesday, April 29, 2008 at 5:51 pm

    [...] Halden at Inhabitatio Dei observes “Lingering: A Test of Theological Discourse”. It seems to me, and you don’t have to remind me I fail too often that “lingering” is a test of democratic discourse. In other words, rather than in engage in rapid-fire repartee – perhaps Rev Wright’s mistake – we might listen and consider carefully what the other person is saying, perhaps especially when it appears immediately to be ridiculous. Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)“GOD DAMN AMERICA”Is Barack Obama a Political Fraud?Obama’s Spiritual Advisor and Black Liberation TheologyLingering: A test of theological discourse [...]

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