James Cone’s ‘A Black Theology of Liberation’ and white liberal Quakerism

Every now and again I encounter a book that gives me such a jolt it demands to be talked about. I’ve just finished James Cone’s ‘A Black Theology of Liberation’, first published in 1970, and it has stirred me up. I found it both exciting and disturbing, and I need to process what I’ve read. This blog post is part of that process. I’m going to list what I think are the main challenges this book presents to white liberal Quakers.

I should say that this is only the third work of black theology I’ve read, and it’s the first book I’ve read by James Cone. Cone authored many other works, and his work has been much discussed and critiqued within the black theological community. I’m yet to familiarise myself with this conversation. This post is merely a sketch of first thoughts in response to this particular book, a record of my own learning process, which will hopefully help the learning process of other white Quakers.

1. A challenge to inward spirituality and universals

Within white liberal Quakerism there’s an emphasis on the spiritual experience of the individual. I sometimes see this lead to a valuing of the spiritual over the material, of the soul over the body. This stress on the interior life of the individual, and individual expression of belief, is accompanied by a focus on universals: that which is at the heart of all religious experience and which all people share. This focusing on inwardness and universals has perhaps led to white liberal Quakers spending a lot time debating the existence of God, and the boundaries of Quaker belief.

For Cone, such a focus on inward spirituality and universals does not serve the cause of black liberation. He states starkly that ‘the black experience should not be identified with inwardness… It is not an introspection in which one contemplates’ one’s own ego. Blacks are not afforded the luxury of navel gazing’.[1] Cone does not see God’s work as generally centred in the individual. Instead, he states that God is at work specifically in the community of the oppressed. In Cone’s American context, that means God’s presence is to be found in black bodies and their liberation. God is so identified with the oppressed, that we can say God is black. This may be a difficult concept for white people to grasp. Cone is not saying God literally has black skin. Cone is saying that black and white are categories created by whites in order to oppress blacks. Black and white stand for unjust power relationships: ‘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.’[2] Because God is the God of the oppressed, God is black.

Cone is also suspicious of appeals to ‘universal humanity’, because a focus on universals can lead to the ignoring of specific injustices in our day to day encounters. Whites can believe we love humanity, whilst still upholding racist structures. We can have loving feelings for black people in general, whilst still being racist to black individuals, or avoiding contact with black people all together.[3]

A particularly stinging critique comes from Cone’s dismissal of ‘death of God’ theology, which could be applied to the white liberal Quaker discussion of theological diversity: ‘Questions like “How do we find meaning and purpose in a world in which God is absent?” are questions of an affluent society.’[4]

2. A challenge to the ahistorical Eternal Now

We might ask: ‘How do we know God is the God of the oppressed?’ For white liberal Quakers knowledge of God comes primarily through individual experience, and the experience of the contemporary faith community. We don’t generally value tradition beyond a selective understanding of British Quaker history. We are increasingly detached from the Christian tradition, and knowledge of the Bible is not required. Because of this loose relationship with tradition, White liberal Quakerism could be called ahistorical. We emphasise an experience of the Eternal Now, rather than participation in a larger story with a past and a future. This means we do not have a sense of God at work in history.

For Cone, it is because of God’s work in history that we know God is the God of the oppressed. The Christian God is revealed through God’s action in the history of a community,[5] Israel and the life of Jesus, always showing ‘what God has done, is doing, and will do in moments of oppression.’[6] The specificity of Jesus is absolutely central: ‘The basic mistake of our white opponents is their failure to see that God did not become a universal human being but an oppressed Jew, thereby disclosing to us that both human nature and divine nature are inseparable from oppression and liberation.’[7] God’s involvement in history is a sign that God is not indifferent. God is not neutral. Cone even goes as far to say: ‘If God is not involved in human history, then all theology is useless, and Christianity itself is a mockery, a hollow, meaningless diversion.’[8]

We can see that a God who is revealed in history is a challenge to both the white liberal Quaker emphasis on the individual, and universals. Cone repeatedly stresses the primacy of community. We only know who we are through our relationship with other.[9] The past is vital to the identity of a community. Knowing where we have come from allows us to understand who we are now, and so for black people an understanding of their history is of paramount importance for their survival: ‘Black consciousness is an attempt to recover a past deliberately destroyed by slave masters, an attempt to revive old survival symbols and create new ones.’[10]

If the past tells us who we are, the future is what gives us hope. In Christianity, this hope is founded on the resurrection of Jesus (a part of the Jesus story that has been side-lined by white liberal Quakerism). This is not about hoping for a reward from heaven, and ignoring present injustice. This is about having a vision of the future that energises us to act for justice now: ‘To see the future of God, as revealed in the resurrection of Jesus, is to see also the contradiction of any earthly injustice with existence in Jesus Christ.’[11]

For those engaged in the struggle against oppression, hope in God’s future is vital if we are to work unreservedly for justice:

To grasp for the future of God is to know that those who die for freedom have not died in vain; they will see the kingdom of God. This is precisely the meaning of our Lord’s resurrection, and why we can fight against overwhelming odds. We believe in the future of God, a future that must become present.[12]

There is one particular thing that troubles me about the white liberal Quaker disconnection from the Bible and its history of God as God of the oppressed. In Britain we revise our book of discipline every generation, drawing overwhelmingly from British and American Quaker writings. This means that, without the Bible, our ‘canon’ consists of almost exclusively white voices, dramatically limiting our understanding of God.

3. A challenge to our understandings of equality and nonviolence

White liberal Quakers pride ourselves on our reputation as peacemakers and mediators. In our valuing of equality, we often aim to listen to all sides. We tend to seek a middle-way where all voices are heard. For Cone, this attitude cannot be applied to the liberation of black people. This is not about whites and blacks learning to get along. Black was created in opposition to white. Therefore white is synonymous with oppression. Cone writes that whites need to learn to hate and abandon their whiteness. This isn’t about changing skin colour, this is about privileges and dis-privileges that are associated with skin colour. God is not a peacemaker between whites and blacks. God is black: ‘Knowing God means being on the side of the oppressed, becoming one with them, and participating in the goal of liberation. We must become black with God.’[13]  God takes sides: ‘The black theologian must reject any conception of God which stifles black self-determination by picturing God as a God of all peoples. Either God is identified with the oppressed to the point that their experience becomes God’s experience, or God is a God of racism.’[14]

Cone not only challenges white liberal Quaker understandings of mediation and peace-making, but also our understanding of nonviolence. How can whites who do not know the daily threat of violence (which in the case of police brutality is violence by the state) speak to blacks of the need for nonviolence and loving the enemy? ‘Those who oppress others are in no position to define what love is. How could white [people] know that love means turning the other cheek? They have never had to do so.’[15] No time is soon enough for black liberation, and black people cannot trust whites to give it to them: ‘No black person will ever be good enough in the eyes of whites to merit equality. Therefore, if blacks are to have freedom, they must take it, by any means necessary.’[16] Can white liberal Quakers maintain an absolutist position on non-violence in the face of such criticism?

4. A challenge to our understanding of God’s love and human goodness

White liberal Quakers are comfortable speaking of God as Love, but rarely speak of God’s wrath or judgement. We also speak of the inherent goodness of humanity, and humanity’s moral progress or evolving consciousness, but we do not speak of sin. For Cone, these are serious omissions. If God is the God of the oppressed, then God’s love is experienced as wrath by white oppressors. In a racist society, God’s love can only mean ‘the righteous condemnation of everything racist.’[17] God cannot be both a liberating God and a God without wrath.[18]

We must take a hard look at our claims to inherent goodness and moral progress. How much of what white people call progress has been built on the exploitation of black people?[19] What does talk of human goodness mean when ‘at the same time whites were doing everything they could to destroy blacks?’[20] White people are used to thinking of themselves as individuals, free from the sins of the past, free from the history of colonialism. For Cone, this claim to moral independence is precisely what sin is:

To be in sin, then, is to deny the values that make the community what it is. It is living according to one’s private interests and not according to the goals of the community. It is believing that one can live independently of the source that is responsible for the community’s existence.[21]

According to Cone, this white liberal side-lining of God’s wrath and our own sin is to be expected. Our whiteness hinders our ability to see things correctly. Our detachment from the oppressed prevents us from recognising God at work in the world. White Christians ‘fail to realize that their analysis of Christianity is inseparable from their oppressor-mentality, which shapes everything they say about God.’[22] If God is the God of the oppressed, then our privilege actively works against our ability to discern God’s will. This has important implications for the white liberal Quaker understanding of discernment.

Some queries

I’m not offering a critical engagement with Cone here, and if I’m to take Cone seriously as a white theologian then it’s not my place to do so. I look forward to exploring the responses of other black theologians to Cone’s work. Neither am I considering the points of connection between Cone’s theology and Quaker positions. I think there are many such points, but I don’t think they are the place for a white theologian to start.

In thinking about the ways in which Cone challenges white liberal Quakerism, I’m left with these very difficult queries for white liberal Quakers (including myself):

  • Do you cultivate a Quaker spirituality that does not use interiority and universals as an escape from engaging with black experiences of oppression?
  • Do you tell the story of Quakerism in a way that honestly faces white Quaker complicity in the oppression of black people, and makes space for black Quaker voices?
  • Do you account for the experience of the oppressed in your understanding of the peace testimony?
  • Are you open to God’s liberating wrath at your own racism and complicity with white supremacy?
  • How is your ability to discern the leadings of the Spirit disordered by your whiteness?

Featured image photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

[1] James H. Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation, 2nd ed. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1986), 24.

[2] Cone, 7.

[3] Cone, 85.

[4] Cone, 63.

[5] Cone, 46.

[6] Cone, 47.

[7] Cone, 85.

[8] Cone, 6.

[9] Cone, 97.

[10] Cone, 12.

[11] Cone, 3–4.

[12] Cone, 141.

[13] Cone, 65.

[14] Cone, 63.

[15] Cone, 71.

[16] Cone, 98.

[17] Cone, 69.

[18] Cone, 69.

[19] Cone, 18–19.

[20] Cone, 83.

[21] Cone, 104.

[22] Cone, 41–42.

48 thoughts on “James Cone’s ‘A Black Theology of Liberation’ and white liberal Quakerism”

  1. Really good questions… a lot to think about, thank you. There are a lot of conversations happening about liberalism in relation to how it supports racism – so thank you to for expanding on this and prompting a conversation…

  2. Thank you Mark,
    As a self- identified ‘Quakolic’ ( Quaker-shaped practitioner of Christianity with a healthy dose of Catholic tradition), I read your reflection with recogition and joy.
    I too, worry about ‘ahistoricity ‘ and the consequent narrowing of perspective within Liberal Quaker understanding of our larger Christian tradition.
    In particular, I have been formed and strongly influenced, by a Catholic tradition that includes Creation Theology, Feminist Theoogy and , most relevant to your
    thoughts , Liberation Theology .These strands were stifled by the charismatic , yet socially conservative Pope John Paul ll and by the rigid orthodoxy of Pope Benedict XVl. Pope Francis ,in this respect offers more of a hope of concentration on ‘Orthopraxy’ rather than mere ‘Orthodoxy ‘.
    Rather than discuss oppression , Jesus lived in solidarity with the oppressed .Catholicism recognises a ‘ preferential option for the poor ‘ ( all marginalised groups ).
    Even the great Scholastic theologian, Thomas Aquinas, was, at the end of his life convinced by an experience rather than the sum ( Summa?) of all he had written .
    As Richard Rohr reminded me recently, and you today ,Mark ,Contemplation and Action are indivisible – thank you 😊

    1. You’re welcome! Thanks so much for reading and commenting Jan. I think Quakers have so much to gain from engaging with those strands within Christianity. (I love the term ‘Quakolic!’)

  3. I sense you’re right, Mark, about many (British) Quakers being individualistic now, but that is not the British Quaker tradition throughout the last 3+ centuries. The individual focus perhaps began at the turn of the nineteenth into the twentieth century with the term “inner Light”, whereas early Friends clearly foregrounded the transcendent God/Christ and spoke/wrote of the Light within (or, less frequently Inward Light).

    It’s a misconception (prevalent among many British Quakers today – I’m not suggesting you share it) that in a dispute both sides in a conflict have equal merit. [I recently moved Meeting (and Area Meeting) because of just such an approach to a serious breach of behavioural standards. Those of us standing firm against the breach were not supported and, after taking any amount of hurtful abuse, in the end had to remove ourselves. (You may be familiar with the Matthew 18: 15-17 conflict handling template.) It was such a shame.]

    All this is not to say that the Truth cannot be found in a practice of silent waiting together. If Quakers lose that, there is nothing distinctive about us and there is no point in us at all.

    1. Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment. Yes, the attitude to conflict you talk about is very problematic, and is something I’ve witnessed more than once in the liberal Quaker community. What we must commit ourselves to is ‘discerning the spirits’, what is coming from a spirit of love and what is coming from a spirit of pride/fear etc., not just trying to keep everyone happy.

      The encouraging thing is that, as you say, we have a tradition than can offer a way out of our individualism. I’m very interested in what Quaker theological resources of the past can help us face the situation we now find ourselves in.

  4. That was fascinating and showed me how far liberal Quaker experience has changed both from its origins and from my experience in West Coast United States Quaker meetings. The prophetic voice which clearly extends past the individual was essential in both. Historically Quakers, of course, were very active in the abolition movement, risking their lives here to shelter escaped slaves. Woolman seemed a good example of that kind of Quaker. I have always been comforted by the wrathful side of God, since that is the response my soul has to injustice.

  5. Recently read Cone’s THE RISKS OF FAITH (1999), and learned from his discussion of the theology of MLK and Malcolm X, from his observation that Black theology is breaking from the dominant white Christian institutions. In this book he explains why and says there will be no moving forward without dialogue, “without ending the white silence on racism.” It doesn’t feel outdated at all. I suggest–a friendly suggestion–that you reshape your useful questions above so they are not yes/no questions. People can still answer “I don’t” if they are not interested in lenses that help us breakdown white supremacy. In the first 3 questions, simply substitute “How do you” for “Do you.” But also reshape the last two questions to allow people to witness these behaviors–not just do them–to rid yourself of the assumption that those who engage the questions are all white.

    1. Thanks for reading and commenting Susan, and for your suggestions. I wrote the queries specifically with white Quakers in mind, but it would be good to revisit them and think how they could be reshaped to be more useful.

  6. Thanks for this Mark, really valuable. I need to give much more consideration to all those questions, and it is great that you have raised them. Thank you for introducing me to Cone’s thinking. I too have had concerns for a while about the growing individualism in Quakerism, and our weakening engagement with the valuable paradoxes of our tradition e.g. freedom vs discipline, individual vs community. I also admit that I am someone who finds myself ever more distant from my and Quakerism’s Christian roots, not because I wish to be, but partly from a desire not to be associated with much that identifies as Christianity, but also from a growing sense of the parochiality of Christianity’s truth claims. I find it ever harder to see it as ‘the way’ rather than ‘a way’. Believing in the resurrection because I need a vision for the future seems to me the wrong way round.
    Just for now I’d like to respond to one specific issue you raise, not because I think it is the most important, but just because for some reason it sparked some questions of my own. It is where you say, “There is one particular thing that troubles me about the white liberal Quaker disconnection from the Bible and its history of God as God of the oppressed. In Britain we revise our book of discipline every generation, drawing overwhelmingly from British and American Quaker writings. This means that, without the Bible, our ‘canon’ consists of almost exclusively white voices, dramatically limiting our understanding of God.”
    If I have understood your point correctly, you are suggesting that including the Bible would be one way of preventing our ‘canon’ from consisting of exclusively white voices, which must, I think, imply that you consider the Bible to be the product of ‘non-white’ voices (acknowledging that ‘non-white’ is a problematic identifier). But given that race theory argues that ‘white’ and ‘black’, and indeed ‘race’ as a concept’, were created to enable the exploitation of principally non-European bodies for profit from the 16th/17th century onwards, I’m not sure how the voices in the Bible can be characterised in these terms. For sure, there are many examples of oppression in the Bible, and if one is to make the claim that ‘black’ is synonymous with ‘oppressed’ and ‘white’ with ‘oppressor’, then perhaps the argument might hold, except that there are also plenty of examples in the Bible where the oppressed become the oppressor.
    But I think there are other dangers in reading that language back into history in that way. Is that really what Cone wants to say? For one thing, it seems to have a similar issue as the wide misuse of ‘BAME’ in that it conflates all oppression, and fails to recognise the particularity of certain groups’ experiences. For example, one thing that Black critics point out is that ‘BAME’ hides the fact of anti-Black racism from other groups who may be included in the BAME catch-all. Furthermore whilst all racism is oppression, but not all oppression is racism. Therefore not all oppressed voices are black. I wonder whether Cone is speaking more from the tradition of ‘political Blackness’ that was much more widely accepted in the 1970s, but seems to have been largely rejected by the Black Radical tradition now.
    In other words, what I am trying to say is that there may be good reasons for including more of the Bible in QF&P (that’s another discussion), but I don’t think as a way to make it ‘less white’ is one of them.

    1. Well, this prompted an interesting discussion around the family dining table last night! My wife made a good point, that another reason why interpreting the Bible as representing ‘non-white’ voices is problematic is the way that it has come down to us today. The formation of that canon, the ways it has been translated, and of course how it has often been interpreted to us, in the UK and US at least, has been largely via white men, which makes it an open question as to whose voice exactly is it that we are reading/hearing.

      Of course the lack of Black voices in QF&P is representative of the lack of diversity in the Society (in at least the UK). I admit my ignorance in terms of not knowing whether that has historically always been the case (or at least to the current extreme), but a quick search online doesn’t bode well. We also have to acknowledge the uneasy relationship that the liberal tradition has with many Quakers elsewhere in the world over a range of theological and social issues, and how that affects our ability to hear those voices. Saying that, there are flashes of hope, for example the 2016 Swarthmore Lecture. My searching has just thrown this up though:
      so, I’ve just ordered that from the Quaker bookshop, which should be interesting.

      The bottom line is that we as a Society have a huge task in front of us to address our historical and current lack of diversity, and how that skews our understanding of the world and our core commitments, such as to equality.

      Anyway, that’s probably enough focusing on that point, you raise many other important questions that need to be sat with.

    2. Thanks for reading and commenting Phil. Thanks for chewing over this point. I’m glad it’s provoked so much discussion!
      I wouldn’t want to say that a solution to racism within British Quakers is to bring back the Bible. First, having the Bible as canon doesn’t stop you being a white supremacist, as white Christianity has thoroughly demonstrated. Second, British Quakerism is firmly post-Christian, and I don’t see us ever returning to a Christian norm. So, rather than saying ‘let’s bring back the Bible’, I’m saying that the removal of the Bible means that’s a rich resource we are longer able to corporately refer to. The reason I see it as a rich resource in terms of anti-racism work is that it presents us with stories about people of colour (both literally and politically). I agree that it’s anachronistic to apply racialized terms to these stories, but the Bible is not just a historical document within Christianity. It’s also a living text through which God speaks to our present condition. So within a Christian framework I think it’s legitimate to use Biblical stories in our reflection on racism and whiteness, recognising racist dynamics within Biblical stories. Wilda C. Gafney does this in her ‘Womanist Midrash’, reading the Hebrew Bible through the lens of women of colour. I see it as similar to queer readings of scripture – e.g. it’s anachronistic to label Joseph as queer, but to my 21st century gay eyes he definitely reads as queer, and reflections on this queerness can be very helpful for contemporary queer Christians.
      In terms of the whiteness/blackness of the Biblical authors and characters, there are many examples of people who are black politically, but they also aren’t white in the literal sense either. Kelly Brown Douglas argues that white supremacy in the US (and arguably the UK) is based on the belief in Anglo-Saxon superiority. Although the Bible has a history of being used and interpreted in harmful ways by white Europeans, it’s definitely not an Anglo-Saxon product.
      On the blackness of Jesus, Cone writes: ‘But some whites will ask, “Does black theology believe that Jesus was really black?” It seems to me that the literal color of Jesus is irrelevant, as are the different shades of blackness in America. Generally speaking, blacks are not oppressed on the basis of the depths of their blackness. “Light” blacks are oppressed just as much as “dark” blacks. But as it happens, Jesus was not white in any sense of the word, literally or theologically.’
      Yes, Cone uses white and black to denote oppressor and oppressed. Thanks for bringing up the need for nuance with this. The dynamic of oppressed become the oppressor is something I need to explore more. I know Cone has been critiqued within the Black theological community, but I’m yet to get to grips with those criticisms.
      So I definitely agree that bringing the Bible back into liberal Quakerism wouldn’t make our canon necessarily less white, and that’s not what I’m suggesting. I’m more lamenting the loss of a particular resource that has a lot to offer white people seeking to dismantle their whiteness, when read through the experiences of people of colour. When reflecting on racism and whiteness, I certainly find more powerful, challenging stories and imagery in the Bible than in Qf&p. I hope we can find a way to rectify this that works for a post-Christian church.

      1. Thank you Mark, for this very helpful expansion and clarification. Thinking about it in terms of “the loss of a particular resource that has a lot to offer white people seeking to dismantle their whiteness, when read through the experiences of people of colour” makes a lot more sense to me, and I can see, will be a useful way for me to think about the Bible. In fact “…when read through the experiences of people of colour” is perhaps a good summary of the key lesson I feel I have learned over these last months. I have so much work to do. Thank you for the examples you have given, I’ll explore them.

  7. Thank you for a brilliant article, Mark. You have given me a lot to think about. I have long felt that an obsession with the universal and the timeless at the expense of the particular and historical in modern liberal Quakerism can be a form of escapism. I cannot however reject the former. I cannot see these aspects of the human-divine encounter as essentially binary. What we know of the eternal is experienced in time. The communion of saints is experienced in society. Black and queer theology are surely making us hear the silenced voices of God. It is thus a form of blasphemy to keep them hidden. It is thus my duty to listen and learn.
    These are my first responses to your article. I’ll plant them on the seedbed of my soul.

    1. Thanks for reading and for your encouraging comments Harvey. I wouldn’t want to reject the universal and timeless either. I think the way to the universal is through the particular. It makes me think of the statement ‘There’s only one race, the human race’. When I hear eminent Black theologian Anthony Reddie say it, I hear it as a truth that needs to be realised by everyone through dismantling racism. When I hear white people say it, I mainly hear it as an attempt to escape the difficulties of dismantling their own internalised racism, as a way to ‘skip to the end’.

  8. I rejoice in being introduced to Rev. Cone and reading the Jolly Quaker’s posts about Black Theology and white guilt.

  9. “Within white liberal Quakerism there’s an emphasis on the spiritual experience of the individual. I sometimes see this lead to a valuing of the spiritual over the material, of the soul over the body.”

    Hello Mark,

    Are you willing to give specific examples and documentation of liberal Quakers whose spiritual experience is individualistic in nature?

    1. Hello Keith, I’m not sure I understand what you’re asking. I’ve had spiritual experiences as an individual, and as part of a group, but I think that in Liberal Quakerism there’s an emphasis on the individual over the corporate. I see this primarily in the emphasis on diversity of belief. This finds expression in the Quaker Quest model of outreach – individual Quakers give their own account of their beliefs, and there is no need for any of them to agree. Ben Pink Dandelion writes in his Swarthmore Lecture “I suggest we have embraced a way of being Quaker that allows everything to be questioned and everything to be related to personal choice.” I also see this in discussions about authority, and I find that the authority of the individual is generally seen to trump that of the group. Even though our official theology is that authority ultimately rests at yearly meeting level, I don’t think this is necessarily believed or even known by the majority of Friends.

  10. “… inwardness… It is not an introspection in which one contemplates’ one’s own ego.” (Your quotation of Cone)

    Thank you for this your further reflection upon the individualistic nature of liberal Quakerism. It is curious to me to observe how those, who acknowledge the rule and guidance of the reflective nature, relate to other people. For the sake of clarity and in light of your last response, would I be correct in assuming that you join with Cone’s reflection that inwardness is “an introspection in which one contemplates one own ego.” That is, are you standing upon Cone to reflect upon and support a contention that the immanent witness of liberal Quakerism is a “contemplation of one’s own ego?”

    1. In his book, Cone challenges an emphasis on inwardness that neglects the lived, bodily experience of oppression. I think liberal Quakerism can sometimes be guilty of this. I don’t think inwardness is to be dismissed altogether, but neither should it be used as an escape from materiality or embodiment.

  11. I’m trying to get at whether you join with Cone’s expressed contention that inwardness is contemplation of one’s own ego. Will you address whether you agree with such a contention and whether you relate to liberal Quakerism through such a reflection?

    1. I think Cone’s description of inwardness should not be taken out of the context of his discussion of black liberation. A spirituality of inwardness that does not lead an individual to work for liberation could be dismissed as contemplation of the ego or naval gazing. So in that I would agree with Cone. I think there are also forms of inwardness that are connected to liberation, so I won’t dismiss inwardness altogether. So I can’t give a yes/no response to this question.

    2. Hi Keith, from the way you’re pressing Mark on this point, it is obviously a subject of some importance to you. For those of us observing the discussion, would you be able to expand a bit on your own thoughts and why this is such a key question to you? For myself I think it would help me to appreciate the issue at stake better. Many thanks.

      1. Hello Phil,

        Yes. But I am not able to do both at the same time. I suspect, as the discussion thrashes out, it will become clear. However, I welcome and appreciate a more full discussion based upon any questions you my have upon conclusion of our discussion.

  12. This is significant and extremely revealing. Let me now restate my question in the context of your last two responses. Do you agree with the characterization that you reflect on the inward witness of *some* in liberal Quakerism as a contemplation or reflection of their own ego?

    1. I have already answered your question as best I can. I feel that your line of questioning is taking us away from the context of black liberation, which is the main concern of this post. As Phil has requested, stating why this issue is important to you would be helpful, although if the discussion is going to be focused on the nature of inwardness, and not on how it relates to black liberation, then I am not inclined to continue this discussion here.

  13. That’s fair enough Mark. When you write: “A spirituality of inwardness that does not lead an individual to work for liberation could be dismissed as contemplation of the ego or naval gazing.”

    Is it your reflected or mediated principle that a person whose “inwardness” is not guided and informed by adherence to the outward intellectual construct … “liberation” … is engaged in an inwardness that is of the nature of contemplation of the ego?

    1. Keith, I feel the need to say that this feels more like an interrogation than a discussion. I get the sense that you have a very specific point that you wish to make but which, for some reason, you are choosing to withhold until you have pushed Mark in to making some statement about inwardness and ego along some rather narrow lines. A discussion in good faith doesn’t work like that. Mark has generously offered some initial, and very thoughtful, reflections on a challenging book as a prompt for co-exploration, as well as answering your questions to the extent that they appear relevant to the discussion. With all due respect, I hope we’re not here to ‘cross-examine’ each other for the purposes of personal axe-grinding.

  14. Hello Phil,

    I welcome and appreciate your cross-examination of and reflections upon me. I do not shy away from your reflection that I am cross-examining Mark. I accept and embrace the characterization. Cross-examination is a positive thing. It gives a person the opportunity to speak for himself and clarify himself to a person who is interested in understanding his reflections upon others. To be more specific cross-examination, in the sense questioning to ascertain or better understand the opinions of another, is fundamental to the reflective process. In my questioning of Mark I am participating in the very process of co-exploration. After all, Mark himself is cross-examining liberal Quakers in this very article.

    It is revealing that you have chosen to reflect on my questioning in a negative way. I would have it no other way. Would you like me to go forward and further explain, under your cross-examination, why I was cross-examining Mark? I welcome further engagement and fellowship with you.

    1. Keith, I am experiencing your questioning as cross examination in the manner Phil describes, and I do not like it. I am not enjoying this interaction with you. You are not offering any of your own thoughts, and so there is no spirit of ‘co-exploration’. I have already amply spoken for myself, both through writing the post in the first place, and attempting to answer your questions, answers which you are not accepting. I find your relentless questioning draining. If there is a point you wish to make, please do make it, but until you do I will not be responding to any further questions from you. If you continue to interact with my blog in this manner, then I will block you from making further comments.

  15. Mark Wrote:
    1. I don’t believe in the unmediated presence of Christ.
    2. I believe that our experience of God is always mediated in some way, just through us being embodied individuals in a specific time and place.
    3. I also don’t believe we are fully able to discern the will of God as individuals.
    Source: Mark’s response to me in the comments section of this article of his:


    In a previous conversation, you have acknowledged you have not experienced the unmediated presence of Christ in your life. You have also further acknowledged that your experience of God is of the nature of reflective thought; that is it is mediated in “some way”.

    Given that, by your own acknowledgement, your conscience is guided and informed by and through the reflective process (mirrored or mediated consciousness) in matters of human relations and your relations to God, I am curious to query how you have come to reflect upon liberal quakers through the mediation of Cone’s theology. As I indicated in our comments between one another here “It is curious to me to observe how those, who acknowledge and profess the rule and guidance of the reflective nature, relate to other people.” I read your reflection on the nature of liberal Quakerism in the context of Cones reflective theology with interest; which prompt me to inquire more deeply into and to observe further how it is you relate to liberal Quakers.

    Many things struck me in reading the words you quoted from Cone’s book. The phrase that really struck me was the reference to inwardness as a contemplation of one’s own ego. This phrase is compelling to me in that you used it in the context of your reflection on liberalism Quakerism as being guided by an individualistic spirit as opposed to being guided corporately. Furthermore, it is understandable that a person who does not know the unmediated presence of Christ, by his own acknowledgement, would reflect upon liberal Quakerism through the refracted paradigm of individualism v. corporatism and all the forms in between. For the person who relates to people through the mediation of the reflective process, there is no other way. The reflection that the testimony to the witness of the unmediated immanent inshining presence of Christ (or self-evident being) as sole and sufficient guide in human relations is a contemplation of one’s ego is perfectly understandable from the perspective of those whose human relations are ruled through and nurtured in the reflective process. For the process of being guided by and informed by the ego (which is merely to say the sum total of one’s feelings, thoughts, desires, will, sensation, and perceptions) is to be guided by the reflective process in the same way that those who are guided corporately are in the power of the reflective process. There is not a difference in kind, it is a difference in degree. Both the individualist and those guided by the community are ruled and governed through the reflective process.

    You again quote Cone:
    “To be in sin, then, is to deny the values that make the community what it is. It is living according to one’s private interests and not according to the goals of the community. It is believing that one can live independently of the source that is responsible for the community’s existence.”

    This is significant and revealing. I was leading up to asking you whether I would be correct in assuming that for you values (the reflections of the community) is the source of a communities existence. Assuming this is the case, I can see how you would be troubled by the testimony to the witness of some in and outside of liberal Quakerism and of being drawn out of the process of participation in and idenitification with and the agency of outward political, religious, and social institutional formal structures and the ministration of others to guide and inform human relations. The only alternative you, as a person who does not know and is not aware of the continuous and unmediated presence of Christ in your life in conformity to the influence of the reflective process, is to reflect upon them, as Cone reflects, as “living according to one’s own private interest.” Again, this is the only alternative for those in the power and influence of reflective thought.

    I testify to you there is another way that is not of the nature, power, rule, and influence of reflective thought and the reflected constructs “individualism” and “corporatism or “community.” Through the power and unmediated and immanent presence of the spirit of Christ or immanent being itself in itself in the conscience and consciousness their is a difference way.

    In this different way people who are drawn out of the reflective process in their relations with others are not individualistic, that is, in contemplation of their ego or living according to one’s own private interests as Cone would reflects. The unmediated experience and awareness of the spirit of Christ enthroned in the conscience as sole and sufficient guide in matters of human relations saves people from the individual v. community paradigm that the reflective nature professes and promotes. It discovers to them the awareness of the unmediated inshining impulse of Christ as their sole guide in relating to others.
    Because you, by your own acknowledgement, are not come into the unmediated, immanent presence of Christ to guide your your relations with others, but are of the nature of the reflective process to rule and guide your relationships and interactions, I decided to ask you questions designed to illicit self-reflection, to better understand your reflections on liberal Quakers.

    I appreciate your answers, they have been helpful. However, I still have many Questions. With that said, I also appreciate that the process of probing and examining both your reflections on others and your self-reflections makes you uncomfortable and it drains you. I also appreciate that you wish to suppress any further probing or cross-examination through imposition if I do not comform to your will. The reflective process nurtures contention, strife, and discomfort.

    I have tried to express somewhat of the unclear concern upon me, relative to your reflections in this article. I have done so to the extent I am aware of the direct inshining impulse of the motion of Christ in my conscience. Some of what I would say results in my awareness of a decrease in Christ impulse upon my conscience manifesting in a stop which shows that the expression is outside Christ’s inshining motion and prerogative in my consciousness and conscience.

    I was hoping my interacting with you in the form of probing question and re-questioning by way of your self-reflecting would prove fruitful. And it has been helpful and revealing in many ways while it lasted. In light of your discomfort with my questioning, I can proceed no further in a pure conscience in the Spirit of Christ.

    I have downloaded your article and the comments in PDF format and will continue resting with it in the direct presence of Christ.

    In the continous and immanent and unmediated Presence of Christ,


  16. I have found this discussion fascinating and I am very grateful to have found this blog. I came to Quakerism as a consequence of becoming religious about Friendship, believing that God is in our connections with each other. Since my childhood as a Baptist, I started to feel a strong sense of guilt about being English and reckon that I am not alone as I hear few people describing themselves in that way. This is the result of our incredibly oppressive history. Recently, a close black friend who identifies as a Seventh Day Adventist challenged me about this guilt about which he laughs at me as it repeatedly emerges in our conversations. He ascribes this to the failure of Quakers to take the devil seriously.. I am feeling he may have a useful point and would like to explore this thought further. I am regularly hearing about shame quakers feel about having no more than a tiny sprinkling of black faces among us. I ask, why would they come to us when they have such Joy together?

    1. Thanks for reading the blog Jill, and taking the time to comment. I’m really glad you’ve found it useful. I think the point about not taking the devil seriously is a really important one. I think white guilt arises not only from a recognition of our complicity with white supremacy, but also from a sense that we should be perfect. Cone writes about the white need to ‘win’, and I recognise this amongst white Quakers – we want to win at being morally pure people! I think our desire to be more ethnically diverse often comes from this desire to be morally pure. I have just finished listening to a podcast called ‘Nice White Parents’, about the power of white parents in schools in New York. A common theme was white parents wanted their children to go to diverse schools, while parents of colour wanted their children to go to well funded, well equipped schools. Diversity was not a priority for parents of colour. This has made me think that perhaps diversity is a red herring. Perhaps we should be focusing on anti-racism, racial justice and the dismantling of white supremacy within Quaker culture, rather than becoming more diverse. You might enjoy a previous post of mine on white guilt.

      1. If I may extend the ‘animal’ metaphor, perhaps not a red herring (if there are such beasts) but rather, a canary in the coal mine. Diversity, or rather the lack of it, is an indicator of something deeply wrong which we need to probe and address. And yes, I agree with you that what we almost certainly will find is deep-seated injustices and unrecognised presumptions of white supremacy. I think we will also find historical wealth and privilege built on slavery, (the only room at the MH I attend that is named after a person, is named after someone who made their money from imports and exports to and from slave plantations and used some of that wealth to extend the MH). We need to address to what extent we have been, and continue to be, paternalistic in our encounters with the wider world and, somehow, come to grips with just how much of the lifestyle we take for granted is rooted in the continuing colonial relationships of our country.

        As for the devil, well, he/she/it often seems to me to be a handy way of letting ourselves off the hook, (“it was the devil what made me do it sir!”) but I take your point about the dangers of thinking we can make ourselves perfect. It’s Augustine vs Pelagius all over again!

        One last thought. It probably wasn’t how it was intended, but I think there is a danger also in assuming that only some styles of worship appeal to particular ethnicities, and that must be the reason they stay away from other traditions. As Prof. Kehinde Andrews (Birmingham City University) has argued, for all the problems of Black-led churches (problems as identified by him, not me), they have played, and continue to play, a crucial role in Black communities not least because they as some of the few truly Black led mass organisations.

      2. Thanks Phil! Yes, I have heard the sentiment that ‘black people like loud worship’ a number of times, always as an excuse for the overwhelming whiteness of a meeting. Highly problematic for so many reasons!

  17. Thanks Mark. Helpful article. I’m a US Quaker and work as a therapist. I’ve been interested in narrative therapy and liberation psychology recently and often found myself questioning how it fits with Quaker faith and practice. The questioning mainly stems from this issue of interiority and inward identity that you mentioned in the article vs identity constructed in context, relationship and community. Thanks for the effort and thought you put into laying our your thoughts.

  18. I am currently doing a Woodbrooke course – The Meaning of the Cross with Stuart Masters. In so doing, I have ‘discovered’ James Cone. I find your comments fascinating and challenging – I think there is enough material for course?

    1. Thanks for reading! I think I need to do more research before offering a course, but there’s so much Quakers can learn from Cone, so I hope a course might eventually materialise. 🙂

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