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’. 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.’ 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.
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.’
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, Israel and the life of Jesus, always showing ‘what God has done, is doing, and will do in moments of oppression.’ 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.’ 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.’
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. 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.’
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.’
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.
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.’ 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.’
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.’ 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.’ 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.’ God cannot be both a liberating God and a God without wrath.
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? What does talk of human goodness mean when ‘at the same time whites were doing everything they could to destroy blacks?’ 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.
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.’ 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.
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?
 James H. Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation, 2nd ed. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1986), 24.
 Cone, 7.
 Cone, 85.
 Cone, 63.
 Cone, 46.
 Cone, 47.
 Cone, 85.
 Cone, 6.
 Cone, 97.
 Cone, 12.
 Cone, 3–4.
 Cone, 141.
 Cone, 65.
 Cone, 63.
 Cone, 71.
 Cone, 98.
 Cone, 69.
 Cone, 69.
 Cone, 18–19.
 Cone, 83.
 Cone, 104.
 Cone, 41–42.