The failing & hope of the Church: thoughts on and from James H Cone's Black Theology & Black Power, ch 3 The White Church & Black Power

Note: This is post 5 in my series based on reading through the work of James Cone. See the first post here where I share thoughts on the Preface to the 1989 ed., here for the Introduction, and here for ch1, and here for ch 2. These are notes on Chapter 3 – The White Church and Black Power.

The Church is that people called into being by the power and love of God to share in his revolutionary activity for the liberation of man (sic) (63)

The church, like Israel, arises to be a “visual manifestation of God’s work in the affairs of men” (65) to follow and join God’s liberating agenda on earth. It is, because of this, a suffering people – not random suffering, but persecution for righteousness sake, suffering with/as the oppressed in the struggle for liberation.

The church, for Cone, must proclaim freedom and liberation, join Christ by working for freedom and liberation, and model freedom and liberation.

It is the second function that is the most interesting for me and my present purposes. For this involves both the confrontation and solidarity of the statement, “Christ is black, baby!” It is confrontation because there will be many who desire (if not a white then at least) a raceless, colourless Christ (the person who read my copy of BTBP before me actually marked in the margins “bull shit I don’t care what color he was/is His message is what matters to me”… so kudos to Cone on calling his shot there). It is solidarity because it shows that Christ “meets the blacks where they are and becomes one of them” (68). Cone expands on this point in a beautiful and profound passage that I’ll post below:

BTBP p 69 why Christ is black.JPG

All of this leads to a pretty damning conclusion:

If the real church is the people of God, whose primary task is that of being Christ to the world by proclaiming the message of the gospel (kerygma), by rendering services of liberation (diakonia), and by being itself a manifestation of the nature of the new society (koinonia), then the empirical institutionalized white church has failed on all accounts. (71)       

Cone follows this with a survey of the white church and its many heart-wrenching failures, its Incarnation denying racism, and its inhumane silence. He proposes that the only hope for the white church is to repent… repentance that will require white churches radically reorient their style of worship towards blacks. “It means they must change sides, giving up all claims to lofty neutrality. It means they will identify utterly with the oppressed, thus inevitably taste the sting of oppression themselves.” (81)

It is here that the task of theology (that is a theology shaped by the black power movement) gains significance. Theology is needed to criticise and remind the church of what it is meant to be. It must make sure that “the church is in the world and that its word and deed are harmonious with Jesus Christ” (84) – calling the church back from its safety net, away from the lucrative position as chaplain of the empire.

 

****

Lots of great challenges throughout this chapter. The one I want to roughly comment on is Cone’s triune task of the church – as proclaimer, actor, and embodiment of liberation. This, taken with the need for the white church to empty itself of privilege and power and identify utterly with the oppressed, leaves no space for the church to retreat – no place to seek security in an “alternative community” or “culture”. While the church needs to embody the kingdom picture of liberation, freedom, and affirmation of humanity – it cannot do so in isolation. This embodiment is the third task of the church, following both the services of liberation offered to/in the world, and the proclaiming of liberation in the face of the oppressive society it finds itself in (and has generally benefitted from). The church must become oppressed; it must take its lead from those whose lived experience is one of oppression and liberation, namely blackness. The white church becoming black means it cannot set the rules for how and when it engages, nor how it gathers. The church is thus set on a perpetual trajectory of identification with those who are oppressed, and commitment to the work of liberation. 

 

****

Companions

Song: Hozier – Take me to Church

Reading: Apostolicity, John G Flett

Reading: (Christian) White Supremacy 101, Brandi Miller