Emotional Theology: thoughts on and from James H. Cone's Black Theology and Black Power, Introduction

Note: This is post 2 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. of Black Theology and Black Power, these are notes on the Introduction.

“It is my thesis that Black Power, even in its most radical expression, is not the antithesis of Christianity, nor is it a heretical idea to be tolerated with painful forbearance. It is, rather, Christ’s central message to twentieth-century Christian America.” (1)

The short introduction to Black Theology and Black Power centres on emotion. Cone is writing with a definitive attitude, “the attitude of an angry black man”.

Rather than apologising, or shirking from this point Cone instead points out that calls for objectivity, or not taking sides are impossible. His argument is less that we all have subjectivities and locations (as has become common), and more that it is irresponsible to be ‘objective’ when writing about moral issues. He quotes Kenneth B. Clark who says that if a scholar wrote on Nazi Germany without feeling repulsed, his reasonableness, rationality and “unobjective” approach should not be praised but condemned. Clark: “Feeling may twist judgment but the lack of it may twist even more”.

Unlike the prophets and Jesus, who let anger shape their responses to injustice and oppression, too much theology is cool (perhaps Cone could have played a “lukewarm” reference here) and dispassionate when dealing with the topic of race in America (if it deals with it at all, which in 1969… wasn’t much) or topics of injustice in general.

Calls to ‘remain rational and objective’ are more often than not a ploy of those with power to dismiss the objections of those without (this is obviously not a new insight). It is easy to stay ‘rational’, ‘objective’, ‘cool, calm, collected’ when your body isn’t on the line – when your life, and the lives of your people are not at risk. I see this on social media all the time. People who just want to stir the pot post something incendiary online and then ridicule or dismiss those who object. As if the objectors miss the point of their oh, so clever stirring of the pot, and are somehow beneath them because of their emotion… and that’s just fucked.

Just because someone is emotional doesn’t mean that they can’t be right, just as someone who presents and argument with cool, sober detachment, is not immune from being wrong.

And Cone is right, without sacrificing scholarly rigour, or ignoring facts, and while still allowing new voices to challenge us, we should allow our emotions to shape our theology (or economics, politics, etc.). We have emotions such as compassion, anger, sorrow for a reason – they allow us to be affected by wrong and hurt enough to do something about it.

So what is Christ’s central message to 21st Century America, or Australia, or Christians in the global West more generally… after these last few days, I’m am swayed to think it might have something to do with the migrant and refugee.

"If the church is to remain faithful to its Lord, it must make a decisive break with the structure of this society by launching a vehement attack on the evils of racism in all its forms. It must become prophetic, demanding a radical change in the interlocking structures of this society. (2)



Song: K-Boy and Kendrick Lamar, By Any Means Necessary

Film: Before Midnight – this is essentially the essence of the Jesse and Celine arguments (thanks Julien Faddoul for this insight)

Readings: Ezekiel 2:1-7. Amos 5:1-17