The Theology of the Noose


I mentioned before that Trinity United (Obama’s home congregation) grows out of the theology of black liberation/power as articulated by James Cone.

Here is Cone (part 1, part 2) on Bill Moyers. Warning there is graphic imagery in the videos.

They discuss this talk given by Cone to the Harvard Divinity School in 2006. Cone says that for Americans, particularly ones who claim to be Christians, to understand the cross they must think of a lynching. The lynching tree is the cross of America.

The Cross is not as in too many white Protestant and Catholic churches, some event etherealized out of political historical meaning. Some event that took away my sins and allowed me to continue to live in this world exploiting my brothers and sisters.

Since this is so–which it is both the cross and the lynching tree are symbols of domination and state terrorism–maybe US churches should put giant nooses on the wall or around their necks as symbols of adoration.

That is the radicality of the Christian message. A death of a criminal, a despised weapon of torture is the greatest source of joy because if they can kill our God, if they can throw the worst that humans have to offer as idolatrous deicide, and he lives yet, then nothing can overcome the Love and the Power of God. Nothing can destroy us.

It is worth listening to these talks and seeing how this man speaks with deep passion and conviction. In the second part (about 5 minutes in) you will hear some eerie predictions of what was to come (and is now happening) in the presidential race.

Why the noose matters is as Cone says the original myth of America is innocence. It’s original sin is domination of the native peoples and slavery of West Africans. And US society is built in large measure to occlude/deny this sin.

Recognizing our (all of our) participation in that reality is bad for business, bad for the consumer model of self-perfection through acquisition of material means. Rather we are one people who do not want to be together in communion. Particularly when that communion will require us to face the harrowing horrific past.

That history is a part of us, whether we want it or not. Which is why of course we should treat every individual based on the merits of their actions, words (and not their color) but simply ignoring race will never bring healing to these wounds or change the structures (inside our minds, out in the world) that perpetuate and exacerbate and reinforce them.

On the other hand, you will hear repeated affirmations that the black experience of God is one of power and spirit who strangely warms the hearts of these people and ratifies their humanity and dignity. A God of the Oppressed. A God who takes sides. Yes, a Black God. As Cone says, Loving God is easy. Loving white people, that’s hard.

Now to the most controversial part in my mind. Cone is influenced by Malcolm X (as well as Dr. King). With X it is for him a question of re-affirming their identity and not letting the other (whites) define one oneself.

Read this interview with Cone which is the most penetrating short analysis/comparison of King and X that I have ever come across. For X he says the way to justice was through separation (echoing Booker T. Washington) while for King justice was to come through integration (echoing WEB DuBois).

Now hear is the crucial piece:

I think you need both emphases, because we are African American. It is important to know that the African comes first. Malcolm X’s point is crucial: without knowledge of one’s past, before we came to America, we will not know how to be African American. We will end up being “American Africans,” and that is a silly thing to be.

The African comes first is exemplified by Wright and Trinity United. (Who you will see have because of the vulture media culture had to put up the white head of the United Church of Christ praising Wright and a live webcam of their church).

That is where the racial waters will be and are roiled. Again to be clear, this is not to excuse bigoted remarks nor improperly preaching a specific political candidate from the pulpit (versus preaching political themes which must be done).

It is worth pointing out that defining oneself and pride in one’s heritage for Anglos is never questioned in US society as somehow meaning you may possibly be anti-American or separatist or subversive or whatever.

I actually don’t think Obama would agree with the good Rev. Cone on that point insofar as being American Africans (or Americans) would somehow be so foolish a thing to be.

If this controversy ends up losing Obama the election, the views of Revs. Cone and Wright might look more prescient.

All that as a way of saying see what happens when we don’t go deeply and search for ourselves in the media echo chamber and blogosphere.

Because I could have simply done what Spengler in Asian Times did and produce a hack job of Cone.

Again I want people to see him for themselves, see how actually non-radical in so many ways the guy is. Spengler compares black liberation theology to Aryan Christianity in Nazi Germany. Nice. And Spengler also dangles the possibility that slavery was God’s will and that to proclaim a black liberation theology is to force God into our categories on our terms–otherwise blacks should be praising God for slavery is it?

That’s why it’s important to see for yourself to try to understand the context (positive and negative aspects of the thought) because he is also the man, Cone that is, who wrote the following:

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. [1]

There is a clear but subtle distinction between a God who is totally identified with the goals of black liberation (or any oppressed group) and a God whose identity is solely as the God of Black Liberation. Who is identified, in other words, totally as that of Black Liberation. Spengler completely misses that point. The first is essential. The second would be heretical.

God must be totally identified with this process and more.

It also would have been quite simple of me to reproduce that quotation (which is from Cone’s older work btw) and shock people. Create fear and then lampoon. And then create guilt by association of anyone who say I don’t know went to a church where such like thinking would have often been heard. And then perhaps place myself in a position where I get to tell a man and his wife (whom I never met and electronically not to his or her face) how they should raise their children and what church they should be attending.

Not the best. Not the best for sure.

Published in: on March 19, 2008 at 10:13 pm  Comments (2)  
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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. […] The cross is the lynching tree. […]

  2. […] sermon grew out of earlier meditations I’ve had (following James Cone) on the Cross as the Hanging […]

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