(RNS) – A specter haunts white evangelism. He comes in the form of James Cone, one of the founders of black liberation theology.
At the end of last year, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary President Daniel Akin tweeted in response to a tweet (since deleted), “James Cone was a heretic and almost certainly not a Christian based on his teachings. … We do not legitimize it.
After a major refusal, Akin made an amendment: “Although his writings and statements give me pause and great concern for his soul, if when I get to Heaven I find out that James Cone is there, I will humbly greet him.” gladly and happily like my brother in Christ as we worship King Jesus together for his incredible salvation, grace and love.
Some other Christian opinion leaders have found this too generous. Reverend Josh Buice, Southern Baptist Pastor, suggested that Akin had “normalized an enemy of the gospel.”
It’s not entirely clear what prompted this discussion from Cone, a longtime professor at Union Theological Seminary who died in 2018. But his sins against the white evangelical establishment date back to 1969, when he published “Black Theology and Black Power,” which interpreted faith through the prism of the struggle for black freedom.
In the book’s introduction, Cone explained, “I wanted to speak on behalf of the voiceless black masses in the name of Jesus whose gospel I believed had been greatly distorted by the preaching and theology of the white churches.
Its main themes include the idea, summed up in the mantra “God is black”, that God always sides with the oppressed, that the black experience is a legitimate source for doing theology, and that the task of theology is the Liberation.
He raised questions about some principles of faith that white evangelicals cherish, in particular the inerrancy of scripture and the concept that Jesus died the death we deserved because of sin.
Perhaps the biggest problem white theologians have with Cone’s work is his emphasis on Jesus’ humanity rather than his divinity, and his belief that salvation is as much about saving black people from the noose of the Klanner. , or the strangulation of the officer, that it is a question of going to paradise. when we die (if that has anything to do with it).
What Cone definitely did not lack was a sincere devotion to the way of Jesus as he understood it. No, the heresy Cone is guilty of is denying the power of white Christian leaders to define what Christianity should look like to black people.
What constitutes heresy in the church depends on where the boundaries of orthodoxy are drawn (meaning “righteous belief”). The Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches excommunicated each other in 1054, in part because of divergent views on the nature of the Holy Spirit. Protestants were declared heretics by Roman Catholics, and Protestants viewed Catholics as heretics, largely on the issue of papal authority.
In general, white evangelicals claim Scripture as the only standard by which to measure orthodoxy. They don’t admit or see the white frame that informs their theology.
Framing, something like a mental field of vision, determines what we don’t see and how we interpret what we see. The white cadre tends to ignore the systems of anti-black violence and white supremacy, both subtle and overt, that permeate American society.
This explains how some of the founders of American evangelism, George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards, were able to point out the wrath of God and the need to repent of sin while also owning slaves. They framed their scripture reading so that it did not interfere with their white supremacy.
Today, this kind of framing leads the heirs of Whitefield and Edwards to miss the connection between social action and Christian fidelity. Misunderstanding their frame for the whole picture, they assert that what they cannot see is not there, and they dress their prejudices in religious language.
Cone recognized that black Christians need to embrace their own framework. He rightly said that black people and other persecuted groups do not organize their faith around brooding over theological propositions, but around meeting God in their struggle for freedom.
This experiential emphasis on knowing God may coexist with the White Church’s emphasis on propositions, but Akin and Buice and similar thinkers cannot help but argue that their framework is better.
And that’s how much a theology program is organized, with white theologians – Luther, Calvin, Barth – as required reading, and everyone listed as extra credit (if that).
Cone was no more heretical than any white theologian celebrated today. White Christians just don’t stop and whip white theologians for doctrinal smuggling like they do black thinkers.
Martin Luther, for example, cuts through security with his anti-Semitic writings without seminary presidents saying they are “soul-conscious”. Thinkers like Cone have raised the alarm, however, because they dare to hold theologians like Luther accountable.
This racist exceptionalism is not limited to Cone. At their recent conference on social justice and the gospel, a sign Southern Baptist male leaders who wrote a social justice statement criticized more people for not raising issues about Martin Luther King Jr.’s theology
(They also touched on the infidelities reported by the civil rights icon, but the men in their place often manage to talk about Karl Barth without talking about his mistress, Charlotte von Kirschbaum.)
Even though Cone and King lean heavily on the Scriptures and focus their work on the person and work of Jesus as much as white theologians do, black thinkers are threatened with hellfire so as not to stay within the bounds of the little gospel of white evangelism.
The difficulty that men like Akin face in getting rid of Cone or King is that white men no longer own Hell. The days of handing over heretics to the state to be burned at the stake or drowned are long gone. Even excommunication only works if the “heretic” is responsible to a religious body. The threat of sanctions is the only thing that once gave meaning to accusations of heresy.
The democratizing influence of the Internet makes even social excommunication – currently known as “cancellation” – unnecessary. Remember when conservative heavyweight John Piper tweeted “Farewell, Rob Bell” when Bell’s 2011 book “Love Wins” questioned the existence of hell? Bell then published a New York Times bestseller on the Bible, and there was nothing Piper could do about it.
This brings us back to questions of power and truth. Evangelical Christians have long expressed deep concern over an immanent postmodern apocalypse that would destroy the notion of “absolute truth.”
The advent of fake news in a post-truth presidential administration shows that their anxieties were not entirely unwarranted. But the truth is not completely gone. It’s just that we understand the difference between a landscape and a person’s field of vision – their setting.
Is the truth a landscape in front of us that each of us only partially sees? Or is the truth the power to force everyone to see the world through one frame?
Whiteness has often defined “truth” as the latter – the acceptance of a white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy as orthodoxy, as normal and ideal, with the threat of violence forcing those suffering under that narrative to comply.
By dismissing this story, many marginalized people are simply saying that the white frame is never right for us. It is not a loss of truth that is at stake. It is the white establishment’s loss of control over the cadre, its power to define the limits of truth.
Cone is among those who defiantly assert that whites have no role in governing the religion of black Christians. He reminded us that the white evangelical framework of their gospel has nothing to do with meeting God in the struggle for black freedom. He is an example for all of us. And white evangelicals can’t do nothing about it.
(Andre Henry is Program Director for the Racial Justice Institute at Evangelicals for Social Action. He writes a weekly email and hosts a podcast called “Hope & Hard Pills,” sharing information on anti-racism and social change. The opinions expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)