When theology gets angry

I’ve heard preachers a few times talking about righteous anger. Jesus in the temple, some Psalms and maybe a prophet or two get a name check. I’ve most often heard this connection between anger and justice being directed at a few staple topics of evangelicalism: sin in general, abortion and poverty in specifics. In those cases, I and my fellow listeners, can all nod appreciatively and our feel our passions stoked; we leave motivated to go out and just do something. It’s the issue that we are angry at, not people. We can feel that way because more often than not we are usually quite a few steps removed from any actual poverty and injustice. It does not reflect the reality of our daily lives but the lives of other people in some other place. So we can leave inspired and convicted but also affirmed.

I doubt though in any of those cases anyone feels that God is angry at them or that other Christians are furious with me. No one wants to think that when the prophets aim their fiery darts at injustice and oppressors that in contemporary terms that may mean them. But what if?

I’m reading James H. Cone’s A Black Theology of Liberation and it’s quite possibly the angriest book on theology I’ve ever read and I’m not saying that’s necessarily a bad thing.

Black theology seeks to analyse the satanic nature of whiteness and by doing so to prepare all non-whites for revolutionary action

p.8

Blacks live in a society in which blackness means criminality, and thus, ‘law & order’ means ‘get blacky.’ To live, to stay out of jail, blacks are required to obey laws of humiliation.

p.16

We have reached our limit of tolerance, and if it means death with dignity or life with humiliation, we will choose the former. And if that is the choice, we will take some honkies with us.

p.16

America, a nation demonically deceived about what is good, true and beautiful. The oppression in this country is sufficiently camouflaged to allow many Americans to believe that things are not really too bad. White theologians, not having felt the sting of oppression, will find it most difficult to criticize this nation, for the condemnation of America entails their own condemnation.

p.21

It is a book brimming with fury. It was first written in 1970. 1970! Yet it could have been written in the last week and its fury be just as relevant. I think that more than anything else is revealing. Essentially the events of the last few weeks suggest that little to nothing has changed in the whole course of my life when it comes to the experience of being black in America (and no doubt many other nations too). That should give us serious pause for thought.

The black experience forces us to ask, “What does God mean when a police office whacks you over the head because you are black?” “What does the church mean when white churchmen say they need more time to end racism?”

p.25

I see similar arguments being made over a statue in the UK. As Jeremy Williams says,

But isn’t it all a bit hasty, some commentators are saying. By tearing down the statue, the decision has been made without hearing all sides. MLK addressed this idea too. “I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was ‘well-timed’ in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’”

When people say the activists should have waited and followed due process, they forget that the Edward Colston statue had already been there for 125 years. They may be coming late to the argument and think things have been rushed. “It is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, ‘Wait’”, wrote MLK. I think I can freely paraphrase that to say “it is easy for those who have never felt the insult of a slaver’s statue to say ‘wait’”.

https://earthbound.report/2020/06/10/toppled-statues-and-how-civil-disobedience-works/

But let’s get back to Cone. It can be easy enough for me to think his anger is not really aimed at me. White I may be, but American I am not so I get a pass right? Not so fast honky says Cone. in fact, it is Cone’s casual sideswipes that landed more of a punch than the rage of his direct assaults. After dismissing Luther for seeing the state as a servant of God and producing a Luthernaism that fatally proved too weak to stand up to Hitler, Cone turns his attention to other Protestant reformers.

Though no one can be responsible for everything that is done in their name, one may be suspicious of the easy affinity among Calvinism, capitalism and slave trading.

p.35

Cue, Calvinists rushing to their & his defence.

But Cone is not done and turns his sights on to Wesley.

John Wesley also said little about slaveholding and did even less. We are told that Wesley’s Methodism prevented a revolution in England, but I am not sure whether we should praise or condemn him on that account. The stance of the white Methodist Church in America, with its vacillation on slavery and colonization, is consistent with Wesley’s less than passionate approach to the issues.

p.36

Now, I’m not sure Cone is entirely fair to Wesley here who did in fact write against slavery in 1774. Cone seems to be looking at the fruit of European theology in America and sees it almost entirely complicit in the sin of slavery and oppression and therefore condemns both the fruit and the root. After all, if the fruit is bad then so is the tree right?

The whole tenor of Cone’s writing is essentially, if you are not for us then you are against us and it is almost impossible for you, if you are white, to be truly for us because you can never know or experience what we feel and live every single day. I don’t agree with Cone entirely and he wouldn’t have cared anyway but that’s not really the point. The point is that it is entirely possible to find yourself being the target of both unrighteous and righteous anger. In that case, we need to fight the urge to immediately defend ourselves but take a deep breath and seek to listen to why this anger even exists. Only then can we begin to discern on which side of this anger is God. Because if there is an issue of justice and oppression at stake then there is a good chance that God is on a side and you may come to realise that that is not the same side as you, Christian or not.

For more quotes that give you a clear idea of what Cone is saying read this from Neil Shenvi and then this assessment of some of Cone’s thought.

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