We’ve been doing a series on racism and how it has infected our theological beliefs. I’ve asked some colleagues both from North Park and a friend at Wheaton to join me in this series, but today’s post is one of my own. Our series is rooted in the exceptional book of J. Kameron Carter,Race: A Theological Account . His book traces how the Church’s beliefs about Jews had lasting impacts on how the Church’s theology has become racialized even when unconscious and unintended. With the election now of Barack Obama, racial questions are being reviewed once again so it is a good time for us to be looking at this book. The chp I am discussing today is on James Cone, a prominent African American theologian. Carter sketches his thoughts, appreciating what Cone says but thinking he fell just short of penetrating into a theology that could end racialized rhetoric even more.
The big picture is this: Cone developed thoughts from two European theologians, Karl Barth and Paul Tillich, to get into the very heart of racism and developed a theology of blackness. Neither Barth nor Tillich are easy to summarize and Cone’s development of their thoughts is not easy either. Carter thinks Cone’s thought was still driven by a concept of blackness that was “beholden to the logics of modern racial reasoning.” Carter constantly drives us to embrace the Jewishness of Jesus, not as a race against other races but as a Jewish Jesus whose “flesh” embraced other races. The way out is to embrace “concreteness.” This is the big picture: the incarnation of Christ in the history of Israel, assuming as Jesus did Jewish covenantal flesh, is Carter’s big thesis for unraveling racial rhetoric in theology.
There is a problem, Carter argues, with developing a racial consciousness in which blackness is the “exhaustive principle of identity.” Carter sees Cone developing a theology through the works of Barth and Tillich that led to universalizing and abstraction, the opposite of the need for “concreteness” that we find in Jesus’ Jewish covenantal flesh. Cone develops a Barth who had too abstract of a view of Christ. Carter thinks Cone got just to the point of seeing the significance of the Jewishness of Jesus for unraveling racial logic. But his commitment to existential, dialectical thinking prevented him from going far enough. Barth, Carter argues, had an uneasy relation of the divine and the created. Tillich moved too much in the direction of timeless being. God becomes too much the word used for overcoming finitude … and this will not grant sufficient space to the Jewish flesh of Jesus. And he dips then into Buber’s categories of the I-Thou. Cone’s focus settles too much for the I of blackness standing over against the Thou of whiteness, allowing whiteness to shape what blackness means.
Carter proposes participation in YHWH’s presence in the covenantal Israel.