Theologians and White Supremacy: An interview with James H. Cone
Are American theologians saying enough about racism?
No, they are not. Both Catholic and Protestant theologians do theology as if they do not have to engage with the problem of white supremacy and racism. Not all of them ignore it completely, but some write as if slavery, colonialism and segregation never existed. In fact, white supremacy is more deeply entrenched now than it was in the 1960’s and early 1970’s, because back then, the country acknowledged its racial problems more directly. The civil rights and black power movements forced the nation—through Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and a host of other courageous people—to confront racism as a cancer in the body politic. The churches did too, both Catholic and Protestant. Fighting for racial justice in the 1960’s was the churches’ finest hour.
But now, having confronted it years ago, they think they have made the racial situation better, whereas in some ways it is worse. It is like a new form of racism, in that it accepts the tokenism of a few blacks in churches, educational institutions and government in order to make people think everything is fine on the racial front. But just look at the statistics about the African-American community with regard to imprisonment, health care, education and employment. We are worse off today in areas like these. So I want to challenge white theologians and their churches to speak out in a sustained and prophetic way about racial injustice.
Why are white theologians so silent?
I think their silence stems partly from a distorted understanding of what the Gospel means in a racially broken world. White theologians have not succeeded in making an empathetic bond with the pains and hurts of people of color. If theologians perceived their own sons and daughters and parents as being discriminated against, they would not only write passionately against it but would make their rejection of injustice an essential part of their reflection on the Gospel.
Just as Ralph Ellison wrote in the 1950’s about black invisibility in The Invisible Man, black suffering today still remains invisible to many whites. We bond with like-minded people of the same racial group, which is natural because we may live in the same apartment buildings, go to the same schools and churches and have similar values and histories. It is easy to make that kind of social and political bond. But when people look different, it is harder to make. But that is what the Gospel of Jesus is all about - making a human bond with the least of these.
To believe in the Gospel means creating solidarity with the oppressed. Jesus’ cross is God’s solidarity with the weak and the lost. When we follow Jesus into the ghetto, it always creates conflict in a racially divided society. White theologians do not speak out against white supremacy because such speaking will surely make them unpopular in their group. Of all the evils that exist in society, racism is one of the most intractable, because it is so difficult to name and so easy to deny.
Please say more on what the cross symbolizes for African-Americans.
The cross stands at the center of the Christian faith of African-Americans because Jesus’ suffering was similar to their American experience. Just as Jesus Christ was crucified, so were blacks lynched. In the American experience, the cross is the lynching tree. The crucifixion of Jesus was a first-century lynching. If American Christians want to understand the meaning of the cross, they have to view it through the image of the lynching tree on which approximately 5,000 mostly (but not exclusively) black people were killed.
What is most revealing, though, is not the large number of black lives lost, but the violence and the torture of the lynching and the horror it created in the African-American community. Whites would often leave a black body hanging on a tree or lamppost for several days just to terrorize the community, to let them know that this is a white man’s country, and if you don’t stay in your assigned place, the same fate can happen to you. Hundreds and sometimes thousands of white onlookers, including women and children, would be there, picnicking and harassing the victim, collecting souvenirs, fingers and toes and sometimes even sexual organs. Whites who did the lynching were respectable members of Christian churches and saw no contradiction between murdering black people and the Gospel of Jesus.
Whites did not see this contradiction partly because white theologians failed to point it out with sustained conviction and passion. They interpreted Jesus’ cross without any reference to the suffering blacks in their midst. It is amazing to me that few theologians have even mentioned lynching in connection with the cross or said a public word against it when it was so widespread. During the peak of the so-called lynching bees, between 1880 and 1930, there was no public opposition in the writings of prominent Protestant and Catholic theologians.
For example, the prominent social gospel theologian Walter Rauschenbusch said nothing, and neither did Reinhold Niebuhr. I have no doubt that they and others were against the lynching of African-Americans, but they did not say so publicly in their writings. Had blacks been lynching whites, they would surely have spoken out loud and clear. So I hold them accountable for their silence on black suffering. Silence in the face of innocent suffering is complicity in the act itself. While white theologians failed to see the connection between Jesus’ suffering and the African-American experience, blacks did not miss it. When they initially heard from white missionaries and preachers the story of Jesus, they saw a mirror of themselves in his suffering.
Recently, the U.S. Senate approved a resolution for failing to enact federal anti-lynching legislation decades ago, marking the first time the body has apologized for America’s treatment of black people. I contend that white Catholic and Protestant theologians should make a similar apology to African-Americans for their own silence. Perhaps if they could acknowledge their past failures, they could see the need to speak out against racial injustice today.
How do theologians here differ from those in developing countries?
In Latin America, Africa and Asia, you have theologians whose understanding of the Gospel has emerged out of their solidarity with poor and oppressed people. In El Salvador, for instance, the Jesuit Jon Sobrino writes passionately about crucified people, and Gustavo Gutiérrez said we must not speak of the cross of Jesus until we first speak of suffering people. Desmond Tutu has made a similar witness in South Africa, as have many Asian liberation theologians, who make a direct connection between Jesus’ cross and the suffering poor in their midst.
It is strange to me that the Catholic theologians here who express solidarity with liberation theologians in Latin America have said almost nothing about the struggles of the black poor in their own country. The solidarity of North American white theologians with the struggles of the poor in the developing world should only be taken seriously if they make a similar solidarity with the poor in the United States. You cannot help the poor out there without first siding with the poor here.
What about historians?
Historians have been much better. From the time of C. Vann Woodward’s 1955 book, The Strange Career of Jim Crow, they have written persuasively and truthfully about the legacy of white supremacy here. A Southern historian, Woodward was strongly influenced by the civil rights movement and the work of black historians like John Hope Franklin and W. E. B. DuBois. Now, though, a significant number of white historians, influenced by Woodward, are telling the painful truths about American history. They include Kenneth Stampp, Leon Litwack, Eric Foner, Grace Elizabeth Hale, Joel Williamson, George Frederickson, David Blight, Steven Hahn and Brion Davis. We also have to acknowledge the important work of Taylor Branch, David Garrow and others on the life of Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement. I could name many more white historians who have written about the legacy of white supremacy and how it has shaped the character of this nation. If white historians could break their silence and begin to critically engage the past failures of their discipline regarding race, why are theologians for the most part still mute? Theologians could learn a lot from secular historians.
Have some white theologians begun to speak out forcefully on racism?
No, not forcefully. However, some have addressed the problem of race—a little here and a little there. Jon Nilson, who teaches theology at Loyola University in Chicago, gave a talk titled Confessions of a White Racist Catholic Theologian as his 2003 presidential address at the Catholic Theological Society. We have had many conversations about why white theologians are so silent about the problem of white supremacy in the United States. David Tracy has made some brief and insightful responses, but nothing like the sustained engagement one finds in Nilson. Rosemary Reuther was one of the first Catholic theologians to speak and write about racial injustice and has continued to address it in feminist theology. The Protestant feminist theologian Letty Russell has made a similar contribution. In the context of black and feminist theologies, there are black Catholic theologians who have challenged white Catholics to address race in the church, theology and society: Shawn Copeland at Boston College, Diana Hayes at Georgetown University and Jamie Phelps at Loyola Chicago, who played an important role in radicalizing Jon Nilson.
You mentioned criminal justice. Please expand on that.
The criminal justice system in the United States can be said to be doing much of the lynching today, in a new form. In the 1930’s, the American government decided to clamp down on public lynchings as being outside the law. When law enforcement officers had to confront an angry crowd that wanted to lynch a black person, they would tell the crowd not to lynch the prisoner directly. Instead, they told them to take him to court and lynch him there, using the death penalty. In the courtroom, the judges and juries were white. Blacks were excluded from juries and had few resources to defend themselves against either white mob violence or the violence of the criminal justice system. Whites could disregard the black insistence on equal justice because it was their court, and there would be a quick trial that would end in execution. Many scholars call that legal lynching.
Today, the number of incarcerated black people is far out of proportion to their numbers in the population as a whole. Then there are the drug penalties like the mandatory minimum drug laws created, in my opinion, especially for blacks, with harsher penalties for those convicted of crack cocaine sale or possession than for powdered cocaine, which is preferred by white addicts. There can be no equal justice until a black life is worth the same as a white life.
Some claim that immigrants are taking jobs from black people. Is that true?
No. What I see in the immigration movement is a re-living of the civil rights movement, which went on to inspire the women’s movement, the student movement and the gay rights movement. So I do not see it as taking anything away from African-Americans, but rather as deepening the meaning of the civil rights movement itself. You cannot blame the victims, whether they are blacks or Mexicans.
How are poverty and race related?
Poverty and race intersect profoundly. When you go into Native American or Hispanic or black communities, you see poverty that is deeper than in the larger community. Numerically, there are more white poor, and they also suffer tremendously. When Martin Luther King Jr. was preparing for the poor people’s campaign, he went to white communities too, like the ones in Appalachia, and told them that they should be marching with him. For King, the three great evils of the time were poverty, race and war. As for war, if he were here today, he would speak out against the war in Iraq, just as he did against the Vietnam War. It amazes me that the bishops have not done that, except when it was just getting underway.
What are your hopes for a deeper understanding of the Gospel as transcending racial bonding?
Because of my faith in God and humanity, I have hope that together we can create a society and world not defined by white supremacy. I still believe that we can do what the Gospel demands—make a new world safe for all. Martin Luther King Jr. called it the beloved community. Even during the last year of his life, when all seemed lost, with blacks rejecting nonviolence and whites rejecting genuine racial justice, King did not lose hope that God could make a way out of no way, that there is a divine power of justice at work in the struggles of the poor that cannot be destroyed. It was truly amazing how Martin could sustain his hope for a beloved community at a time when nobody, black or white, seemed to believe in it or even care.
I speak out against white supremacy not because I have lost hope, but rather because I too have found it. Hope, for me, is found where two or three small groups of people—blacks, whites and other people of color who believe in Martin’s vision of the beloved community—become willing to bear witness to the Gospel’s transcending racial bonding and move toward human bonding. We need some signs of that transcending. Where will they come from if not from the church? And how will these signs be expressed, except by preachers and priests and rabbis?
Catholics on Prejudice, Lynching and Segregation
I have said that slavery has been abolished in America; the trail of the serpent, however, yet marks the ground. We do not accord to our black brothers all the rights and privileges of freedom and of a common humanity. They are the victims of an unreasoning and unjustifiable ostracism. They may live, provided they live away from us, as a separate and inferior race, with whom close contact is pollution. It looks as if we had grudgingly granted to them emancipation, as if we fain still would be the masters, and hold them in servitude.
Archbishop John Ireland (1838-1918)
Emancipation Proclamation anniversary address, 1891
I know no color line, I will acknowledge none. I am not unaware that this solemn declaration of mine shall be deemed by many...as rash and untimely. Yet I fear not to make it. I am ahead of my day. But the time is not distant when Americans and Christians will wonder that there ever was race prejudice.
Archbishop John Ireland
speaking to a congregation of African-Americans (date unknown)
The enjoyment of peace and protection does not include merely the absence of actual violence or disorder. It presupposes also the consciousness or relative certainty that such violence or lack of protection will not occur. A lynching may not have happened in a given locality for generations, but the possibility that it may yet break out, and for a trifling reason, is enough to destroy all sense of genuine civic peace.
John LaFarge, S.J.
associate editor of America
The Race Question And The Negro
America Press, 1937
We confess that We feel a special paternal affection, which is certainly inspired of Heaven, for the Negro people dwelling among you; for in the field of religion and education We know that they need special care and comfort and are very deserving of it. We therefore invoke an abundance of heavenly blessing and We pray fruitful success for those whose generous zeal is devoted to their welfare.
Pope Pius XII, Sertum Laetitiae
addressed to the hierarchy of the American church
Nov. 1, 1939
I am a member of a Dismantling Racism team in the greater Philadelphia area, and one of the few Catholic members. Our focus is primarily on racism as it survives today within the Christian churches.
So I was pleased that America used the interview as a cover story. Usually Catholic publications feature stories about racism only on special occasions, as in February for Black History Month. But as the interview indicates, this is an ongoing, serious moral issue and an area where the Christian churches have been very remiss. Many Christians seem to avoid racism on a personal level, but seem oblivious to its deeper systemic life, which affects so many of our structures and institutions, including Catholic theology and the church itself.
Professor Cone castigates Protestant and Catholic theologians equally, because they do theology as if they don’t have to engage white supremacy. Does that include American theologians of color as well? If it does, then either all American theologians are blind to the problem (a deplorable situation for us all), or they do not see things in such dire terms as Professor Cone. I suspect that theologians, like everyone else, are trying to figure out how best to facilitate an integrated society. At some point, the dialogue must be about what we can do together rather than what we have done to each other.
Professor Cone believes that white theologians have not succeeded in making an empathetic bond with the pain and hurts of people of color. On this, I don’t disagree. At the same time, I trust he is not waiting for a turnaround on the part of the theologians. Academia, the world of most theologians, is a safe place, where educated men and women can write eloquently, especially about the poor—and stop there. Robert Louis Stevenson remarked with surprise that it was always those with the least to give who gave readily to the poor, without being asked.
Professor Cone says that white theologians interpreted Jesus’ cross without any reference to the suffering of blacks in their midst. He further says that it is amazing to him that few theologians have ever mentioned lynching in connection with the cross or said a public word against it when it was widespread. If this is so, perhaps theologians have no answer for such an abomination against God and man and felt that the only explanation was the cross. Some theologians, to the dismay of Jews, see the cross as a way, the only way, to explain the Holocaust. Pope John Paul II, commenting on priests abusing the young, alluded to the “mystery of evil” as a possible explanation. For once, even he was rendered nearly mute by the unexplainable.
It should not take a theologian or historian to remind us that we have all been imbued with racism, particularly whites against people of color. The white people and black people I know are aware of it. Few know what to do about it, or they are fearful or clueless about how to engage one another. Whether theologian or not, each of us is accountable for what comes next.
For the past several years, the Loretto community has been involved in internal discussion about our own attitudes and practices. At a recent meeting, in which we discussed the interview, the Loretto Racial Justice Committee acknowledged the need to move beyond the personal to structural change.
James Cone has challenged us to “speak out in a sustained and prophetic way” about racism and white privilege. Thanks for the timely reminder.