Monthly Archives: November 2021

Theologian of survival – James H. Cone 2

Another book by James H. Cone is called ‘Martin and Malcolm and America: A dream or a nightmare’. In this he explores the backgrounds of both Martin Luther King and Malcolm X to help the reader appreciate the development of their religious and political perspectives and how they influenced and what they each meant for America. Cone discusses the integrationist view of MLK and how this and his stance of non-violence attracted white liberals, and the nationalist view of Malcolm X who urged separation between black and white people – not segregation and the building up of black African nationalism. Although their ideas seem very different there was increasing convergence between them in their last years.

In this post I want to write about the vision that King had in 1956 when he ‘appropriated the God of the black experience “for his own personal life” and became himself a theologian of survival. This took place through his experience as pastor and as the leader and participant in the campaign of a bus boycott to press for desegregation on transport. It was several weeks into the bus boycott when King got an abusive phone call and death threat. Despite having received previous death threats – apparently about forty a day – this particular one stunned him and prevented him sleeping. He worried for his wife and then baby daughter and thinking that a coffee might give him some relief he went to the kitchen. This account from King is quoted by Cone:

‘I started thinking about many things … trying to give philosophical and theological reasons for the existence and reality of evil, but the answer didn’t quite come there … And I discovered then that religion had to become real to me and I had to know God for myself. And I bowed over that cup of coffee, I never will forget it. Oh yes, I prayed a prayer. And I prayed out loud that night. I said, “Lord, I’m down here trying to do what’s right. I think I’m right. I think the cause that we represent is right. But Lord, I must confess that I’m faltering. I’m losing my courage, and I can’t let the people see me like this because if they see me weak and losing my courage they will begin to get weak.”’

As he prayed King felt a heavy burden being lifted form his shoulders, and felt the liberating presence of God as never before.

‘Almost out of nowhere I heard a voice, he said, “Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And, lo, I will be with you, even until the end of the world.”’ After that experience, he said, “I was ready to face anything”.



Three nights later whilst at a meeting King was told that his house had been bombed, but to everyone’s amazement he was not visibly shaken: “I accepted the word of the bombing calmly,” King said later, “because my experience with God had given me new strength and trust. I knew now that God is able to give us the interior resources to face the storms and problems of life”.


Theologian of survival – James H. Cone

James H. Cone has been referred to as a ‘theologian of survival’ because his suffering as a black person has become a root experience that alters his conception of God. This is someone I’ve only recently come across – through Chine MacDonald’s work. It’s true that many others on the ‘outside’ – whether through gender, sexuality, colour, ethnicity or physical and mental challenges will also have altered their conception of God from their own experiences, but in this post I want to concentrate on Cone’s eye-opening work (for me a white liberal) on black theology as found in his book ‘The Cross and the Lynching Tree’.

James H. Cone

He writes about the deep similarity between the cross on which Jesus was crucified [‘They put him to death by hanging him on a tree’ Acts 10:39] and the trees on which nearly 5,000 black men and women were lynched. One is the universal symbol of Christian faith; the other is:

‘The quintessential symbol of black oppression in America. Though both are symbols of death, one represents a message of hope and salvation, while the other signifies the negation of that message by white supremacy’.

Cone writes that the suffering of black people is too deep for words and how the suffering did not end with emancipation but rather the violence and subjugation took on a different form. The lynching era was between 1880-1940, an extra-legal punishment sanctioned by the community and a very public event attracting many spectators. And yet as Cone quotes:

‘Perhaps nothing about the history of mob violence in the United States is more surprising than how quickly an understanding of the full horror of lynching has receded from the nation’s collective memory’.

‘The more black people struggled against white supremacy, the more they found in the cross the spiritual power to resist the violence they so often suffered.’ They came to know, as one historian put it ‘at the deepest level … what it was like to be crucified … And more: that there were some things in this world that are worth being crucified for’. Cone understands that in the same way that Jesus did not deserve his suffering, black people understood that nor did they, so faith became the one thing that white people could not take away or control. The power of Jesus’ cross gave a powerful identity:

‘Black people “stretched their hands to God”, because they had nowhere else to turn. Because of their experience of arbitrary violence, the cross was and is a redeeming and comforting image for many black Christians. If the God of Jesus’ cross is found among the least, the crucified people of the world, then God is also found among those lynched in American history…The final word about black life is not death on a lynching tree but redemption in the cross – a miraculously transformed life found in the God of the gallows…. The cross places God in the midst of the crucified people … who are hung, shot, burned and tortured.’

The struggle remains to reconcile faith in God’s justice with the persistence of black suffering, and Cone sees that part of that struggle gave birth to the black freedom movement.

Racism and the Church 2

Chine McDonald in her important book ‘God is not a White Man’ explains that the faith of the Christian is based on the fact of incarnation – where God becomes human and dwells among us – as she adds ‘whoever “us” is’. For perhaps, inevitably converts create God in their likeness and this explains the many images of Jesus represented in different cultures – however white Western dominance, alongside globalisation, means that a white Jesus has crossed the cultural and geographical borders. She explains that this reflects the superior valuing of whiteness that then becomes a distortion of the Christian faith.

In her discussion of the uproar from some conservative commentators about the portrayal of God as an African American woman, and the Holy Spirit as a frail Asian woman with a Hindu name in the bestseller book The Shack by William P. Young, she sees that ‘the reason why, in some quarters, it feels so utterly heretical to think of God as anything other than a white man is precisely because we have made whiteness an idol.’

Psychology research shows that most people think God looks a bit like them – so our image of God includes an egocentric bias and this includes a belief that God may also think like us too. How we imagine God affects our spirituality, and, how we experience God. But when a Black woman only sees God reflected as a white man then she is further away and distant – questioning how she is made in God’s image. Mc Donald painfully describes how the church has colluded with pseudo-scientific and religious thinkers where Scripture has been manipulated and distorted to support white-supremacist arguments – suggesting that vestiges still remain of that. Her call is for the church to repent. Whiteness has to be ‘pulled down from its pedestal, so that justice and righteousness can take the throne.’ McDonald quotes James Cone: ‘The cross was God’s critique of power – white power – with powerless love, snatching victory from defeat.’ White power is a political ideology but it is a falsehood ‘based on the arbitrary notion that white people are at the top of the hierarchy because they possess some innate worth that those of other hues do not.’

And as for the church, when Christ is portrayed as a white man, the consequence is that it aligns itself with the dominant and the powerful rather than siding with those who are forgotten and cast aside. ‘The countercultural act of portraying God as Black makes both a political and theological statement about who God is.’


Changing our images – God is not a white man

In her important book ‘God is not a White Man’, Chine McDonald skilfully unpicks the images that Christians and others have solidified over centuries to reflect white supremacism. In the early part of the book, she explores the relationship between faith in God and the racial injustices inflicted on Black people over the centuries [Chine McDonald uses upper case for Black and lower case for white – to reflect how in the past Black people have been always placed lower case]. The statement in her title runs contrary ‘to how centuries of theology have portrayed God’. She adds that there is a double meaning in this:

‘Whether or not God and Christ have literally been portrayed as white men, our views of God, our theology and our practice have been created and shaped within the context of a system of patriarchy and white supremacy. This dominant Christian narrative of who God is … has also influenced wider society.’

McDonald explores how important it is to try to liberate God from ‘the limited man-shaped box’ that we usually put him in, and from the assumption of whiteness. She describes how the image of the long haired and bearded white Jesus developed during the Byzantine era, and through famous art works including the wildly popular image called ‘The Head of Christ’ by Warner Sallman in the 1940s. This is Jesus with dark-blonde wavy hair, perfectly shaped beard and piercing eyes – an image reproduced more than 1 billion times world-wide. She adds that the popularity of this image is the problem where the ‘white Jesus is the logical consequence of a world that values whiteness as supreme’. The reality of Jesus as a middle eastern Jewish/Palestinian figure – who would have looked like an average Galilean man of his day is down played: ‘In a world where whiteness is power, then of course, an omnipotent all-knowing God must be white.’

Warner Sallman’s Head of Christ  and Richard Neaves’ reconstruction from a skull of what Jesus might have looked like.                                      

McDonald quotes Robert P. Jones who writes that the emphasis on a personal relationship with Jesus that is front and centre in white evangelicalism only served to cement the depiction of Christ as white.

‘Whites simply couldn’t conceive of owing their salvation to a representative of what they considered an inferior race. And a non-white Jesus would render impossible the intimate relationalism necessary for the evangelical paradigm to function: no proper white Christian would let a brown man come into their hearts or submit themselves to be a disciple of a swarthy Semite.’

After the murder of George Floyd, and Black Lives Matter protests, Archbishop Justin Welby agreed that the way the Western church portrays Christ should be reviewed, and wrote: ‘Jesus was Middle Eastern, not white … But the God we worship in Christ is universal…’ but, as McDonald points out, at that time there was not a single diocesan bishop in the Church of England who was Black or minority ethnic. And a Black ordinand called Augustine Tanner-Ihm was turned down for a post as a curate in June 2020 with the explanation that despite his obvious talents ‘the demographic of the parish is monochrome white working class, where you might feel uncomfortable’ – the Bishop of St Albans later apologised.