Power in The Blood

Been a long week, and so I am posting last week’s systematic theology rant … um, scuse me, paper … here. I’ve made no changes, this is what I handed in, and it is about oanne Marie Terrell’s Power in The Blood: The Cross in the African-American Experience. This is not my best effort, but this isn’t a book that spoke much to me either.

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According to Joanne Marie Terrell, Black theologies of the cross start with the experience of slavery and suffering, and root themselves solidly in the identity many Blacks in America believe they share with Jesus Christ as one who suffered and died. Because suffering under the violence of slavery and Jim Crow, with their enforced servitude, are central to the Black understanding and experience of Christ, many theologians have discerned the need for Black Americans to repudiate both the calls to suffering and servitude seen by so many European and Mediterranean Christians.

Therefore, the focus of theology is to either enable Black Americans (and, I suspect, Blacks living as marginalized people in others societies, such as Afro-Caribbeans or in South Africa under apartheid) to survive and find relief from the conditions under which they live or encourage and promote liberation from that oppression. Womanist theologians (who Terrell says are largely African-America, as opposed to feminist theologians, who are generally white) tend to embrace the latter (Terrell clearly does in her conclusion) while Black male theologians, such as James Cone and Albert Cleage, clearly embrace the latter.

Terrell states that liberation theology in the Black context (especially as espoused by Cone) focuses on the liberating acts of Jesus, the collective/communal nature of salvation and its social, political and economic consequences (p.72) – salvation for Black liberation theologians is clearly about the here and now, and is for Cone clearly about Blacks being “somebody,” both individually and collectively (p.92). Cleage was especially influenced by the Afro-centric theology of the Nation of Islam (with its beliefs in the inherent evil of whites), but felt that few Blacks would embrace the Nation’s religion and thus Black liberation must be Christians (p.86). Cone would later conclude that the “scandal of the cross” was the church’s failure to confront white imperialism across the world and name that oppression (p.98).

It is hard for me to know what to do with this book, since I am neither Black nor a woman. To speak of systematic oppression on the basis of race as a condition of America is clearly true. But as with most assertions of race, this is a gross generalization that fails to appreciate the breadth of actual human experience. My life in white America was such that I was sympathetic for a time with the Nation’s theology that white folks are the devil. Or at least the embodiment of evil in the world.

According to Terrell, the experience of suffering as a people on account of their blackness is central to the Black theologians she cites. So, while I can understand their approach to suffering – finding relief from it or seeking to be free of it – I think it is too limiting. Or rather, that approach is limited by a desire for certain political and social outcomes. At several points in the book, Terrell refers to the “sanctification of suffering,” expressing a clear concern (either her own or that of another theologian) that to find too much meaning in the suffering of Blacks in the United States would be to bless or endorse or even see as essential that suffering as part of their religious experience. Terrell herself, in speaking of finding comfort, doesn’t explicitly say that religion can help find meaning in suffering without blessing the suffering. This is the problem with any musing on suffering, but I believe liberation theologians – especially Black ones – could expand their understanding of the value of suffering in the face of horrific evil by examining other understandings of suffering, such as that of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in his three-volume history of the Soviet prison system, The Gulag Archipelago, or other classic works on the subject. Granted, the period Solzhenitsyn examines is only 35 years rather than 350, and much of the violence done by the Soviet state was random (but much was not, and was focused on peoples identifiable as peoples, such as Crimean Tartars or Lithuanians), but he still tries to find meaning in suffering – and a benefit for the sufferer – without ennobling those who inflict the suffering. (It helps he draws, perhaps without knowing, on Orthodox concepts of theosis for this.)

The other problem at the core of this desire for liberation is the unstated belief that is God wills only good stuff – say, freedom – for God’s people. Thus, any lack of the good stuff is a lack of God. Or, rather, God is simply not as present in suffering as God is present in liberation. This, to me, has always been a troubling implication of liberation theology and, from a Lutheran perspective, is an implied theology of glory. This is the difficulty for the theologian who seeks to understand God’s desire for the world without either sanctifying status quo or revolution. I seek to sanctify neither because I believe God sanctifies neither. Yet God deals with the material world as it, rather than remaking it – or empowering us to remake it.

One way to consider this matter would be for those who have suffered injustice, even (or perhaps especially) systematic social injustice, to ask: “What do we know about the world that those who have not suffered, or those who have made us suffer, do not know? What do we know about God? What do we have to teach the rest of the world?” If the natural human assumption regarding God is a theology of glory (and it does seem to be a natural human assumption), then suffering is perhaps one way humans can (but will not necessarily) learn about the God who resides is misery, poverty, obscurity and on the margins. (Care must be taken with this, however, because any sense that God can only be found someplace can just as easily become a theology of glory.)

Terrell also steps into the minefield of servant, sacrifice and self-abnegation language that many Black theologians believe has been used to maintain white supremacy in the United States. There is a clear and honest point here, and yet it has always struck me that there is a real failure to understand that while scripture has been used that way, it was most likely not intended that way. Yes, the call to love others is also a call to love self, and in fact that call implies that one cannot love others unless one loves self. But to say that some folks must exercise power – especially Cone’s social, political and economic power as part of salvation – while others must not is a recipe for Zimbabwe-like disaster. It merely arranges deck chairs with the appearance of justice. Considering the experience of the northern Palestine of Jesus’ time and how radical a form of resistance voluntary servitude was might help disentangle the voluntary, turn-the-other cheek kind from the involuntary servitude of the ruling society.

Indeed, I believe that Black theologians could stand an encounter with African American Muslims, who embrace a religion that calls all followers “slaves” of God. I never met an African American Muslim who had any problems with being “abd allah,” or slave of God (“slave of” forms part of many Muslim names), even as terms like “slave names” were used (and I was asked a few times what my slave name had been) and “slave religion” for Christianity. So clearly several different concepts of slavery are being used here.