THEOLOGY K VERSION 2.0: I accept the role of the ballot and propose an alternative method for understanding the unique oppression and social death that confronts the black body. Only by ontologically identifying the oppressed body with the broken and crucified savior of Christ we move forward.
This involves interplay between understanding the Christ through the lens of the oppressed and understanding the worth of those oppressed through the lens of Christ. We need to see the relation between the Cross and the Lynching tree. Christ is not a God of the oppressor, he was the God who was oppressed. CONE1: The cross and the lynching tree are separated by nearly 2,000 years. One is the universal symbol of Christian faith; the [lynching tree] other is the quintessential symbol of black oppression in American. Though both are symbols of death, one represents a message of hope and salvation, while the other signifies he negation of that message by white supremacy. Despite the obvious similarities between Jesus’ death on a cross and the death of thousands of black men and women strung up to die on a lamppost or tree, relatively few people, apart from black poets, novelists, and other reality-seeing artist, have explored the symbolic connections. Yet, I believe this is a challenge we must face. What is at stake is the credibility and promise of the Christian gospel and the hope that we may heal the wounds of racial violence that continue to divide our churches and our society. In its heyday, the lynching [is] of black Americans was no secret. It was a public spectacle, often announced in advance in news-papers and over radios, attracting crowds of up to twenty thousand people. An unspeakable crime it is a memory that most white Americans would prefer to forget. For African Americans the memory of disfigured black bodies “swinging in the southern breeze” is so painful that they, too, try to keep these horrors buried deep down in their consciousness, until, like a dormant volcano, they erupt uncontrollably, causing profound agony and pain. But as with the evils of chattel slavery and Jim Crow segregation, blacks and whites and other Americans who want to understand the true meaning of the American experience need to remember lynching. To forget this atrocity leaves us with a fraudulent perspective of this society and of the meaning of the Christian gospel for this nation. While the lynching tree is seldom discussed or depicted, the cross is one of the most visible symbols of America’s Christian origins. Many Christians embrace the conviction that Jesus died on the cross to redeem humankind from sin. Taking our place, Jesus suffered on the cross and gave “his life a ransom for many” (Mk 10:45). We are “now justified by [God’s] grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith” (Rom 3:24-25). The cross is the great symbol of the Christian narrative of salvation. Unfortunately, during the course of 2,000 years of Christian history, this symbol of salvation has been detached from any reference to the ongoing suffering and oppression of human beings—those whom Ignacio Ellacuria, the Salvadoran martyr, called “the crucified peoples of history.” The cross has been transformed into a harmless, non-offensive ornament that Christians wear around their necks. R[r]ather than reminding us of the “cost of discipleship,” it has become a form of “cheap grace,” an easy way to salvation that doesn’t force us to confront the power of Christ’s message and mission. Until we can see the cross and he lynching tree together, until we can identify Christ with a “re-crucified” black body hanging from a lynching tree, there can be no genuine understanding of Christian identity in America, and no deliverance from the brutal legacy of slavery and white supremacy. I was born in Arkansas, a lynching state. During my childhood, white supremacy ruled supreme. White people were virtually free to do anything to blacks with impunity. The violent crosses of the Ku Klux Klan were a familiar reality, the white racists preached a dehumanizing segregated gospel in the name of Jesus’ cross every Sunday. And yet in rural black churches I head a different message, as preachers proclaimed the message of the suffering Jesus and the salvation accomplished in his death on the cross. I noticed how the passion and energy of the preacher increased whenever he talked about the cross, and the congregation responded with outburst of “Amen” and “Hallelujah” that equaled the intensity of the sermon oration. People shouted, clapped their hands, and stomped their feet, as if a powerful, living reality of God’s Spirit had transformed them from nobodies in white society to somebodies in the black church. This black religious experience, with all its tragedy and hope, was the reality in which I was born and raised. Its paradoxes and incongruities have shaped everything I have said and done. If I have anything to say to the Christian community in America and around the world, it is rooted in the tragic and hopeful reality that sustains and empowers black people to resist the forces that seem designed to destroy every ounce of dignity in their souls and bodies.
Thus, conceptualizing the intrinsic worth and dignity of all bodies needs to begin here. This is not the Christianity of systematic oppression utilized and employed by slavers. The two religious traditions are divided at the very start. FRANKLIN:2
The characterization of Afro-American culture in the U.S. found in Slavery and Social Death is not far removed from these earlier statements. Where Genovese supports his own views of Afro-American "accommodations and moral com promises," Patterson quotes form Roll, Jordan, Roll (pp. 65, 94, 296). And despite the fact that lengthy critiques of Genovese's interpretation of slave religion have appeared by James Anderson (in the pages of this journal) Paul Escott, and Thomas Webber, which clearly demonstrated that all forms of resistance against enslave ment were sanctioned by the religious beliefs of the Afro-American slaves; Patterson totally accepts Genovese's depiction of slave religion. (Paul Escott, Slavery Remembered, 1979; Thomas Webber, Deep Like the Rivers, 1978) [Block Quote Started] I am in complete agreement with Genovese's penetrating interpretation of the role of religion in the slave South. Where I differ from him, and from others such as Lawrence W. Levine and Albert J. Raboteau who with equal skill and persuasion have emphasized the creative and positive side of religion for the slave, is in my interpretation of the specific means by which fundamentalist Christianity became at one and the same time a spiritual and social salvation for the slaves and an institutional support for the order of slavery (p. 74). [Block Quote Ended]In this instance, Patterson chooses to ignore the work of James Cone, Gayraud Wilmore, and other black and Latin American "liberation theologians" who have convincingly shown that the Christian theology of the enslaved and oppressed was (and is) completely different from that of the slavers. The dualism in Christian beliefs in the slave South can be traced directly back to the fundamental dualism found in Christian teachings from the time of St. Paul. Christianity is a two-edged sword that could be used to cut down the oppressors or to legitimize the subjugation of oppressed. The religion that served as the "spiritual and social salvation of the slaves" was not the same version of Christianity that served as the "institutional support for the order of slavery." (James Cone, Black Theology and Black Power, 1969; Gayraud Wilmore, Black Religion and Black Radicalism, 1972)
It is not just that these traditions are different. They are inverted. Christianity is defined by paradox. POWER in weakness, BORN again through death. These inversion are critical if we want to do more than just declare the oppressed should become like the oppressors. CONE (2): The paradox of a crucified savior lies at the heart of the Christian story. That paradox was particularly evident in the first century when crucifixion was recognized as the particular form of execution reserved by the Roman Empire for insurrectionists and rebels. It was a public spectacle accompanied by torture and shame—one of the most humiliating and painful deaths ever devised by human beings. That Jesus died this way required special explanation. It made no rational or even spiritual sense to say that hope came out of “a place called Golgotha . . . a place of the skull.” For the Jews of Jesus’ time the punishment of crucifixion held special opprobrium, given their belief that “anyone hung on a tree is under Gods curse” (Deut 21:23). Thus, St. Paul said that the “word of the cross is foolishness” to the intellect and a stumbling block to established religion. The cross is a paradoxical religious symbol because it inverts the world’s value system with the news that hope comes by way of defeat, that suffering and death do not have the last word, that the last shall be first and the first last. That God could “make a way out of no way” In Jesus’ cross was truly absurd to the intellect, yet profoundly real in the souls of black folk. Enslaved blacks who first heard the gospel message seized on the power of the cross. Christ crucified manifested God’s loving and liberating presence in the contradictions of black life—that transcendent presence in the lives of black Christians that empowered them to believe that ultimately, in God’s eschatological future, they would not be defeated by the “troubles of this world,” no matter how great and painful their suffering. Believing this paradox, this absurd claim of faith was only possible through God’s “amazing grace” ad the gift of faith, grounded in humility and repentance. There was no place for the proud and the mighty, for people who think that God called them to rule over others. The cross was God’s critique of power—white power—with powerless love, snatching victory out of defeat.
This creates competition. Absent starting with value inversion of the K, the current power structure simply reasserts itself because strength wins over weakness. It is only in the Christian paradox that God’s weakness is stronger than human strength, and that it is when we are weak that we are strong, that there can be any final critique of white power through powerless love.
This is an empirical fact, it is though black churches that Black identity was meaningfully preserved. CONE (3): If the blues offered an affirmation of humanity, religion offered a way for black people to find hope. “Our churches are where we dip our tired bodies in cool springs of hope,” wrote Richard Wright in Twelve Million Voices, “where we retain our wholeness and humanity despite the blows of death. . . . “ On Sunday morning at church, black Christians spoke back in song, sermon, and prayer against the “faceless, merciless, apocalyptic vengefulness of the massed white mob,” to show that trouble and sorrow would not determine our final meaning. African Americans embraced history of Jesus, the crucified Christ, whose death they claimed paradoxically gave them life, just as God resurrected him in the life of the earliest Christian community. While the lynching tree symbolized white power and “black death, the cross symbolized divine power and black life”—God overcoming the power of sin and death. “It is only when we are within the walls of our churches that we can wholly be ourselves,” Wright correctly said, that we keep alive a sense of our personalities in relation to the total world in which we live, that we maintain a quiet and constant communion with all that is deepest in us.” At church black people sang of having “been in the storm so long,” “tossed and driv’n,” “buked an’ scorned,” and “talked about sho’s you bor,” “sometimes up,” “sometimes down,” and “sometimes almost level to the groun’.” “Our gong to church on Sunday is like placing our ear to another’s chest to hear the unquenchable murmur of the human heart.” African Americans sang of having traveled a “lonesome journey,” through slavery and segregation, often tired, hungry and homeless, “rambling and running,” not knowing where to “roam”—not knowing where to “make my getaway” to find a safe place, free of the “noise of the bloodhounds on my trail.” Blacks have been “tore down,” “broken-hearted,” “troubled in de mind,” “way down yonder” where “I coundn’t hear nobody pray,” I a valley so deep and dark where death is like “a hammer ringin’ on a coffin,” “a pale hose an’ rider,” “ a chariot swigin’ low,” and “a train blowin’ at the station.” In that era, the lynching tree joined the cross as the most emotionally charged symbols I the African American community—symbols that represented both death and the promise of redemption, judgment and the offer of mercy, suffering and the power of hope. Both the cross and the lynching tree represented the worst in human being and at the same time “an unquenchable ontological thirst” for life that refuses to let the worst determine our final meaning.
Next, the religious methodology is key to addressing social death. Social death is not a complete picture. The black slave while socially dead defined themself within a fractured picture. The religious paradigm is critical to providing that paradigm which fractures social death and soul murder. MASON:3 Patterson acknowledges that social death describes slavery in the ideal. Actually existing slavery was more complex, “laden with tension and contradiction in the dynamics of each of its constituent elements.” Reality was more complex than theory because most slaves refused to believe that they were dead, socially or otherwise. Most were, in Patterson’s words, “desperate for life.” Although slavery crushed some individual slaves, there is, he contends, “absolutely no evidence from the long and dismal annals of slavery to suggest that any group of slaves” internalized their masters’ way of seeing things. Like Aurora and Adonis, slaves evaded and resisted violence and fought to maintain ties of kinship and affection. Like them, slaves struggled to assert their human dignity. Patterson writes that because the slave’s “kin relations were illegitimate, they were all the more cherished. Because he was consider degraded, he was all the more infused with the yearning for dignity. Because of his formal isolation and liminality, he was acutely sensitive to the realities of community.” Slaves wanted nothing more than to become “legitimate members of society, to be socially born again.” They longed for social resurrection. I see social death as more a literary metaphor than a social theory. Metaphors are by nature inexact, both allusive and elusive, and are not to be taken literally. As a metaphor, social death powerfully evokes those aspects of the social order that did the most to shape and define the slaves’ outer lives. It has little to say, however, about the slaves’ inner lives, despite Patterson’s eloquent acknowledgment of slaves’ psychological autonomy. My understanding of the psychology of slavery draws inspiration from the writings of Nell Irvin Painter. Painter has insisted that a “fully loaded cost accounting” of slavery demand an examination of the psychology of slavery. She argues that the violence and sexual abuse that slaves endured, especially during childhood, had damaging psychological consequences. She cite modern studies of those who have suffered repeated beatings and sexual exploitation to show that victims experience “certain fairly predictable effects . . . feelings of degradation and humiliation . . . anger, hatred, and self-hatred.” Since “it is doubtful that slaves possessed an immunity that victims today lack,” they would have exhibited similar symptoms. This, she writes, constitutes “soul murder.” Painter takes the words soul murder literally, arguing that “the beating and raping of enslaved people was neither secret nor metaphorical.” While this was as true of the Cape as it was of the American South about which Painter writes, soul murder can equally well be paired with social death as a complementary metaphor. As with social death, soul murder was not absolute, and it was reversible. How closely the slaves’ psychological condition in a particular time and place approached soul murder depended on how well slaves and slave owners asserted their contradictory interests, as Painter admits. Southern slaves who were imbedded in networks of kin and fictive kin or who had been touched by religious faith survived slavery “in a human and humane manner.” This was sometimes the case at the Cape as well. Things generally turned out badly for the salves; such was the balance of power in slave societies. But things were rarely as bad as they might have been, because, like Aurora and Appollos, most slaves never ceased to fight for life in the face of soul murder and social death.
Your emphasis on the outer self, is philosophically competitive with the dual emphasis on the reclaiming the inner and outer person of my methodology. MASON (2) illustrates the principle by recounting the story of Valntryn Snitle in South Africa. The records tell us little about Valentyn Snitler, but we do know that he was impetuous and devout, a volatile combination in one both young and enslaved. One day in the spring of 1832, during a heated argument with his master, Jacobus Stephanus Vermaak, Snitler blurted out an eloquent and audacious statement of faith, for which his master beat him. A few days after the quarrel, having accompanied his master to town on an errand, he stole away to register a complaint with the protector of slaves in Uitenhage. Vermaak, Snitler told the protector, had whipped him unjustly. His master, he said, had given him ten stripes with a cat-o’-nine-tails, despite his please that he was too sick to work. When the protector learned that Vermaak was also in Uitenhage, he invited him to tell his side of the story. Vermaak said that insolence, not indisposition, provoked the beating. On the day in question, he had been unhappy with Snitler’s work. When he spoke to him about it, Snitler had answered “in a very impertinent manner that he was not well.” Vermaak said that he had then ordered him to take some medicine, and he had refused. Vermaak told him that his choices were to accept the medication or go back to work. At that, Vermaak continued, Snitler had “commenced to cursing and swearing, and holding his finger in [his] face said ‘We have been created by one God and I am as good as you.’” This had been too much for Vermaak, who had reached for the whip. Snitler, the protector reported, at first denied Vermaak’s version of events, but, when pressed, admitted that it was true. Others, he said, had encouraged him to press charges that he now acknowledged were false. On hearing this confession, Vermaak forgave his slave, bringing the case to a close. This story shares its basic plot with hundreds of others in the archives of the Cape Colony’s protectors of slaves. An exasperated slave spoke too directly to his master, who interpreted outrage as insolence and punished his slave accordingly. The slave complained about the beating to a protector of slaves, who conducted an investigation. The slave’s insubordination having been established, the slave dutifully acknowledged that he had been in the wrong and deserve his punishment. This story like the others, is about violence and degradation, soul murder and social death. It is also about the ambiguities of resistance. Snitler, like most slaves, found it impossibly fully to accept the ideologies and social practice of the slave system; and he found it equally difficult to completely to reject them. The notion that slaves were innately inferior to their owners and owned them unquestioning obedience was, like the whip, part of the fabric of daily lie. So, too, were the slaves’ anger and resentment. The result was often the sort of double consciousness that Snitler displayed. He recognized the injustice of slavery and his own inherent equality with his master; at the same time, circumstances forced him to concede that he owed his master some degree of deference and obedience. Two warring souls in one dark body. If the story’s plot is mundane, its details are not. Snitler’s stunning declaration of faith and assertion of equality direct our attention to the way religion shaped a particular slave’s ideas about the world and his place in it. Snitler was one of the thousands of slaves who had been exposed to one or both of the dominant religions of the Cape, Christianity and Islam. We cannot know whether the God that he invoked in his confrontation with Vemaak was the God of the Gospels or of the Quaran; nor can we know whether he was a formal convert to one of these faiths or simply a man who had somehow learned something about one of each of them. We do know that he had absorbed two of the central teachings upon which the faiths are built. He believed that there was but one God and that this creator God had made him, in some essential sense, Vermaak’s equal. These lessons supplied the ideas and the language that he used during his confrontation with his master. As Snitler saw it, God had not created inferior and superior orders of humankind, and Vermaak had no business acting as if God had. In refusing to submit to his master’s unreasonable command and in asserting his dignity as his master’s equal, he rejected social death and demonstrated that his soul was very much alive. Theology trumped ideology, if only for the moment.
This creates competition between methodological approaches in understanding social death. For Christianity it is not some faculty or position that gives humans worth. It is the fact that each body was created directly and lovingly in the image of God. In the image of that communal Trinitarian God which exists first and foremost in community with itself. Thus it is not a faculty we possess but the fact that God chooses to enter into special relationship with the oppressed that generates their unique and inviolable claim of self-worth. We need to start here. We cannot attempt liberation until we know what true life is liberated to.
And, only my advocacy can solve the pessimism-optimism paradox. Optimism requires blindness to truths of social death. It forces us to say the situation is really not as bad as it is, and so encourages us not to wash the world, but “white-wash” it4. However the pessimistic perspective removes all motivation in the fight for justice. It can do nothing but portray the world in all its hopeless current state. Christianity splits the dilemma and presents the way out. It works through the paradox to create space for liberatory acts. CONE (4): 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 the black historian Lerone Bennett wrote, “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.” Just as Jesus did not deserve to suffer, they knew they did not deserve it; yet faith was the one thing white people could not control or take away. “In our collective outpourings of song and prayer, the fluid emotions of others make us felt h strength in ourselves. . . .” They shouted, danced, clapped their hands and stomped their feet as they bore witness to the power of Jesus’ cross which had given them an identity far more meaningful than the harm that white supremacy could do them. No matter whose songs they sang or what church they belonged to, they infused them with their own experience of suffering and transformed what they received into their own. “Jesus keep Me near the Cross,” “Must Jesus Bear the Cross Alone?” and other white Protestant evangelical hymns did not sound or feel the same when blacks and whites sang them because their life experiences were so different. When black people were challenged by white supremacy, with the lynching tree staring down at them, where else could they turn for hope that their resistance would ultimately succeed? Penniless, landless, jobless, and with no political and social power in the society, what could black people do except to fight with cultural and religious power and pray that God would support them in their struggle for freedom? 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.
This is a radical solution that can maintained only within Christian faith. The supernatural element is necessary to fracture the assumption that social death is just all there is. Oppression may have always existed, nevertheless the oppression is utterly hostile to the way the world is meant to be. This must be the first move of any social movement. One cannot tack the K on after the fact, because the central thesis is that only the K can provide the critical impetus to even start moving in the right direction.
Lastly, the supernaturalism of Christianity alone opens up space for transcendence without abandoning embodiment. In the person of Christ the Transcedental is combined forever and finally with the body.