February 20, 2019
Christian theologians today are still grappling with the fraught and interconnected relationship between Christian thought and racial oppression. In this blog post derived from his research, M.A. in Historical Theology student Michael Yorke presents a consideration of three major figures in the conversation, then suggests how our conception of Christ is central to addressing issues of race and the Church.
Jesus, Theology, and Race
The Christian tradition has always been scandalized by the Incarnation, struggling to balance belief in its universal significance with belief in the immense implications of Jesus’ particular reality in space and time. The truth that the eternal Son of God became a particular human being, in a particular space, and at a particular time, raises myriad questions about God, humanity, and salvation. In Christian theology, when a balance between universality and particularity has not been maintained, its loss has come at severe cost.
In the theological community today, Western culture and Euro-American Christianity have come under much scrutiny for their roles in the marginalization or suppression of various people. In response, much contemporary theology asks whether traditional Christian claims, articulated as universal, are able to meet particular human needs. Theological reflection on the topic of race reflects one such concern. The reality of America’s fraught history and ongoing issues with race has caused many to assess the structural and moral integrity of the Christian faith. Three influential 20th/21st-century theologians, Howard Thurman (1899-1981), James Cone (1936-2018), and Willie Jennings (b. 1961) find the answers to their questions of particularity with regard to the black experience in the person of Jesus Christ, even if they do so in distinct ways.
Howard Thurman: Jesus as an Ethical Example
For Howard Thurman, the key to overcoming the devastating effects of Christian theological imbalance on black Americans was focusing on the ethical example of Jesus. The fact that Christ existed as a poor Jew in the midst of an oppressive Roman empire made his resistance to fear, deception, and hatred, and his embrace of the way of love, was, for Thurman, the model by which poor blacks in the midst of an oppressive white America could do the same. Thurman appeals to a universal ethic, and his ethical reflections on the person and work of Jesus are good and true in large measure. Thurman finds his inspiration in Jesus, but if his ethical program could conceivably apply to the work of any extraordinary moral exemplar, then Thurman’s solution begs the question, ‘why Christianity? why Jesus in particular?’
James Cone: Jesus as Existentially Black
To this question, James Cone effectively replies, ‘because Jesus is black!’ For Cone, ‘blackness’ is an existential situation, not a biological or ethnic one. Cone’s insistence on the ‘blackness’ of Christ is not (primarily) meant to elicit thoughts of a melanin-rich messiah. The “soteriological (relating to the doctrine of salvation) meaning” of Jesus’ Jewishness is that, from within the historical identity of an oppressed people, Jesus liberates them from oppression. For Cone, the experience of oppression of blacks in America is like the oppressed experience of Jews in first century Palestine; and if Jesus revealed himself as Jewish in the first century, then he reveals himself as black in America today. Consequently, by uncovering the existential reality of ‘blackness,’ Cone also exposes the existential reality of ‘whiteness.’ An issue with Cone’s insistence on Christ’s identification with existential ‘blackness,’ though, is that it unintentionally reinforces an arbitrary scale of existence between ‘whiteness’ and ‘blackness’. Cone finds immense theological resource in Christ’s identification with the poor and oppressed, and so should we, but if he needs the categories of ‘blackness’ and ‘whiteness’ in order to do so, Cone’s program begs the question, ‘are blackness and whiteness essential categories? does this way of categorizing human beings correspond to what is ultimately real?’
Willie Jennings: Jesus as One for Many
Willie Jennings essentially replies, ‘not really, no.’ For Jennings, it is this scale of existence itself that is the locus of the theological and social deformity. In the early modern era, colonialist expansion merged Christian theology, already tainted with notions of Christian superiority over and replacement of an ‘ethnic’ Israel (supersession), with newly-configured relationships between people and with the land. The result was a racial scale of existence, turning people and places into commodities. For Jennings, modern western society lives within this malformation and is thus unable to discern that we continue to view arbitrary racial categories as essential, even as we struggle, like Thurman and Cone, to free ourselves from the social baggage that such categories carry. However, Jennings proposes that reforming our understanding of the person and activity of Jesus in his particular place and time will reveal a social vision of diversity within unity, reconstituted within and around the body of Jesus Christ, and held together by the Holy Spirit.
Diversity within Unity
Many Christian claims are inherently universal. All of humanity is plagued by the problem of sin and Christ’s work of atonement makes the way of salvation available to all. This kind of universality is not wrong, but the particularity within this universality cannot be missed. Yes, Jesus stands as a universal ethical example, and yes, Jesus’s identification with the oppressed remains of particular importance. Furthermore, however, it is the Jewish man Jesus, his birth in the town of Bethlehem, his preaching in and around Judea, his crucifixion at Golgotha, and his resurrection after three days that opens the door to the joining of all people through the preaching of the apostles and the coming of the Holy Spirit. In the body of Christ there is particularity without division, universality without domination. This is the new space created at Calvary and it is a space that transcends and subsumes time from within. May the Church always be found there.
 While Cone’s statement is not primarily about skin color, he appropriately observes that his insistence on the blackness of Christ elicits resistance while depictions of Jesus with white skin, blonde hair, and blue eyes do not. This discrepancy, for Cone, is hypocrisy and evidence of implicit (or explicit) racism.
This story is adapted for our blog from original research Michael will present at the Evangelical Theological Society’s Midwest Regional Conference.
Image: Corpus, Mixed Media Sculpture by Professor of Art David Hooker. Learn more about the making of the work here.