In God of the Oppressed, Dr. James H. Cone shares a story about a white preacher in the South who encouraged his black congregants in his sermon to follow the new Jim Crow laws through an eschatological narrative. The white preacher declared that in the middle of Heaven there will be a partition separating blacks from whites, just like the water fountains, movie theaters, etc. The response from the congregants to the preacher came from the usher who prayed over the offering plate before the collection. This brave man prayed how thankful he is that his black sisters and brothers are a shoutin’ people and if there is a partition in Heaven that they will shout it down until it falls. And further he prayed if the white people in Heaven do not like it, they can go somewhere else (19,20).
This story draws near to my heart nowadays. Not much has changed since this story took place during the 18th century. Instead of having overtly institutionalised racism with slavery and Jim Crow laws; we have a tolerant racism that gives way for the prison industrial complex and allows for people to murder young people of color out of fear and without any immediate repercussions.* Currently, Neo-Nazis are preparing for a race riot in Florida, so that the whites are protected.
Who says we live in a post-racial society? Not I.
The way we practice theology reflects our lives. For example, Flannery O’Connor was known for her Catholic faith, short stories, and grotesque characters. She spent her life in the South and considered herself a Thomist. Her short stories were infused with messages of faith and forgiveness. At the end of her famous short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” the protagonist grandmother tells the antagonist, Misfit, that Jesus forgives:
“If you would pray,” the old lady said, “Jesus would help you.”
“That’s right,” The Misfit said.
“Well then, why don’t you pray?” she asked trembling with delight suddenly.
“I don’t want no help,” he said. “I’m doing all right by myself.”
The Misfit doesn’t and the story ends on a sour note. My point here is that O’Connor’s story portrays the Catholic life. Yet, her faith has little to do with her inherent racism. Sure, she had stories about people of color in the South, but they were not always cast in the best light i.e. “The Artificial N*****”.
The other week, I read many of O’Connor’s letters compiled in a book titled “The Habit of Being.” Flannery wrote a letter on April 14th to Richard Stern, a few months before her death. It reads, “It ain’t much, but I am able to take nourishment and participate in a few Klan rallies” (573). What?!? Flannery O’Connor was associated with the KKK, one of the most racist groups in the U.S. Yes, she was. How did this happen? How can a Christian dedicated to following Jesus fall into the trap of hating Black people who have been oppressed in our society since white people stole them from Africa? Thus, my point is: I believe theology, whether it is Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, etc. affects the way we “live and move and have our being.”
Dr. Cone makes the distinction in how christology is taught and preached in the Black church compared to the white church. Once again in God of the Oppressed, Dr. Cone writes
“White preachers and theologians often defined Jesus Christ as a spiritual Savior, the deliver of people from sin and guilt, black preachers were unquestionably historical. They viewed God as the Liberator in history. That was why the black Church was involved in the abolitionist movement in the nineteenth century and the civil rights movement in the twentieth” (51).
O’Connor did not have a theology “from below,” but “from above.” God has eternal Ideals and abides in an ahistorical place. Thus, one can conclude that God is not so much concerned with our contextual existence, but that we must live up to God’s expectations. It was easy for O’Connor to do, since she was born in a well-to-do white family in the South and was able to practice Catholicism to almost its full extent, according to bourgeois religion.
I reject “from above” theology, situated in a privileged position. Instead, I try to form a “from below” theology, that many oppressed groups from the centuries have developed. This could be defined that God is here with and for us. God is involved in history and seeks to redeem all of history.
In the Christian tradition, God sent Christ to teach, have compassion (to suffer with), die on a cross, and resurrect, thus beginning the redemption of the world. God still suffers with us as God’s Spirit who shows “mercy, justice, and the knowledge of God” (God the Spirit**). If God is with us declaring justice, then to actively participate and ignore systematic racism is contradictory. And until we recognise that our liberation is latticed with the liberation of others, we can not have a better theology nor a better society.
If Jesus’ death and resurrection represent anything, it is that God is on the side of the oppressed. Yet God desires to redeem both, oppressor and oppressed. If we could help this process along, it would to be intentional in how we live with others. The famous Peruvian liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez wrote, “Neighbor is not one whom I find in my path, but rather one in whose path I place myself, one whom I approach and actively seek.” May we be a people who with God’s Spirit actively seek to be neighborly to all.
*Here I am expressing that justice does not equate to law and vice versa. We have a corrupt system that at times all can see, in the case of Trayvon Martin, it is apparent. Yet the contradiction immerses with Malcolm X, and without his time in jail to reflect and accept the belief system of the Nation of Islam, he would not have made a radical stand against the racial injustices that permeate in our society.
**I just finished this text for a class and found it to be the best systematic theology for God’s Spirit. Michael Welker, the writer, uses a framework of liberation theology and shows how God’s Spirit is a “force field of change and hope.”