James Cone and Frederick Douglass on the Cross and White Power

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[Image via FoxCarolina.com]

“The cross was God’s critique of power—white power—with powerless love, snatching victory out of defeat.“ James Cone

I’ve been staring at the faces of the nine people killed in Charleston, and thinking about the fact that they invited their killer in and sat with him for an hour. And I’ve been reading about the incredible grace of their families’ responses to the apprehension of the shooter.

I’ve also been thinking about the (justly derided) Fox News suggestion that what happened in Charleston was an anti-Christian attack, not a racist one. That suggestion was shameful, because it was a naked attempt to tie this tragedy to the religious right’s dumb persecution narrative. At the same time, as Robin Boylorn points out at Salon, it’s not exactly wrong to say that the shooting was anti-Christian. Chalk it up to the broken-clock-that’s-right-twice-a-day phenomenon.

Boylorn explains:

For generations, black folk have turned to their religious faith and to the church for comfort during times of social injustice (as evidenced in the rich and storied history of Emanuel Church). … Roof’s targeting of a place of worship is an attempt to compromise the safety and sanctity of the black church. Before Wednesday night, the black church seemed to be one of the few places left where black folk could assemble in public and feel seen, recognized, heard, loved and welcome.

“I believe it was both,” Boylorn writes. “The shooting was not only an assault on black humanity, it was an attack on black faith, which is one of the few things black folk have left in the face of so much loss, despair and ongoing oppression.”

Two essays from the indispensible hashtag #CharlestonSyllabus brought home the implications of this for me last night. The first, from Frederick Douglass, is “Slaveholding Religion and the Religion of Christ;” the second is James Cone’s “The Cross and the Lynching Tree.” Both essays describe Christianity in America as a divided force, and both locate real Christianity in the black faith, the faith that fostered revolts like that led by Denmark Vesey. Douglass, in particular, is scathing on the falsehood of America’s “civic” religion, practiced by white people seeking to maintain their privilege while mouthing the words of the Gospel. Cone, in turn, forcefully ties the cross to the image of the lynching tree and, in doing so, to resistance against white supremacy. “The cross,” Cone writes, “was God’s critique of power—white power—with powerless love, snatching victory out of defeat.”

The point is, whether the Charleston shooting was an attack on blackness or an attack on Christianity is not an either/or question. Both Cone and Douglass would argue that it was an attack on Christianity because it was an attack on blackness.

Both essays are pretty revolutionary, but then an event like Wednesday night’s shooting shows that we have a lot of overturning to do. And in a nation where Christianity holds significant influence over our ideas of morality, one of the first things we need to overturn is our concept of Christianity. That is, we need to see Christianity not in the God Blesses and prayer requests that show up on our Facebook feeds, not in things politicians say when they want to show they’re part of the tribe, but in the nine men and women who were murdered by a stranger they welcomed to their table. Conversely, we need to see blasphemy not in honestly questioning authority, but in the truly scandalous idea that we should be bringing guns to church. We need to see that while of course what happened in Charleston was an attack on the black race, it was not an attack on some “others” for whom we should feel dutiful sympathy. It was an attack on Christianity, on the core of our values, on goodness itself. If we call ourselves Christians, then it was an attack on us. And if we can’t see it as an attack on ourvalues, as an attack on us, then we need to change our values and our definition of “us.”

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