Monday, December 31, 2007

Bill Moyers in dialogue w/ James Cone

This is a really interesting and insightful Bill Moyers interview with Christian theologian and philosopher, James Cone. During the Black Power era, Cone articulated what he called a "black liberation theology" and has since continued to put forth a radical and prophetic vision of Christ. "Any message that is not related to the liberation of the poor in a society is not Christ's message," Cone argues. "Any theology that is indifferent to the theme of liberation is not Christian theology."

The interview posted here is based on a lecture Cone gives, titled, "Strange Fruit: The Cross and the Lynching Tree." Here is what Cone has to say by way of introducing the topic:
I know that the cross and the lynching tree are not comfortable subjects to talk about together. Who wants to think about lynched black bodies in church worship? Or when doing a theological reflection on Bonhoeffer's question "Who is Jesus Christ for us today?" This is exactly what I contend the Gospel requires Christians to do-especially preachers and theologians. I claim that no American Christian- white, black, or any other color-can understand correctly the full theological meaning of the American Christ, without identifying his image with a recrucified black body hanging from a lynching tree.

Black poets and other artists like Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, and W.E.B. Du Bois realized the religious meaning and symbolic connection of the cross and the lynching tree. But this connection failed to ring a theological bell in the imagination of white theologians and their churches. Not many black theologians and preachers have made an explicit connection between the cross and the lynching tree either. So I want to start a conversation about the cross and the lynching tree, and thereby break our silence on race and Christianity in American history. I began this reflection in the only place I feel confident to speak as a theologian: the black religious experience. I was born into this reality, and have wrestled with these paradoxes and incongruities since childhood. If I have anything to say to the Christian community in America and around the world, it will happen as I stand as a theologian on the reality that sustains and empowers black people to resist the forces designed to destroy every ounce of dignity in their souls and bodies.

Cone is deep, a man of fierce intelligence. The Moyers interview (below) is worth some serious consideration... and is perhaps not a bad meditation for the new year:

part 1:

part 2:

part 3:

part 4:

Here is a well-known quote by Cone: "Anger and humour are like the left and right arm. They complement each other. Anger empowers the poor to declare their uncompromising opposition to opression, and humor prevents them from being consumed by their fury."

If you'd like to watch a video of Cone delivering the full "cross & lynching tree" lecture/sermon at Harvard, click here:

James Cone, "Strange Fruit: The Cross and the Lynching Tree," Harvard University, October 2006


  1. Cone points out some clear parallels between the Roman domination hierarchy and the American domination hierarchy. The most compelling is his thesis of crucifiction and lynching as an instrument of terror. Less effective (to me) are the parallels between crucifiction and prison or crucifiction and inner-city.

    Cone's comment that symbols and actions of hate should and do bring us together. This implies (although he did not say) that we come together to further overcome racism (and all other isms). This was a powerful statement.

    On a disappointing note, Cone establishes himself as a victim and justified (that is, guiltless in religious terms) and whites as guilty oppressors that need reminding of their crimes. All whites - really?

    I found Cone's comments on Christianity germane for those at a mythic level of spiritual development (that is, big God in the sky who can kill his enemies). Specificly, references to the Christain message relevant to the oppressed, resurrection through the cross, and salvation themes.

    It seems to me that mythic-level spirituality could reinforce a victim mentality that puts solving the problem on God and not those here and now. This is somewhat inconsistent with Cone's other comments regarding bringing us together.

  2. Hey Jeff,

    Thanks for typing in...

    Can you clarify your critique, particularly on the part about victimization?

    Yes, Cone's theology flows out of the historic reality of absurd racial dehumanization in the United States and, I think, he is arguing that part of Afro-Christianity's power has always been the fact that it sides with this particular dispossessed group and provides the possibility for redemption... not only for the oppressed, but also for the oppressor! but, at core, it is a theology of liberation, so it always sides with the "victimized."

    So, again, I'm not sure I fully grasp your critique on this score. Help me better understand...

  3. This is something I struggle with in healing all victims - from the perspective of individual and societal growth and healing. Once victimized, the victim is developmentally arrested. When there is something valuable found in the role of victim, s/he incorporates that as part of the self-concept and either represses or dissociates the reality of the trauma event. Healing comes from releasing the repression or embracing the dissociation. One must transcend and include the traumatic situation - or embrace and move forward.

    When this is enculturated, the healing required is societal not individual. Some not affected by the trauma directly further benefit from using that event for thier own gain - personal or ethnocentrically (possibly in this case). It is then in their best interest to perpetuate the trauma to gain from the event. The result can be productive or problematic.

    I am in no way attempting to denegrate the history of of any oppressed group. My interest is in healing and growth. My fear is that embracing the victim ethic by those not directly affected by the trauma event only further prepetuates the historical oppression by the domination system in power at that time.

    Examples include: 911 (terrorism), African Americans (slavery), Jews (holocaust), Europeans (religious tolerance), so on back through history.

    I wonder what is it that allows an opporessed group to heal? Or, does it remain a subtle pathology through time...

  4. I understand where you are driving, but it seems to me you want a purity that is impossible in this messy world. It seems to me that the goal is not to "transcend," if transcend here means "forget" or "ignore." Again, the history is what it is. Just like the conservative canard "colorblindness." The goal isn't colorblindness, per se. That becomes a buzz word to ignore and not face the reality of our lived history (not just in the past but in the present where inequality continues to play out). Rather, in order to "get over race," perhaps paradoxically, we need a genuine and thorough confrontation with race. We have yet to do that...

  5. You left out the include part of transcend and include. Embrace and move forward. Not repress and dissociate.

    I am not advocating idealism, purity, or over-simplification. I deal every day with messy human relations; it what I do. :-)

    My assertion is that the on-going identification of succeeding generations directly with a tramautic event (series of events, or time in history) arrests (stops, slows down significantly) their ability to move beyond that time in history.

    And, regardless of that arrest, time pulls us all along soemtimes unaware of the changes afoot because they are multi-generational.

    There is an interesting theory of micro-inequities (and micro-advantages) that may be useful here. Micro-inequities are the little slights that translate into larger macro problems. Micro-advantages are the opposite.

    Status-quo (equilibrium) is maintained (not solely) by these weak signals in the culture more so than larger signals that are muted by the vastness of the micro-behaviors. Think of it like subtle racism. Change viewed in this way is resultant from a tipping point rather than a macro-confrontation. A slow yet gradual shift in the status quo through micro-advantages.

    Our friend Obama illustrates this in distancing himself from the African American old guard (e.g., Jackson et. al.) - which pissed the old guard off greatly. He has chosen not to be a "black" candidate but chose to be defined in other terms. This was not possible in the past yet is possible now. He is a populist candidate.

    To be clear, I am not saying racism is not present.

    So, if a "confrontation" on race is required, what is it? What would need to happen to resolve it once and for all?

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