AN INVITATION: Matt Logan and Keith Dove invite you to study, engage, and reflect as they share a chapter-by-chapter discussion of James Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree. See list of chapters below.
“Few theologians of the twentieth century focused as much attention on the cross, one of the central themes of [Niebuhr’s] work. And yet even he failed to connect the cross and its most vivid reenactment in his time. To reflect on this failure is to address a defect in the conscience of white Christians and to suggest why African Americans have needed to trust and cultivate their own theological imagination.” (P. 32)
“Was not that lynching alone enough for Niebuhr to know that white supremacy could not be ignored in searching for economic justice, or explicating the meaning of the Christian gospel in America? Niebuhr himself preserved class solidarity at the expense of racial justice, which many liberal white-led groups were inclined to do when fighting for justice among the poor.” (P. 47)
“[E]ven among progressive intellectuals like Niebuhr, there is too little empathy regarding black suffering in the white community. Lacking empathy, he lacks the passion to engage the unspeakable evil of killing black children.” (P. 57)
I take it as an indictment and not a celebration that Reinhold Niebuhr was (and probably still is) the most influential theologian or Christian ethicist in the 20th century mainline. As much as I would like to make this all about Niebuhr, I will show restraint but for a brief comment. What differentiates Niebuhr from the 20th-century theological thinking I prefer has direct implications when it comes to Cone’s work in The Cross and the Lynching Tree. Niebuhr, the Christian Realist, thinks of Christianity as a tradition with ethical implications and ideas about the world. Therefore, as an ethicist, he is preoccupied with the question, “How do my Christian ideals compel me to act in the world.” The other predominant theological vision of the 20th century doesn’t view Christianity as a set of ideals, but a present reality that is breaking into the world and transforming it.
Cone falls into the ‘Niebuhrian’ camp. This is why he implicates Niebuhr and the white progressive mainline church for failing to recognize the way Christian ideals (specifically the crucifixion) ‘ought’ to compel them to speak out against systemic oppression and white supremacist ideology in the strongest possible terms. [Righteous indignation leads to run-on sentences. It is a law of the universe, completely out of our hands.] Cone isn’t picking on Niebuhr. He is using Niebuhr as a proxy for the failure of the white progressive church to collectively speak out against racism. Niebuhr is the spokesperson.
Keith, what does it tell us that Niebuhr has been so influential?
Also, something I couldn’t get into without going way over the word-limit was the Niebuhr and Baldwin interview. Would you mind talking briefly about the interview and how Niebuhr misunderstands the issue of power as it relates to the racial struggle?
Matt, as you are already well aware, I have a soft spot for Reinhold. I am particularly fond of his early writings and Moral Man and Immoral Society was one of the most influential books on my life. I find myself in Cone’s camp on this one. Niebuhr’s lack of interest in, or indifference to, civil rights is indefensible. Yet, like Cone, I still find Niebuhr important and useful (which I know you hate). I think that Niebuhr has had such influence because at first glance he appears like a model white Christian. His understanding of society was unmatched in his time among those who worked to understand it in Christian terms. He cared very much about doing the most good and trying to live out the witness of the gospel, while also wrestling with pervasiveness of evil and the finitude of humanity. This is not necessarily bad at all. However, the combination of his influence and his failure to truly speak and act out for civil rights reflects the lack of empathy of the majority of white mainline Christians. In other words, his great influence is indicative of just how little white mainliners were concerned with civil rights. As I write this, I am thinking of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” in which he states that the biggest stumbling block for black folk in pursuit of freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the KKK, but the white moderate.
In the Niebuhr-Baldwin interview, it seems pretty clear that Niebuhr saw race as a side problem to other problems. Baldwin, however, sees it as the central problem. Niebuhr, who is known for being able to analyze power, fails to see how power functions in the race conversation. Instead, Niebuhr is hoping that people will just learn how to like and get along with each other. He fundamentally misreads the situation in this. The point is not for white people and black people to become friends, but for white people to not be able to exercise power over black people. Niebuhr is not cognizant of the depth of the suffering and oppression of black people, and, as a result, he is unable to understand how power functions with regard to racism.
Hate is a strong word. Yet, we obviously disagree about Niebuhr. I think the heart of the matter is what you and Cone would see as an inexcusable and perplexing blind-spot, I see as the logical conclusion to Niebuhr’s entire project. For me, one that is morally and theologically flawed. We will have to talk about Moral Man and Immoral Society another time and in a different medium. I know Danny is a big fan of Niebuhr as well so I will conclude with a quick “parting shot.” I think what frustrates me about Niebuhr’s entire project is that he uses human finitude and the pervasiveness of evil as an excuse to score proximate political wins instead of being faithful. It is the kind of move that opens the PCUSA up to criticisms when they speak out strongly against one particular political issue but remain silent on a host of others.
This directly relates to Niebuhr’s utter misunderstanding of power relations. The Baldwin discussion is one of my favorite passages in the book because it captures the difference in how the white church and the black church were thinking about racial oppression even in the 1960s. Throughout Baldwin’s entire life he was asking white America a very simple question. What if I don’t want to be your friend? I have read Moral Man and Immoral Society and it is just shocking to me how blatantly silly Niebuhr’s responses to Baldwin are in light of that book.
Finally, the big point of the chapter shouldn’t be missed. Cone’s main criticism of white mainline theology is it fails to think about theology ‘from below.’ I take seriously the context. White Christians were not living the same experience of Black Christians, but for whatever reason, it wasn’t difficult for mainline Theologians to empathize with poor white people. Cone plants this guidepost for us to guide us through the rest of the book. A failure to relate the cross and the lynching tree was a failure of empathy. A failure to even try to think theology from below.
I look forward to your thoughts! I look forward to our future Niebuhr conversations!
I’ll do my best to not turn this into a conversation about Niebuhr. Also, I have to admit that your frustration that you name is not wrong (which really stinks). It really does not make sense how Niebuhr could be so oblivious to the power dynamics of racism and look so silly in his interview with Baldwin and at the same time be the author of Moral Man. I still fall in the camp of thinking that Niebuhr is particularly useful for us even today. After all, Martin Luther King, Jr., and James Cone were both heavily influenced by Niebuhr. They use Niebuhr’s own work to get to places that Niebuhr never went–which is a good thing and how we should all be reading Niebuhr. To explain my thoughts on this, I offer a parallel thought from one of my Duke professors: Barth is a better version of Calvin than Calvin, and Cone is a better version of Barth than Barth. I think that we can think of Niebuhr in the same way. Likewise Cone and King are better Niebuhrs than Niebuhr because they go the places he would not.
The point you made about the white mainliners having no problem caring for poor white people, but not caring for black people is also quite true. (But I will add that I think that white mainliners are good at caring about poor white urban people, and not so great at caring for poor rural people in any way. This is one of my biggest critiques of the PCUSA right now.) I completely agree that we are very bad at having a theology from below. We’re so bad at that. And we’re also bad at stepping back and analyzing how power works (a nod to Niebuhr). We don’t recognize how powers and principalities make sure that poor black people and poor white people will never team up and work together. I’m particularly thinking of the history of Durham right now and the book The Best of Enemies.
And as a follow up that must be said/echoed: It is shameful that white Christians in America are so unable to make the connection between the Cross and the lynching tree. I don’t know how we actually ignore that, but we do on a regular basis.
Introduction and Chapter 1: “Nobody Knows de Trouble I See”
Chapter 2, “The Terrible Beauty of the Cross”
Chapter 4, “The Recrucified Christ”
Chapter 5, “Oh Mary, Don’t You Weep”