I think that there is a problem in how we talk about racial justice. For my conservative friends – and for my conservative side: really reflect. Have you gone to a protest and been there bodily alongside people grieving another death of a Black person? Have you worked alongside people who speak Spanish as their first language in a restaurant kitchen? Have you taught Asian American students in poverty who don’t fit into the stereotype of the model minority? Have you mentored Middle Eastern children who wore the same thing every day because they are refugees?
I am attending a Bible study at a predominantly Black church on Black liberation theologian James H. Cone’s (1938-2018) book The Cross and the Lynching Tree (2013). There was a chapter about Reinhold Niebuhr, a white theologian wrote a generation before Cone. Cone doesn’t start out with the good parts of Niebuhr (1892-1971, who inspired Dr. King and Barack Obama, and many, many others). He talks about how he compromised in his witness because he didn’t interact with poor Blacks and he didn’t stand in solidarity with them. He focused on class and not on race. He wrote about justice and did not stand up against lynching.
Cone also talks about some of the positives about Niebuhr, but his enthusiasm for the man is dimmed, and he analyzes an interview that featured Niebuhr and James Baldwin (1924-1987). Niebuhr did not speak with the passion that Cone would have wanted and he analyzes the interview at length. I read this in preparation for the Bible study and thought, well, not everyone can be a radical Black theologian, especially not if you’re white. I get that Niebuhr fell short, but he did provide helpful frameworks for social justice work. These frameworks are still valuable.
Cone then talks about Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945). Bonhoeffer spent ample time with the Black community during his time at Union Theological Seminary (1930-31) and he worshipped and attended Bible studies with Black folks often. Cone even writes about how white peers tried to pressure Bonhoeffer not to get so involved. They were concerned he was taking the Black cause too seriously.
Bonhoeffer went off and ended up being a martyr for his witness in solidarity with the Jews during WWII. Niebuhr stayed comfortable. What does this say to us? What’s the message?
This: as theologians, educators, and practitioners of justice, if we aren’t proximate to the pain and suffering with them, then we are causing harm and leading to proximate justice. Niebuhr believed in moral suasion; that you could talk people out of racism. But it’s not enough because it’s not getting people to take a stand. You can’t urge people to take a stand against white supremacy, as exemplified in the presidency of Donald Trump, without also taking a stand yourself. Niebuhr wrote against racism, but never acted against it in any action other than writing.
What is the function of conservative writing about race and racism? It is actively non-solidarity. It has an advantage in that it’s not tribalistic and doesn’t promote division. But if it weren’t for the progressive writing about race and racism, then white supremacy would take hold and there would be no respect for Black conservatives. Black people would lose the ability to breathe. Even conservative Blacks.
When I read Cone’s words on Niebuhr in The Cross and the Lynching Tree, I thought, of course, as a self-proclaimed radical, Cone is dissatisfied with Niebuhr and his Christian realism. But then, worshipping with the Black community, I saw their reaction to Niebuhr. One woman said she was angry, another that she cried throughout the reading, and others were just depressed by Niebuhr’s lack of real witness, even when writing as a progressive and about race specifically.
Suddenly, I understood why cross-racial friendships, with people who are suffering due to racial oppression and poverty, are essential for those of us who write about and study race. It made me glad that I wrote about equity while substitute teaching in the local school district, where 80 languages are spoken. And it made me want to do better. I wish I had worshipped at the Black church while teaching Black children. I tried my best, but my best try would have been still better had I worshipped in solidarity.