Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis
“You come up with ingenious modes of denying and evading and avoiding the underside of things. But there is some suffering here; there is some sadness and sorrow and heartache and heartbreak”—Cornel West
In the introduction to the 50th Anniversary edition of James Cone’s Black Theology and Black Power, philosopher and activist Cornel West sets the context for what prompted Cone to write in 1969 the first systematic treatment of Black theology. Witnessing the death of Martin Luther King, uprisings in several major cities since 1964, and the persistent, intractable evil of racism that oppressed and killed black people, Cone confronts what West describes as white America’s penchant for “denying and evading and avoiding the underside of things.” I am disappointed to observe that, while there has been no shortage of conversation and confrontation about the impact of white supremacy on all of us, we remain a nation willing to deny, evade, and avoid not just the suffering of Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) but also how we got here.
Cone’s work was disturbing to many because he was willing to wrest God and Jesus from the clutches of Christian tradition, rhetoric, and theology to see God as actively engaged in the liberation of black bodies and the affirmation of black humanity. Even with this groundbreaking challenge to the church and theology, in the years since, we are witnessing ever more sophisticated ways to deny, evade, and avoid the underside of things that perpetuate the sorrow and sadness of our current racial order. The church has not been immune to minimizing the impact of history and politics on the pain and suffering within communities of color. People of faith have been just as willing to justify unaccountable police killing unarmed black people as the partisan ideologue. We have mastered the rhetoric and symbols that forecast racial and economic justice commitments that often falter when we are personally inconvenienced.
I started thinking about Cone’s work again a few days ago when a friend told me how Cone’s work had impacted him. Cone forces us to think seriously about what it would look like in our witness and theology to act with Jesus to defeat evil. What are we willing to risk or lose to see people liberated from oppressive social, economic, and political structures? What are we holding onto that shrivels our imagination about what it means to love, affirm, and liberate those whose bodies and humanity have been denied and distorted by white supremacy? If we do not want to succumb to the denial, evasion, or avoidance of the suffering and damage that years of white supremacy and plunder of the labor, land, and autonomy of BIPOC have wrought, perhaps it begins by seeking liberation for ourselves from the safe, familiar stories and certainties that we’ve relied on for far too long. May it be so.