Why Write "The Decline of African American Theology"?

One question that people frequently ask authors is, “Why did you write this book?”

It’s a fair and a good question. If you put something in print and work through the process of communicating, refining, and sometimes defending ideas, trying to get others to read and understand and possibly agree with you, you probably have some deep-seated reason that drives you to write. That reason for writing probably lies somewhere close to the author’s heart. It’s part of her or his outlook, a glimpse into their inner workings. And many readers want such a glimpse. They want to make contact not just with the ideas but with the person and motivation behind the ideas. At bottom, I think a lot of people are fairly ad hominem in our reading, especially of polemics.

I’ve searched for a good answer to the question, “Why did you write The Decline of African American Theology?” I wandered through a a handful of answers, all of them true but none of them quite right.

Tonight I watched an episode of Bill Moyers Journal, a PBS program that sometimes focuses on religious themes and ideas. It was an interview with African-American theologian, professor and author Dr. James H. Cone of Union Theological. Dr. Cone is the author of a number of books very influential among African-American academics and religious thinkers. He is the father of the Black Theology movement, an attempt to do theology with a liberationist ethic from the distinct vantage point of African American experience.

The Moyers interview was prompted by a 2006 lecture that Dr. Cone delivered at Harvard (watch). The lecture used American lynching as a metaphor for understanding the cross of Christ. The entire interview is worth watching if you’re inclined. You’ll see into the heart and thinking of perhaps the most influential African-American theologian in the last 50 years.

There is much that could be said about the interview. But rather than comment at length, pasted below are two brief exchanges between Mr. Moyers and Dr. Cone. I copy the comments because they finally helped me to say briefly what my motivation was for writing The Decline.

BILL MOYERS: And you say, “The cross and the lynching tree interpret each other. Both were public spectacles usually reserved for hardened criminals, rebellious slaves, rebels against the Roman state and falsely accused militant blacks who were often called black beasts and monsters in human form.” So, how do the cross and the lynching tree interpret each other?
JAMES CONE: It keeps the lynchers from having the last word. The lynching tree interprets the cross. It keeps the cross out of the hands of those who are dominant. Nobody who is lynching anybody can understand the cross. That’s why it’s so important to place the cross and the lynching tree together. Because the cross, or the crucifixion was analogous to a first century lynching. In fact, biblical scholars– when they want to describe what was happening to Jesus, many of them said, “It was a lynching.”

And all I want to suggest is if American Christians say — they want to identify with that cross, they have to see the cross as a lynching. Any time your empathy, your solidarity is with the little people, you’re with the cross. If you identify with the lynchers, then, no, you can’t understand what’s happening. That in the sense of resistance– what resistance means by helpless people. Power in the powerless is not something that we are accustomed to listening to and understanding. It’s not a part of our historical experi– America always wants to think it’s gonna win everything. Well, black people have a history in which we didn’t win. We did not win. See, our resistance is a resistance against the odds. That’s why we can understand the cross.

Do you believe God is love?
JAMES CONE: Yes, I believe God is love.
BILL MOYERS: I would have a hard time believing God is love if I were a black man. I mean, those bodies swinging on the tree. What was God?Where was God during the 400 years of slavery?
JAMES CONE: See, you are looking at it from the perspective of those who win. You have to see it from the – perspective of those who have no power. In fact, God is love because it’s that power in your life that lets you know you can resist the definitions that other people are being– placing on you. And you sort of say, sure, nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen. Nobody knows my sorrow. Sure, there is slavery. Sure, there is lynching, segregation.

But, glory, hallelujah. Now, that glory hallelujah is the fact that there is a humanity and a spirit that nobody can kill. And as long as you know that, you will resist. That was the power of the civil rights movement. That was the power of those who kept marching even though the odds are against you. How do you keep going when you don’t have the battle tanks, when you don’t have the guns? When you don’t have the military power? When you have nothing? How do you keep going? How do you know that you are a human being? You know because there’s a power that transcends all of that.
BILL MOYERS: So, how does love fit into that? What do you mean when you say God is love?
God is that power. That power that enables you to resist. You love that! You love the power that empowers you even in a situation in which you have no political power. The– you have to love God. Now, what is trouble is loving white people. Now, that’s tough. It’s not God we having trouble loving. Now, loving white people. Now, that’s– that’s difficult. But, King — you know, King helped us on that. But, that is a– that is an agonizing response.

While I don’t want to press it too far, I do think there are some interesting parallels between lynching and the cross that can help us better understand the gospel. But what God and the Cross are reduced to in this interview is appalling. No biblically recognizable cross and no glory.

The Decline of African-American Theology is a jeremiad, a long lament over a deep fall. Some will lament the decline, and others will lament The Decline. Of that I’m sure.

But after listening to Moyers and Cone tonight, I realized that I wrote the book because I am deeply sad. I’m sad about the state of the church in African American communities, and the very real eclipse of the gospel where African Americans gather and worship. And I’m sad because I love the Lord, His gospel, His people, and the nations who need the Lord, His gospel, and His people. The book isn’t sad, I don’t think, but its author is.

To be sure, my motives are alloyed with pride and some other things that need the sanctifying grace of Christ. But at bottom, I grieve that “my people perish for lack of knowledge” of the gospel of Jesus Christ. I pray this little book may be used by the Lord in the hands of good and faithful saints to turn the mourning of many into laughter.