—Xavier Pickett is the Founder and President of Reformed Blacks of America, a Philadelphia based think tank, and a Ph.D. candidate in Religion & Society at Princeton Theological Seminary.
Carter begins the fourth chapter by situating James H. Cone’s groundbreaking theological work in the history of American theology. According to Carter, “Its groundbreaking nature lies in its attempt to uncover the theological significance and political promise of black faith and existence given the racist practices and dispositions of America and, indeed, of modernity” (157). The question “what makes white theology, in fact, white?” is the central concern in examining the theology of Cone. For Carter, “how this question is answered reveals the degree to which black theology as a mode of theological reflection adequately identifies what is aberrantly theological about the modern, Euro-American discourse of race and racial character. Additionally, it reveals the degree to which black theology offers a philosophical corrective to the problem of white theology” (158).
Cone’s significant theological corrective is that “the humanity that God of Israel assumes in Jesus of Nazareth is the location from which God secures and affirms all of creation in its historical unfoldings. Therefore…Jesus’ Jewishness is not racially arrayed against non-Jews but, rather, is the perpetual sign of God’s embrace of Jew and non-Jew (or, in scriptural parlance, Gentile) alike” (158). However, for Carter, “the breakthrough in Cone’s thought unravels in that his program unwittingly reinscribes the aberrant theology (or pseudotheology) of modern racial reasoning. This occurs insofar as Cone’s ontology disallow transcendence and thus recapitulates the inner logic of modern racial reasoning” (158). As Carter notes, Victor Anderson has already criticized Cone for being “beholden to a ‘metaphysical’ or ‘ontological blackness’ ” (158-59). But Carter wants to go beyond Anderson’s critique that ontological blackness “is a form of ‘cultural idolatry’ ” (159) by theologically shoring up its shortcomings.
Carter specifies a fundamental problem with white theology for Cone, thereby offering an answer to the question “what makes white theology, in fact, white?” That problem is abstraction. According to Carter, Cone remedies the problem of abstraction in white theology with a robust Barthian-inspired Christology. Such Christology “gives him a way to show how American racism is, in fact, a kind of ‘natural theology’ run amok” (160). Cone, like Barth, “affirms Christ’s qualitative difference from the nation, from culture, and even from race, [yet] he presses beyond Barth to affirm that, nevertheless, God can be related to these sites of identity” (161). For Cone, Christology is a way of thinking – concrete thinking. Unlike the problematic abstract thinking of white theology, it “is thinking in which Jesus Christ is central. For he is the concrete; indeed, he is concretissimum” (162). Therefore, God can be related to human history, precisely in what God has done in the concrete – the transcendent becoming immanent in history. This then means for Cone that “the only way to speak of God is in relationship to human history” (163), because it is the site in which, according to Cone, ‘God participates in the historical liberation of humanity’ (163). More specifically, “Jesus’ Jewishness, which, to speak in ontological terms, is the being-ness that the eternal Word takes on in entering history thus becoming a human being, is not inconsequential to concrete thought…For Cone, the Jewishness of Jesus is tacitly invoked as a means of moving away from imaging others in abstract terms and toward viewing and engaging them concretely” (166).
“To resolve the dialectical relations between ‘Jesus is who he was,’ ‘Jesus is who he is,’ and ‘Jesus is who he will be’ into ‘Jesus is black’ ” (171), Cone shifts away from Barth’s analogia fidei to Tillich’s “analogia exisentia, an analogy of existential situation and condition between Jesus and us” (171). This allows Cone to view Christianity “as the answer to a singular, transhistorically existential and ontological situation: the struggle for being against the threat of nonbeing” (171), which is also struggle for liberation. Such struggle is overcome in Jesus of Nazareth in that “[h]e is continuous with the historical work of the God of Israel in his being the defenseless one who sides with the defenseless for their liberation. In this way, Jesus is the concrete revelation of God. He is the truth of being, the revelation of the victory of being over nonbeing in the struggle that is the ground of Being” (172).
However, according to Carter, Cone does fully remove himself from the problems with Barth’s Christology in his shift to Tillich. The problem with Cone, like Barth, is his “inability to reckon with the enduring humanity of Jesus Christ as Jewish” (181). “Yet the result of Cone’s reception of Paul Tillich’s thought as a constructive theological alternative to the Barthian dilemma only exacerbates the problem,” Carter argues, “because his appropriation of Tillich prodded him to locate his conception of blackness and, therefore, of race within the tight and well-nigh suffocating space of an ontology that has banished transcendence” (181-82).
In an effort to move away from the shortcomings of Cone’s theology – “beyond an ontology of separateness, [Carter] propose[s] a theology of participation, the content of which is YHWH’s covenantal relationship with the one to whom YHWH has elected YHWH’s self. This one is the covenantal and theological – and therefore, to say it again, not the racial—people of Israel” (191). Carter’s theology of covenant participation is one “in which the life of YHWH is thoroughly implicated in and suffuses the life of Israel. Indeed, YHWH is known only in this suffusion, for such suffusion is proper to YHWH-God and is constitutive of YHWH’s transcendence. This can be called YHWH’s identity in historical transcendence with Israel and thereby with the world” (191). For Carter, covenant seems to close the gap between Creator and creation/creature. He argues:
The covenant witnesses to the fact that for God, and only because of God’s identity as God for us, there is no ditch to be crosses by us. God has from the first bound Godself to us in God’s communion with Israel as a communion for the world. This is the inner logic of the identity of Jesus, the inner logic by which Israel is always already a mulatto people precisely in being YHWH’s people, and by which therefore Jesus himself as the Israel of God is Mulatto. At the level of his identity, or who he is, Jesus carries forward, and does not supersede, Israel’s identity as partner to YHWH for the world. (192)
This covenantal theological corrective is important for Carter because of “black liberation theology’s refusal to see the I, and in fact all of creation, in gratuitous terms, that is, as a covenantal reality, leaves the problem of whiteness uncontested, insofar as at root it is a theological problem. As a theological problem, whiteness names the refusal to enter into dependent, promiscuous, and in short, ‘contaminated’ relations that resist an idolatrously false purity” (192). Because Cone’s black theology is not “radical enough,” Carter argues, “In order to name and assault more radically the problem of whiteness, what is needed is an understanding of Christian existence as ever-grounded in the Jewish, nonracial flesh of Jesus and thus as an articulation of the covenantal life of Israel” (192).
I conclude with some brief thoughts and questions. On my reading of Cone, blackness can be understood not so much as a fixed ontological category (contra Carter following Anderson), but rather a provisional epistemic symbol. Specifically, Cone’s notion of blackness seems less about essences and more about (theologically) registering the oppressive/tragic socio-economic and political conditions in which many American citizens, namely Black citizens, inhabit that have gone largely unaccounted for in the Christian theological imagination and its gospel in America/West. In effect, blackness is an intervening mode of critical theological thinking that is meant to give way once the Christian theological imagination of the West comes to terms with concrete (black) suffering and oppression, precisely in the way it thinks theologically, specifically about the gospel.
Is theologically accounting for Jesus’ Jewishness another way for Carter to account for Israel? In other words, does Carter’s theological account of Jesus’ Jewishness (or God as Mulatto) stand in for Israel to such a degree that the Jewish flesh of Jesus exhausts Israel’s identity and history? If “Israel is always already a mulatto people” (192), what exactly is meant by “Israel?” Is there anything left of Israel as Israel apart from being subsumed in Jesus?
Although, Carter argues that “the breakthrough in Cone’s thought unravels in that his program unwittingly reinscribes the aberrant theology (or pseudotheology) of modern racial reason” (158), but to what degree does Carter’s Christian theology (of Israel) operating primarily within a (white) covenantal and Chalcedonian theological framework succumb to his own critique of Cone and thereby, reauthorize a Eurocentric theological project? Specifically, what does Carter mean by “nonracial” (35, 149, 191-2, 250, 377) in describing the flesh/identity of Jesus, Israel, and Christians? If, for Carter, “in order to name and assault more radically the problem of whiteness, what is needed is an understanding of Christian existence as ever grounded in the Jewish, nonracial flesh of Jesus and thus as an articulation of the covenantal life of Israel” (192), then is “covenant(al)” another way of concealing or subordinating racial identities in a manner similar to the theological imagination of the West?