The White Christian’s Burden

This is the text of a talk I gave at Greenbelt Festival 2014. The theme of the Festival was “Travelling Light”; my talk was originally called “Travelling Heavy”, and I summarised it for the programme as follows:

Christianity doesn’t travel light. It is weighed down with history, much of it shameful. But if we don’t understand our past we can’t understand how it continues to form us, and we’re doomed to repeat the same mistakes. What would it mean for us to deal with the burdensome history of Christendom?


I want to start by telling you three stories, that may or may not be familiar to you.

The first story is about the 2014 Winter Olympics, which took place in Sochi, Russia.* Not long before the Winter Olympics took place, Vladimir Putin passed a law banning ‘non-traditional sexual propaganda to minors’, which is to say that there was a ban on anything that could be construed as pro-LGBT propaganda. It wasn’t very clear exactly what was being banned, or how thoroughly it was being banned; there was some ambiguity over whether wearing a rainbow lapel pin would count as propaganda to minors, and the Russian government said different things at different times about whether non-Russian citizens would be arrested for breaking the law. But there was a huge outcry in the UK and the US. Celebrities wrote op-eds. Stephen Fry wrote an open letter. Gay rights activists loudly argued that we should boycott Russian vodka, or even the Olympics as a whole. Lots of people I know, including lots of Christians, shared articles on Facebook and Twitter, and talked angrily about how terrible it was that Russia were doing such awful things to their LGBT population. Continue reading “The White Christian’s Burden”

Is James Cone a postmodern theologian?

As I worked through God of the Oppressed with my students this week, a disturbing thought occurred to me: I began to detect a homology between Cone’s project (at least as represented in this particular text) and that of Radical Orthodoxy. Part of this may have stemmed from my somewhat questionable placement of Cone in the “postmodern” segment of the humanities capstone course — a choice that I made in part because I thought Cone was a challenging variant on something like “perspectivalism,” and that came to seem further justified by Cone’s implicit emphasis on social construction.

For Cone, it seems, social construction works. Oppression would be thoroughly determinative for the experience and identity of the oppressed if not for the transcendent reality of Christ. He says this over and over: the enslaved Africans never could have known they were human if Christ hadn’t been with them. They never could have survived and resisted slavery and oppression if Christ hadn’t been with them. Furthermore, he is aware of the danger that this transcendence could be viewed as a mere subjective fantasy of the oppressed, an imagined compensation — and so it must be objectively, historically attested in the life of Jesus.

The black experience is thus validated by its reference to a reality that is at once historical and transcendent. And if there wasn’t this transcendent, historically attested point of reference, then violence and death would have the final say — the earthly masters, with their power over life and death, really would be the ultimate masters. Here I can’t help but see strong parallels with the Radical Orthodox project of taking “postmodern” thought at its word — yes, everything is socially constructed, yes, we’re consigned to an endless power struggle with no ultimate meaning or goal — and then proposing that divine transcendence is the only answer.

The difference — and it is a hugely important difference — is that Cone grants authority to the church of the oppressed where Radical Orthodoxy places its hopes in the church of the oppressor. Nonetheless, I find the parallels alarming and I’m not sure what to do with them.