Content note: descriptions of anti-Black lynching and White terrorism. This post is related to yesterday’s comments on torture.
I’m at that point in The Cross and the Lynching Tree where James Cone asks how Reinhold Niebuhr, one of 20th Century America’s leading Christian theologians, managed to live through the heyday of anti-Black lynching but never mentioned it as an ethical concern.
How could he have taught the church during the era of W. E. B. Du Bois and A. Philip Randolph, yet failed to cite any Black philosophers, activists, or writers? How could he have read the newspapers during the years that White mobs kidnapped and killed Mack Parker and Emmett Till, but failed to engage the conditions or communities that produced their murders? How could he have insisted that Black people be “patient” with White crawls toward a just society yet promoted a gospel that inspired economic justice throughout the South?
Cone explains this Laodicean dissonance as a failure of empathy.
It was easy for Niebuhr to walk around in his own shoes, as a white man, and view the world from that vantage point, but it takes a whole lot of empathic effort to step into those of black people and see the world through the eyes of African Americans…
Niebuhr knew that denying membership to persons merely on the basis of race was also a denial of the Church’s Christian identity. Yet he also knew that white churches were not prepared to include blacks, a minority they truly despised, and he was not prepared to deny the Christian identity of white churches on that basis.” —James Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree
So Niebuhr understood that Christianity called followers of Jesus to social equity, and he acknowledged that churches were failing to embody that standard. But he wasn’t willing to challenge the churches for failing their own faith’s standards, and he also literally encouraged a congregation to abandon its attempt to integrate.
This morning I read a fantastic extended article on the only person known to have survived a race-based lynching in the United States, James Herbert Cameron.
Cameron, born in 1914 and therefore just a year older than my still-living grandfather, was one of three teenagers arrested by local Indiana police and then set upon by a mob of White vigilantes. Cameron’s friends were beaten, tortured, and hung in the middle of town, but someone interrupted his hanging—his memoir and others’ accounts conflict on who—and he was able to escape from town.
Cameron died in 2006, after years he’d filled with family, manufacturing jobs and store management, writing and book sales, and founding, funding, and curating America’s Black Holocaust Museum in Milwaukee. At that museum, he walked visitors through exhibits on slavery, segregation, lynching, and his own experience.
Even with stories like Cameron’s, “White theologians, then and since,” Cone writes, “have typically ignored the problem of race or written and spoken about it without urgency, not regarding it as critical for theology or ethics.”
This moderate neutrality is uncomfortable to recognize. It should be uncomfortable to recognize. And it’s part of the “profound moral failure” that people of faith today must be willing to resolve.
I see no way to be moderate or neutral when it comes to human flourishing. I believe moral leadership requires more from us, even and especially those of us in faith subcultures that “aren’t prepared” to move forward.
The bad news:
The will-to-survive is so strong that it transmutes easily in to the will-to-power… Groups use both religion and reason to advance their own interests and find it nearly impossible to ‘feel the pain of others as vividly as they do [their own].'”
The good news: “Nearly impossible” is not impossible! I still believe that empathy, reason, and faith can support us in subverting dangerous and violent expressions of our drive to survive.
And I take encouragement from James Herbert Cameron’s lifelong resilience despite a community that nearly beat him to death while both the police and the church looked on.