I’m rereading a chapter of James Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree in advance of a welcoming churches retreat in Washington, D.C. this week.
Chapter 2 discusses White American Christianity’s inability to see Jesus in the Black people that White Christians lynched between the 1880s and the end of World War II.
Cone focuses mostly on Reinhold Niebuhr, who, like Cone, taught theology at New York City’s Union Theological Seminary and was a preeminent scholar of Christian ethics and moral responsibility.
Despite his other contributions to the Church, Niebuhr failed to recognize the abyss that was American racism and genocidal violence. He made excuses for the slow pace of change and wrote that Black people in the United States needed to “exercise patience and be sustained by a robust faith that history would gradually fulfill the logic of justice” (in Cone, p. 39).
The first time I read that line, I nearly threw the book across the room. On my second read, it made more sense, though I still find it repulsive.
The logic key is Niebuhr’s definition of justice: it’s a definition that’s severely limited.
Niebuhr taught that love is the absolute, transcendent standard that stands in judgment over what human beings can achieve in history. Because of human finitude and humanity’s natural tendency to deny it (sin), we can never fully reach that ethical standard. The best that humans can strive for is justice, which is love approximated, a balance of power among competing groups… Since Niebuhr saw justice as a balance of power between groups, whether classes, races, or nations, he saw it always in a state of flux, never achieving perfection in history.” —James Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree; emphasis added
There are two things to note here.
First is Niebuhr’s idea that justice is about negotiation and compromise. He presents it as a finite and indeterminate thing that is as imperfect and in-progress as we are. As a matter of compromise, it’s also a matter of how scarce and limited goods are shared. “Democracy,” Niebuhr believes, is the political tool best used to dole those goods out.
Second is Niebuhr’s distinction between infinite love and finite justice. Whereas Cornel West describes justice as manifested love, not love’s real-world step-child, Niebuhr represents justice as the consolation prize for the love that God expresses and that humans can only “reach for” but never arrive at.
The first computer programming maxim I ever learned was “GIGO: Garbage in; Garbage out.”
It applies to theology too.
Niebuhr’s inability to recognize the full humanity of Black people and the extent of the evil they faced flowed from his limited understanding of love, justice, and the righting of the world.
It’s worth asking: what garbage theological premises do I operate with? How might my ethical outputs change if my theology could be more than a justification of scarcity? What else do I need to take into account?