"Mind, Body, and Soul"
Dr. Cecil W. Cone grew up in the small town of Bearden, Arkansas, and started preaching at the tender age of 13. He has been a pastor, an administrator, and a professor of theology. He is now the Dean of Turner Theological Seminary in Atlanta, and was recently a candidate for Bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. He is the author of The Identity Crisis in Black Theology (AME Press, Nashville) in which he argues that the point of departure for black theology must be the black religious experience.
We found our conversation with Dr. Cone to be both engaging and disconcerting. He is charismatic and at times overwhelming, with an intellect that is far ranging and probing. He has a sense of play in his thoughts, but is deadly serious in the main points he wishes to make. The following excerpt is only an indication of his provocative analysis of the black religious experience.
Most people believe there is little distinction between a black Methodist church and a white Methodist church, a black Presbyterian church and a white Presbyterian church. Organizationally, they belong to the same institution, but there is a definite distinction. They approach Christian religion in a different way, and the result is a different phenomenon altogether.
Black Christianity is the only mode of experience in America that is consistent with the revelation of God as expressed in the Exodus event of the Old Testament and the Christ event of the New Testament, which is to say that black Christianity is the only Christianity that is Christian. White Christianity is not Christian. It does not grow out of the Old and New Testament concepts of what the Christian religion, or the Christian way of life, is. White Christianity should not be called Christian.
The difference is in the way each looks at life; it has to do with the Greek and Hebraic world views. The tradition of Christianity got messed up when it moved into the Graeco-Roman world. It left behind its Hebraic understanding and approach to life. Instead of approaching God and life in a Hebraic way, the Greek way became dominant. Black religion has a world view that is closely related to the Hebraic way of looking at life. It also has to do with the African tradition. There is an element of divine understanding and truth that can only come to people who are at the bottom, people who are oppressed, people who cannot look to any earthly reality for their salvation. They become open to the divine revelation in a way that people who can depend on the political order cannot.
When black people were brought to this country, they had no rights and no hope within the structure of society, and they could not free themselves from this predicament. As a result, they were open to God in a way that they could not have been had their approach been Greek and rationalistic. It would have been absurd to talk about hope in a situation where the impact of your whole being is directed against the stone wall of slavery, and not only does it not come crumbling down, it does not even crack. Because of their African understanding of life, black people opened themselves up to a reality that was beyond rationality, and they were therefore able to get an insight into a divine reality even they had not been aware of before. If they thought that slavery was something, they soon discovered that this Almighty Sovereign God was something else! As a result of encountering him and embracing him and giving their total lives to him, they became free because they knew he was far more powerful and awesome than the structure of slavery itself.
Now, it's true that as a result of this freedom they were not oblivious to the fact that they still had to do what the man told them to do. They were in the same predicament, but now as different persons, free beings with hope in a situation where hope was not even possible. They began to create a new kind of religious experience and way of life that was made possible both by their world view and their encounter with this Almighty Sovereign God in the midst of slavery. For some, it meant the creation of spirituals where you could sing, shout, and talk about God and freedom. It created a community and brought them together and made life possible.
This African-Hebraic tradition includes the total life — the spiritual, the economic, the social. There are political implications, but the starting point is not political. It is political because that is part of the total way of life. Within the white religious experience, the spiritual, economic, social and political are all separate. That reflects their Greek heritage which separates the mind from the body, the rational from the spiritual. For black people, life is a total way of being. It isn't just science, a strictly rationalistic process. Notice a black baseball player, how he approaches life; he approaches it mind, body and soul, which is very Hebraic. Football. O.J. Simpson doesn't just run; he RUNS! In singing the blues, Aretha Franklin doesn't just sing, she SINGS — her mind, body and soul.
When you examine the black experience as black religious scholars are now doing, you see a way of life and a religious experience that was far superior to what existed in the white community. Black people were dealing with the Bible and the Christian religion in a more creative way than the folks who were supposed to be trained in theology and the Christian tradition.
I would not say that everything within the Western tradition has no connection whatsoever with the Hebraic tradition or the African tradition. But for Western Christianity to fully incorporate this tradition, white folks would have to be converted. The situation is analogous to the one Jesus confronted when the Syro-Phoenician woman came to him for her daughter to be healed. She went to Peter and the disciples and said, “Look, tell Jesus I have a daughter I want him to heal.''
So Peter went up to Jesus, touched him, and said, “This woman is out here.” Jesus merely turned his back and continued to deal with black folk. She was persistent, so Peter went back to Jesus and said, “You talk to the woman; I can't deal with her.” So Jesus said, "! have come for the lost sheep of the House of Israel and furthermore, you don't take bread out of the mouth of black folk and give it to white folk; you don't take bread out of the mouth of children to give to the dogs." Then the Syro-Phoenician woman got on her knees and said, "Yes, Lord, but the dogs will receive the crumbs that fall from the table.”
Jesus looked at this white woman and said, "My God, I haven't seen faith like this among black folk. As long as you stay in that position, go your way; your daughter is healed.” I say that because if white people want to become a part of the African-Hebraic tradition, they must have the right attitude, the attitude of being on bended knee to be taught.
I don't see white folk willing to embrace black religion in this way. I see white folk who are interested, but there is still an unwillingness to be circumcised, an unwillingness to embrace a whole new way of looking at life, even if that means the only way of being Christian. I still hear white folk saying, "Well now, Lord, I'm going to follow you, but on my own terms.” White people have to come to the point where they say, "I am lost, I know not which way to go unless you tell me.” There's a refusal to admit that one is totally lost, and unless someone provides the means for that light, it will not come. I think the Lord has his way of eventually bringing that about. I don't know whether that is in the near future or the far future, but I think eventually it will come, and I think black religion will be the main instrument to bring it about.
That is the reason that black religion has not become anti-white. It hasn't because there is always that universal appeal within the black community, even at times when there were groups within the church who wanted to institute a "no whites allowed” policy. You can't get that across in the black church; the black church won't hear of it. Now, they won't allow white folks to come in and take over, but at the same time, there will be no strict "anti" sentiment throughout the black church against white folks. That just can't be. There is always that universal appeal of saying, "Well, maybe white folks will change.”
Sue Thrasher is coordinator for residential education at Highlander Center in New Market, Tennessee. She is a co-founder and member of the board of directors of the Institute for Southern Studies. (1984)
Sue Thrasher works for the Highlander Research and Education Center. She is a former staff member of Southern Exposure. (1981)