James Cone’s The Spirituals and the Blues is one of most important theology books of the twentieth century. If Faulkner is right that the past is always present, African American Christianity, indeed Christendom in the South, is forever marked by the experience of slavery. Over the years, persistent myths about the religion of these slaves grew up like weeds in our cultural understanding; and so, it takes a mind as sharp as Cone’s to clear a path towards the truth.
One of the modern biases that Cone corrects is the characterization of African American spirituality as “compensatory” in the sense that religion was merely an opiate in Marxist terms–a “pie-in-the-sky” faith. Whereas an otherworldly faith would seek an escape of historical reality, Cone believes that slaves directly engaged their experience through their religion, specifically their quest for freedom. He points out that Harriet Tubman, the famed leader of the Underground Railroad, used the song, “When the Chariot Comes” to let her relatives and friends know that she intended to escape. Cone argues that many slaves understood the symbolism of spirituals as a desire for emancipation, rather than an afterlife of pearly gates and roads paved with gold.
Another common misunderstanding is that slave religion was primarily between the slave and God. Adherents to this idea cite the high number of spirituals that are in the first person singular. In response, Cone counters with the “existential ‘I’ in black religion” in which he defines the core of the slave’s internal struggle as the fight to affirm one’s existence. This would seem to point towards individualism, but fundamentally, slavery impacted an entire community. Therefore the great existential struggle to be was never in opposition to being-in community. Even if the lyrics had first person singulars, the point was that the community gathered to sign together. As one lifts his or her own voice, one is aware that he or she is joined by others. I think of the existential “I” in black religion as functioning like a harmony, the intertwining of the self and community in beautiful ways.
Having recently re-read James Cone as a pastor, I am drawn to different conclusions than when I was a graduate student. A quick flip through an old Presbyterian hymnal from the 1950s reveals many songs about a personal experience of the afterlife: Take my hand, Precious Lord, and lead me home…And He walks with me and He talks with me; and He tells me I am His own…
While Cone documents how white academics mislabeled slave religion as otherworldly and individualistic, it strikes me that we label others with the exact same qualities that we cannot face in ourselves. This is phenomenon is known as transference. These hymns in the southern Presbyterian Church, along with others composed in the aftermath of the Civil War, may well reflect the anxiety and guilt of segregation. On some level, white racists might have inwardly longed to escape the system of injustice they were complicit in creating and sustaining. While they certainly have not suffered as much as their black counterparts, it seems true that oppression diminishes everyone. Oppressors cannot live into a full experience of God’s presence on earth where there is no slave nor free, but all are one in Christ (Gal 3:26).
And so, the past really is present. How tragic to note that a recent conference in Alabama was held exclusively for white Christians: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/05/whites-only-christian-conference-alabama-william-collier_n_1651268.html
Cone’s work, then, is important to the white, ecumenical communities as well. He holds up a mirror, inviting us to repentance, and ultimately, a more faithful way of being in community with our black brothers and sisters.