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Dehonkifying Barth’s Gospel?
A Year with Barth and Black Theologies
About the author: Chris Boesel is associate professor of Christian theology at Drew Theological School. His primary interest is the extent to which traditional confessions of faith can be seen to call for progressive socio-political visions and commitments. He is the author of In Kierkegaard's Garden with the Poppy Blooms: Why Derrida Does Not Read Kierkegaard when He Reads Kierkegaard (Lexington/Fortress Academic, 2021) and Reading Karl Barth: Theology that Cuts Both Ways (Cascade, 2023).
In 1969, James Cone wrote, “If the gospel of Christ . . . frees a man (sic) to be for those who labor and are heavily laden, the humiliated and abused, then . . . it would seem for twentieth century Americans the message of Black Power is the message of Christ himself”; concluding that “Black Power is God’s new way of acting in America.” It would be difficult to imagine a more ardent and bold expression of the conviction that the God known in Jesus Christ through the Spirit is a God always speaking and working here and now, in and for concrete contexts of creaturely existence in all their historical, material specificity.
Cone, however, was not making this theological assertion as a faithful response to the well-known theme of Karl Barth’s theological vision and commitment—God here and now—though he was certainly aware of this central theme in Barth. He was not driven to write Black Theology and Black Power in an effort to be a good Barthian. He was driven to write that book, at least in part, because of the deafening silence of most if not all the good Barthians on the ground at the time on the concrete reality of the U.S. in the 1950s and 1960s; a silence Cone has called “theology’s great sin.”1
Where, then, were the U.S. Barthians who were explicitly informed by Barth’s vision of God here and now? Did they miss the spot where Barth says that “in the relations and events in the life of his people, God always takes his stand unconditionally and passionately on this side alone: against the lofty and on behalf of the lowly; against those who already enjoy right and privilege and on behalf of those who are denied it and deprived of it”?2 Were they not able to see the clear implications of passages such as this for the 20th century US context?
Why, for example, did a young Nibs Stroupe, a white southern Presbyterian training for ministry in the PC(USA) at Vanderbilt Divinity School in 1969, having been radicalized by God’s presence and work in black voices and black activism, assume, from what he was reading and hearing, that Barthians were conservative and, at best, uninterested, at worst, antagonistic to these voices?3 And why was it that a non-Barthian, Cone—who, though he engaged Barth’s work certainly did not identify as a Barthian—was the one most robustly enacting what Barth calls for in his central theme of God here and now?
Was this sin of silence among U.S. Barthians the result of their failure to be Barthian enough? Or is there something in Barth’s theology itself that fails to see and to follow through on the full implications of his theological commitment to a God always speaking and working here and now for contexts determined by white racism and white supremacy?
These are the questions I will be asking in a year-long series of blog posts. However, I will be asking these questions not only of Barth and the U.S. Barthians who were contemporary with Cone. I will primarily be asking these questions of myself, together with those others who continue to find themselves substantively informed by Barth in their theology and faith, with regard to our own critical and constructive engagement with Barth’s theology in and for our time and place, particularly those of us who are white.
The here and now we will be addressing in this blog is the United States in the first quarter of the 21st century; a here and now not so far removed from the U.S. of 1969 in and for which Cone first spoke of God’s “new way of acting” in the mobilization of Black voices and Black activism in their unequivocal “No!” to white power and control; a here and now, then, of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, among so many others, when it is still necessary to assert, almost fifty five years after Black Theology and Black Power, that Black lives matter; of militarized policing and mass incarceration functioning as the new legal form of racial segregation and control;4 of increasing anti-immigrant rhetoric targeting communities of color fleeing contexts of threat and deprivation; of new legalized assaults upon women’s rights, health and agency; of increased rhetoric and legalized action against trans persons; of a climate crisis on the tipping point of irrevocable planetary devastation whose destructive effects, though global in scope, will affect—indeed, are affecting—the poorest and most vulnerable communities and nations first and worst.
In the overwhelming shadow of this litany of destructive forces targeting the goodness, value and very lives of God’s creatures, and of creation itself, it is important to remember that Cone described his here and now of 1969 in more singular terms: “On the American scene today, as yesterday, one problem stands out: the enslavement of black Americans.”5
This is one way our context today is different from 1969. Without contradicting this affirmation by Cone, womanist and queer of color theologians and people of faith have taught us that we can no longer think of God’s speaking and acting here and now in the Black “No!” to white racism and white supremacy (as God’s incarnate affirmation of the divine “Yes!” to the full humanity and creaturely goodness of Black life and Black bodies) as something separate from God’s speaking and acting in the Black “No!” to sexism, to homo- and trans-phobia, to the colonial dimensions of white supremacy, and to ecological devastation, all of which intersect in the targeting of particular Black and Brown bodies for harm.
We will begin, then, by listening to Cone. But we will be informed by womanist and queer Black voices, and their witness to the multiple dimensions—i.e., the intersectionality—of Black identity and Black life, from the get-go. In this way, we will avoid—I hope—the temptation for white Christians to use talk of the intersectionality of identity and of structural oppressions to distract from our continuing failure to act like followers of Jesus in relation to white racism and white supremacy; a failure to fully confess, repent, and make reparations, to die to our whiteness that we might yet live and, perhaps, risk the narrow way of “becom[ing] black with God”—with or without Barth.6
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James H. Cone, “Theology’s Great Sin: Silence in the Face of White Supremacy,” in The Cambridge Companion to Black Theology, ed. Dwight D. Hopkins and Edward P Antonio (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2021).
Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, Vol. I, Part 1, trans. T. Parker et al (Edinburgh, UK: T&T Clark, 1957), 386–7; my emphasis.
Stroupe went on to become a leading white voice in Presbyterian circles and beyond in the southeast calling white Christians to repentance. If it is indeed possible for white folks to “become black with God,” as Cone suggests, then I believe Nibs Stroupe may be among the few white folks who have made the journey—though, of course, I am ultimately not in a position to make that judgment. He has published multiple books and blogs regularly at Nibs’ Notes.
See Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: The New Press, 2012).
Cone, Black Power, 31; my emphasis.
Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2010), 70.