In the late 1960s and early 1970s, black liberation theologian James Cone offered a provocative, even blasphemous, challenge to church leaders in the United States who failed to speak up for blacks enduring oppression at the hands of the white majority in the country.
In sum, he asked what kind of god white people worshipped.
In his 1970 book A Black Theology of Liberation, Cone wrote:
Black theology refuses to accept a God who is not identified totally with the goals of the black community. If God is not for us, if God is not against white racists, then God is a murderer, and we had better kill God.
Cone was merciless in his assessment of white theologians who failed to confront the suffering endured by blacks in the U.S. He wrote:
The failure of white theology to speak to the black liberation struggle only reveals once again the racist character of white thought.
For Cone, it was all about the revelation of the character of God and this revelation was not in some past or even present event “in which it is difficult to recognize the activity of God.” Revelation, he wrote, “was a black event — it is about what blacks are doing about their liberation.”
Cone acknowledged that there might be a “pantheistic distortion” of his analysis, but argued that such a risk must be taken, if:
… theological statements are going to have meaning in a world that is falling apart because white racists think that God has appointed them to rule over others, especially blacks.
In his more recent book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (2011), Cone condemns, legitimately, the failure of white Christians such as Harry Emerson Fosdick and even Reinhold Niebuhr to speak forcefully in opposition to lynching in the first half of the twentieth century:
I found no prominent liberal theologian in the North who made a vigorous stand against lynching. … [T]hey were free to express outrage, but they had none.
The notion that God is an oppressor and a murderer and needs to be killed was clearly an insult to the sensibilities of white Christians in the United States, but in the end, Cone’s arguments challenged the collective conscience of white Protestants who then embraced the task of confronting white privilege and racism in the United States.
Cone was a controversial figure and people were outraged by what he said, but ultimately, his right to raise the issues was affirmed by the community he was railing against. Cone pointed to a failure of religious belief in an unsparing way. God could handle the insult, even if his so-called followers could not.
What is remarkable about Cone’s challenge, leveled at white Americans in the U.S., is how applicable it is to the plight of Christians and other religious minorities living under Muslim rule in the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia.
Muslim doctrine, like the theology of white Christians that Cone condemned, encourages its adherents to believe that God has appointed them to rule over others, in this case Jews and Christians especially. This belief has been the source of untold suffering on the part of Christians, Jews, and others in Muslim majority countries throughout the world. It has been like this for centuries, and sadly enough this belief endures with lethal consequences.
In the past few years, Christian communities under Muslim rule have seen their men lynched, their churches blown up, their women raped and abducted, and in sum have been treated the way blacks historically were treated in the United States.
After listening to testimony from Christians from Iraq and Egypt, I simply cannot read passages from Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree and not think of Coptic men being murdered by mobs of Muslim extremists in Egypt.
I cannot read this text and not think of Coptic women being spit on in the streets of Cairo because they will not wear the veil.
I cannot read Cone’s book and not think about Assyrians in Iraq being murdered in their churches by young men who have been told it is lawful and even necessary for them to kill non-Muslims.
Muslim hostility towards Christians creates an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty that Cone himself should be able to relate to.
[I remember] worrying about my father when he did not come home from work at the usual time in the evening. My brothers and I would watch anxiously out the window, hoping that the lights from every vehicle would be the lights from his pick-up truck.
His mother tried to reassure Cone that God would protect his father, but it didn’t help because he had “heard too much about white people killing black people to believe what she said without deep questioning.” Cone’s experience with white supremacy prompted him to ask:
If God loves black people, why then do we suffer so much. That was my question as a child; that is still my question.
One has to wonder why Cone and those who have embraced his arguments about white supremacy and privilege have failed to stand up to its Islamic analogue.
Are not the corpses of Christians murdered in Middle East and North Africa — on a regular basis — the strange fruit of Muslim supremacy?
If God loves Christians living in Muslim-majority countries, then why do they suffer so much?
If one were to ask these questions and apply Cone’s analysis to the plight of Christians living in Muslim-majority countries, the conclusion would be similar to what he said about the god worshipped by white Christians who oppressed blacks in the United States: If God (Allah) is not for Christians suffering under Muslim rule, if God is not against Muslims who oppress them, then God (Allah) is a murderer and we had better kill him.
What is remarkable is that liberation theology — which was so readily used to highlight the suffering of blacks in the U.S. and Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip — has not been used by its adherents to highlight the suffering of Christians under Muslim rule.
Instead of challenging Islamic doctrine regarding the status of non-Muslims, Christian leaders, particularly those from the Vatican, the World Council of Churches, the National Council of Churches, and mainline churches in the U.S. — all of which have assailed white supremacy and imperialism — have engaged in mealy-mouthed dialogue with Muslim leaders. Instead of raising the issue of Muslim oppression of Christians and other minorities forcefully with their dialogue partners, they talk about the theological similarities and differences between Christianity and Islam and then blame whatever difficulties there are between Christians and Muslims on Christian support for Israel.
Churches that have screamed bloody murder on behalf of Palestinian Christians have remained silent about the mistreatment of Christians under Muslim rule. The justification for their silence? Speaking up on behalf of Christians under Muslim rule will only make things worse and provoke more violence against Christians in the Middle East, particularly in Egypt where Coptic leaders have asked that outsiders leave well enough alone. Hostage taking on a grand scale has become a tool of statecraft for religious and political leaders in the Middle East.
This is not a heckler’s veto, this is a murderer’s veto. Have we no outrage?