Director’s note: In this final part of our conversation, we discuss race, James Cone’s critique of Niebuhr, and President Obama’s approach to the racial conversation personally (that is, concerning himself) and nationally.
Cynthia Holder Rich (CHR): I want to discuss James Cone’s critique of Niebuhr. Cone grew up during Jim Crow; he’s called the angriest theologian of our time. And he has reasons for his anger; he did not face Nazis, but he faced Jim Crow, and the ever-present threat of violence and death, that was inevitably unremarked-upon nor responded to by society. Cone has brought out a new book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, in which he rehearses and expands a line of critique of Niebuhr’s work . Cone goes in a variety of directions in his critique, but the primary thrust is that during Niebuhr’s life and ministry, many, many African-Americans were being lynched, and Niebuhr did not use his considerable power to do something about it. Niebuhr in fact did not really discuss race in America. He did refer to it, but did not make it a primary point or something he really addressed. For Cone, who lived through an evil time, and who still struggles with racism on a daily basis, this is nearly unforgivable – because of the power that Niebuhr had. How many theologians get on the cover of Time magazine, after all?
Reflecting on Cone’s critique of Niebuhr, I was struck throughout your book with the lack of discussion of Obama’s race. You don’t significantly deal with it. You deal with the way that people hate him and are hostile to him, and you ask questions about why this continues, even though the policies he has passed and seeks to promote would benefit people, and why it is that the GOP has so consistently worked against him. You don’t ever answer that with a reference to the continuing power of racism.
You two know Niebuhr much more deeply than I. I don’t remember from my reading Niebuhr’s taking on the way we who are white treat those who are brown and the evil therein. I was struck that you don’t really raise race, and Cone has been struck that Niebuhr didn’t raise race. Can the two of you speak to that and talk about how Obama operates and his approach to governance, given his race?
Peter Josephson (PJ): I would start with three things. We do state that we’re sure that race is part of the criticism of the president. We are confident that when people say Obama is a Muslim, or wasn’t born here, or isn’t adequate to the task – we are clear that these are related to the fact that he is an African-American. We don’t put this in a major way in the book, as we try to meet people with the claim they are making – that he is socialist, or a Muslim. We are clear, however, that there is something uglier and nastier under the claims that people make.
I don’t believe that the president’s race underlies all criticism of him – or maybe even most criticism of him. But probably because of my history as a Jew in America, I am quite sure that the president’s race is an issue for people, even though they don’t say it out loud.
R. Ward Holder (RWH): We tried to have a political, public conversation about the role in religion in politics in America, and we wanted some people with whom we do not or might not agree to read the book. If we say it’s all racism, it gets discounted. But, we absolutely see racism here, and the argument that racism is going away as demonstrably false. The racist attacks on Obama are actually ramping up, rather than dying down.
We are also trying to take Obama seriously, in his own approach to being President. Obama, in his relationship with Jeremiah Wright, in The Audacity of Hope, Obama seeks to align the concerns of African-Americans with the wider scope of Americans. He argues that there are plenty of white Americans in economic trouble. There are plenty of white people who are living with injustice. Those are some of the reasons why we constructed the book as we did – to take seriously the approach that Obama takes himself.
CHR: How do you see Cone’s critique of Niebuhr?
PJ: It is clear that Niebuhr failed on this point to act ethically and with justice. I have a relative who opened the first mixed-race nightclub in New York City in the 1930s. It simply isn’t the case that Niebuhr could have been unaware of what was happening, nor that he could have travelled in the circles he did and not encountered the truth of what was happening in racial relationships, both in the US north nor in the south.
RWH: Absolutely. Niebuhr lived till 1971. He had opportunity to speak on this, and he did not. Therefore, there is no question that he missed an opportunity to speak, particularly at the height of his public influence, against an ongoing evil. In a way, then, he violated his own sense of the mandate of being Christian in the world, to engage with the world and confront the evil one sees.