"You Sound Angry"
You Sound Angry:
Wisdom from James Cone on the Role of Anger in Public Theology
September 6, 2018
I’m not angry. Not right this moment anyway. Or maybe I am. But not that angry. Not inordinately angry.
Why, dear reader, do I suspect you might ask?
Because it’s increasingly common these days for attention to one’s tone and perceived emotional mood to distract from the significance of one’s ideas. The most common criticism I receive as co-host of the Almost Heretical podcast is that I come off as angry, or even “unnecessarily angry.”
I’ve long recoiled from this feedback, even while understanding and empathizing with the message.
Recently, Corey D.B. Walker penned a poetic meditation on the late James Cone called “Love and a Theology of Blackness”. Walker quotes Cone:
“This work, then, is written with a definite attitude, the attitude of an angry black man, disgusted with the oppression of black people in America and with the scholarly demand to be ‘objective’ about it. Too many people have died, and too many are on the edge of death. . . . The prophets certainly spoke in anger, and there is some evidence that Jesus got angry. It may be that the importance of any study in the area of morality or religion is determined in part by the emotion expressed. It seems that one weakness of most theological works is their ‘coolness’ in the investigation of an idea. Is it not time for theologians to get upset?”
Then Walker asks, “How do scholars, yet alone theologians, Black scholars and Black theologians, write with/out anger? A theology with/out anger? A Black theology? Love and Blackness thus involves a transvaluation of how we see, feel, experience, and think. It is a moral activism that tests the cognitive and political content of the dominant geo/theo/political order.”
If I understand Walker’s reflection and Cone’s argument, anger is necessary to any genuine attempt at theology. Walker and Cone speak from black perspectives as to the impossibility of doing “black theology” without anger. I write as a white would-be theologian when I say in step that to filter my theology and public dialogue of anger would be to resolutely engage in doing white theology.
The excerpt above is from Cone’s seminal Black Theology & Black Power. Presumably for brevity, Walker excised the following lines from Cone’s thought:
“In fairness to my understanding of the truth, I cannot allow myself to engage in a dispassionate, non-committed debate on the status of the black-white relations in America by assessing the pro and con of Black Power. The scholarly demand for this kind of “objectivity” has come to mean being uninvolved or not taking sides. But as Kenneth B. Clark reminds us, when moral issues are at stake, non-involvement and non-commitment and the exclusion of feeling are neither sophisticated nor objective, but naïve and violative of the scientific spirit at its best. When human feelings are part of the evidence, they cannot be ignored. Where anger is the appropriate response, to exclude the recognition and acceptance of anger, and even to avoid the feeling itself as if it were an inevitable contamination, is to set boundaries upon truth itself. If a scholar who studied Nazi concentration camps did not feel revolted by the evidence no one would say he was unobjective but rather fear for his sanity and moral sensitivity. Feeling may twist judgment, but the lack of it may twist it even more.”
Anger is the appropriate response to injustice and oppression. Cone’s acknowledgement of “some evidence that Jesus got angry” is an understatement. Jesus broke furniture in the temple and physically removed its predatory merchants (Mk. 11:14-18); publicly condemned and cursed his own religious authorities as violent, evil snakes (Mt. 12:34 & 23:33); and wept in rage and heartache over the systemic injustice perpetuated in Jerusalem (Lk. 13:33 & 19:41). It is only Platonic presuppositions about divine impassibility that would blind one to the gospels’ obvious depiction of Jesus the Christ as an unapologetically angry man in open conflict with his governmental and religious authorities.
In this way, Cone’s work toward a “black theology” that admits and incorporates righteous anger was an attempt to recover Christian testimony from the Western church’s adulterous affair with imperial power. The powers – whether religious or political or both – demand gratitude and punish anger. Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t use the correct channels, the church said. Colin Kaepernick doesn’t show proper respect and appreciation, the church says. Anger is protest, and protest is always vilified.
We live in a religiopolitical landscape that asks us to consider that “the problem is on both sides” and to engage only in “polite civil discourse”. It’s the same mindset that invites Steve Bannon on stage in the guise of journalistic intellectual debate.
Ours is a world that polices anger.
I understand a certain distaste for unending vitriolic rage. Modern technology means a nonstop barrage of crises and tragedies demanding our emotional energy and attention. Good people get tired and can’t keep up. I know what it’s like to unfollow people because their feed is simply too pessimistic for my own emotional sustainability.
Yet, as Cone wrote and Walker reflected, anger is an appropriate and necessary response. Moreover, as such, in the face of real suffering, anger is a moral obligation. This is because anger is a fundamental empathetic response to injustice and expressing anger publicly is an act of solidarity with victims of that injustice. The option to turn off the stimuli of outrage is one only afforded the rich and powerful. Oppressed and marginalized people don’t have the choice to filter out news of injustice. They live it, and anger is therefore as much a fact of one’s existence as hunger or fatigue.
As a white man who engages in public theology, anger is a basic requirement for enacting solidarity with oppressed people. To detach myself from such feelings of discontent in order to pursue some “civil objectivity” is to continue performing white theology. If the opposite of love is apathy, the opposite of apathy in the midst of injustice is anger. In a society riven by white supremacy, supposed “neutral” theology is apathetic theology, which is complicit theology.
The recent Statement on Social Justice  asked us to choose sides in an old war, newly codified. Our options are to sign the statement, politely decline, or angrily object. When the various heralded gatekeepers of white American evangelicalism declare theological war against victims of racism, sexism and homophobia, is it not time for theologians to get upset?
Of course, one views “social justice” as either essential to the good news of Jesus or else a heretical threat to the church based on one’s interpretive lens. The American religious landscape is largely two groups pointing to the same book to derive opposing ethical frameworks. If neutrality is itself choosing the side of the status quo and we must all therefore choose a side, where do we begin?
If I understand him rightly, Cones construed anger as a hermeneutic. As he said elsewhere, “Black theology is the theological expression of a people deprived of social and political power.” In other words, it is the theology of those with a right to be mad and whose experience and expression of anger is natural and involuntary. Thus, Walker: “A theology with/out anger?” To Cone, avoiding anger violated intellectual integrity, and to Walker, anger is apart of thinking.
Yet the Bible is itself a book written by and for marginalized peoples, political refugees, and persecuted minorities. Therefore, what Cone and Walker assert of “black theology” is true to some extent of any attempt at basically faithful Christian theology. To do any theology apart from a white/imperial theology, anger is a necessary hermeneutical starting point. Jesus – like the Bible - assumed a suffering, angry audience. While the religion of American slaveholders posited guilt as the only possible starting point for faith, Jesus assumed his followers would come to him from places of despair, grief, unjust suffering, humiliation and victimhood (Mt. 5:3-11). It was the rich and powerful who would find it exceedingly difficult to accept Jesus’ kingdom as good news (Mk. 10:17-27). Logically, the same principal applies to Biblical hermeneutics: The rich and powerful are least prepared and thus least likely to interpret the Bible well. The prerequisite is humble, sacrificial solidarity with the oppressed and the angry.
Indeed, the New Testament assumes an audience far more tempted to stage a violent revolt of the local government than one that would vote the recumbent party line. As such, Christian interpretation can only begin with the protesting (and indeed, Protestant) emotion of anger. Good news of cosmic redemption (i.e. liberation) begins at the point of honest anger over the atrocities of the present state of things.
I understand why some people wince at the anger in my tone as I protest the Statement on Social Justice as an unchristian obscenity. I simply prefer to practice angry solidarity with victims than nurture the “civil” sensibilities of those who are doing just fine. Cone owned the stigmatized and ostracized label of “angry black man”. I believe he did so in order to bravely honor and empower his fellow black Americans in their justified, righteous anger. I’ll take my lead from Cone then and proudly own the title of “angry white man” before capitulating to those uncomfortable with the anger that is, tragically, still the appropriate moral and religious response to the present state of things.
Cone, James H. A Black Theology of Liberation, Fortieth Anniversary Edition (Orbis Books, New York; 1986, 1990, 2010
Consider Moses and ancient Israel, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Ezra and Nehemiah, Paul and the apostles.