Liberation Theology Blog Series. Post #2: Rosemary Radford Ruether in the “Terra Incognita” of a New Humanity

Below is part 2 of Dr. Lilian Barger’s post on Rosemary Radford Ruether. You can read part 1, Rosemary Radford Ruether and Women as the “First and Final Proletariat,” hereLiberation Theology Rosemary Ruether

Brief Author Biography:

Lilian Calles Barger, is an independent historian, her current book project The World Come of Age: Religious Intellectuals and the Challenge of Human Liberation is a long hemispheric history of the emergence of liberation theology. Contact her at [email protected].

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While the North American liberal establishment of the 1970s was reticent in challenging homegrown liberation theologies, and compelled to focus on Latin America, early criticism came from Rosemary Radford Ruether. In multiple essays, she charged that black, feminist, and Latin American elites were struggling to identify with the oppressed through an intensely theoretical approach. The appeal to a common experience did not ring true as liberationist sought intellectual legitimacy. The rhetoric of sex, class, and race oppression failed to provide a way forward to an inclusive human liberation.

Before James Cone had published Black Theology and Black Power (1969), Ruether asked to what extent such theology was possible without being a form of parochial racist propaganda. She argued that a contextual black theology, in the tradition of Martin Luther King, Jr., had the potential to be universal and yet speak to the particular situation of the black church’s encounter with the alienating image of a Caucasian Christ.[1]Instead, she saw an emerging theology estranged from the people it professed to represent. She noted in 1971 that Cone, as the foremost black theologian, was on the agenda of every radical theological discussion, and represented the rise of “Negro intelligentsia…alienated from the living context of the black community.”[2] She viewed Cone as functioning within a male white power base addressing white people. This made his theology inadequate for the black community. It appeared that black caucuses within white institutions simply slid into bourgeois respectability disguised in militancy and abandoning the poor unchurched black masses.

Ruether viewed Cone’s theory of race and the association of whiteness with oppression and blackness with liberation as straining metaphors into an unworkable “contextual absolute.” He had failed to differentiate between kinds and levels of oppression, or to make clear that its manifestation was not intrinsic to a permanent racial identity. Blackness as a metaphor for universal humanity, and an uncritical claim to virtue in oppression, was wedded to denying humanity to white people and regarding them as evil. But not only did Cone reify racial categories, he failed to provide a theology grounded in black culture that saw black people as more than merely oppressed.

Besides the reification of race and alienation from the black community, Ruether identified a clear crisis developing between black theology, in the line of a “super-male-chauvinist tradition,” and feminist theology. They were pitted against each other in their respective enclaves within the white male dominated academy.[3] The complexity of the relationship between black and feminist theology was evident in the position of black women caught between racism, sexism, and concurrent with broader debates within feminism. Both black and feminist theology failed to see the terms on which they saw each other.

Ruether, whose profile was growing on the editorial board of Christianity and Crisis, addressed problems within the newly emerging feminist theology. Ruether’s critique of the feminist theology was similar to critiques of black and Latin American theologians as being insufficiently rooted in the people they claimed to speak for. The new group of elite women tended to be white, middle-class, childless, and career-focused, obscuring class and race in woman’s oppression. Their experience did not stand for the experience of all women. She saw clear evidence in the denigration of motherhood, with “abortion” the only word associated with it, which she saw as arising from the subversion of childbearing in the adopting of male career patterns.[4] Ruether, held that maternity represented the one source of power men did not have and thus used against women.Feminists’ inability to recapture motherhood as a positive experience accepted what Mary Daly had called “phallic morality.”[5]Ruether called for women theologians to unmask the false consciousness that produced misogyny even among feminists.

As early as 1970 Rosemary Radford Ruether expressed reluctance to replace the brotherhood of man with the sisterhood of the women’s movement. The idea of sisterhood raised the question of whether women constituted a people, similar to racial or ethnic groups. For Ruether sisterhood had a limited function as a “therapeutic community” to arrive at consciousness of oppression and alienation. The goal of feminism was a venture into a “terra incognita” to create an integrated “new humanity” free from the dualism of patriarchal power rather than to reify essentialism.[6] Modernity was struggling to overcome the hierarchy of traditional society in which subordinated groups experienced themselves through the definition of the dominant group. Through a cultural rebellion, women, blacks, and colonized people were seeking a communal recognition of their personhood yet they were in danger of reinscribing the false identities they were seeking to escape.

White men defined both the place and terms of rebellion for blacks and women. Ruether noted that blacks caught between assimilation, or embracing the traditional and unworkable identity of a slave, had a parallel in women’s history. The self-assertion of a new black identity, evident in the defiance of the Black Panthers, threatened to re-create the angry black man of the white imagination.[7] In the journey of revolutionary struggle, women either emulated men engaging in self-hatred, or embraced the societal definitions of womanhood. For women seeking to redefine themselves, the anger of radical sisterhood could simply read as acting out a dreaded feminine power. Both blacks and women needed to go beyond the parameters set by a hierarchal society in defining liberation.

A new ethos that recognized co-humanity required overcoming sexism as men and women in solidarity sought reintegration with nature and community. This was the meaning of biblical salvation – the overcoming of alienation. Quoting the apostle Paul, “there is neither male nor female, slave nor free, Jew nor Greek,” Ruether, considering herself a radical liberal, appealed to a spiritual androgyny and human solidarity rather than race, class or sex to arrive at a new humanity—a new universal. [8] Her position as a rising feminist theologian provided a platform to critique what confounded her male liberal cohorts operating under the modern notion of universalism. By doing so, Rosemary Radford Ruether initiated the way for subsequent revisions within black and feminist liberation theologies.

Notes

[1] Rosemary Radford Ruether, “Black Theology and the Black Church” America (June 14, 1969), 684.

[2] Rosemary Radford Ruether, “ The Black Theology of James Cone,” Catholic World (October 1971), 18-20.

[3] Ruether, New Woman, New Earth, 116.

[4] Rosemary Radford Ruether, “ Crisis in Sex and Race: Black Theology vs. Feminist Theology” Christianity and Crisis (April 15, 1974), 72.

[5] Ruether, “ Crisis in Sex and Race: Black Theology vs. Feminist Theology,” 72.

[6] Ruether, New Woman New Earth, 159.

[7] Rosemary Radford Ruether, “Women’s Liberation in Historical and Theological Perspective” Sounding, Vol 43:4 (Winter 1970): 371.

[8] Rosemary Radford Ruether “Sexism and the Theology of Liberation” Christian Century (December 12, 1973): 1228.

 

 

Part I: Fanon, Cone and Carter—On Imposed Narratives, Counter-Narratives and the Christian Narrative

In the closing section of Black Skin, White Masks, Frantz Fanon emphasizes the need for the black person to be future-oriented and to actively reject the white-scripted narrative into which he was born while creatively carving out a new present and future.  For Fanon, this meant a willingness to employ violence and to risk his own life so that human beings would no longer “be enslaved on this earth”.[1] Yet, his vision also included a call to human solidarity, a call to blacks and whites and to all human beings to “move away from the inhuman voices of their respective ancestors so that a genuine communication can be born”.[2]Frantz Fanon

Does his appeal to human solidarity, his repudiation of the past and his refusal to allow the “density of History to determine” his acts mean that Fanon has no interest in his ethnic roots or that he sees no value in highlighting the distinct contributions of people of color?[3] One need not draw such conclusions.  Rather, because he is acutely aware of the power of socio-historical forces to create systematic, racialized mechanisms and eventually essential-ize a people group, Fanon understood the need for a “disalienation” to occur.[4] This disalienation requires that the black person break the bonds of his historical (white) inscription and begin to write his own narrative.  Here we should not overlook Fanon’s affirmation of human free agency even in extreme situations of oppression.  As human beings, we are not determined completely by socio-historical conditions.  However, in the colonial situation where skin color defines in advance a person’s value and his or her place in society, abstract philosophical schemata—such as Merleau-Ponty’s corporeal schema and Hegel’s mythological master/slave dialectic—come up short because they fail to consider the existential reality of racial difference.[5]

Among other things, Fanon’s account of his experience in a white-scripted world points to the human need to understand oneself as part of a larger narrative—a narrative in which both human freedom and cultural and ethnic diversity are valued and respected.  Though the context was slavery and not colonialism and the dissimilarities between the two should be acknowledged, it is instructive to consider the ways in which some African Americans re-constituted their identity by bringing an ancient narrative of oppression and liberation into conversation with their present circumstances.  As Rowan Williams observes, if the dominant group takes on the role of defining the out-group’s identity, we should not be astounded if the latter’s response is, “‘We don’t need you to tell us who we are’.  Certain kinds of separatism are necessary to highlight the reality of a difference that has been overridden by the powerful conscripting the powerless into their story”.[6]

In fact, such a response in the form of counter-narratives of non-white-defined identity and creative strategies of resistance was precisely how many African-American slaves chose to struggle against white oppression and the brutality of American slavery.  Given the theological and specifically Christian approach that my account will discuss, it is necessary to acknowledge that Christianity has not been faithful to its own best teachings related to the issue of slavery.  In fact, under the banner of Christianity and with the “justification” of Scripture, many proclaiming the name of Christ fought to preserve the inhumane institution of slavery.[7] Nonetheless, in spite of such oppression, the African spirit resisted a reduction to white sameness.[8]

This resistance took many forms from physical violence to seeking a new life in free territories to purposely disrupting work routines.  Whatever shape the opposition took, a common conviction driving the slaves’ subversive maneuverings was a refusal to accept the degraded, sub-human existence imposed on them by white masters, coupled with a commitment to assert a self-defined, rather than an other-defined account of black identity.[9] Another area in which resistance manifested itselfwas in what we might call the specifically religious sphere.  “Slave religion”(Cone’s term), which continually asserted the dignity of blacks because they too are created in God’s image, not only affirmed “freedom from bondage” but also “freedom-in-bondage”.[10] That is, though Christian slaves did seek an ultimate end to their sufferings in the next life, they also believed in and sang spirituals about a God who was actively involved in history now—in their history—“making right what whites had made wrong.  Just as God delivered the Children of Israel from Egyptian slavery, drowning Pharaoh and his army in the Red Sea, he will also deliver black people from American slavery”.[11] The spirituals are often inspired by biblical passages which emphasize God’s care for and active involvement in liberating oppressed people, as well as his willingness in the Person of Jesus Christ to enter into an exiled existence and even physically touch the untouchables.

While the black spirituals communicate an abiding trust in God’s promise to deliver his people, they also provide an avenue for the slaves to cry out in their suffering, thus creating their own version of Israel’s “How long, O Lord?”[12] Here we not only have an eschatological hope on the basis of who God is and what he has done in history and is doing in the present, but we likewise have an acknowledgment of the eschatological tension experienced now where injustice often prevails.  When the day finally came and the slaves were freed from their bonds, these African American believers experienced an “eschatological freedom grounded in the events of the historical present, affirming that even now God’s future [the eschaton] is inconsistent with the realities of slavery.  Freedom, for black slaves, […] was a historical reality that had transcendent implications”.[13] In other words, even though a form of liberation had come—a proleptic view of the eschaton—the very fact that slavery existed and thus required a decree of emancipation underscores the dislocated character of our present world.   In short, one of the central theological themes of black spirituals is the belief that God has not forsaken his people, coupled with the conviction that he will one day deliver them from their unjust human oppressors.   However, it must be stressed that the faith in view here was not a mere passive waiting for divine deliverance but involved creative strategies of active resistance to a white-defined identity.  “Resistance was the ability to create beauty and worth out of the ugliness of slave existence.  Resistance made dignity more than just a word to be analyzed philosophically”.[14]

Notwithstanding the genuine differences between Fanon’s colonial (and postcolonial) context and the African-American’s enslaved (and segregated) context, the oppressed in both situations are given an other-scripted narrative—a narrative which is one component of a socio-political, racialized apparatus that seeks to destroy difference.  Whether the narrative comes from “enlightened” Europeans or “Christian” slaveholders, the latter having more in common with the former than with the teachings of Jesus the suffering servant, the goal is domination and a reduction to white sameness.  If in fact colonialism and modern institutions of slavery are fueled by a desire to possess, destroy and re-make others in one’s own (white) image, and Christians who have supported these projects have been in grave error, is it possible to vindicate Christianity so that it might still be considered a valid option for the possibility of saving difference?  J. Kameron Carter believes it is possible and has recently made a case for rescuing Christianity from its perverse instantiations.

In part two, I shall discuss Carter’s reading of Maximus the Confessor.

Notes


[1] Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, p. 202.

[2] Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, p. 206.

[3] Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, p. 205.

[4] Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, p. 206.  This is not to deny the complicity involved in the black person’s internalization of the negative other-scripted narrative.

[5] This is not to suggest that Fanon’s critique resulted in his repudiation of all philosophical analyses and methodologies.  Rather, Fanon’s project can be seen as a needed corrective and expansion of the philosophical tradition.  On Fanon’s original contributions to the master/slave dialectic, see Nigel Gibson, ‘Dialectical Impasses:  Turning the Table on Hegel and the Black’, parallax 8 (2002), esp. pp. 33-41.  As Gibson explains, ‘[r]eciprocity in the colonial experience is not so much deformed as closed off.  The colour barrier stops the dialectic.  Fanon further maintains that the slave cannot win recognition through labour; since the master wants only work, he is not at all interested in recognition’ (p. 36).

[6] Rowan Williams, ‘Nobody Knows Who I Am Till the Judgement Morning,’ in On Christian Theology, (Oxford:  Blackwell, 2000), p. 281.

[7] See, e.g., James Cone’s discussion of slave catechisms created by white ‘Christians’ for the purpose of producing docile slaves and to attempt to convince slaves that they were in fact created to be slaves (The Spirituals and the Blues: An Interpretation. (New York: The Seabury Press, 1972), pp. 22-23.  Here one sees more continuity with Aristotle’s notion of ‘natural slaves’ than the biblical teaching that all humans are created in the image of God and are therefore equal before God.

[8] As Cone explains, ‘[w]hen white people enslaved Africans, their intention was to dehistoricize black existence, to foreclose the possibility of a future defined by the African heritage.  White people demeaned black people’s sacred tales, ridiculing their myths and defiling the sacred rites.  Their intention was to define humanity according to European definitions so that their brutality against Africans could be characterized as civilizing the savages.  But white Europeans did not succeed; and black history is the record of their failure’ (The Spirituals and The Blues, pp. 23-24).

[9] Cone, The Spirituals and The Blues, p. 25.

[10] Cone, The Spirituals and The Blues, p. 28.  In chapter two, ‘The Black Spirituals and Black Experience’, Cone highlights the numerous ways in which African-American slaves actively resisted the white-imposed narrative and refused to accept the biblical hermeneutic of their ‘Christian’ masters.  ‘The slaves were obliged to create their own religion out of the remnants that were available and useful, both African and Christian.  These elements were woven together to provide a historical possibility for human existence.  While white religion had taught blacks to look for their reward in heaven through obedience to white masters on earth, black slaves were in fact carving out a new style of earthly freedom’ (The Spirituals and The Blues, p. 28; italics added).

[11] Cone, The Spirituals and The Blues, p. 32.

[12] Commenting on the slaves’ expression of faith in the midst of unjust suffering, Cone writes, ‘[f]aith in the righteousness of God was not easy for black people, since God’s liberating work in the world was not always when they expected it.  Their faith did not cancel the pain of enslavement’ (The Spirituals and The Blues, p. 35).

[13] Cone, The Spirituals and The Blues, p. 42.

[14] Cone, The Spirituals and The Blues, p. 27.

Part II: Black Spirituals and the Genealogy of Jazz

[Part I]
This resistance to a reduction of white sameness by enslaved blacks took many forms, ranging from physical violence to seeking a new life in free territories to purposely disrupting work routines.  Another area in which resistance manifested was in what we might call the specifically “religious” sphere.  “Slave religion” (Cone’s term), which asserted the dignity of blacks because they too are created in God’s image, not only affirmed freedom from bondage but also freedom in bondage (Cone 1972, 28).  That is, though it is the case that Christian slaves did seek an ultimate, definitive end to their sufferings in the new, re-created world, they also believed in and sang spirituals about a God who was actively involved in history now-in their history (Cone 1972, 32).  As Cone observes, black spirituals were often inspired by biblical passages that emphasized God’s care for and participation in liberating the oppressed.  While they expressed a deep trust in God’s promise to deliver his people, the spirituals also allowed the slaves to cry out in their suffering, asking the same question encountered so often in the Psalms, “How long, O Lord?”  In this willful act of turning to God in prayer, we see not only the manifestation of an eschatological hope on the basis of who God is and what he has done and is doing in history, but we likewise have an acknowledgment of the eschatological tension experienced in the present life where injustice so frequently prevails.  When the day finally came and God liberated the slaves from their bonds, these African American believers experienced what Cone calls an “eschatological freedom grounded in the events of the historical present, affirming that even now God’s future is inconsistent with the realities of slavery” (Cone 1972, 42).  In short, for black slaves, freedom “was a historical reality that had transcendent implications” (Cone 1972, 42).  Thus, given what we have said up to this point, we might summarize one of the central theological themes of black spirituals as the belief that God had not forsaken his people coupled with the conviction that he would one day deliver them from their present unjust human oppressors-a conviction that in no way promoted a passive strategy of non-resistance but encouraged them to speak against the injustices committed against them and to pursue the freedom and dignity that they deserved as human beings.

Not only did black spirituals play a significant role the genealogy of jazz, but the blues as well left its own particular imprint on the face of jazz.  Employing a slightly different analogy, one might say that black spirituals and the blues are in a sense the soul that to varying degrees continues to animate jazz.   In both of these musical styles, we encounter improvisatory elements, syncopated rhythms, call and response patterns, and the use of “blue notes,” that is, flattened third, fifth, and seventh scale tones.  These blue notes imitate musically a wide spectrum of human emotions yet are particularly apt at communicating deep, heartfelt sorrow.  Although, on the one hand, it is accurate to understand jazz as a fusion of European harmonic structures and practices with distinctively African elements such as syncopation, swing, and complex polyrhythmic layerings; nonetheless, on the other hand, jazz, having been in a very real sense birthed into being by black spirituals and nurtured by the blues, retains, reflects and continues to re-tell the Christian narrative of hope in the midst of suffering.   Such hope was regularly exhibited in the lives of jazz musicians like Duke Ellington and Charlie Christian, who struggled moment by moment against the hatred of racism.  While both these musicians surpassed many if not all of their white contemporaries in musical talent, they and other black musicians were denied opportunities to play in the major venues, overlooked by the media, and made to stand in the shadows of white performers. Yet, in spite of this unfair and dishonest treatment, jazz musicians such as Duke Ellington (a professing Christian), Charlie Christian and numerous others were able to transcend these injustices by means of their music.

Though admittedly I have provided a mere sketch of the genealogy of jazz, my chief purpose has been to highlight the role played by black spirituals, and hence Christianity, on the historical development of jazz.  Just as the spirituals served as a way not only to tell the black story, but also the black story as understood within the history of redemption, so too jazz retains significant aspects of the Christian narrative, as it continues to communicate the joys, sorrows and hope of both African Americans and all others who are open to being changed by the narrative and the music.

Works Cited

Cone, James H, 1972.  The Spirituals and the Blues: An Interpretation. New York: The Seabury Press.

Part I: Black Spirituals and the Genealogy of Jazz

Part of what I hope to accomplish with this albeit brief ad fontes journey is to raise our awareness of the function of black spirituals within the context of the early black Christian communities in America, and to highlight the distinctive ways in which the Christian faith of African Americans cannot be extricated from the coming-into-being of what many (including myself) consider as America’s most important musical contribution, jazz.  Black spirituals first and foremost have a story to tell-a story whose main characters were concrete individuals, who, on a day to day basis, were confronted with a society, which by and large refused to acknowledge their history and existence as human beings.  In the face of the de-humanized and deplorable treatment of slaves by the whites in power, black spirituals allowed slaves to affirm their dignity as human beings created in God’s image and provided a way for their otherwise legally silenced voices to be heard.

While the Africans of North America were being torn from their families and homeland and stripped of their culture, their white oppressors were unable to silence their music-music that in many ways allowed the cultural richness of the African people to live on.  Although the origins of African slavery in North America are difficult to pinpoint, it was in Jamestown in 1619 that the first Africans were sold into slavery.  By 1700, the majority of Africans in North America were made slaves for life (Cone 1972, 20).   Despite the great physical and psychological suffering,[1] the African spirit resisted a reduction to white sameness.  Vividly describing some of the inhumane and compassionless treatment endured by slaves, Cone writes:

Slavery meant being regarded as property, like horses, cows, and household goods.  For blacks the auction block was one potent symbol of their subhuman status.  The block stood for ‘brokenness,’ because on sale days no family ties were recognized. […] Slavery meant working fifteen to twenty hours a day and being beaten for showing fatigue.  It meant being driven into the field three weeks after delivering a baby.  It meant having the cost of replacing you calculated against the value of your labor during a peak season, so that your owner could decide whether to work you to death.  It meant being whipped for crying over a fellow slave who had been killed while trying to escape (Cone 1972, 20-1).

Numerous other monstrosities could be cited, including slave catechisms created by whites, who claimed the name of Christ, hoped to more docile slaves and to convince blacks that they were in fact created to be slaves.  As previously mentioned, one must not underestimate the deeply historical, concrete nature of black spirituals as vehicles to communicate not only the slaves’ experiences in a white-defined society, but also they served as a way to preserve their African cultural roots and identity.  Yet, here again, white hatred went beyond physical enslavement and extended its scope in an attempt to “dehistoricize black existence, to foreclose the possibility of a future defined by the African heritage.  White people demeaned black people’s sacred tales, ridiculing their myths and defiling the sacred rites” (Cone 1972, 23).  Manifestly, the whites in power had defined humanity according to their own European image in order to justify their cruel actions as “civilizing the savages.”  However, their perverse plans failed, and “black history is the record of their failure” (Cone 1972, 24).


[1] Cone provides several powerful examples of the suffering endured by people of African heritage.  “Slavery meant being regarded as property, like horses, cows, and household goods.  For blacks the auction block was one potent symbol of their subhuman status.  The block stood for ‘brokenness,’ because on sale days no family ties were recognized. […] Slavery meant working fifteen to twenty hours a day and being beaten for showing fatigue.  It meant being driven into the field three weeks after delivering a baby.  It meant having the cost of replacing you calculated against the value of your labor during a peak season, so that your owner could decide whether to work you to death.  It meant being whipped for crying over a fellow slave who had been killed while trying to escape” (Cone 1972, 20-1).