If there is one living liberal theologian whom Conservatives must read, it is James Cone. Why? It is because of how he ties yesterday's and today's suffering with the Cross of Christ. And we should read him not because he is correct in everything he asserts, he isn't. But by reading him, we can see where he is right and, more importantly, we can possibly become more personally connected to America's past.
Jame Cone grew up during the Jim Crow I days-- note that some call today Jim Crow II because of the incarceration rates of Blacks. He described the worry and anxiety he and his family would sometimes suffer while waiting for the father to return home from work. Why the fuss? During those dark times, Whites could all too often persecute, torture, and even kill Blacks with impunity. Systematic prejudice was the order of the day and what the system missed, individuals could sometimes catch. Thousands of Blacks were murdered for no reason other than the fact that their sin was in their skin, as one song put it. And one of the methods most often used to murder Blacks was lynching.
The above took place between 1880 and the 1940. And, as a Christian Fundamentalist, I find it difficult to determine if all this occurred before America became a Christian nation or after. In short, James Cone sees the lynching of Blacks, as well as other forms of oppressing marginalized people, in Christ's crucifixion and vice-versa. I could provide more details about the connections he makes between the lynching of Blacks and the crucifixion of Christ, but I could never do them justice the way Cone has (lecture on the Cross and the Lynching tree, written review of James Cone's work, and his book, The Cross And The Lynching Tree). Rather, I would like to highlight an issue that Cone's approach to the crucifixion of Christ raises. It is that there is a tug of war between making the Christian faith relevant to those who are suffering greatly on one hand and the pitfall of projecting one's own group experience onto the Scriptures on the other..
We could begin looking at this issue by drawing an analogy with Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. In Maslow's model, the more physical deprivation one experiences, the more a person looks for those needs to be met. As those needs are satisfied, security and social needs take precedence. This goes on and on until finally self-actualization is to be gained. Likewise, White Conservative Christians, who unconsciously occupy a privileged place in American Society, find eternal salvation to be the highest, and all too often sole, need to be met by Christ's work, while those who live under oppression or as 2nd class citizens look to the Bible for immediate relief and vindication from the immediate. Thus, when White Christians, who have such a focus on what happens after you die, see the Christ's Cross associated with any other cause than eternal salvation, they feel that the Gospel is being subverted and changed into a secular message. Such Christians then see it as their duty to God to totally reject all that is being proposed by those from the underclass who look at the Gospel somewhat differently. And in their all or nothing rejection, these same Christians can only associate deliverance from the eternal fires of Hell with the redemption brought to us by Christ.
However, Christ came as both man and God and part of his unjust punishment on the Cross was to suffer as an innocent man; and since Jesus identified with the least of these in the parable of the sheep and goats, and since Christ knows our every temptation because He came as a man, we should expect there to be some connections between people's unjust suffering and what Christ went through on the cross. Perhaps, not all of the connections that Cone makes are valid, but some are and at least he is trying to point out to us Conservatives what he and his brothers and sisters have lived, and still, to a debatable lesser degree, continue to live with. Cone is trying to make the Gospel relevant to more than what happens to you after you die which those in from the privileged class find to be superfluous.
But there is a potential problem for Cone and others like him as they try to make the Gospel relevant to those who suffer. That problem is that one could go past just looking how one's experiences are modeled in the Scriptures to projecting onto the Scriptures what they want to hear. It is at this point that the Gospel message is changed. However, if we are honest, we all project onto the Scriptures what we want said whether we belong to a particular group or we are proud individualists.
How do we avoid both errors? It is difficult because we are human and we often project onto God what we want Him to be while we find fault with others who do the same. At the same time, we often struggle to appreciate and understand the travail of others who are different because, with all of the humility we can muster, we have trouble believing that our own lives do not serve as microcosms of the world. There is no doubt that Christ's passion reconciles us to God. But that reconciliation involves more than just our life after death. A new life is also part of the Gospel's deal and that means a battle with sin. However, Christ came as a man too and He did so in order to help us. We can relate to Christ better because He became one of us. So if those who suffer can relate to the Cross in ways we have not but do not contradict the Gospel, we cannot afford to ignore or attack what is being proposed. Rather, it is our duty, to both those who suffer and to the Gospel, to honestly explore these new connections.