Hope Under Judgement: A reflection on theology and race after the killing of George Floyd

I feel a distinct uneasiness as I attempt to write some reflections on the brutal killing of George Floyd and the subsequent events. It’s an uneasiness borne of the tension in accepting that sheer silence represents a failure to reckon with what is and has been happening, yet knowing ahead of time that words will fail to do justice to this. More than that to be honest; this article will only lay open my failure to grasp the complexities of what we see, and show up the limits of my own self-perception as much as my comprehension of events. Perhaps though this represents the tension with which all theological speech is fraught, and that the present uneasiness ought to alert me to the clumsy way in which we can speak of God, the world, and the hope of creation without due reverence and humility.

There is another problem about speaking of course, which is that another white man’s ill-prepared theologizing may just add to the noise with which most public discourse has to contend, and that there may well be times when the best thing is to shut up so as to listen. It was reading James H. Cone’s Black Theology and Black Power that I think first made me begin to wrestle with this, though my exploration of Cone’s work over a number of years now doesn’t necessarily cast me in a good light. I started reading Cone with a genuine desire to engage with someone speaking from a different perspective to my own, and while I hope that it might be possible to salvage some integrity from that aim, you can see the problem. I was reading Cone with the presupposition that this author thought differently, and that I was therefore unlikely to agree or accept everything he said. I didn’t; but I did keep reading.

As Cone once memorably put it, for white people, ‘divine reconciliation is connected with God’s wrathful destruction of white values. Everything that white oppressors hold dear is now placed under the judgment of the cross.’[1] I found the idea interesting but uncongenial, perhaps a predictable reaction. Ok, I could accept we weren’t perfect, but this was surely overstating the case. Neither at first could I understand the rejection of white ‘help’ among significant movements for civil rights, and like so many, far preferred the more palatable (though not actually of course) words of Martin King. But I kept coming back to Cone’s words, not I hope to romanticize their starkness, nor because that was the last thing Cone or anyone else had to say on the subject, but because I started to feel him prodding something of such fundamental theological significance that it had to be explored, something I think continues to be significant now. To consider the promise of eschatological destruction was to be asked to take seriously the idea of being open to judgement.

This is in a nutshell the problem with white involvement in fighting for civil rights, in this very article, and in the whole question of how we – who do I mean by we? – engage with what is now happening in response to Floyd’s killing. The temptation now as always probably is to try and manoeuvre ourselves (myself) into the right position on something, when such manoeuvring may not be a readily available option. Whether we’re talking about Trinitarian doctrine, ecclesiology in the wake of covid-19, or racialized inequality and structural violence, ‘getting it right’ may not be a simple option. This problem is not merely a concession to a lazy postmodern relativism about truth, and nor is it to deny that we can and must speak with conviction about the awful brutality and fear interwoven evilly and unequally into western societies. Here, the issue is simply that part of the problem lies with our (my) unwillingness to be addressed from beyond myself, to hear the announcement of judgement: I want to get things right, but first I have to come to terms with the announcement that I and the world have been weighed in the balance and found wanting. And that means that before I jump either to join (much less condemn) the current protests and unrest, I need to hear their word of judgement on my own failure in this world, a failure that is every bit as spiritual as it is political.

If there is a painful irony about where white evangelicalism is right now, it is that taking sin and judgement seriously should give us tools to reckon with the fact that George Floyd’s death is not just a problem ‘out there’, involving some other people. But even in that recognition there is, I think, a further pitfall. I can try and claim to be free from racism, or I may acknowledge how terribly racist I am in order to demonstrate to the world a more circumspect form of progressive enlightenment. But even if true that isn’t really enough, and it is why, I think, I keep returning to the totality of Cone’s statement on eschatology quoted above. If the totality of sin is nonetheless overwhelmed by the totality of Christ’s redemption, then we are placed eschatologically in a position where our rightness can never be assumed, taken for granted, or possessed. Our dependence on divine gift means a constant recognition of our human limits, and a constant return to ask for ‘true repentance and the gift of the Holy Spirit’ as the grounds for a genuine response to the trouble of the world.

This does risk slipping into the world of ‘thoughts and prayers’ where spirituality and uncertainty become excuses for inaction, and it may be that this all starts to look too abstract in the midst of such deep expressions of pain and anger. But while I know I must add my voice to those condemning this killing most strongly, I also know that I cannot yet claim to really know, much less express, how this feels for those closest to it. So, I think there remains the responsibility of trying to look deep into the question of why our world and Church have so often failed to be truly transformed. Any introspective thought now must be at the service of grasping certain evangelical nettles so as to nurture a more thoroughgoing response.

Significant among these might be the trajectory of eschatological thinking itself, an area of theology that has been woven into American political thought over centuries, but I think lurks behind all political theology one way or another. The problem here is that eschatology is much easier to grasp when we’re able to describe some kind of meaningful picture of what it is that we actually hope for. Whether in the immediate future, or at the parousia of Christ, eschatology is much more saleable if we can depict the world as is ought to be. But it’s precisely at this point that we get ourselves into trouble, as blurry visions of the kingdom and half-worked ideas of perfected society solidify into political visions that must be protected, ultimately with violence. It’s thus perhaps unsurprising that Moltmann’s earlier work (as with those who followed him) was especially cautious about overdescribing God’s coming new creation, whilst equally unsurprising that Cone (albeit with recognition of this issue) would not accept that such vague, future-orientated prospects could adequately reflect the God who hears the cries of an oppressed people. Cone I think hit on a significant tension between the absolute necessity for change now, and the insidious danger that the defence of a comfortable existence that was grounded in over-realized eschatology had itself been the seedbed for oppressive white violence. This is another way of highlighting that refusal to reckon with sin and judgement, and I sense that it partly lies behind the awful belligerence of the Trump administration.

Of course, eschatology doesn’t actually have to focus on an end, or rather, it is equally possible to conceive of the whole energy of our existence working the other way round. Instead of an end beckoning us in, Christian eschatology may equally be thought of as an embodied and particular beginning blossoming out. Without needing a tight either/or, the gain in re-emphasizing the latter lies at the very least in potentially illuminating biblical texts that might otherwise seem more obscure. Think here of 1 Peter’s opening chapter, where new birth into living hope is firmly rooted in the resurrection of Jesus, and grows outwards towards an end that is certain, but described only with difficulty in a memorable trio of negatives (1 Peter 1.3-4). Conceived this way, Christian hope is able to retain its firm anchor in Christ, the sense of immediacy and the promise of an end, but crucially it denies us the chance to imagine that we have proleptically got hold of our slice of the kingdom of God as though it were our own possession to be guarded jealously against anything that might change it. Moreover, as Willie Jennings has argued, we are denied the opportunity of holding to a false kind of universalism where it just happens to turn out that everything looks a bit too much like us (and therefore historically, whiteness). Instead, the outward trajectory of eschatology is made real in successive moments of Pentcostal ‘joining’, neither universalizing our own way of talking, nor only hearing each other’s languages, but in learning to understand and articulate the world in the language of one another. The disciples at Pentecost ‘dramatize the joining of bodies and lives in the worship of the God who was witnessed by Jesus’, immersed in one another’s world, language and experience of reality.[2]

But beyond the miraculous prolepsis of Pentecost there is therefore the painstaking work of both hearing and immersing ourselves in each other’s languages and world, and this also begins with the memory that Christian faith is rooted in such a move; to repent and believe the gospel is to hear a word from beyond ourselves that we are not otherwise inclined to hear. In this strange sense, Christian hope begins with the possibility of threat – to normal existence – but it ceases to be threat only because God in fact turns out to be good. In a similar way, the Pentecostal moment might equally pose a threat to our self-contained security, but it ceases to be a threat when it turns at the God had made us for good.

If this starts to move back into abstraction then I suggest the point may be this. When thinking about openness to another’s language, to a moment of joining, history shows that it has been too easy for white society to assume a place of neutrality at best, or temporal advancement towards the kingdom at worst, meaning that the onus on being open to others lies with somebody other than me. But biblical faith suggests that the opposite is the case; precisely at the moment we think we that the solidity of our comfort is a given, we are called to repent and believe the good news that what is good comes to us from beyond, from the coming of Jesus and the gift of the Spirit. It seems to me that in this eschatological frame there is a call on those of us who have security and privilege taken for granted, to hear the voices of protest, but more than this; to be immersed in the language of those crying out for justice and social transformation, just as we must be immersed in the language of God that is Jesus Christ. This gospel imperative of repentance and faith means that I cannot simply join those protests without cost as though I have the right to assume common cause, because I do not fully understand the language. From where I stand, to act and speak against what happened to George Floyd and so many others must be done, but with the recognition that I will also be speaking against myself, accepting and being open to judgement. I sense that a genuine response for me must be rooted in this willingness to remain open to a word of judgement, to relinquish the desire that change must happen around but not within me, and to be open to the work of the spirit in making a genuine hearing - and more - become possible.



[1] James H. Cone, God of the Oppressed, rev. edn. (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1997), 237.

[2] Willie James Jennings, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race, (Newhaven: Yale University Press, 2010), 266.

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