22 September 2020

Stare Decisis and the United States Constitution

Drawing on the work of Jeremy Waldron, I posted a two-part argument here and here for why I believe that the US Constitution entails some place for the authority of prior decisions of the Supreme Court when it and lower courts consider a similar issue. As I wrote in Part 1:

The Constitution doesn't say that judicial interpretive decisions shall not have precedential value. Of course, it doesn't say that decision should serve as precedents, either. There is no reason to take constitutional silence as prohibition or permission. So what should be the default position? Who has the burden of proof? The positivist or the precedentialist? 
I can't say that I've heard the positivists address this point but it strikes me that they should bear the burden. Consider what Alexander Hamilton wrote in the Federalist No. 78: "To avoid arbitrary discretion in the courts, it is indispensable that they should be bound by strict rules and precedents, which serve to define and point out their duty in every particular case that comes before them." Hamilton wasn't addressing constitutional litigation but it strikes me that the Founders, coming as they did from the precedent-oriented system of the common law, would have presumed its place in such litigation.

And then in Part 2:

Several pragmatic reasons also exist for a court's limiting its power to overturn precedent. First, regular rejection of earlier decisions would eviscerate the overturning court's claims that its decision should have precedential effect. Second, a ramification of the principle of the rule of law augurs against changing laws too often. Waldron, quoting Joseph Raz, observes that "people will find it difficult to find out what the law is at any given moment and will be constantly in fear that the law has been changed since they last learnt what it was."

Yet, with all due respect to Waldron (and me), neither he nor I are a scholars of the US Constitution. Turning to someone who is, Randy Barnett, you can read his explication of a significant but circumscribed place for precedent in constitutional adjudication here.* Some enticing quotes:

Under the Classical View of stare decisis, the “holding” of a case is the ratio decidendi. That is, the rule that is logically entailed by the reasoning (“ratio”) that was necessary to decide the case (“decidendi”) on the basis of the legally-salient facts that were before the court. The holding of a case is the reasoning that explains the outcome in light of the facts reported by the Court. The objective is for future courts to decide cases with similar facts in the same way.

This formula limits the scope of judicial holdings in two ways:

First, holdings are a function of the reasoning that is necessary to the outcome of the case. Portions of an opinion that address questions or issues that do not need to be resolved in order to reach the outcome are discarded as “dicta.”

Second, holdings are limited to those reasons that address the legally salient facts presented by the record. Reasoning that addresses factual scenarios that were not presented to the court should not be considered in determining the holding of a case.

What's the point? "The Supreme Court Clause binds lower court judges to the ratio decidendi of Supreme Court precedents—and no more." In other words, judgments of the Supreme Court are not law in the sense of legislation. They are, however, part of the system of the rule of law. And a fundamental principal of the rule of law is that like cases be treated alike. Thus, what Barnett, drawing from the common law tradition, calls the Classical View of precedent is and must needs be constitutional.


*You can read my comments from several years ago on Barnett's similarly helpful analysis of constitutional "rules of construction" here. Go here for my comments on a theological grounding for the place of precedent in the common law tradition.

17 September 2020

More (Actually, Less) on Human Dignity

A short time ago I posted here about Nicholas Aroney's piece titled "The Rise and Fall of Human Dignity." Then came an email from SSRN with the abstract of a forthcoming law review article by Frederick Mark Gedicks titled "Christian Dignity and the Overlapping Consensus." I would embed a link to Gedicks's piece but on every page there is a warning: "Do not cite or quote without permission." So I won't.

In short, the notion of a Christian foundation for human rights frightens Gedicks. Perhaps "frightens" is too strong but he certainly thinks Christian foundationalism is a bad idea. I would have been more open to Gedicks's concerns if his rapid-fire history of the Christian doctrine of the imago dei (image of God in humans) had been more than a tendentious replay of secondary and tertiary sources. See Aroney for a brief but better review of that history.

Substantively, Gedicks's fears seem straw mannish. Since any appeals to (Christian) foundations threatens his vision for an overlapping consensus à la John Rawls, THEY MUST STOP. Why they must stop isn't persuasively argued.(You can read why Rawls was wrong in a book edited by Greg Forster and Anthony Bradley here.) Without quoting Gedicks I can only suggest that he believes they won't work in an increasingly pluralized and secularized world. Well, secularized, anyway; following his ideological mentor, Gedicks's version of pluralism doesn't include space for non-secular points of view. That Christian foundations may be True is simply inconceivable. 

More could be said about the weaknesses of Gedicks's piece but it won't be said by me. Suffice it to conclude that Geddick has secured a place for his paper in a US law review, which is all the more reason to lament the state of student-edited law journals.

10 September 2020

More on "Halakhah: The Rabbinic Idea of Law"

More than a year ago I posted some observations on Nate Oman's review of the book "Halakhah: The Rabbinic Idea of Law" by Chaim Saiman. Re-reading that post will provide a shortcut to the thrust of the book but I'll quote a paragraph as a teaser:

One aspect of Saiman's argument is a response to Christian criticisms of the practice of the study of Jewish law, the Halakhah. Saiman defends the halakhic project by comparing it to Christian theologizing. Just as Christians have developed the meaning of the text of Scripture with the tools of Aristotelian and Platonic philosophy (and others, more recently), scholars of Halakhah participated in the "morally serious engagement with God's law called for by Jesus, but also a medium through which the rabbis [did] the work reserved for philosophers and theologians within the Christian tradition."

Speaking with Saiman helps one understand how deeply experiential is halakhic study. Would that my theological study reach as deeply. 

In any event, you can go here to read a post by halakhic scholar Elijah Del Medigo to get a better sense of what it's like to be "inside" the study of the Talmud. Another teaser:

Throughout centuries of exile, the Talmud has been an oasis of calm for the Jewish people. Heinrich Heine famously called it “the portable homeland of the Jewish people.” The study of Talmud, even in the centuries-long suspension of national sovereignty, binds Israel together. For the uninitiated, the Talmud’s hold on the Jewish imagination can seem almost magical.

Read Del Medigo's piece with care. You will be enriched. 

08 September 2020

"The Rise and Fall of Human Dignity"

Exploring the concept of human dignity and its relationship to the modern human rights movement were at the heart of my article Looking for Bedrock: Accounting for Human Rights in Classical Liberalism, Modern Secularism, and the Christian Tradition (download here or here). For an in-depth historical and philosophical exploration of the human dignity I recommend that folks read The Rise and Fall of Human Dignity by Nicholas Aroney. (You can read an earlier post on another of Aroney's works here.) Cribbing the abstract of Aroney's latest piece:

Human dignity has a long history in philosophy, theology, politics and jurisprudence. Broadly speaking, there are important distinctions to be drawn between classical, patristic, medieval, reformed, liberal and postmodern approaches to the concept. In the development of ideas about human dignity, three key questions have emerged. First, there is the question whether dignity is an attribute of certain privileged classes of human beings or an attribute of all human beings without distinction. Second, there is the question whether human dignity is necessarily associated with the possession or exhibition of certain virtues or qualities of character. Third, there is the question of the extent to which dignity is an attribute of human persons conceived as autonomous and atomized individuals or as persons embedded in an array of associations and communities. This article will explore the implications of classical, patristic, medieval, reformed, liberal and postmodern approaches to the concept of human dignity for each of these three questions. It will do so by focusing on the views of Marcus Tullius Cicero, Gregory of Nyssa, Leo the Great, Bernard of Clairvaux, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Johannes Althusius, Pope Paul VI, Immanuel Kant and Friedrich Nietzsche.
It will be argued that while the older classical conception of dignity understood it to be an attribute that set some classes or groups of human beings apart from others, the idea was transformed under the influence of Stoic philosophy and especially Christian theology into an attribute possessed by all human beings by virtue of their created nature. In the patristic, medieval and reformed perspectives, human dignity was understood to be an attribute of all human persons, conceived not as autonomous and atomized individuals, but as embedded in a great variety of associations and communities. As a consequence, dignity was considered to be something that can never be separated from one’s moral responsibilities as a human being called upon to perform the duties associated with one’s particular calling and station in life. In modern liberal conceptions of human dignity, however, the idea became disassociated from the qualities of one’s character and from the associations and communities in which human beings are naturally embedded. Defining human dignity solely in terms of human freedom and autonomy has resulted in a hollowing, flattening and atomizing of human dignity, culminating in the postmodern thought of Friedrich Nietzsche in which human dignity is reduced to the ‘will to power’, a condition in which ‘man in himself … possesses neither dignity, nor rights, nor duties’. 

While at places a bit Whiggish, Aroney's quick (only 34 pages) overview of the topic is an excellent introduction. His analysis of the re-framing of dignity from the individual-in-societies to a purely individual quality is especially useful.

01 September 2020

Winds of Insolvency Blowing Around Chicago

A year ago I posted here about the fiscal crisis looming over the City of Chicago.

Quoting my quote from an article in Data Analytics Illinois,

As the state’s economic engine, Chicago’s pension problems demand a fix beyond short term strategies that compound the longer-term problem. After decades of corruption and mismanagement, officials cannot tax or borrow their way out of the fiscal crisis.

If matters were so bad then, you may be wondering, why hasn't the shoe of Chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy fallen? The answer to that question is two-fold: super-low interest rates and political inertia. Neither of those phenomena is likely to go away in the near future so, one might think, there's no problem, right?


You can go here to read the Wall Street Journal opinion piece "Chapter 9 Is the Best Bad Option for Chicago's Pensions." Some tidbits:

In 2016, the contribution [for employee pensions] for 2022 was projected to reach nearly $2 billion, 4.3 times what it was for 2014. Despite this gargantuan contribution, the pension plans’ funded ratio was projected to plummet—from a poor 31% in 2015 to an alarmingly low 26% in 2021. (Emphasis added.)

And it's gotten worse:

It’s no longer credible to claim Chicago can work its way out of the huge hole it has dug for its pension plans over the past 20 years. From 2000-19, their funded ratio dropped from 83% to 24%. Even before the pandemic, Chicago lacked the resources to make $2.3 billion in annual pension contributions. Never mind making such payments year after year for decades to come.

So what's to be done? 

Fortunately, there is a viable alternative. Chicago has the wherewithal to fund its pensions and provide public services. But it can’t do those things and also service its debt. Chapter 9 of the U.S. bankruptcy code provides a means to cancel a great deal of that debt.
In other words, give the bondholders a haircut. That's easier said than done but it is possible, as Detroit showed (here but also here). The opinion piece has three premises, which might be true; I'm not sure. First, that Chicago's pension obligations have priority over its general obligation (GO) bonds. Second, that revenue bonds have priority over pension obligations. And third, that Chicago could confirm a plan of adjustment whacking GO bonds even though the Bankruptcy Code prohibits "unfair discrimination." The Bankruptcy Court in San Bernadino's Chapter 9 reluctantly bought this argument even though California law seemed relatively clear. I'm not as sanguine about Illinois law. The Bankruptcy Court in Detroit's Chapter 9 put enough pressure on the GO bondholders in Detroit to get almost all of them to settle (here and here) but we can expect the battle to be much harder in Chicago's case.

None of my concerns means that Chicago should not file Chapter 9. It is almost certainly the case that waiting will only make matters worse. But everyone should also understand that adjusting Chicago's debt at the expense of its GO bondholders will not solve the underlying demographic and political problems that are endemic to late-modern political and economic liberalism.

25 August 2020

Revisiting The Grandfather of Christian Reconstruction: Rousas Rushdoony

Many of my readers may be asking, "What is a Rousas Rushdoony?" Others may recall him as the author of The Institutes of Biblical Law (1973). The Institutes came at roughly the midpoint of Rushdoony's life (1916-2001) and work; what he did on the grass-roots level beginning in the 1940s, according to Michael McVicar, was of much more significance.

Still, a flavor of The Institutes is useful because in them we have a partial sense of the message Rushdoony conveyed to groups, small and large (and courts as an expert witness) for over five decades. From the Introduction (pp. 4-10, emphasis in the original):

Law in every culture is religious in origin. ... Accordingly, a fundamental and necessary premise in any and every study of law must be, first, a recognition of this religious nature of law.

Second, it must be recognized that in any culture the source of law is the god of that society. If law has its source in man's reason, then reason is the god of that society.

Third, in any society, any change of law is an explicit or implicit change of religion.

Fourthly, no disestablishment of religion as such is possible in any society. A church can be disestablished, and a particular religion can be supplanted by another, but the change is simply to another religion.

Fifth, there can be no tolerance in a law-system for another religion. Toleration is a device used to introduce a new law-system as a prelude to a new intolerance.

The [Mosaic] law is therefore the law for Christian man and Christian society. Nothing is more deadly or more derelict than the notion that the Christian is at liberty with respect to the kind of law he can have. [John] Calvin, whose classical humanism gained ascendance at this point, said of the law of states, of civil government

For some deny that a state is well constituted, which neglects the polity of Moses, and is governed by the common laws of nations. The dangerous and seditious nature of this opinion I leave to the examination of others; it will be suffice int for me to have evinced it to be false and foolish. (Quoting John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion 4.20.14) 

Such ideas, common in Calvinist and Lutheran circles, and in virtually all churches, are still heretical nonsense. 

Go here to listen to an hour-long conversation between Michael McVicar and Alastair Roberts about McVicar's recent book, Christian Reconstruction: R.J. Rushdoony and American Religious Conservatism (UNC Press 2015).The conversation shows that McVicar has read everything by and about Rushdoony. And McVicar does a fine job of tracing the intellectual and personal origins of Rushdoony's distinctive thought, and how the results of his tireless efforts have influenced the Religious Right, Christian Libertarianism, the homeschool movement, and Christian worldview thinking to this day.

11 August 2020

The Late Bernard Bailyn

Go here to read an obituary for one the the leading scholars of American history, Bernard Bailyn. Bailyn, who died on August 7, aged 97, was at the vanguard of the "new history." Already in the 1960s Bailyn rejected the simplistic early twentieth century notion of economic determinism, but retained the focus on a empirical data that such Progressives championed. His was a broadly foundational view of history and thus the historian's task. Read my observations on Bailyn's great work, Those Barbarous Years: The Peopling of British North America-The Conflict of Civilizations, 1600-1675 (Knopf 2012).

As the obituary notes,

Professor Bailyn was a frequent critic of overspecialization, abstraction and politicized “presentism” — that is, interpreting past events in terms of modern thinking and values. For him, it was essential to respect the strangeness and pastness of the past, and to see it, as much as possible, on its own terms.

Bailyn's rejection of "presentism" distinguished his work from both hagiography, which remains prevalent in "Christian America" quarters, and from the contemporary "demonography" that passes for Critical thinking about history. For historians like Bailyn, American history must be understood on its own terms, neither as the outworking of God's covenantal plan of world-wide restoration nor as a singularly focused instantiation of oppression of Blacks, Indigenous Peoples, women, and others on the intersectional grid.

For all that, Bailyn was not an antiquarian collector of tidbits. The work of "new historians", at least the ones who write as well as Bailyn, make the past "present" to today.  The responsibility of what to do with such insight, of course, remains ours.

05 August 2020

Anti-Critical-Theory as Worldviewism

Another attack on the phenomenon of worldview-ism? As if those here, here, and here weren't enough. But the plethora of blog posts, short books, and YouTube videos engaged in seek-and-destroy missions against all things "Critical" has raised my hackles. It's not that some of the contemporary American iterations of "Critical [fill in the blank]" aren't tendentious. reductionistic, and easy-to-hand weapons of all sorts of (not necessarily) oppressed folks. They are. In fact, some contemporary Crits shine even more brightly as purveyors of ill-conceived "worldviews" than the typical targets of my frustration.

Combining what I wrote in a couple of posts, 
Early in 2014 I posted a critique of the dangers of worldview thinking as ideology. ... I argued that notwithstanding the value of painstakingly discerning world-and-life views of important thinkers, the current truncated version popularized simply as "worldview" bypassed the hard work of actually knowing the object of analysis. In other words, the answers to a few quick worldview questions tells all we need to now about, say [Critical Theory], so there's no need to bother reading [its] challenging works. 
In short, worldview analysis takes a few important categories (truth, goodness, beauty, etc.), abstracts them from the historical context in which they have understood, and provides a simplistic definition. Any bright high-school student can then slot a thinker, writer, theologian, or artist into a predigested rubric. And, once slotted, analysis is at an end.
Well, if some contemporary Critical exposition may be worse than that, what's my beef? Simply that reciprocal reductionism is not a virtue. And this is especially the case when one accounts for the serious work of Critical Theorists and not merely their popularizers.

So, here are some general observations (cribbed, to some extent, from--you guessed it--a Facebook post) on a few of the unhelpful tendencies found in a number (though not all) of recent Christian treatments of “Cultural Marxism” and “Critical Theory”:
  • Tendency not to disclose that discussants are not actually educated in Critical Theory, or not really that familiar with it, but that just they heard some things about it on YouTube or maybe read some articles from people they trust and now consider themselves sufficiently competent to make sweeping pronouncements about a two hundred-year old(!) philosophical tradition that entails a complex interplay of disciplinary traditions.

  • Tendency to remain largely uninterested in the social context in which Marxism emerged in the first place, and in why the programs of Critical Theory resonate with many poor and oppressed people around the world today.

  • Tendency to reduce the breadth and the diversity of the theoretical streams that flow into Critical Theory into a cartoonishly coherent whole.

  • Tendency not to let Critical Theorists speak for themselves (e.g., through interviews or co-authored pieces) but to hear them only through cookie-cutter interpretations of them.

  • Tendency to make over-broad statements with respect to the complex ways in which theories actually (may not) shape the world by profoundly overstating the ideological coherence of any movement, and by wrongly suggesting that Christians who participate in a movement are buying wholesale into “another gospel”.

  • Tendency to be unaware of the ways in which simplistic treatments of Critical Theory are consistent a long tradition of American Christians using hysteria over the hypothetical perils of "Marxism" to discredit various struggles for cultural change.

  • Tendency to indulge in "eye-of-Sauron" level focus on Marx’s atheism without understanding that one of the reasons for Marx’s atheism was the unconcern of many Christians with respect to then-contemporary social conditions.

  • Tendency to frame their particular strand of the church in America as “defenders of the gospel in a corrupt culture” rather than (given a robust notion of sin) also as betrayers of that gospel.

  • Tendency to suggest that the most serious threat to the Church is Critical Theory rather than, say, our own tendency, upon hearing the cry of the poor, not to enter into the pain and vulnerability of their lives, but to sit in remote judgment of that cry.

I can think of good ripostes to each of these observations. Yet I believe that they fit much of what comes across my Facebook news feed and what I (over)hear in casual conversations. (Your mileage may differ.)

And it's also the case, as I mentioned above, that many of the assertions by popular purveyors of Critical This or Critical That are equally over-broad, ungrounded, and, well, cartoonish. (Which is ironic given Critical Theory's commitment, at least in its initial iterations, of hitching its analysis to empirical sociology.)

(And if you're wondering if the other shoe will fall, it's my hope to generate a post or two looking at Critical Theory from a mid-level point of view. FWIW, I'm thinking of framing CT through the lens of Philip Rieff's The Triumph of the Therapeutic along with a dose of Christopher Lasch. But don't hold your breath.)

04 August 2020

Campbell Law School is Hiring

CAMPBELL UNIVERSITY SCHOOL OF LAW invites applications for up to three Faculty Positions to begin in August 2021. Primary areas of interest are: property law; wills, trusts, and estates; tax; civil procedure; corporate finance; and health law. Other areas of interest include: mergers and acquisitions; securities regulation; law and technology; environmental law; and conflicts of law. The position(s) will be full-time, tenure track appointment(s). All applicants should have excellent academic credentials and demonstrated skill in teaching and mentoring students.  We welcome applications from candidates whose background will contribute to excellence through institutional diversity. Cover letters must explain how the candidate is able and willing to support each of the five distinctives set forth below. Candidates should be prepared to discuss and demonstrate their approach to remote-teaching. Designation of Assistant Professor or Associate Professor title commensurate with experience.

Located in downtown Raleigh, North Carolina, Campbell University School of Law is a highly demanding, purposely small community of faculty and students whose aim, guided by transcendent values, is to develop lawyers who possess moral conviction, social compassion and professional competence, and who view the practice of law as a calling to serve others and to create a more just society.  To that end, the law school has adopted the following distinctives: (1) we offer an academic program that is highly demanding; (2) we bring together the theoretical and practical to produce thoughtful and talented lawyers; (3) we utilize the talents of a faculty that is profoundly committed to students and teaching; (4) we view the practice of law as a calling to serve others; and (5) we offer a Christian perspective on law and justice.

Direct questions to Professor Tuneen Chisolm tchisolm@campbell.edu.  Submit cover letter, transcript, C.V. with references, and research agenda or publication for application online here.

15 July 2020

Cambridge Companion to Black Theology: Concluding Random Postscripts

Cover art
General Observations

Black liberation theology exists in reaction to the tradition of Western Christian theology. There are chapters in the Companion devoted to black theology in various nations including Brazil, Cuba, and Jamaica but, as far as I can tell, black theology neither draws from nor is in conversation with Orthodoxy (in any of its many varieties including the Mar Thoma in India), the Coptic Church, or the Ethiopian Church. This is not surprising given its late-twentieth century American origins and contemporary expressions primarily in America and in post-colonial areas of the world. This does, however, raise a question about whether white supremacy/black oppression is the unique and universal form of non-black theology.

More specifically, black liberation theology came into being in the late 1960s in reaction to and a certain measure of dialogue with three venerable phenomena: the integrationist theology of the traditional black church in America, liberal (Mainline) Protestant churches, and white Evangelicalism. Countering the traditional black church's focus on integration was black liberation theology's emphasis on black power/independence. Integration was not the immediate goal; instead the aim of the new black theology was liberation. Countering both Mainline Protestantism and Evangelicalism was a focus on the raw experience of oppression. Both the Mainline, captured, by a progressivism directed by centralized government (white) elites, and Evangelicals, captured by an individualism tethered to the market, failed to sense the oppressive reality that many blacks in America continued to suffer. In addition, by the 1950s, the Mainline and most northern Evangelicals were largely committed to proceduralism. Neither had a vision for substantive justice that transcended gradual tinkering with the status quo.

More recently, the long-standing centrality of white racist oppression as the locus of black liberation theology has gradually expanded to other aspects of the theological enterprise. Anti-racism alone is insufficient as a humane agenda. For example, hand-waving dismissal of "the reality of capitalist exploitation proved by the existence of multinational corporations" suggests inadequate attention to forms of production and exchange that are necessary for a flourishing life on any account.

Mirroring Evangelicalism

Like the infatuation of many white Evangelicals with the grid of worldview™ (rants here and here), black liberation theology can function as a grid that renders renders careful analysis unnecessary. Unlike much of what functions as worldview thinking, however, black theology brims with energy. (Go here to read my observations on the grid-energy dynamic). And it is that energy--perhaps a descendant of the Frenzy, as W.E.B. DuBois described it--that makes many whites (apart from Pentecostals) uncomfortable.

Like much of Evangelicalism, black liberation theology stands in an ambiguous relationship to the Church. Is the Church a "real" thing (an emergent if not transcendent entity)? Or is the church a temporary collection of like-minded (or like-oppressed) individuals, an affinity group? Garth Baker-Fletcher's chapter in the Companion effectively identifies this issue.

A certain pragmatism pervades both black liberation theology--at least as it's practiced in America--and Evangelicalism. I made that point with regard to black theology when commenting on Linda E. Thomas's chapter in the Companion. And I previously highlighted Evangelicalism's pragmatic bent here. Indeed, it may even be that both black theology and Evangelicals (and Americans generally) share a therapeutic focus. Of course, what counts as the "[feel] good" state of affairs differs substantially.

Finally, the common tendency toward worldview-ism as well as pragmatism meet in a use of history. For some proponents of black liberation theology and some Evangelicals, American history is an exercise in either demonology or hagiography. 

I certainly don't know enough to evaluate the overall impact of black liberation theology. As observed in the opening of this post, however, the practices of black theology described in the Companion should be understood as reactive phenomena. Reactive, that is, to a Western and (in the first place) American reductionism. Western Christians, especially Protestants, can hardly be heard to complain about a movement spawned in reaction against something. Yet even the most "revolutionary" aspects of the Reformation were nonetheless in continuity with substantial portions of the small "c" catholic tradition. In my opinion, for what it's worth, to the extent that black theology can recognize its roots in the Western Christian tradition, and to the extent that it cultivates its growth in some or other historic Christian tradition--Western or Eastern--it should prove fruitful for all Christians.

Links to previous posts:

14 July 2020

Cambridge Companion to Black Theology 2.6

What may be the final installment of my comments on a chapter from the Companion addresses "Black theology and the Bible" by Michael Joseph Brown. Until relatively recently, all Christian traditions took the Bible as the touchstone of theological activity. There have been disagreements aplenty about the relationship of the Bible and tradition, the relationship of ecclesiastic authority and individual interpretation, as well as the relationship of various modes of individual experience and the biblical text. But the place of the Bible as divine revelation, as the subject of formative disciplined study, remained crucial.

However, beginning with the post-Kantian subjective turn in the early nineteenth century, many modern theologians latched onto some form of either idealism or historicism that reoriented the Bible from subject to object of disinterested examination, and the theological task from what the Bible reveals to what the reading community understands. Karl Barth tried to reconcile the pre-modern and modern approaches with limited success. An increasingly post-modern turn has exacerbated the inward bent, and various critical approaches have further narrowed the theological task to considering experience (only) in terms of the twin poles of power and oppression.

As Brown explains, black liberation theology started in the heyday of the Barthian approach:
Following Karl Barth and the so-called neoorthodox position, black theology has adopted in large measure the perspective that the bible is a powerful and important witness to the divine revelation, but that full divine self-disclosure has only occurred in the incarnation of Jesus Christ.
As a consequence, "black theology appropriates the biblical corpus in a selective, if not entirely critical, manner." It is important to note, as Brown observes, that in this respect black liberation theology differs black theology on the ground, the attitude of which toward the Bible is "largely fundamentalist and evangelical." Brown freely admits, however, that
African American biblical scholars have largely ignored the perspectives of the people at the heart of black [liberation] theology's concern, marginalized African Americans. ... [S]cholarship in this mode has too often been on behalf of individuals in need of liberation rather than from or in conversation with them.
Brown goes on to describe the vigorous disagreements about the nature and place of the Bible that characterized the middle phase of  black liberation theology. He expresses hope, however, that a new generation of scholars will stop arguing about the place of the Bible in the black theological enterprise and actually do biblical theology as black theologians. I was pleased to note Brown's shout-out for J. Kameron Carter whose book, "Race: A Theological Account" is next on my reading list. (According to Brown, Carter argues for an "explicit connection between black theology and traditional Christian theological reasoning.".)

10 July 2020

Cambridge Guide to Black Theology 2.5

With Chapter 10 of the Companion we come to James Cone's "Theology's great sin: silence in the face of white supremacy". Cone's 1969 book, Black Theology and Black Power, is universally acknowledged as the ur-text in the field of black liberation theology. "Theology's great sin" demonstrates Cone's masterful writing style. His fast-moving and skillful prose holds his reader's attention, and his rhetorical skill will generate a powerful affective reaction among all but the most hardened. Even if one ultimately finds his argument unpersuasive, this chapter should be read for its bite alone.

Since my summary cannot match the force of Cone's text, I will limit my observations to the bare-bones of his argument together with a few reflections on his rhetoric. What is the sin of white supremacy? And why is silence in the face of white supremacy theology's great sin?
"Can any nation ... discover what belonged to someone else?" asked the seventeenth-century Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius (1583-1645). Few Europeans asked such questions but instead exploited lands and peoples unhindered by philosophy, religion, or ethics. In fact, these disciplines assisted them in justifying their violence as they viewed themselves as God's chosen people to subdue indigenous people and their land.
The physical deaths of millions in the Americas as a result of European encroachment is only half the picture: "Spiritual death is another, and it is just as destructive, if not more so, for it destroys the soul of both the racists and their victims." And this combination of physical and spiritual, in Cone's understanding, describes the double-effect of the sin of white supremacy for "we are all bound together, inseparably linked to a common  humanity. What we do to one another, we do to ourselves."

In turn, failure to address white supremacy is theology's great sin because, apart from Reinhold Niebuhr, "few [mid-twentieth century] American theologians even bothered to address white supremacy as a moral evil." American theologians of that era were pleased to pick up South American liberation theology with its Marxist foundations but pulled back from the sort of oppression that was right in front of their faces, so to speak.

While there is more to Cone's argument than noted here, it nonetheless lacks the balance that a scholarly eye could level against it. Yet, Cone's rhetorical skills do much to disarm any counter-attacks before they can be launched. This is neither accidental nor malicious. Cone is writing a brief in favor of a people--his people--whom he deeply believes to have been deeply wronged. The collective and continuing experience of hundreds of years of oppression rather than academic precision structure his brief.

Still, Cone works to off-foot white objectors. Rather than anticipating arguments he would prefer not to face, he attributes a fragile character to his would-be critics. First, Cone brushes aside "dealing with people's personal prejudices" because is "emotionally exhausting and achieves very little in dismantling racism." In short, Cone is the mirror image of most white Evangelicals who believe that individuals "coming to Jesus" will solve America's social problems.

Second, having cleared the landscape of the personal in favor of the social (by which Cone means legal), he asks, "Why won't white religion scholars write and speak about racism?" This question seems out of date considering that the chapter was published in 2012, not 1972.  Nonetheless, Cone follows with four possible answers, the cumulative effect of which identities cowardice as the prevailing vice of white scholars of religion.

For those who know their rhetoric, Cone's chapter is a superb example of polemics. And lest we think less of Cone the polemicist, I recall the late R.C. Sproul's lament that modern seminaries were not training their students in polemics. After all, the century or so beginning with the Reformation was perhaps the great era of polemics (an aside here). 

In any event, I appreciated reading this chapter of the Companion if not for the effectiveness of the argument, then for its skill in presentation.