Compassion Isn’t Enough

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In an article published twenty-two years ago, theologian James Cone reflected on the often ignored relationship between white supremacy and the “exploitation of animals and the ravaging of nature.” Why has the connection between environmental destruction and racism been overlooked? Towards the end of the article Cone offers one suggestion. He writes, “To be sure, a few concerned white theologians have written about their opposition to white racism but not because race critique was essential to their theological identity. It is usually just a gesture of support for people of color when solidarity across differences is in vogue. As soon as it is not longer socially and intellectually acceptable to talk about race, white theologians revert back to their silence.”

While Cone’s insight about environmental racism are worth reflection, I want to draw our attention to his critique about the shallowness of much white anti-racist solidarity. Cone differentiates between being generally supportive of solidarity and understanding such solidarity as essential to one’s theological identity. His focus is on theologians but I think the lesson can be applied more broadly to include each of us.

Perhaps we can think of the “gesture of support” expressed by white people in response to racism as compassion. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with compassion. We could make the case that the Good Samaritan was moved to intervene on behalf of the battered traveler – despite the many reasons he shouldn’t have – because of compassion. And nobody would say we need less compassion in our world today. But I think the point that Cone is making is that compassion is not enough. And it’s especially not enough when it comes to a white supremacist status quo because the time will come – it always comes in this country – when showing compassion toward the racialized and marginalized “other” is no longer, as Cone writes, in vogue. For example, we’ve watched over the past two years how compassion for Black lives has been warped into a threat against white people. To suggest that a gesture of support is enough is to entirely misread our country’s baseline which bends toward racial antagonism, not compassionate solidarity.

The alternative, according to Cone, is to make solidarity across the racial hierarchy “essential to one’s theological identity.” I take his meaning to be that white theologians must make sacrificial solidarity of the kind which disrupts the status quo central to their theology. Now, some will hear in this a suggestion to reduce theology to an ideological or partisan agenda but any such interpretation misses two important truths. The first, which I mentioned above, is that the existing conditions for many people in this country are not the same as those experienced by most white people. To ignore the persistent and systemic nature of racism and white supremacy is to massively downplay the sin which so offends God and which his Son gave his life to defeat. Those who only offer the occasional “gesture of support for people of color” betray a too-small understanding of sin and its impact in our world. It follows that their view of Christ as Savior and the salvation he accomplishes is also too small.

The second truth which gets missed by those afraid to make racial justice central to their theology is the basic Christian understanding of the imago Dei. Christians of most varieties have long believed that to be created in the image of God is to be made for four flourishing relationships: with God, one another, ourselves, and the creation itself. Race interrupts each of these God-ordained relationships: it claims the divine authority to name and ascribe value; it pits communities against one another; it distorts how we see ourselves through lenses of self-hatred and superiority; and, race severs us from creation, imposing a social construct as the most important source of our formation. By reducing our engagement with race and racism to a theological sub-discipline or to a couple of Sundays during Black History Month, we are missing the truth of what race acutally is and what it does to desecrate the imago Dei in each of us.

To my white readers I ask, is solidarity with your kin of color primarily an act of compassion or are your commitments deeper? Making sacrificial solidarity essential to your discipleship will not water down our theology. Instead, we’ll discover just how much we’ve been missing.

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