Here is Fitch’s opening:
In his 1989 preface to the 2nd edition of Black Theology and Black Power, James Cone said something so profound, it probably needs an entire book to fully exposit the depths of what he was saying. Here’s what he said:
“The publication of the twentieth-anniversary edition tempted me to rid Black Theology and Black Power of its sexist language as I did in the revised edition of A Black Theology of Liberation (Orbis, 1986) and also insert some references to black women. But I decided to let the language remain unchanged as a reminder of how sexist I once was and also that I might be encouraged to never forget it. It is easy to change the language of oppression without the changing the sociopolitical situation of its victims. I know existentially what this means from the vantage point of racism. Whites have learned how to use less offensive language, but they have not changed the power relations between blacks and whites in society. Because of the process of changing their language, combined with the token presence of middle-class African Americans in their institutions, it is now even more difficult to define the racist behavior of whites.”
Fitch connects Cone’s decision (described above) to our current debates about monuments, theology, and historical figures. Important words here about historical context.
Here is a taste:
I support removing symbols and statues of figures who symbolize and in essence valorize the abuses of racism and chattel slavery in our country. At the same time however, these symbols, these histories must never be forgotten. The influence of these horrors, and their affects, continue to this day. And so we must do this with care. Because as Cone says, removing a statue might enable the culture we live in to say racism is over. It might allow us all to assume that its ongoing effects, extending from the history of the past from whence those statues came, is now taken care of. We “change the language of oppression without the changing the sociopolitical situation of its victims.” Do you see how culture works, how meaning-making works within histories and contexts, how cultural sins perpetuate themselves in different, maybe more invisible ways, if indeed we forget from whence we came?
I have seen many scholars and friends simply erase significant theologians and or pastors because of their heinous patterns of abuse having been revealed. I have seen scholars recommend we replace abuser theologians with another theologian who says close to the same things without the baggage of the abuser. It all makes so much sense to us at the time. But, as Cone alludes to, this isn’t the way sociology of knowledge works. Erasing an author is not so easy. There’s a culture to be discerned, and the author’s relation to it.
Reading Derrida, and others, taught me a long time ago, a text requires a context in order to be understood. Every text is more than only the author’s ideas. It is a set of ideas that makes sense within a cultural context. A text requires a history to be understood and extended into various contexts. Each author achieves traction, makes sense within a history. It is entirely possible that his/her abusive behavior also made sense within a given context or history.
You cannot therefore extract a meaning from a context before you understand the context. If you extract that meaning from its context, you cannot merely transfer that into a new context without a translation that takes into account its immersion in that original context. And so, if you merely repeat the same idea, removing the author, replacing him/her with another author, you may in essence be perpetuating a context which sustains the abuse of the author, in essence perpetuating the abuse in more invisible ways. (In our doctoral Contextual Theology cohort we call this “flat epistemology”)
Read the entire piece here. HT to John Haas for calling this to my attention.