[A final email to my Is God Dead? Spring 2018 Rels/Phil students. Thought I would share it here.]
Rejecting the gift of death. That’s the title of my essay you read for today’s final class. I wanted the occasion of our final class to give you a sense of where the discourses surrounding the death of god stand today. My essay, taken from a chapter in my book White Lies, asks a philosophical question of white American Christianity: would the deaths of others ever matter more than as a way of ensuring victory over death?
To be honest, I trust that each of you have worked hard enough, and understood enough, and have been adequately motivated throughout the class to (mostly) make sense of the essay. I am happy to answer any specific questions you may have about it. And the same goes for any questions as you organize final essays, and outlying assignments. But something more important has happened in the last few days and it deserves our attention ahead of talking about my essay.
Everything in my essay, well, almost everything, is my effort to articulate a white, male response to many of the voices we’ve read over the second half of the class. With the exception of Dr. Anthony B. Pinn, none of these voices have been more influential to my research and writing than Dr. James Cone (and Dr. Cone was a mentor to Dr. Pinn, too). As we discussed in class, he gave voice and space to many of the thinkers we have read, such as William Jones, Katie Cannon, Laurel C. Schneider, Mark L. Taylor, and Monica R. Miller (to name only a few). Like many of these thinkers, my work is a response to Dr. Cone, and my very career and life rests on the foundation he provided.
This weekend, Dr. Cone passed away. He was 81.
Many of the thinkers you’re reading and writing about in your assignments are literally in mourning right now. Dr. Cone was a mentor and inspiration to me, my wife, our mentors and teachers, a friend to many of our teachers’ teachers, and a critic to our teachers’ teachers’ teachers. For all of us, it is very hard to imagine a world where Dr. Cone is not here to guide us. We are scared.
He fought white supremacy his entire life, and he died during a time when we all hang under an ominous cloud of racial hatred that was omnipresent and omnipotent in his life and ours.
What would we make of Dr. Cone’s death? At one level, “the gift of death” is a gift because it means an end to problems. Atheists and theists are united in the perspective that whatever else death may mean, it does mean an end to worldly suffering for the departed. Dr. Cone fought all his life, and death is one reward for that fight.
But death is only earned in the fashion described above when folks have the possibility of charting their own path in life. Dr. Cone ended up with such an opportunity, but far, far too many black and brown folk – and poor white folks, too – still do not have adequate or equitable access to opportunities and resources that would enable the life options that Dr. Cone, myself, and most of you will have in this regard.
As you know, Dr. Cone was of the mind that something about white American Christianity stacked the deck of life in favor of white folks. Indeed, there seemed to be a relationship between the Christian claim that “god loved the world so much that he gave his only son…that the world might have eternal life,” and, the seeming comfort that many white Americans have with the deaths of black and brown folks historically and today. For Cone – on this point at least – it wasn’t that all white people were guilty of lynching black folks or shooting them in the streets of Ferguson, Missouri. This actual brutality was easier to make sense of. It is as simple as noting that humans – all of us – can act like monsters, and we tend to act like monsters towards other humans who we regard as monsters. But no, this wasn’t a primary concern for Dr. Cone. Cone was concerned that white Christians transformed the story of a presumed prophet of god into a cause to be celebrated as salvific. This latter point is the other sense of the gift of death, emphasized throughout the chapter you read.
This second sense of death as a gift is a way to describe the white Western belief that death can be avoided if only we kill another. Our militaries and governments are set up according to such terms, and American Christianity is, too. Westerners, whatever else we have been and remain today, kill others and grow comfortable with and numb to the killing of others, all in service to a demand to not die, which is, of course, idiotic. We die anyway. And we turn ourselves into monsters on this fool’s errand.
Rejecting this gift of death means rejecting the notion that a death – whether of a black kid in the streets of Baltimore, a trans-person in Houston, a Syrian in Germany, or a first-century Palestinian Jew hanging from a Roman cross – would ever be excused, celebrated, or even commemorated on the grounds that it prevented “my” death, or “our” death as a culture.
There is the gift of death and then there is the gift of death: The first is a recognition that the problems of the world do have an end; all of us, even those who worked so hard fighting injustice in this world, will find rest in the next, even if only as stardust. The second is the death that our fear of death gives to others, exonerated by a Christian story that westerners celebrate as divine and righteous. This is the death of god Nietzsche spoke of, and warned us about, Christianity’s “stroke of genius.” That there would be worship of a dead god (in the person of Jesus) meant that Christianity had perverted the western world’s relationship to reality. This is also the gift of death that philosopher Jacques Derrida tells us, like Nietzsche, he simply could not reject.
Derrida knew. He knew. He, like white witnesses to lynchings before him and like many of us in sight of news stories of police shootings, white supremacy marches, and ongoing threats of intense global conflict, knows all of this. But rejecting the gift of death is easier said than done.
Will I, will each of you, or we (however you want to imagine this “we”) have the courage to reject this gift so that more of us might live a longer, fuller life?
Until we do, until we all do, I fear Dr. Cone and all of the white, black, yellow, brown, and red, women and men, trans and cis, queer and straight, rich and poor ancestors who have gone before us, will not rest easy. Their spirits, all of them, both the guilty and the innocent, perpetrators and victims, all of them are not free to rest, as much as I want to believe otherwise. Dr. Cone rejected this second sense of the gift of death through his unapologetic embrace of the blackness of god. I am an atheist. But I am forever a believer in Dr. Cone’s god.
Is god dead? And if so, whose god is dead?
You students were the last students I will ever have who I had the pleasure to teach Dr. Cone’s ideas while he was still alive. I cannot live up to the legacy left by Dr. Cone. But I will try. And I invite each of you to do so as well.