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The difference between Cone and Williams

January 12, 2010 1 comment

When reading Delores Williams and James Cone side by side, one may initially assume that the greatest difference between them is clear.  Whereas Cone is one of the foundational figures for black theology, Williams is an analogously central figure for womanist theology.  These abstract categories could lead one to conclude (prematurely) that Williams’ analysis  is really nothing more than Cone + feminism.  This reductive demarcation certainly will not do.

First of all, it is important to understand that womanism involves an integral critique of racism and sexism, which alters the meaning of both; so there is no mere “addition” to be had.  Moreover, Williams identifies a key difference between herself and Cone, which, although it may have something to do with sex/gender, is not reducible to this distinction.  Like Cone, Williams sees liberation as an ultimate goal, but she insists that in the meantime God also becomes present in the historical struggle to survive and to sustain a relatively decent quality of life–goods which she, unlike Cone, contrasts with liberation.

But the greatest difference still seems to lie elsewhere.  I contend that, above all else, Cone and Williams part ways most dramatically to the extent that they (re)enact the hard-fought and ongoing battle in Protestant circles between Barth and Schleiermacher, the (neo)orthodox and the liberal.  This tacit picking-of-sides leads them to adopt strongly divergent accounts of the significance of Christ.  For Cone, as for Barth, Jesus is, by his cross and resurrection, the undeniable divine-human victor over sin and death (though, crucially, he is black!); whereas, for Williams, as for Schleiermacher, Jesus is the exemplar of the proper God-consciousness (though, once again crucially, the awareness which he offers women of color has to do with seeing survival resources).

Distinguishing this soteriological dispute from the sex/gender perspectival problem may help black and womanist theologians (such as myself) think more clearly about possible ways forward in a changing, quasi-racial world.

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