Communication and Clarification on Professor’s Liberation Theology Notes

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The Situation

A couple of days ago Pastor Tom Buck began tweeting about an unnamed seminary professor, of an unnamed SBC Seminary, quoting Dr. James Cone. This information was received from a student who took the course, which was an online course without online lectures (per the student), but did have zoom meetings periodically. The student shared the PowerPoint that was posted for the class. One of the pages of the notes for the PowerPoint was what appeared to be Professor’s notes about James Cone.

I made a Google Doc where I just copied and pasted the notes from the slide in question.  (Or you can look at the bottom of this post).

In reality, they are not actually the Professor’s notes. Though if you read them, there is no indication that they are not the Professor’s notes. And there are other notes in the Professor’s presentation that are his notes, so one would expect these are his notes as well. There is no indication that they are not his words.  So, the student assumed it was the professor’s words, and anyone reading these notes would assume it was the professor’s own words. In reality, they are copied and pasted verbatim from here.

But again, read his notes and read the post. There is no indication that the notes were taken from the post. They are just sitting there as if they are the Professor’s words.

This could have caused a lot of serious issues. Suppose a student began pastoring in a few years and began teaching on liberation theology and he goes back and uses these notes to say that this professor believes that James Cone “writes a message that is necessary, especially in America today” (directly from the notes). The professor did in other notes speak against liberation theology. But, as any pastor or seminary professor knows, if we are not careful with the material we present, it’s easy for our hearers to misunderstand something we did not intend to communicate.

Certainly, sometimes this can be blamed on the “hearer.” But it still demands we do all we can to ensure we are not misunderstood. And that’s something that slipped through the cracks in these particular notes.

I am really overjoyed, however, that after someone has reached out to the Professor that he is absolutely against the liberation theology of James Cone and he appreciated being contacted about this matter. Further, he went so far as to write an email apologizing to his students for any misunderstanding or miscommunication. Sadly, these kinds of actions have been too few and far between for SBC leadership lately. The Professor made an oversight in the notes, a serious oversight, but unintentional. And instead of dismissing the critique or silently scrubbing the slide, he owned the situation, emailed his students, and everyone is moving forward.

Seriously, praise God.

I really long for a day in the SBC when all situations can be handled like this. Wouldn’t it have been great if NAMB had reacted this way to the “Southern Accent” issue instead of scrubbing it? And there are a lot of other issues that could be mentioned as well.

But, Something Else

 

A further issue came to light thanks to the work of Marty Duren and Alan Cross (they are the ones who initially discovered that this professor’s notes were plagiarized, though now we know unintentionally). The author of the copied and pasted post, @PostBarthian, claims that SBC seminary professors regularly use his original content in their classes. (See photo to the left)

This is not an issue at all with the Professor above. His mistake was unintentional and has now been corrected. To be clear, unintentionally misciting or not citing sources would still be an issue for a student. Nevertheless, I restate, this is not an issue with the professor. And we ought to be grateful for how this brother handled the situation.

But it does raise a red flag about the situation in our convention at large. If you are a seminary professor and you’re intentionally doing this – taking PostBarthian’s posts without attribution – stop and resign. And if you happen to be in agreement with James Cone’s liberation theology, as PostBarthian says he is, resign. You are not a welcome part of the Southern Baptist Convention. My hope is, PostBarthian is just blowing smoke here and making an unsubstantiated claim.

But see, the rank and file Southern Baptists have been told for the last three years basically, “There is no drift in the SBC.” And the response, when drift is documented and pointed out, has simply been to add an exclamation point or two: “There is no drift in the SBC!!” Then the cannons are aimed at the ones pointing out the drift as though they are the issue. And I am aware that by me even writing a post like this that some are just going to label me a trouble maker. That’s not what I desire to be, though I do own a pirate flag. I do plan to reach out to PostBarthian and ask for clarification.

And that’s a bigger issue in the SBC right now. There is so much mistrust. And people want to blame Founders Ministries or the Conservative Baptist Network or maybe even Tom Buck or Allen Nelson about this. But in reality, the lack of trust in our convention is not due to the ones pointing out the issues. It’s due to the issues themselves! And when issues are not handled with ownership of mistakes (or sins) and repentance and apology, it only increases the mistrust.

It is precisely because so many situations have not been handled humbly and graciously like this Professor did, that there is a culture of mistrust in our convention. And then people say, “go through the proper channels.” But when that has been tried time and again only to have doors shut in your face, it makes the whole process seem shady. When institutions seem to be in control of the trustees, it becomes frustrating.

So, I don’t have an issue with someone like Tom Buck making public what’s going on in a classroom. Especially when a student came to him after having raised concerns about the issue in his course evaluation but received no response from the school. No names or institutions were shared. And no one’s character was maligned. Thankfully, what some of us thought was a very big deal, turned out to be an issue of misciting sources and this has now been rectified.

 

The Conclusion of the Matter

I have redacted the names of the institution and the professor because I do not think the situation warrants them being mentioned. I actually wish more situations could happen this way in the SBC. A mistake is pointed out, it is corrected, appropriate people are notified, and now we are stronger than we were a few days ago. Kudos to the student, the professor, Tom Buck, and the one who reached out to the professor.

If you are a student in a seminary class and you receive notes or a lecture that you feel is not in line with the BFM 2000, my counsel is to seek clarification from the professor first. I know the student who took this course left feedback on a course evaluation but has not, to date, got any communication about it. I also understand sometimes it’s difficult given the structure of a professor/student relationship to approach them about these topics. Still, a genuine effort here is the first course of action.

If you are a seminary professor, please, please, do your due diligence in citing your notes. Misciting sources is a serious deal in the academic world. Diligence in citation is what’s required of students, and it should be modeled by professors – Particularly in our age of seeming lack of concern about plagiarism in certain areas of our convention. And especially when CRT is considered a “useful analytical tool” by our convention since Resolution 9 remains on the books. We must be diligent to stand against this encroachment together. We need to make sure our students and people are 100% clear on where we stand on these issues. You cannot walk hand in hand with both James Cone and Jesus Christ. We can all work to build a culture of trust and transparency together.

At the end of the day, no one that I am in contact with wants there to be trouble for the sake of trouble. We long to see the truth prevail. We long to see the glory of Christ renowned over the globe. We long to see the Bible loved and prized and trusted and obeyed.

With that in mind, I hope you’re planning on being in Anaheim.

 


PROFESSOR’S NOTES FROM CLASS

James H. Cone: Liberation Theology is the Gospel of Jesus Christ

James H. Cone defines the Gospel of Jesus Christ in terms of liberation theology. According to Cone, the Gospel is not an abstract idea or spiritual truth that applies to all people indiscriminately—both victims and victimizers alike—because God specifically sides with the oppressed, and the Gospel is the liberation of all oppressed people from oppressive forces. The Gospel is not an abstract of idea of liberation either, but refers specifically to people who are actively being oppressed now, and it means the victory of the victims over their victimizers.

James H. Cone was Right [1]

Cone also believes that to be nonpartisan in oppressive situations is the theology of the Antichrist, and the includes people who are unwilling to choose sides, or anyone who causes a delay in ending oppression (e.g. telling someone to wait or not to act immediately) because God is always one-sided and is never color-blind and always acts for the oppressed. Cone believes that the Gospel has always been the liberation of slaves from slavery, the poor from the rich, women from sexists, and all oppressed people from their oppressors.

Cone says that Liberation Theology runs throughout the Bible from the Old Testament and the New, especially in the examples of Israel being delivered from slavery and was the mission of Jesus who said “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord” (Luke 4:18-19). 

In this post, I’ve assembled quotations from James H. Cone’s A Black Theology of Liberation that are helpful understand why Cone says that Liberation Theology is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I realize some of these statements may be alarming to some people, but I believe James H. Cone was right, and he proclaims a message that needs to be heard, especially due to recent events in America today.

Quotations

James H. Cone on The Gospel of Jesus Christ defined as Liberation Theology: 

Christian theology is a theology of liberation. It is a rational study of the being of God in the world in light of the existential situation of an oppressed community, relating the forces of liberation to the essence of the gospel, which is Jesus Christ. This means that its sole reason for existence is to put into ordered speech the meaning of God’s activity in the world, so that the community of the oppressed will recognize that its inner thrust for liberation is not only consistent with the gospel but is the gospel of Jesus Christ. There can be no Christian theology that is not identified unreservedly with those who are humiliated and abused. In fact, theology ceases to be a theology of the gospel when it fails to arise out of the community of the oppressed. For it is impossible to speak of the God of Israelite history, who is the God revealed in Jesus Christ, without recognizing that God is the God of and for those who labor and are over laden. [2]

James H. Cone on why God is one-sided and why being nonpartisan in revolutionary situations is a theology of the Antichrist:

Firstly, in a revolutionary situation there can never be nonpartisan theology. Theology is always identified with a particular community. It is either identified with those who inflict oppression or with those who are its victims. A theology of the latter is authentic Christian theology, and a theology of the former is a theology of the Antichrist. Insofar as black theology is a theology arising from an identification with the oppressed black community and seeks to interpret the gospel of Jesus Christ in the light of the liberation of that community, it is Christian theology. American white theology is a theology of the Antichrist insofar as it arises from an identification with the white community, thereby placing God’s approval on white oppression of black existence. [3]

James H. Cone on the Biblical basis for defining the Gospel as liberation theology: 

In the New Testament, the theme of liberation is reaffirmed by Jesus himself. The conflict with Satan and the powers of this world, the condemnation of the rich, the insistence that the kingdom of God is for the poor, and the locating of his ministry among the poor–these and other features of the career of Jesus show that his work was directed to the oppressed for the purpose of their liberation. To suggest that he was speaking of a “spiritual” liberation fails to take seriously Jesus’ thoroughly Hebrew view of human nature. Entering into the kingdom of God means that Jesus himself becomes the ultimate loyalty of humanity, for he is the kingdom. This view of existence in the world has far reaching implications for economic, political, and social institutions. They can no longer have ultimate claim on human life; human beings are liberated and thus free to rebel against all powers that threaten human life. That is what Jesus had in mind when he said: 

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord (Luke 4:18-19). [4]

James H. Cone on why God is never color-blind:

Secondly, in a racist society, God is never color-blind. To say God is color-blind is analogous to saying that God is blind to justice and injustice, to right and wrong, to good and evil. Certainly this is not the picture of God revealed in the Old and New Testaments. Yahweh takes sides. On the one hand, Yahweh sides with Israel against the Canaanites in the occupancy of Palestine. On the other hand, Yahweh sides with the poor within the community of Israel against the rich and other political oppressors. The God of the biblical tradition is not uninvolved or neutral regarding human affairs; God is decidedly involved. God is active in human history, taking sides with the oppressed of the land. [5]

James H. Cone on why Liberation Theology is for all oppressed, not only blacks:

Therefore to speak of black theology is to speak with the Tillichian understanding of symbol in mind. The focus on blackness does not mean that only blacks suffer as victims in a racist society, but that blackness is an ontological symbol and a visible reality which best describes what oppression means in America. The extermination of Amerindians, the persecution of Jews, the oppression of Mexican-Americans, and every other conceivable inhumanity done in the name of God and country–these brutalities can be analyzed in terms of the white American inability to recognize humanity in persons of color. [6]

James H. Cone explains his dependence upon Karl Barth: 

The fourth and last weakness that I wish to comment on was my inordinate methodological dependence upon the neo-orthodox theology of Karl Barth. Many of my critics (black and white) have emphasized this point. It is a legitimate criticism, and I can offer no explanation except that to say that neo-orthodoxy was to me what liberal theology was to Martin Luther King, Jr.–the only theological system with which I was intellectually comfortable and which seemed compatible with the centrality of Jesus Christ in the black church community. I knew then as I know now that neo-orthodoxy was inadequate for my purposes, and that most American theologians who claimed that theological identity would vehemently reject my use of Karl Barth to interpret black theology. However, I did not have the time to develop a completely new perspective in doing theology. I had to use what I regarded as the best of my graduate education. [7]

Conclusion

The above quotations represent only a sample of James H. Cone’s theology of liberation, and I highly recommend reading all of his books. Cone’s writings are particularly challenging to white readers, but I believe he writes a message that is necessary, especially in America today. 

James H. Cone was a professor at Union Theological Seminary, and is well known for his contributions to black theology, and I’ve been particularly helped by his books, A Black Theology of Liberation, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, and Risks of Faith: The Emergence of a Black Theology of Liberation, 1968-1998

Sources:

https://twitter.com/jonathandirk/status/543881443228004352 

James H. Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation, Orbis Press, Maryknoll NY: 2007. 1.

Ibid. 6.

Ibid. 2-3

Ibid. 6.

Ibid. 8.

Ibid. xvii.

Header Image background:  By Mqduck at English Wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by Liftarn using CommonsHelper., Public Domain, Link

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