In the tension between the particularism of James Cone’s theology (which might be characterized by the phrase, “black lives matter”), with its focus on black experience, and the theology of Reinhold Niebuhr, with its focus on abstract and unattainable universals (which might be summed up as “all lives matter”) reside the problem of universals and particulars. The question is, if you can get to the former (“all lives matter” or the universal) without prior and exclusive focus on the latter (“black lives matter” or the particular)?
Those who blithely intone, what must seem to them the higher principle – the universal, “all lives matter,” are clearly prone to be blind to the particular. The danger, as demonstrated in the past hundred years, is that the leap to the universal conceals the particular vested interest, the forms of exclusion which have given rise to imperialism, death camps, exploitation of the 3rd world by the first world, or the bloodiest period in all of human history. The direct move to the universal (the enlightenment?) is the root cause of suppression and exclusion of differences. The question is, in an order where “all lives matter” in general, will some lives in particular have to be sacrificed, overlooked, or suppressed for the universal (as in the logic that “one man must die that the nation would be saved)?
Historically, it is clear that where the universal precedes the particular there is a wink and a nod, perhaps unconscious or suppressed, as to which group does not fit the universal. In Giorgio Agamben’s depiction of which life matters, this supposed universal condition (the condition of law, the condition of the state) is established by the particulars of exception. The very root of human polity is structured around a necessary exclusion of one form of life, bare life (homo sacer). It is only where bare life is structured and ordered in the city that it can be said to be “good life” from Aristotle onward.
The power of the state or sovereign power establishes itself through this power of exclusion, the exception upon which the rule is built. Homo sacer is stripped of legal status and falls outside the political community and is among those continually and unconditionally exposed to the potential of being killed. This power of death, deciding who dies outside the city, establishes the life of the city. This, of course, describes who killed Christ and why. He dies outside of the city of man, beyond law and religion, reduced on the cross to only bare life. Christ as the exception, however, forever exposes the basis upon which inclusion and universality are constructed.
The point of the Gospel is that the universal (God) is not to be had apart from the particular (the incarnate Christ) and the most pertinent particular of this Christ is that he was lynched outside the city gates. In John Milbank’s description, Christ as homo sacer is the exception beyond exception. He exposes the place of exception as the place of God. It was those who presumed to overlook the man (the realism, in Niebuhr’s terms, of the particular) that are responsible for his lynching and every lynching.
In this establishment of human sovereignty, the true Sovereign is excluded. God is on the lynching tree and is excluded by those who would gain life by killing him. There is no mystery as to who might be most prone to dispense with a particular life (a bare life, a biological life that has none of the qualities of “good life”). It will be those who presume to be able to distill the universal without reference to an overlooked sort of particular.
To make the point that American theological perspective begins and ends in a peculiar blindness, Cone cites the example of Niebuhr, America’s favorite theologian. His “Christian realism” was admired by Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Hubert Humphrey, John Kennedy, and Jimmy Carter and in the present time, President Barack Obama has called Niebuhr one of his favorite philosophers. Niebuhr’s Christian realism presumes that self-interest must always be figured into the justice that will be implemented and this justice will always fall short of love. Because of humanity’s natural tendency to deny sin, we can never fully reach the ethical standard of agape love. The best that we can strive for is justice, which is love approximated, or a balance of power among competing groups. He leaves room for the reality of faith, hope and love only as a future possibility.
Niebuhr claims the 1896 Supreme Court doctrine of “separate but equal,” which made Jim Crow segregation legal in the South, was a positive move, allowing for gradual change. He praised the 1954 Supreme Court decision ending segregation, yet he was also pleased by the Court’s added phrase, “with all deliberate speed,” which “wisely” gave the white South “time to adjust” (while also opening a loophole to delay integration). Cone says, “Niebuhr’s call for gradualism, patience, and prudence during the decade when Willie McGee (1951), Emmett Till (1955), M. C. “Mack” Parker (1959), and other blacks were lynched sounds like that of a southern moderate more concerned about not challenging the cultural traditions of the white South than achieving justice for black people.” When Martin Luther King asked Niebuhr to sign a petition appealing to President Eisenhower to protect black children involved in integrating schools in the South, Niebuhr declined.
In the end, Niebuhr would seem to fall among those sort of liberals King counted more insidious to blocking civil rights than overt racists. Niebuhr, in his silence on lynching displays his own blindness and the inherent problem of beginning with a presumed shared knowledge or agreed upon universal. In his theology, ever focused on an abstract future universal, he is willing to continually delay justice.
Though Cone credits Karl Barth for his turn to the Word (rather than the given human reality) as his own escape from this Niebuhrian/American form of theology, nonetheless he insists this encounter with the Word is very particular. He pits his starting point against that of Barth and focus on the “objective word”: “I am black first—and everything else comes after that. This means that I read the Bible through the lens of a black tradition of struggle and not as the objective Word of God.” Cone’s experience as a black man raised in the Jim Crow era in Arkansas, is the singular, particular approach to his understanding of the word of the cross.
He concludes his long theological career with the realization the lynching tree, the definitive symbol of black fear and subjugation and white supremacy, is the singular access he has to rightly understanding the cross. They put Christ to death by hanging him on a tree (Acts 10:39), excluding his life as one of those that mattered. The power elites, who order the valuation of life in the polis, required this death outside of the city. So too, every universal human organization of “lives that matter” will necessarily make this demarcation with the blood of those that do not.
Cone references the work of Paula Frederickson to note that that description of the cross perfectly describes lynching in the United States. “Crucifixion was a Roman form of public service announcement: Do not engage in sedition as this person has, or your fate will be similar. The point of the exercise was not the death of the offender as such, but getting the attention of those watching. Crucifixion first and foremost is addressed to an audience.”
Though Golgotha was the sight of a first century lynching and it would seem only natural to draw out the parallel, yet there is no place for the lynching tree in American theological reflection. Isn’t this silence a telling condemnation of the value of this theological tradition? As Cone poses the question: “The crucifixion of Jesus by the Romans in Jerusalem and the lynching of blacks by whites in the United States are so amazingly similar that one wonders what blocks the American Christian imagination from seeing the connection.” The silence in regard to lynching, the very possibility of lynching, but the inability to see the cross in the lynching tree must mean that the reality of the cross remains invisible. Those who oppress and lynch in the name of Christ have undoubtedly been guilty of the worst apostasy, but those that cannot name this apostasy continue in the same blindness.
The point of the cross and the point of the Gospel is not to validate the way our culture, nation, and cities organize and value life but it is to upset this order. Where “all lives matter” is the starting point, the danger is that some lives matter more immediately while others matter theoretically, and one can thus be satisfied with future or theoretical equality and justice. In other words, where “all lives matter” or where the universal is the starting point, the life extinguished on the lynching tree, the life of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Rayshard Brooks, Eric Garner, and the uncounted others, clearly do not count as lives that matter but serve to affirm the life that “really counts” (the life of the lynch mob or the representatives of the culture that have carried out the murders).
What “all lives matter” misses is focus on the particularity – the particulars of black lives and the particularity of the cross. Much like a negative theology which cannot predicate any determinate qualities of God, the “all life” is simply bare life, undistinguished life, so that what is excluded from the “all” is the suffering and humiliation of the particular life of Christ or of black lives. To miss the fact that God, in Christ, identifies with the particular, with suffering lives, outcast lives, is to miss the life that matters.
(If you are interested in pursuing studies on reconciliation and forgiveness, on July 6th the class Philemon and Ephesians will begin. This class will focus on forgiveness and reconciliation in Paul. As the PBI catalogue describes it this course is “A practical development of radical forgiveness and reconciliation from Philemon and Ephesians worked out in healthy community.)
 Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, 18.
 Ibid, p. 48.
 James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (p. 43). Orbis Books. Kindle Edition.