I really like this book because it has some interesting and challenging ideas but it also has some ideas that, especially when considered in light of...moreI really like this book because it has some interesting and challenging ideas but it also has some ideas that, especially when considered in light of Bonhoeffer's biography after writing this, are pretty problematic. I'll start with the good stuff. The critique of "cheap grace" and the insistence that a true grace puts one at odds with the world is very powerful and increasingly relevent in the current American theological climate where the prosperity gospel seems to becoming dominant. Bonhoeffer's suspicion of worldy causes is also useful to keep in mind, given the politicization of Christianity by both sides in the American debate.
This suspicion, though, is also at the root of what I find troubling in the book. Bonhoeffer asks us to devote ourselves to the Church in opposition to the world. But I think he's not giving enough weight to the distinction between the visible and invisible Church. The visible Church is a human institution that exists in the world and, it seems to me, is only marginally more worthy of our devotion than the state. I don't think the dichotomy between church and world holds up, and as a result I don't think we can turn our backs on the world to the extent he wishes.
Nor do I think we ought to. Bonhoeffer insists that Christians shouldn't try to change the world except by helping ourselves and others to extract ourselves from it. He inveighs against trusting in revolution, for example. He wants us to do good works, but always in a private capacity. This seems to restrictive. If feeding the hungry is a good thing, surely it has to be good to try to enact structural change to do it too. We have to keep the tension between worldly and Christian goals, of course. But I think we also have to try to bring the world in line with those goals, even knowing that we're going to mostly fail.
Bonhoeffer himself seems to have changed his mind on this point. In 1937, with The Costs of Discipleship, he felt the nature of the state's power was irrelevent to the Christian. By 1943 he was plotting to kill Hitler, and rightly so I believe. I know he wrote both the Ethics and Letters and Papers from Prison during this period, and I'm interested in reading them, but this seems like a case of his actions contradicting his principles for the better.(less)
As my rating indicates, I really didn't like this book the first time I read it. That was a long time ago, though, so I recently decided to read it ag...moreAs my rating indicates, I really didn't like this book the first time I read it. That was a long time ago, though, so I recently decided to read it again. I found a little more to appreciate, but I'm still sticking with my original opinion that this book represents deeply flawed theology.
What's good about the book Cone's insistance that God sides with the poor and oppressed and that any version of Christianity that doesn't take that seriously (by becoming too other-worldly, for example) is inadequate. Cone also rightly points out that black people in America have been and continue to be oppressed and that many white christians have actively endorsed this, even if the last part of that equation has become far less prevelent since the book first came out in the 1970s.
The problems with the book arise from the too simple dichotomy Cone draws between good and evil, oppressed and oppressor, and black and white. Although I'm sure Professor Cone would object, his cosmology is strikingly similar to George W. Bush's: the world can be neatly divided into good and evil, the former being without flaws or nearly so and the latter being demonic. This comes up in at least three ways throughout the book. First, in his haste to confer upon black people sole status as sufferers, Cone ignores or distorts American racial history. For him, all whites are the descendants of slave-owners and all blacks are descendants of slaves. This just isn't true. Most crucially for his story, most whites are descedants of people who, like blacks but to a far lesser degree, were victoms of the slave economic system: poor white farmers in the south or poor imigrants in the north. But, according to Cone, because they were white and slave owners were white, all were equally part of the oppressor group.
Second, Cone valorizes and sacralizes every part of black culture. Because blacks were oppressed and God sides with the oppressed, everything black people do must be sacred. Sometimes this is just silly, like when Cone argues that blues songs about cheating women are sources of revelation equivalent to the bible and the black church. But there are more serious problems as well. For example, Cone praises black people for not being impressed by fancy academic credentials and for being able to mask their own intelligence because it helped them survive slavery. However useful these skills may have been in the nineteenth century, though, are they really unqualified goods now? Isn't disdain for education a serious problem in many black communities? Cone is silent on these issues. He does acknowledge a few problems in black life, such as sexism, violence, and drugs but he attributes them solely to white influence. Cone was right to condemn those who would divorce theology totally from the world, but here he seems to commit the opposite error of collapsing the distinction between what is (culture) and what ought to be.
Finally and most seriously, Cone believes that the categories of oppressed and oppressor are immutable, even across generations. Once a group is oppressed, they get God on their side permanently and forever after will be righteous. This seems to me very dangerous. After all, every group has stories (accurate or not) about a time when they were oppressed, the memory of which justifies all sorts of horrible actions in the present. This is nicely illustrated by a Psalm that Cone quotes in part. The first part of Psalm 137 is one of the most famous parts of the bible. There's even a reggie song of it. It starts out "By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept." The Babylonians demand the exiles sing a Jewish song and they promise God never to forget Jerusalem. Cone quotes this part early in the book as evidence that God is on the side of the oppressed. But he completely ignores the last stanza, in which the author envisions the fall of Babylon and imagines how great it will be to get revenge on them by throwing Babylonian babies against rocks. It's pretty horrifying, and I think it must be intended to make the reader think twice about the morality of righteous vengance. Cone may have a different view, but to ignore it altogether strikes me as highly dishonest.
Cone talks a lot about Bonhoffer's conept of cheap grace, accusing white theologians of settling for it rather than doing the hard work of coming to terms with America's history of racial oppression. There's a lot of truth to that accusation, but Cone is in a terrible place to make it. For him, God is 100% on his side, he is totally blameless, and all he must do to achieve reconciliation is get rid of white domination. So who is peddling cheap grace here?
A final thought in a too-long review. This book was intended to promote Black Theology as an intellectual justification for the Black Power movement. Cone spends a whole chapter justifying violence on the part of black people and rejecting non-violence as inadequate. A violent and unjust society, he argues, cannot be overturned without violence and black people cannot expect white people to go along with what needs to be done. Without denying that out society now (2009) remains unjust and that racism continues to exist, it's manifestly obvious that we're better off than we were in the '70s. And while I'm not an expert, it seems clear that most of that progress is due to non-violent, cooperative work done "within the system" and not to a violent overthrow of the system. That more than anything both dates this book severely and calls all of its conclusions into question.(less)
In general I find Bonhoeffer a little frustrating because he's very good at describing what he's against and why it's wrong, but when he says what he...moreIn general I find Bonhoeffer a little frustrating because he's very good at describing what he's against and why it's wrong, but when he says what he thinks I find him vague and hard to pin down. What makes this really frustrating is that as far as I can tell the problem is not that I'm misunderstanding what he says, but that he intends it to be vague and hard to pin down. In the Ethics, Bonhoeffer is true to form in this regard.
As usual, Bonhoeffer offers some fabulous insights that provide a profound alternative to conventional views. The chief insight of this book, as I read it, is the rejection of any ethical system. The problem of Christian ethics, according to Bonhoeffer, is not to do good in the abstract (because that does not exist and even if it did it would be sinful for human beings to presume to know it) but to concretely obey the will of God. The most interesting idea here is that people should not try to be objective about their choices or to act guiltlessly, but to embrace one's responsibility and guilt. This, Bonhoeffer says, is what Christ did and we should follow his example.
Bonhoeffer is also very good at rejecting false dichotomies, like embracing the world vs rejecting the world. The problem for me is that he doesn't offer anything in their place that's as strong as his critique. On the critical question of knowing the will of God, for example, he's very clear on what not to do (expect to hear voices, for example) but when he tries to say something more positive he gets squishy.
It's hard not to suspect that had Bonhoeffer lived past his thirties he might have provided more satisfying answers to the questions he raised. But the questions are so interesting that he's worth a read anyway.(less)
This is not Niebuhr's best work. The basic problem is that the work is hardly theological at all. It's an attempt to write the history or historical s...moreThis is not Niebuhr's best work. The basic problem is that the work is hardly theological at all. It's an attempt to write the history or historical sociology of empire by someone without any training and based, as far as I could tell, on secondary sources that weren't too fresh even at the time of writing. Given that the book is now more than a half century old, it's amazing anything at all in it holds up. Sadly, not much does.
The basic aim of the book is to place the American and Soviet empires of the Cold War in the historical context of other empires in order to more fully understand the latter and urge America to embrace an imperial role as leader of the free world against it. Quite apart from one's possible political objections to this, almost every stage of the argument is flawed. Although I'm not an expert in this field either, Niebuhr's analysis of ancient empires (essentially that they were all based on a universal religious idea) is misguided. His account of the rise of nations in the west is hillariously teleological: he has "nations" as the dominant form of political organization in Europe by the 16th century, which is at least 300 years too early. His description of early modern and modern European imperialism, especially in Asia, is based on the flawed premise that by the 16th century India and China were technically backward (when it was precisely because they were so far ahead of Europe that Europeans wanted to trade with them). Finally, his argument about Soviet imperialism (that it was based on the universal ideas of Marxism) is, perhaps deliberately, very poor. To give just one example, there's no mention of Western intervention in favor of the Whites in the '20s, which to me seems utterly essential to understand subsequent Soviet foreign policy.
As a source of early American cold warrior thought, I found this book interesting. But it has virtually nothing outside that to offer, except perhaps a cautionary tale about the consequences of not understanding history.(less)