Centers and Institutes

Truth in Shades of Black

by Benjamin Perry

On Thursday February 15, 4:00 – 5:30 p.m. the Very Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas will deliver the inaugural James H. Cone and Emilie M. Townes lecture, “Shades of Black: Doing Theology and Ethics in a World on Fire,” in-person at the Chapel of the Unnamed Faithful and livestreamed online. As the title indicates, the lecture series will feature the nation’s foremost religious scholars, reflecting on the scholarship and legacy of two of Garrett-Evangelical’s most influential alumni: Rev. Dr. James H. Cone and Rev. Dr. Emilie Townes. It’s only fitting that the first address will be delivered by Dr. Douglas, who studied under Dr. Cone for her Master and Ph.D., and has enjoyed decades-long friendship and collaboration with Dr. Townes. Delivering this address amid rising white Christian nationalism—precisely as the flames heat this already-inflamed world—I asked her why their work is so crucial for this moment.

“Drs. Townes and Cone never wrote in abstract ethical categories, but always from out of the struggle of Black life,” Dr. Douglas says, “They understand what a liberative ethic looks like in relationship to Black living—what it means to follow an incarnate faith.” Academic work that engages the question of what freedom demands cannot be divorced from the everyday realities of communities suffering injustice, she elaborates, “It must come together in this confluence of concern for justice and liberation grounded in the realities of the cross.”

Indeed, the focus of Dr. Douglas’ remarks will center around Christian hope in a context of overwhelming trauma. “What does it mean to speak about justice,” Dr. Douglas asks, “when there is a cross not simply at the center of our faith, but in the middle of these crucifying realities? How do we begin to understand God’s justice in such a way that we aren’t talking about a utopian hope or a rhetorical, abstract notion?” For Dr. Douglas, true hope is embodied in the communities that protest and resist dehumanizing systems. “And Dr. Cone and Dr. Townes’ dialogue partners,” she points out, “were always those who engaged in the struggle.”

Her passion for this lecture isn’t purely academic, though, it’s also deeply personal. “Dr. Cone reconnected me to my grandmother’s faith—helped me to understand that I could be both Black and Christian at a time when I was more than willing to give up my Christian identity to live more fully into my Black identity,” she remembers, “I read A Black Theology of Liberation and couldn’t believe that someone was saying God was Black, Jesus was Black.” After reading, she resolved to study under Dr. Cone. “But you always worry if the person of their books is the person in reality,” she confesses, “And the first thing that I discovered when I began studying with Dr. Cone was that the man of that book was also the man in reality. Not only his passion and uncompromising attitude toward justice but his uncompromising commitment to the Black struggle for freedom and to Black people.”

That lived integrity is also an essential part of her deep respect for Dr. Townes. “Emilie, with her poetic, literary sensibility opens up our moral imaginary—artists help us to see things that others can’t,” Dr. Douglas explains, “I can never remember a time when Emilie didn’t push me to see the complex other side, to see even a perspective that I might not want to deal with.” This relentless pursuit for truth pushes back against the easy answers that too often pass for cultural analysis. “Emilie always complicates narratives and reminds me. ‘It ain’t that easy,’” Dr. Douglas laughs, “She complexifies what you thought was going to be your easy ethical answer.”

It’s this combination of nuance and radical integrity that Dr. Douglas feels our world needs so badly. “They continue to speak of Christian faith in the face of white Christian nationalism,” she says, “reminding us that when we understand Christianity through this lens, it never accommodates subjugating, dominating oppression,” even when those forces proudly wear the cross.

And the grim reality of this cultural moment, she says, is part of why she’s so impressed by Garrett-Evangelical’s choice to found this lecture series. “When even academic institutions are running away from their histories, running away from things like DEI or anything that smells of ‘wokeness,’ Garrett isn’t running away,” she says, “It has the unmitigated gall to name a lecture series after these two people who carved the way, these radical voices in the theological/ethical dialogue that center the struggle for Black freedom, for Black women’s freedom, without compromise. I’m the incidental part of this,” she says with humor, “The real story here is that this religious institution, in the context in which we find ourselves living, is going out boldly to and say, ‘No. This is what it means to be an academic institution, to be committed to a more just future.’”

But perhaps it’s not surprising, she muses. After all, it’s also the institution that nurtured these two revolutionaries. “Garrett didn’t mold these two persons into whatever their image of Garrett might be, it gave them space to grow into their voices,” she says, “Dr. Cone writes about it—even with the tensions and antagonism. But still, without Garrett, he wouldn’t be Dr. Cone.” And, studying at a different period, Dr. Townes received the same gift. “There weren’t spaces for Black women to do anything—particularly for Black women to do their work from the vantage point of what is meant to be Black and female,” Dr. Douglas explains, “It says something that Garrett provided a space for Cone in one in one era and Townes in another era, to begin to do their work.”

In the end, it’s authentic commitment to helping people become fully who they are that nurtures hope. Institutions don’t have to be perfect, and will never be, but they can call us to collectively embrace God’s future. “Hope and protest signal, ‘No, this is not the way it is supposed to be, and this is not the way it is going to be,” Dr. Douglas says with a smile, “There will always be a movement that moves closer and closer to the realities of justice.”

To attend Dr. Douglas’ lecture online or in-person, please register online today.