We Live In Different Worlds, I’ll Leave It At That

The Rev. Dr. James Cone delivering a lecture at Union Theological Seminary

Kenji Kuramitsu is a clinical social worker, writer, and spiritual care professional living in Chicago, and a 2020 Interfaith America Racial Equity Fellow.

 

In February of 2016, a lecture hall at New York City’s Union Theological Seminary swelled with students, professors, and community members. I joined a livestream of the event from my home in Chicago, excited to participate virtually. The occasion was a lecture by the late theologian James Hal Cone. Cone, whose presentation was called: “The Cry of Black Blood: The Rise of Black Liberation Theology.” Rewatching the talk five years later, Cone’s prescience is powerful – though the Trump Presidency was still nearly a year from its inauguration, Cone brought pastoral and prophetic sensitivity to his concern for the accelerating acts of white racial violence that have long characterized our national life.

Following his address, a familiar scene unspooled: during the question and answer component, a white man stood and offered what we might call “more of a comment, really.” The audience member accused the professor of being divisive and myopic, prompting the event’s moderator to intervene with a startled response. The room bristled with chilled umbrage. All eyes turned to Cone for his response, which he delivered with significantly less passion that I was expecting:

“We live in different worlds. I understand what you’re saying, I really do. But we live in different worlds. I don’t know what can help you ... I’m okay, you know? I don’t have much longer on this earth. I don’t have much longer. I just thank God for the ministry. It’s my calling, my calling. Everybody has a calling ... I’ll just say: we in different worlds, and I’ll leave it at that.”

There were a million ways Cone could have responded, most of them righteous, some of them thundering. I was struck by the note of resigned faith that Cone offered. He did not try to drag this man kicking and screaming into the Truth; nor did the professor try to contort himself into the warped image of his interrogator. 

This exchange has replayed in my mind often over these past many months. The man shouting accusations may be a stranger in a public forum online or off – more commonly for some of us, he may also be a peer, a parent, a spouse, a relation. Our glowing maps color states red or blue, yet they cannot begin to chart the cleaving apart of families, of communities, of neighborhoods where these divisions are most acutely felt. Some fortunate folks are spared the tax of those you love living in this different world. We may at least feel empathy for how maddening it must always feel to be locked in eternal status with a sincerely deluded interlocutor.

Standard bearers in politics, journalism, even psychoanalysis have taken up a literature of etiology, seeking to diagnose our shared malaise. Some advance a white identity politics of resentment located in the “forgotten” rural areas – J.D. Vance revitalized this genre with his now-maligned Hillbilly Elegy. Centrist journalists, among them Ezra Klein, have characterized these divides in the language of the increased polarization that has marked the past several years: gender, race, climate, medicine, policing, the areas of disjuncture are many and the potential catalysts of conflict are legion. Most recently, psychoanalyst Jeanne Safer offered a practical contribution to this literature of division: I Love You, But I Hate Your Politics: How to Protect Your Intimate Relationships in a Poisonous Partisan World.

Rural/urban divide, polarization, approaches to connecting across political difference, these theories capture some deep truths about our predicament – yet in other ways they misapprehend the tenacity and resilience of white supremacy in our common life.

Madness may be a better marker than division. Sontag’s study of “illness as metaphor” gets us closer to hewing language for the racial crisis some have called “a pandemic within a pandemic.” What else can we call this but madness when a quarter of the folks who live in the United States believe that the 2020 election was unjustly stolen. When a fascist siege upon the Capitol building is justified, when vaccines, protests, pizza, are anti-Semitic conspiracy.

Cone seemed to offer a theological response to bridge this precipice. It is the rare psychosis that can be broken by an appeal to rationality. His tactic is not panacea: there are times when other responses are more than warranted. To stand up for one’s own dignity and to fail to be cowed by the terrible madness of the aggressor. By contrast, Cone’s liberative theology might endorse a range of responses: protest, worship, arts. The Black freedom movement has indeed employed these and other approaches in the face of cruelty and inhumanity. Cone also models how at other times, one might simply offer a weathered recognition that we are simply too far apart to have a healthy exchange or a full relationship.

What might creative opportunities for interfaith collaboration look like in light of the ways that racism and madness so endure? Role of liberative theological commitments and movements in our midst. What does it mean to live across these worlds, or to be in relationship with those who are? What is the role of interfaith work in building this kind of world? Like most sincere supplicants, I pose the question out of desperation, exhaustion, anticipation.

 

#Interfaith is a self-paced, online learning opportunity designed to equip a new generation of leaders with the awareness and skills to promote interfaith cooperation online. The curriculum is free to Interfaith America readers; please use the scholarship code #Interfaith100. #Interfaith is presented by IFYC in collaboration with ReligionAndPublicLife.org.

 

more from IFYC

A new course on interfaith leadership will help participants rethink how they behave online.
At its core, secularism is an approach to governance, writes Jacques Berlinerblau in his new book ‘Secularism: The Basics.’ And critically, it is one many religious people, not just atheists and agnostics, support.
Join IFYC on February 7 at 10 AM CT for an important conversation with Black thought-leaders, activists, and organizers engaged in on-the-ground efforts to destigmatize HIV and eradicate the virus.
The metaverse has dramatic implications that should make all of us sit up, lean in, and claim our role in shaping the worlds within the world that is being created.  
A chance encounter with an army chaplain put Colonel Khallid Shabazz's military career on a different path.
Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, who survived a hostage-taking at his synagogue last Saturday, gave the closing remarks at an online White House briefing Friday, with an impassioned plea for civility.
Rather than focusing on canonical doctrines, a workshop trains educators to teach “lived religion” -- all the creative things that people do with their traditions.
The Vietnamese Buddhist monk, described as 'the second most famous Buddhist in the world, after the Dalai Lama,' by one expert, founded a worldwide network of monastic centers. He once said: "My life is my teaching. My life is my message.”
Many content creators use their platforms to build community beyond their brick-and-mortar congregations, to dispel myths, break stereotypes and invite people from diverse faiths to get a glimpse into their lives.
IFYC's innovative online learning experience, #Interfaith: Engaging Religious Diversity Online, offers lessons on how to approach others online in a way that leads to building bridges.
Lessons from Thich Nhat Hanh, the person who nominated Martin Luther King Jr. for the Nobel Peace Prize and encouraged King to speak out against the war in Vietnam.
What Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk and activist Thich Nhat Hanh taught me about the power of mindful breathing through art.
A scholar of democratic virtues explains why Dominican monk Thomas Aquinas’ thoughts on hope are relevant today.
From covering spirituality in Silicon Valley to writing an online newsletter about her own journey to Judaism, reporter Nellie Bowles keeps finding innovative ways to reflect on religion and technology.
Six ways religious and spiritual leaders can help the internet serve their communities right now.
At the request of his editors at Religion News Service, Omar Suleiman writes about waiting with hostages’ families.
Regardless of what happens on Capitol Hill, the PNBC leaders said they plan to lobby Congress in March and register voters weekly in their congregations and communities.
King’s exasperation at self-satisfied white Christians holds up a mirror that is still painfully accurate today.
A day before the U.S. Senate was expected to take up significant legislation on voting rights that is looking likely to fail, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s eldest son condemned federal lawmakers over their inaction.
The congregation’s rabbi, Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, is particularly well connected to the larger interfaith community and on good terms with many Muslim leaders.
For Martin Luther King Day, an interfaith panel reflects on the sacredness of the vote and the legacy of Reverend King.

The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.